- Feminist, Queer, and Indigenous: The Anthropologies of Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy—A Personal Reflection
Contributing to this issue of Feminist Formations in honor of the work of Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy is a special pleasure.1 As one of Kennedy’s former students in women’s studies and anthropology at SUNY/Buffalo (UB) in the 1970s, I am gratified to see her recognized as a pioneering scholar and activist who has played a central part in building the fields of gender studies and queer studies.2 Readers may be less familiar, however, with the deeply engaged anthropological work Kennedy carried out over four decades ago, and again more recently, during her sojourns among the indigenous Wounaan of Colombia and Panama. While that field research may frame her career, I would say that all of her work has had an anthropological commitment to understanding contextually rich local-level experience as it is embedded in a broader social universe.3 By sharing my personal and intellectual relationship with Kennedy along with a brief scholarly appraisal of her work, perhaps another generation can appreciate her key interventions in anthropology as well as in interdisciplinary studies.
During the past several decades in the United States, the women’s movement gave shape to feminist anthropology and, somewhat later, the LGBT movement inspired queer anthropology. These two emergent areas in anthropology have been in steady dialogue, but they have also struggled—sometimes with each other—for legitimacy in the academy and the profession. Liz Kennedy’s work was among the most innovative in drawing together these often-disparate scholarly strands through oral history, ethnography, and conceptual work. Here, I provide some background to Kennedy’s enduring contributions to anthropology and related fields, and then offer my personal reflections as a [End Page 69] former student of hers. What I hope will emerge is an intimate appreciation of Kennedy’s immediate and enduring impact from the perspective of a former student she helped inspire to go on in the fields of anthropology, gender and sexuality studies, and Latin American studies.
From Wounaan Culture to Lesbian Bar Culture
When she was a Cambridge University graduate student in social anthropology in the 1960s, Kennedy carried out two years of groundbreaking doctoral field research among the Wounaan people living in the Colombian rainforest. She was one of an early cohort of anthropologists, including feminists, who examined egalitarianism in the absence of hierarchies of power in indigenous societies. After completing this intellectually significant and personally meaningful research, however, Kennedy set the project aside for many years and has only reengaged with it quite recently, at a time when it is politically less risky to do so. In 1969, she joined the American Studies faculty at UB, where she advanced her U.S.-based feminist scholarship and founded one of the first and most radical women’s studies programs in the country. Over the years, a number of anthropology students made their way to her courses, which had a distinctly cross-cultural and internationalist outlook. After nearly three decades of program-building at UB, Kennedy left in 1998 in order to head the Department of Gender & Women’s Studies at the University of Arizona, where she established a premier doctoral program.
Kennedy has always been, as she has termed it, a “collaborator.” Her work includes the coauthored book Feminist Scholarship: Kindling in the Groves of Academe (1985). A labor of love by five feminist scholars at UB, this work examined the breadth and influence of feminist thought across the disciplines. She also undertook a long-term collaboration with Madeline D. Davis that would define her career, the Buffalo Lesbian Oral History Project. Interviewing women of diverse class and racial backgrounds who were part of Buffalo’s working-class and public bar culture as early as the 1940s, Kennedy and Davis recorded and analyzed the narratives of women who until then had received little attention from historians and anthropologists. Their book Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold: The History of a Lesbian Community (1993) was one of the first community studies of lesbian and gay experience in the United States. This scholarship broke new ground in LGBT studies by challenging and...