Famous Female Anthropologists

After creating the 10 Famous Cultural Anthropologists article I realised that the list was dominated by males, which isn’t accurately representative as the field of anthropology has been hugely influenced by women. Many of the influential anthropologists we learn about that shaped the subject as we know it today worked at the beginning of the last century, which is why some may argue that the field seems dominated by men. However, female anthropologists have been pioneers of some of the most important aspects of anthropological thought and deserve recognition for their power as a driving force for modern anthropological theory and methodology. So without further ado, I will introduce you to some famous female anthropologists in the same way I wrote my previous article, including some background, why they are important and some of their most recognisable work.

Ruth Benedict (1887-1948)

'Ruth Benedict' by World Telegram staff photographer via Wikimedia CommonsBenedict was actually the first woman to be recognised as a prominent leader of a learned profession for her work in anthropology and folklore and made huge progress in her research regarding culture and personality. She was president of the American Anthropological Association and a important member of the American Folklore Society. She studied tribes in the American South West, and this research served as the basis for her hugely popular book, “Patterns of Culture.” She explored the connection between culture and the individual  and emphasised that understanding traditional cultures could help us understand modern man. She worked as a graduate student with Franz Boas forming close bonds with him and Margaret Mead (see below). Some of her most famous works include the aforementioned ‘Patterns of Culture‘ (1934), ‘The Races of Mankind‘ (1943) and ‘The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture‘ (1946).

Margaret Mead (1901-1978)

Margaret Mead is often regarded as the original rebel anthropologist of the United States, her easy-to-follow style of writing, controversial research regarding sex and outspoken personality heightened her fame even beyond the world of anthropology. Her research brought her to the South Pacific, specifically Samoa, where she suggested that culture, not just biology, has an impact adolescent behaviour (this was published in her first book, “Coming of Age in Samoa”). Through close observation of Samoan children, and the ease with which they entered adulthood, Mead came to the conclusion that teenage angst and stress had more to do with external factors than anything internal. She continued to return to Samoa for research, but also collected information in Papua New Guinea and Bali and this breadth of information led her to publish more than 30 books and hundreds of other works. Her openness about her own methodologies as well as her addressing of sensitive research topics such as sexuality, made her one of the most talked about anthropologists and read authors in the world.

Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960)

'Hurston-Zora-Neale-LOC' via Wikimedia CommonsZora Neale Hurston was an influential anthropologist, folklorist, novelist and short story writer, penning four novels and over 50 short stories, plays and essays. After studying under Franz Boas, she was encouraged to pursue her interest in African-American folklore. Her major anthropological work ‘Mules and Men’ (1935) was the first collection of black folklore by an African-American and, although initially criticised for her inclusion of dialects was later praised for her skilful use of idiomatic speech.  In addition to her work in the American South, she also conducted research in the Caribbean, Jamaica and Haiti, and was interested in tracing cultural links between black people in Africa and those in Europe and the Americas. There was a revival of interest in her work around 1975 and since then she has been considered an invaluable part of anthropological and literary history. Her famous works include ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God‘ (1937, novel), ‘Mules and Men‘ (1935) and ‘Tell My Horse‘ (1938).

Mary Douglas (1921-2007)

Mary Douglas was a British anthropologist whose interest lay with comparative religion, and is known for her writings on symbolism and culture. Her reputation was established by her book ‘Purity and Danger‘ (1966) which analyses ideas of ritual purity and impurity within different societies, and is considered a key text in social anthropology. Her concept of group-grid was introduced in ‘Natural Symbols‘ (1970) and later refined into the foundations of cultural theory. Douglas also contributed to the creation of the Cultural Theory of risk and has also become known for her interpretation of the book of Leviticus.

Maria Czaplicka (1884-1921)

'Czaplicka My Siberian Year 1916' by Maria Czaplicka via Wikimedia CommonsMaria Czaplicka was a Polish anthropologist who is most known for her ethnography of Siberian shamanism. She held several poorly paid jobs to support her studies in the so called Flying University, an underground higher education enterprise that operated within Russian held Poland. She became the first woman to receive the Mianowski Scholarship (not Malinowski, but Mianowski) and thus was able to continue her studies in the United Kingdom. She was encouraged to use her Russian language skills to review literature on native tribes in Siberia leading to the publication of ‘Aboriginal Siberia‘ (1914) which became a major reference in its field. During her fieldwork she documented huge amounts of notes and photographs, as well as collecting a large number of specimens for the Pitt Rivers museum. The diary of her travels ‘My Year in Siberia‘ became very popular and in 1916 she became the first female lecturer of anthropology at Oxford University.

Saba Mahmood (1962-)

Saba Mahmood is a professor of social anthropology whose focus lies in political theory and debates within anthropology with a focus on Muslim societies in the Middle East and South Asia. Influenced by Talal Asad, she has written on issues of secularism, gender, religious politics and Muslim and non-Muslim relations in the Middle East. Mahmood has made major theoretical contributions to rethinking the relationships between religion and secularism, ethics and politics, freedom and submission, and reason and embodiment.

Jane Goodall (1934-)

Jane Goodall is considered the world’s leading expert on chimpanzees for her 55 year study of social interactions of wild chimpanzees She is founder of the Jane Goodall institute, has worked extensively for conservation and animal rights issues and has served on the board of the Non-human Rights Project since its founding in 1966.

Mary Leakey (1913-1996)

Mary Leakey was a paleoanthropologist who discovered the first Proconsul skull and the Laetoli footprints. She spent much of her career working with her husband in Olduvai Gorge, East Africa, and uncovered numerous stone tools and hominin remains, discovering fifteen new species and one new genus.

I hope this collection of influential female anthropologists has shown you how important women have been for shaping modern anthropology. Again this list is of course not exhaustive, there are many more female anthropologists that could be mentioned for their contributions. If you have any thoughts or comments, don’t hesitate to leave them below.

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Ruth Benedict: ‘Ruth Benedict‘ by World Telegram staff photographer via Wikimedia Commons

Zora Neale Hurston: ‘Hurston-Zora-Neale-LOC‘ via Wikimedia Commons

Maria Czaplicka: ‘Czaplicka My Siberian Year 1916‘ by Maria Czaplicka via Wikimedia Commons

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