Five questions for …

Louise Lamphere

Her landmark 1977 lawsuit accused Brown of discriminating against women faculty in tenure decisions. Now anthropologist Louise Lamphere has given the University $1 million for a gender-studies professorship.
By Anne Diffily  |  October 16, 2008  |  Email to a friend

On Saturday, October 25, anthropologists and gender scholars from Brown and elsewhere gathered on College Hill for a scholarly conference, "Gender Studies: Rethinking the Past, Imagining the Future,” in honor of Louise Lamphere, a pioneer in early feminist scholarship in anthropology and a former Brown faculty member.

Lamphere recently gave the University $1 million to establish a visiting assistant professorship in gender studies – a generous gift under any circumstances, but especially remarkable because some 30 years ago, she and the University were plaintiff and defendant, respectively, in a divisive, expensive gender-discrimination lawsuit that was decided in Lamphere’s favor and made higher-education history.

Lamphere’s class-action lawsuit on behalf of women faculty at Brown, who numbered only 25 by the mid-1970s, alleged that the University – specifically the anthropology department in Lamphere’s case – had discriminated against women in the awarding of tenure. Lamphere herself had been denied tenure in 1974. The lawsuit resulted in a consent decree that spelled out timetables for hiring women faculty, and gave guidelines for hiring and promoting all faculty. When the decree was finally vacated by the court in 1992, Brown had increased its number of tenured women faculty five-fold.

 In 1998, the American Anthropological Association’s Committee on the Status of Women in Anthropology gave Lamphere its Squeaky Wheel Award for her lifelong work on behalf of women in anthropology. The award committee noted that Lamphere’s lawsuit was “extraordinarily time-consuming and personally costly for her. … [It represented] a great personal sacrifice in the interests of improving employment conditions for women in our field.”

Several years ago, Lamphere – who for several decades has been at the University of New Mexico – began to contemplate winding down her career in teaching and research. With retirement in the offing, she sought an opportunity to preserve the legacy of feminist scholarship that played such an important part in her own work. She began to think that an opportunity might lie at Brown, where fellow trail-blazing scholar Kay Warren, founder of Princeton’s women’s studies program, had joined the Brown faculty in international studies and anthropology; and President Ruth J. Simmons represented a high-profile culmination of the struggle for gender equity in higher education. The resulting Louise Lamphere Visiting Assistant Professorship in Gender Studies will provide two-year postdoctoral teaching opportunities at Brown for promising young scholars. 

The University is appreciative. “Louise’s gift is an incredible closing of a circle by a courageous woman,” says Kay Warren.

The gesture “is a wonderful statement of support for what Brown is doing today in the fields of anthropology, gender studies, and related areas,” says Provost David Kertzer. “It also represents a turning of the page institutionally for the University, as out of what was once a contentious area we now see a common sense of purpose at Brown. We are grateful to Louise for this remarkable vote of confidence in what we have done and, even more, in our ambitions for the future.”

The conference in Lamphere’s honor, says Warren, illuminated the history of feminist scholarshop to a new generation that may take it for granted. “Younger scholars are no longer branding their work as ‘feminist’,” Warren notes. “Issues-oriented research is simply the way you do good work now. This is part of Louise’s academic legacy.” Lamphere was a guest of honor at the conference and delivered the keynote address.

Recently Today at Brown spoke with Louise Lamphere about her career, the consent decree, and her gift.

Louise Lamphere today: Louise Lamphere today What happened after you received tenure at Brown?

I stayed at Brown until 1985 and became a full professor. While the case was in progress, I had been working as an associate professor at the University of New Mexico, and in 1986, I returned to UNM full-time. I have been a full professor here for over 20 years and a distinguished professor since 2001. I also serve as chair of the advisory board for the Ortiz Center for Intercultural Studies at UNM.

I have continued doing anthropological research, publishing eight books and collections and serving for a time, beginning in 2001, as president of the American Anthropological Association (AAA). My most recent book, with Eva Price, Carole Cadman, and Valerie Johnson, is Weaving Women’s Lives (2007). It’s about three generations of women in a Navajo family I’ve known for years.

Recently I have been doing a lot of public anthropology, studying critical social issues – such as health reform in New Mexico – that may help bring policy recommendations to the table.

How did you become a leader in the field of feminist anthropology?

The 1970s saw the first wave of big changes in anthropology; we began looking at contemporary issues. Cultural anthropology has become more applied and public. Gender issues are a big part of that for me. In 1974 I co-edited, with Michelle Rosaldo, Woman, Culture, and Society – one of the first books to address the anthropological study of gender and women’s studies. It sold more than 75,000 copies, a lot for a scholarly book back then. It’s still in print and heavily used. Many more people know my name because of that book than because of the Brown consent decree.

When I was president of the AAA, I pushed for more research on health, poverty, and family changes. Feminist anthropology is now a lively and important part of anthropology.

In your view, what is the lasting effect of the Lamphere consent decree?

The case had a huge impact on Brown. When I started teaching there, only 25 women held regular faculty positions. This year there are 229. The Ivy League has women presidents now – it’s a completely different climate from the 1970s, much more diverse in every way.

From a personal point of view, I think [the class-action suit] is the most important thing I’ve done in my life.

Why did you make a million-dollar gift to Brown?

My interest in preserving gender studies was the primary reason. As the field keeps changing, we need to help fresh young Ph.D.s begin their academic careers. There are not a lot of postdoctoral opportunities in this field, and it’s hard to break into tenure-track jobs – assistant professorships are rare. Many of my own students have ended up in research jobs outside academe.

I understood from my experience in the 1970s that to change institutions, you have to make a lasting impact. Last fall when I was at Princeton on sabbatical, I came up to Brown. One of the people I talked with was Sherine Hamdy, who was a Mellon postdoctoral fellow in the humanities at Brown for two years before joining the anthropology faculty. Seeing how helpful the postdoc was to Sherine’s career inspired me to fund a visiting assistant professorship that will allow someone to teach at Brown for two years and make an impact in the field. The professorship establishes a permanent pipeline for young scholars in gender studies.

What’s next?

I’m going to retire at the end of December, but I’ll keep my hand in teaching at UNM – one course per year for the next five years. I’ll also continue working with UNM students in the Ortiz Center on an oral history project on Hispano families in San Rafael and Grants, New Mexico.