- An Interdisciplinary Career: Crossing Boundaries, Ending with Beginnings
Having worked in American studies and women’s studies for my entire forty-plus-year academic career, I consider myself an interdisciplinary scholar. Way back in the 1970s when we first started women’s studies, we used to joke that interdisciplinarity meant going to more meetings and conferences and reading more sources—therefore, total exhaustion. We never imagined, or at least I never imagined, that upon retirement it could also mean appreciation by multiple fields.1 Listening to and reading the generous comments of colleagues from distinct fields, including women’s studies, cultural studies, American studies, anthropology, and literature, about the impact of my work on their lives and scholarship has been a great pleasure. I cannot deny how hard I worked, sometimes to the point of obsession, to provide a meaningful social and scholarly context for thinking about lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender/queer history (LGBTQ history), in particular butch-fem roles, by bringing together the perspectives and methodologies of history and anthropology. I have been equally determined to fight for women’s liberation and to reach both scholarly and more popular audiences by combining goals of social justice with research and teaching. Thank you for noting my accomplishments, and making them your own, so that they are transformed and I can, in turn, learn from them as we build the field of feminist queer studies. Here, I want to provide a context for my work by sharing thoughts about being an interdisciplinary scholar and, in particular, addressing what it has meant for my career that I began as a social anthropologist doing an ethnography of the Wounaan, an indigenous people of Colombia and Panama.
The title of the panel at the 2009 American Anthropological Association annual meetings in honor of my work, “Feminist Anthropology Meets Queer Anthropology,” resonated with the boundary crossings that were central to my career. Feminism, and particularly socialist feminism, was momentous in [End Page 119] shaping all my intellectual work, leading me to ask questions from the explicit perspectives of women, in particular, and from the less powerful, in general, and then to a criticism of heterosexism and into lesbian and gay studies and finally queer studies. (I have been hesitant to use the term “queer” because it often leads to the erasure of feminism and women, but I also recognize its utility.2 In my mind, crossing boundaries means to work with queer and feminist frameworks simultaneously.) In addition, Marxism gave me the tools to think historically and broaden my anthropological training to ask questions rooted in material conditions. My colleagues have mentioned many other boundaries I have tried to cross, including the bringing together of feminist, anti-racist, and anti-capitalist perspectives, the building of gender and women’s studies as a “nonhierarchical” institution in a hierarchical bureaucracy, and the combination of activism and scholarship. But one boundary crossing has received little attention from me and others until recently: bringing together feminist and queer frameworks with ethnographies of indigenous peoples. In my case, this is the bringing together of the beginnings and endings of a career.
I started my doctoral training as an ethnographer of “tribal” culture. At Cambridge University, my advisor, Professor Meyer Fortes, wanted me to study women in West Africa, sharing with me the admirable work of Phyllis Kaberry. But I was not interested. I spoke up regularly about my desire to study an indigenous group in South America. I had done my MA at the University of New Mexico and already had some familiarity with American Indian cultures of North America. Fortes, who was used to working in the context of the British Empire, made clear that my going to Latin America was not possible, because he did not have any contacts there. But I was lucky. At a conference, a colleague of his met Professor Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff from the University of the Andes, in Bogotá, Colombia, who shared information about his recent trip to the Chocó Department of Colombia, and mentioned that the Wounaan were an interesting people who had not been thoroughly studied by anthropologists. This information was relayed to Fortes, and he arranged...