Scientists and Storytellers

Feminist Anthropologists and the Construction of the American Southwest
By Catherine Lavender



In the first decades of the twentieth century, the work produced by women anthropologists dominated scholarship about the Native American Southwest. Against the backdrop of a rapidly changing American culture, early anthropologists sought examples of cultures capable of coping successfully with diversity and complexity. Ethnographers believed that they had found such cultures in the Native American Southwest, and turned to these cultures to make sense of their own. For women anthropologists especially, living in a society where women's roles and identities were hotly contested, Southwestern Indian cultures provided examples of more open possibilities for women.

In Scientists and Storytellers, Catherine Lavender examines the work of a community of Columbia University-trained ethnographers--Elsie Clews Parsons, Ruth Benedict, Gladys Reichard, and Ruth Underhill--who represent four generations of feminist scholarship about the region. In their analysis of Indian gender, sexuality, and supposed "primitiveness," these anthropologists created a feminist ethnography that emphasized women's roles in Southwestern Indian cultures. In doing so, they provided examples of Indian women who functioned as leaders in their communities, as economic forces in their own right, as negotiators of cross-gendered identities, and as matriarchs in matrilineal societies--examples they intended as models for American feminism.

From these views, the ethnographers constructed an identity for Southwestern Indian women that sometimes differed sharply from the stories that their native informants told them about themselves.

"As First Wave feminists, feminist ethnographers emphasized women's emancipation, meaning womens rights to determine their own lives by seizing control of their bodies, labors, and identities. This emancipation might be broadly and variously defined, but usually emancipation included women's control over their choices of spouse and the contours of their marriages, the rights to divorce, sexual expression, and motherhood, and social and political equality through self-reliance."--from the Introduction

Contributor Bios
Catherine J. Lavender is director of the American Studies Program and associate professor of history and women's and gender studies at the College of Staten Island, CUNY.