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Song Catcher: Life Story
Women Anthropologists
By Aisha Khan

Excerpt from the introduction to Women Anthropologists: A Biographical Dictionary; reprinted by permission from Greenwood Publishing Group.


AMONG THE MOST INTERESTING…commonalities [among women anthropologists] is that relationships with others - collaborations, friendships, patronage - are significant to the work of many of these anthropologists, during their fieldwork and/or throughout their careers. Some (e.g., Frances Densmore,) worked with their sisters; some worked with other women anthropologists. Many worked with spouses in husband­ teams. Some were aided in important ways by local women residents of their field site; some were accompanied to the field by female friends (e.g., Alice Fletcher). Some had female financial patrons (e.g., Densmore, Fletcher) while others funded research through Columbia University and the Research Institute for the Study of Man,. In addition, many women had female mentors or were mentors to other women through the university and other settings.

Although these anthropologists also engaged in significant research and writing as individuals separate from associations with spouses and other colleagues, their relationships with others are important because they raise questions about the nature of anthropological research. To some degree anthropologists have had an image of being lone, intrepid individuals who make discoveries on their own and who are solely responsible for what is produced. Although individuals certainly do make discoveries in the common sense of the term, more prevalent are processes of cooperative association.

Many of the biographies point to the need for exploring in detail the diversity of ways anthropological knowledge has in fact been developed. Recognizing the different styles and expressions of the social relationships that are entailed in doing research broadens our understanding of the distinct "voices '-individual and relational­affecting the form and content of data gathering and analysis (here I am drawing from Carol Gilligan (1982). In practical terms, this recognition enables us to continue to elaborate alternative means and standards of research. Collaborative relationships point to other areas for further investigation…

Comparing the institutionally based and supported research of the majority of women anthropologists with their own or others' independent, non-institutionally based work adds another dimension to the history of anthropology. A number of women included here never enjoyed an official university position, a full-time appointment or tenure, and/or faced years of unemployment after receipt of their degree .

While the specific reasons for this vary from decade to decade, a more general issue can be raised. Though institutional discrimination bars women from job security and often formal recognition, the lack of secure ties with an institution may enable a degree of freedom from the constraints and expectations imposed by an institution and its foremost members. Although hardly compensation for unequal treatment, the ability to pursue one's own interests, in one's own fashion and at one's own pace, could provide a means of exploring the possibilities for experimentation with alternative ideas and methods, which in turn could generate different kinds of data or theory. This is not a gender­specific issue. Nevertheless, it is important to bear in mind that what constitutes the acceptable knowledge of any discipline and how it is gained and used is often guided by institutions or academic departments that have been created and controlled by particular men.

An intriguing number of women in the volume have been involved in writing fiction . The novels, poetry, mysteries, and plays were often but not solely concerned with anthropological settings or characters. Whether or not directly anthropological, writing served these women as a creative outlet or alternative voice for their feelings and observations. Discussion of the relationship between anthropology and literature has, among other things, been concerned with author/ethnographer distinctions and the relationship between ethnographic and fictional texts. A comparison of the fictional and ethnographic writing of these anthropologists is another point of departure in explorations of the articulation between aesthetic and scientific perspectives, between "subjective'' and ''objective'' depictions of reality.

Finally, a significant number of anthropologists in this volume have been committed to applied research, public dissemination of information, and/or influencing public policy (e.g., Densmore, Fletcher). For some of these anthropologists, work with Native Americans or for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, for particular institutes, or for governmental offices during World War II made their contributions necessarily and by definition public and applied. For others, political motivations directed much of their research and writing to lay audiences and targeted groups such as minorities and women. Employing the discipline's knowledge toward other than ivory tower pursuits has been a familiar topic of contention among anthropologists.

The assumption that the more esoteric the knowledge, the greater its merit has been challenged from a number of viewpoints. However, these biographies raise questions about women's role in the professionalization of the discipline. Popularizing has been considered (at least implicitly as counter to establishing and maintaining professional status because it supposedly weakens intellectual content and is a less dignified endeavor than scholarship for the benefit of one's colleagues. Although the women indicated here produced a great deal of work with their colleagues in mind, they made additional efforts to disseminate information broadly and gather data on projects directed toward elucidating particular social problems or issues. Their work is a challenge to one­dimensional evaluations of significant, valuable, or legitimate research.

We also might ask whether, at least at certain periods, women could more easily engage in applied research and develop and share their work in public contexts, rather than in more restricted (and often male­dominated) academic settings. Perhaps related to this is that a number of ''first generation'' women either initiated or were prime movers in scientific clubs, which were often philanthropic organizations and often involved the participation of men. The women active in these clubs were serious about their interests in furthering scientific research and in communicating discoveries and debates to the public, through sponsorship of lecture series, museum exhibits, and the like. What this suggests is that in being a forum for women's intellectual interests, these clubs, like other public forums, enabled women to participate in a variety of activities from which they might otherwise have been excluded.


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