British and Commonwealth Women Anthropologists in the Late Colonial Period

Since the 1960s, historians, anthropologists, and cultural critics have revealed the social, political, and ideological contexts that have framed the development of the discipline of anthropology. From one direction, scholars have explored colonialism's facilitation and transformation of the production of anthropological knowledge. British social anthropology has received particularly detailed and contentious analysis, reflected in the debates over the impact of Britain's colonial enterprise on fieldworkers and their published ethnographies. At the same time, feminist historians and anthropologists have questioned the discipline's gendered structures of power and representational practices. The annotated bibliography collected here attempts to integrate these efforts to deconstruct anthropology's order of knowledge by focusing on the experiences of British and Commonwealth women anthropologists in the 1930s. By shifting perspectives and locating these women within the context of the history of women in British higher education, we can bring some of the most recent scholarship in the fields of colonial studies and gender analysis into a creative dialogue that further reveals the gendered history of anthropology.

Reviewing the issue of anthropology's relation to the colonial order, we find a clear division of opinion on the extent of the discipline's imbrication with the imperial project. Beginning with the controversial yet seminal collection of essays Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter (Asad et al, 1973), and gaining impetus from the emergence of post-colonial studies, scholars have explored the constitutive role of colonialism on anthropological knowledge (Stocking, 1991; Kuklick, 1991; Brown, 1992; Pels and Salemink, 1994). In response, anthropologists, especially members of the British social school, have argued for the marginal and sometimes disruptive role of anthropologists within the colonial establishment (James, 1973; Kuper, 1983; Goody, 1995). Yet a number of case studies have revealed the specific nature of the impact of the colonial context, or preterrain, on the development of the discipline's theories and categories of analysis (Feuchtwang, 1973; Anderson, 1992; Herzfeld, 1992; Brown, 1993; Pels, 1994). And while these latter historians have explicitly stated their awareness that anthropology was never a central force in the colonial project, they still adhere to the reverse belief: that the culture of colonialism greatly affected the historical formation of the discipline of anthropology (Asad, 1991; Pels and Salemink, 1994).

Contemporaneous with this critique of anthropology's colonial legacy emerged a feminist questioning of the gendered production of anthropological knowledge and ethnographic representation. Women anthropologists have critiqued the male bias in ethnographic writing and have explored new options in the field of representation (Behar and Gordon, 1995). Both male and female scholars have also sought to expose the androcentric visions undergirding the formation of the discipline and its subjects (Moore, 1988; Callaway, 1992; de Lepervanche, 1993). Specific studies of the history of women in the discipline have described the interplay of the forces of gender and colonialism on British and Commonwealth women anthropologists, such as Phyllis Kaberry (Berndt, 1989; Okley, 1991; Cheater, 1993). Margaret Strobel has argued that we should understand the work of these British and Commonwealth women anthropologists as a another manifestation of colonial women fulfilling their roles as "help-mates" to male-dominated colonial administrations (Strobel, 1991). Finally, in a new register, recent post-structural studies have re-emphasized the conjunction of gender and class ideologies with colonialism and have sought to weave the colonial experience back into its bourgeois metropolitan socio-economic conditions (McClintock, 1995; Cooper and Stoler, 1997; Stoler, 1997).

One aspect of this bourgeois metropolitan culture that would have greatly affected British and Commonwealth women anthropologists would have been the ongoing difficulties of women in British higher education in the 1920s and 30s. Even before entering the colonial preterrain, these women would have had to negotiate the still male-dominated and often misogynistic power structure of British academia. The historiography of women and their efforts to win a place in Britain's institutions of higher education has expanded dramatically over the last two decades (Vicinus, 1982; Vicinus, 1985; Howarth and Curthoys, 1987; Hunt, 1987; Eschbach, 1993; Dyhouse, 1995; McDermid, 1995). On one level, these historians have revealed the profound connections underlying the ideology of separate spheres and the career expectations, centered on public service and social welfare, of women attending British universities (Vicinus, 1985; Howarth and Curthoys, 1987). Reflecting what Rose-Marie Lagrave has recently called the "supervised emancipation" of European women in the early 20th century, other researchers have noted the crucial role of male mentors in advancing or hindering the academic careers of British women scholars (Eschbach, 1993; LaGrave, 1994; Dyhouse, 1995). Yet important theoretical questions still remain as to the extent of the impact of these male dominated educational experiences on women. To what extent did higher education and its prevailing Western discourses either indoctrinate women in or liberate them from male ideologies? (Mackinnon, 1990; Orr, 1994).

A study focused on the institutionally sanctioned works of British and Commonwealth women anthropologists of the 1930s indicates prospective avenues of research that could help answer this question. As noted above, much recent scholarship on the culture of colonialism has revealed the varying roles that women and gender ideologies played in the effort to maintain or ameliorate the colonial order (Boutilier, 1984; Callaway, 1987; Haggis, 1990; Strobel, 1991; Stoler, 1997). Adopting their male mentors' promotion of social anthropology's scientific value, mainstream British and Commonwealth women anthropologists also viewed their fieldwork and writings as assisting in the efficient administration of the colonial enterprise (Lackner, 1973; Kuper, 1996). We can certainly detect an often explicitly acknowledged connection between Malinowski's visions of anthropology as the rational and scientific auxiliary to the colonial administration and the research and writings of women anthropologists of the 1930s (Richards, 1932; Mair, 1936; Richards, 1939; Green, 1947).

But as other writers have observed, anthropology and its methodologies and representations could potentially disrupt Eurocentric hegemonies. Working on the borderlands between cultures, anthropologists and their informants could have blurred colonial and neo-colonial boundaries (Weiss, 1993; Williams, 1993). Professionally sanctioned women anthropologists have especially complicated efforts to maintain strictly androcentric colonial social constructions. Through their exploration of areas of culture disdained by male colleagues and through their ambiguous adaptation of their male mentors' discourses, women anthropologists have complicated the categories of anthropological representation (Okley, 1992; de Lepervanche, 1993). Recent studies of the work of Phyllis Kaberry and Audrey Richards, for example, have revealed the disruptive revaluation of indigenous women that appeared in these authors' writings in 1930s (Okley, 1991; Vaughn, 1992; Cheater, 1993).

Future research on the work of British and Commonwealth women anthropologists in the 1930s could proceed along several lines. In the annotated bibliography presented here, I have chosen to take up Talal Asad's call for an "anthropology of Western imperial power" by envisioning women as sites of a material and socio-symbolic "structural conjuncture" (Sahlins, 1985; de Lauretis, 1987; Asad, 1991; di Leonardo, 1993). By layering the social and gender history of women in British higher education onto the disciplinary history of anthropology and its relation to colonialism, a more nuanced appreciation of the role of women anthropologists in the 1930s emerges. The most explicit connection arises from the collusion of British middle-class ideologies of separate spheres, with the expectation that educated women should gravitate toward welfare or social service professions, with social anthropologists' promotion of their discipline as a potentially valuable partner in the more efficient management of the empire. More specifically, the interwar language of "trusteeship" appears to have created the associations that facilitated the linking of metropolitan gender ideologies with women anthropologists' inclusion in the colonial order. In a colonial culture fearful of the blurring of interracial sexual boundaries, these "orientalizing" representations of the dependent colonized, combined with the language of objective science, would have sanctioned European women's transference into the colonial domain of the care-giving roles assigned to them in the metropolitan welfare state.

Yet, the research of these professional women anthropologists often resulted in a disturbance of the discipline's paradigms, leading to a questioning of the assumptions concerning the nature of women's contributions to cultural production and reproduction (Hunter, 1933; Kaberry, 1939; Richards, 1939). Paradoxically, through the forms and practices of a male-dominated colonial and academic order, professionally sanctioned women anthropologists writing in the 1930s created new representations of female subject(ivitie)s. How then can we explain this paradox? Was it the discursive manifestation of the paradoxical male-supervised emancipation of women that occured between the wars (LaGrave, 1994)? Was it the result of still unexplored rhetorical forces at work within the gender-ridden discourse of interwar anthropology (Brown, 1992)? Or was it another historical manifestation of the inherently paradoxical nature of feminist discourses (Scott, 1996)?

Certainly the work of these women calls for closer inspection and revaluation in the light of ongoing concerns with the history of anthropology, colonialism, and gender. Hopefully these annotations will contribute to recovering the complex sources of these scholars' intriguingly paradoxical creativity that arose during the dual historical transitions from "the colonial question" to questioning colonialism and from "the subject of women" to women as subjects.

Link to the Annotated Bibliography.

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Michael Pelletier; copyright, 1998.