In all four fields of anthropology (Cultural, Archaeology, Linguistics, and Physical Anthropology) women have made significant contributions to establishment and growth of the field. In addition to providing role models for future generations, the earliest women in the field pioneered pivotal studies, generating new questions and venues for research. The discussion of women in anthropology is closely intertwined with the development of the feminist movement, as it is with the debate on gender equity. Early pioneers set the stage for later developments. These women have constructed the heritage of anthropology and at the same time have become mentors and advocates for future women in the field.
Early Pioneers in Cultural and Linguistic Anthropology
A pioneer in American ethnology, Matilda Coxe Evans Stevenson (1849-1915) was the first woman to work in the American Southwest, focusing on the Zuni. A vocal advocate for women’s professional equity in anthropology, Evans Stevenson also became a supporter for Native American reform. She and Alice Cunningham Fletcher (1838-1923), a fellow anthropologist who advocated for both Native American reform and education, lobbied Congress for protection of Native ruins. Although the bill failed, it is considered the prototype of the Lacey Act of 1906.
Continuing Evans Stevenson’s work in the American Southwest was Elsie Clews Parsons (1874-1941), a cultural anthropologist and folklorist, known for work among the Hopi and Pueblo tribes and early work in Black folklore. Parsons believed folklore was a key to understanding a culture, and that anthropology was a vehicle for social change. An outspoken feminist and social critic, Parsons has the distinction of being the first female president of the American Anthropological Association (1940).
Parsons was influential in promoting women in the field. She is known to have financed Gladys Amanda Reichard’s (1893-1955) work on Navajo society. Reichard, a cultural and linguistic anthropologist, is the first woman to highlight the importance of women’s roles and perspectives in gaining a complete understanding of any culture. One of Reichard’s students, Eleanor Burke Leacock (1922-1987), became an important member of the second wave of feminism that developed in anthropology.
In 1921, Parsons encouraged her student (and friend), Ruth Fulton Benedict (1887-1949), to become an anthropologist. Benedict is widely known for her book Patterns of Culture (1934) in which she uses cultural relativism to understand behaviors said to appear in every human society. Parsons introduced Benedict to Franz Boas at Columbia University, where Benedict also met (and taught) Margaret Mead (1901-1979; discussed below), Vera Dourmashkin Rubin (1911-1985; founder of the Research Institute for the Study of Man), and Edward Sapir.
During her time at Columbia, Benedict worked with Ella Cara Deloria (1888-1971), who was also teaching there. Deloria was a Yankton Dakota, and was known for her linguistic and ethnographic work with the Sioux nations. During this time, there were many women working with Native American Tribes. Carobeth Tucker Laird (1895-1983), an American ethnographer and linguist known for her efforts to preserve Chemehuevi language and mythology provided the scholarship with some early work in this region. In addition to Laird, Frances Theresa Densmore (1867-1957) was a pioneer American ethnomusicologist known for her recordings and publications on North American Indian music. The ethnographic study of Native American textiles was conducted by Lila Morris O’Neale (1886-1948). One of the earliest medical anthropologists working with Native American patients was Dorothea Cross Leighton (1908-1989). Leighton argued that White physicians’ ignorance of native culture had a negative impact on Native American patients. She has the distinction of being the first president of the Society for Medical Anthropology.
Anthropologists working outside of the United States include women like Hortense Powdermaker (1896-1970), who had diverse and wide-ranged interest of research and is well known for her 1966 book, Stranger and Friend: The Way of an Anthropologist. Another key figure in early anthropology is Margaret Mead (1901-1979), who conducted research on child rearing and personality in Samoa, New Guinea, and Bali. In Bali she pioneered the use of photography for anthropological research, taking more than 30,000 photographs of the Balinese. A prolific writer, Mead wrote 44 books and more than 1,000 articles and also held prominent positions in various organizations and received numerous awards, including being one of the first female anthropologists elected to the National Academy of Sciences (Mead shared this honor with Frederica de Laguna, who is discussed below).
Early Black Pioneers in Cultural Anthropology
One of the first Black women in the field, Ellen Irene Diggs (1906-1998) conducted research focusing on African influences on Cuban culture. Another major figure in the history of African American women in anthropology is Vera Mae Green (1928-1982), a social and applied anthropologist known best for her study of family and ethnic relations in the Dutch Antilles and the United States. She served as director of the Mid-Atlantic Council for Latin American Studies, as convener of the Quaker Anthropologists, was active in the Society for Applied Anthropology, and as president of the Association of Black Anthropologists.
Early Pioneers in Archaeology and Physical Anthropology
In the subfields of archaeology and physical anthropology, early examples of pioneering women include Esther Boise Van Deman (1862-1937), an archaeologist working on Roman Architecture; and Margaret Alice Murray (1863-1963), a British scholar and specialist in Egyptian hieroglyphics who, in 1895, was the first woman permitted to conduct her own excavation at the Temple of the Goddess Mut at Karnak, Egypt.
Well-known specialist of the Near East, Gertrude Margaret Lowthian Bell (1868-1926), was a British archaeologist, writer, and government official. She traveled extensively and, from 1899 to 1914, made several archaeological expeditions in the Middle East, and published her photographs, sketches, and travel logs. A contemporary of Bell’s, Harriet Boyd Hawes (1871-1945) was the first archeologist to discover and excavate a Minoan settlement on Crete.
Also working in the Old World was Gertrude Caton-Thomson (1888-1985). Caton-Thomson excavated extensively in the Old World. Caton-Thompson initiated a survey of the northern Fayum with geologist Elinor Gardner (b. 1892). Later, that same team, accompanied by Freya Stark (1893-1993), began the first systematic excavation in the Yemini Protectorate. As one of her last projects, Caton-Thompson excavated and directed stratigraphic studies of architectural remains in Zimbabwe.
It was under Caton-Thomson’s direction in Zimbabwe that Kathleen Kenyon (1906-1978) first excavated. Kenyon had worked with Sir Mortimer Wheeler and through his training learned the importance of stratigraphic excavations. She first introduced this method of excavation in the Near East at the site of Samaria (1931-1933). Her focus on stratigraphy at Jericho made the site the example for the Kenyon-Wheeler method of excavation.
Archaeologists working in the Americas include women like Frederica Annis Lopez de Leo de Laguna (1906-2004), ethnologist and archaeologist, who is known for her pioneering work in Northwest North America in Alaskan prehistory. A contemporary of hers, Hannah Marie Wormington (1914-1997), was an American archaeologist noted for her study of Paleo-Indians in the Southwest. Wormington was the first female president of the Society for American Archaeology (1967).
Another first was Dorothy Annie Elizabeth Garrod (1892-1969), who was the first woman to do research in Paleolithic archeology and to study early humans. Through her research in the British Upper Paleolithic, she correlated faunal remains and climactic and ecological conditions of ancient times. Garrod was the first woman recipient of the Gold Medal of the Society of Antiquaries of London.
Mary Douglas Nicol Leakey (b. 1913), a British paleoanthropologist, is renowned for her discovery at Olduvai Gorge in 1959, where she discovered the 1,750,000-year-old skull of Zinjanthropus (later reclassified Australopithecus boisei), which first showed the great antiquity of hominids in Africa. At Laetoli, Tanzania, she discovered the 3,750,000-year-old jaws and teeth of a Homo species (1975) and the 3,600,000-year-old fossilized footprints of a bipedal hominid (1979). Mary Leakey’s second son’s wife, Meave Leakey (b. 1942), continues in the tradition of the Leakey family’s work in paleoanthropology. In 1995, she and her team described a new hominid species Australopithicus anamensis, and in 2001, another new species, Kenyanthropus platyops.
Three of the most famous primatologists, labeled “Leakey’s Angels” (referring to Dr. Louis Leakey and his influence on their research) include: Dian Fossey (1932-1985), a noted primatologist who dedicated her life to studying and protecting the mountain gorillas in the Virunga Mountain region in Rwanda, Africa. The second, Birute Mary F. Galdikas (b. 1946) devoted her life to the study of orangutans; and the third, Jane Goodall (b. 1934), has earned recognition for her work with chimpanzees. Each of these women not only contributed significantly to primatology, but also set up foundations for the continued study and protection of the wildlife of the regions they work in. Currently, work on baboons is conducted by Barbara B. Smuts and Shirley C. Strum, each working with baboon populations on male-female relationships, sex roles, and aggression.
The issue of women in anthropology was not one of empirical value, but rather of representation. Women were always discussed in ethnographic works, but the manner varied based on the author.
Feminist anthropology may be traced in three temporal movements. The first wave of feminism (1850-1920) refers to the inclusion of women’s voices in ethnographies, and providing the female perspective on events. Key figures in this movement were Elsie Clews Parsons, Alice Fletcher, and Phyllis Kayberry. The second wave (1920-1980) focused on the separation of the concepts of sex and gender, sex being defined biologically, and gender, culturally. Margaret Mead was a key player in this wave, as well as Eleanor Leacock. By the 1970s, feminist scholars such as Lucy Slocum argued to deconstruct the androcentric and Eurocentric biases in anthropology, and were joined by other anthropologists like Michelle Rosaldo, Louise Lamphere, Gayle Rubin, and Sherry Ortner, who continued to question the construction of gender in society. The third wave (1980-present) moved beyond the biological distinctions of sex to acknowledge the cultural variations on that concept as well. This brought forth topics such as reproduction and sexuality, queer studies, and gender and the state. Third-wave feminism emerged from a space within postmodernism that allowed for the recognition that not all women have the same universal needs; and issues of class, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and so forth are also important characterizations for understanding humanity.
Gender Equity in Anthropology
Women in anthropology today continue to struggle to achieve equity, which include access to resources for research and publications, and equal opportunity for job candidacy. Groups such as the Council on the Status of Women in Anthropology (COSWA) monitor the status of women in the discipline by providing attention to sexual harassment, parttime employment, and issues of productivity assessment that are crucial for issues of promotion and tenure.
- Gacs, U., Khan, A., Mclntyre, J., & Weinberg, R. (1988). Women anthropologists: Selected biographies. New York: Greenwood Press.
- Golde, P. (Ed.). (1986). Women in the field: Anthropological experiences (2nd ed.). Berkeley: University of California.
- Leonardo, M. (Ed). (1991). Gender at the crossroads of knowledge: Feminist anthropology in the postmodern era. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Sacramento Anthropological Society. (1983). Women in anthropology: Symposium papers 1979 and 1980, 16. Sacramento, CA: Sacramento Anthropological Society.