Memoirs of Women and Harvard

Victoria R. Bricker. Transformational Journeys: An Ethnologist’s Memoir. Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, vol. 106, part 5. 344 pp., illus. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 2017.

Becky Cooper. We Keep the Dead Close: A Murder at Harvard and a Half Century of Silence. 512 pp., notes. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2020.

That Harvard’s Department of Anthropology did not favor women is well-known. So well-known that some of it is pure myth. Contrary to a common story, women were not required to sit outside classrooms listening through the door. David Browman, who researched and wrote most of Anthropology at Harvard,[1] discovered that up until about 1925, professors could, if they wished, offer separate meetings of their classes, one for men and one for women. Harvard had a School for the Collegiate Instruction of Women that in 1893 became Radcliffe College, with its own campus and classrooms. During the 1920s, women began sitting in classrooms with men.[2] Women who earned an Anthropology PhD at Harvard received a Radcliffe diploma until 1963. Mine, in Spring 1964, may have been the first Harvard diploma in Anthropology issued to a woman.

Transformational Journeys: An Ethnologist’s Memoir by Victoria R. Bricker and We Keep the Dead Close by Becky Cooper are a contrasting pair of women’s memories as anthropology students at Harvard. Bricker’s reads rather like a curriculum vitae, carefully chronological with names and dates and places noted in full. Cooper’s book is written as a murder mystery: unsolved, mysterious—until at the anticlimactic end—Cooper is told that the cold case has been solved through DNA comparisons, and there was no connection to Harvard or anthropology. She tacks that on to the four hundred pages she had so skillfully crafted as a reflection upon her empathy with the young murdered woman who, like her, was troubled and insecure in a fabled haven of intellects and ambitions.

Memoirs are a genre of history favored more in literary studies than in anthropology. As auto-ethnography, they are primary sources; as an individual’s personal account of experiences, they are scrutinized for bias. Methodologically, they should be viewed as reflecting a particular standpoint, and rather than premising this as a limitation, a diversity of standpoints is both critical and constructive.[3] Bricker’s and Cooper’s books complement each other as records of women graduate students in anthropology in the unsettled 1960s. They are immediately relevant, too, in light of present charges of sexual exploitation by senior anthropology professors at Harvard.[4]  Both books ring true to my experience as a woman doctoral student in anthropology at Harvard immediately before Bricker and the woman Cooper investigated, Jane Britton. Together, the books highlight options for anthropological archaeologists’ memoirs, a topic I’ve wrestled through in writing my own memoir.[5] Barefaced honesty could draw defamation suits. Unless one pays for publication, size is a practical constraint. Narrative arc versus one-damn-thing-after-another can force selection of experiences. Providing full names and identity markers could, in these days of social media abuses, endanger people. These caveats weaken the historical value of memoirs, yet cannot be ignored.

Victoria Reifler Bricker’s Transformational Journeys emphasizes her identification of herself as an ethnologist, despite her many years working with precontact Maya texts. Adhering to chronology, Bricker begins with her unusual birth circumstances, in Shanghai in 1940 to a Jewish Austrian Sinologist and an English Jew. The family lived under the Japanese occupation of Shanghai, and after the war, fearing Chinese restrictions on foreigners, left for Seattle, Washington in 1947. Professor Reifler taught in the Far Eastern Department of the University of Washington, with the family living a middle-class life near campus. For college, Bricker chose Stanford, entering in 1958. She enrolled in a half-year study abroad program that Stanford offered sophomores, going to Germany in 1960 and crediting that experience with turning her to anthropological ethnography. Entering Harvard for graduate work, she and classmate Harvey Bricker fell in love and became a couple, later alternating fieldwork in his area of European Paleolithic archaeology and hers in Maya communities. Victoria asked Evon Vogt to accept her for field training in his long-term Zinacantan project in Chiapas, a request contrary to his practice of inviting students to it; he did accept her, and became her mentor, nominating her, in 1991, to membership in the National Academy of Sciences. Victoria Reifler Bricker’s memoir is a classic academic bildungsroman, telling the story of an uprooted childhood slowly settling into passionate entrenchment in research that brings accolades and influence in the chosen field.

Dramatically contrasting with Bricker’s consistently upbeat chronicle, Cooper’s leitmotif is the insecurity and discomfort felt by women anthropology students at Harvard. Because this is a true-crime trade book, with every quote and statement source-cited in endnotes, Cooper is, I suppose, protected from defamation suits. Statements such as, “A number of people have described him as the dumbest person in American archaeology” (134) are attributed to those she interviewed, not as her opinion. In a memoir, by definition publishing the author’s own opinions, “him,” named (as he is in the same paragraph), might contest the slur. Cooper spends many pages allowing another suspect, C. C. Lamberg-Karlovsky, who is still alive, to speak his side of situations impugning him as Britton’s murderer. This stratagem renders parts of the book his memoir, Cooper his amanuensis. Lee Parsons (d. 1996), prime suspect along with Karlovsky, is represented by quoting portions of his interrogations by police. Witnesses’ experiences are presented via transcriptions of telephone and personal interviews and emails. Managing the multifarious direct copies of police interrogations, extended considerations of life, character, and work, and others’ opinions of the suspects, witnesses, friends, and relations, was a monumental endeavor tasking all Cooper’s skills honed as a journalist educated at Harvard. Using this book as archive would task a historian’s skill at lifting and collating references, weighing Cooper’s picture of suffering females, and interrogating the gap between these two accounts of 1960s Harvard Anthropology, one so sunny and one so overcast. And both true.

I was at Peabody from fall 1957 until spring 1960, in residence only three semesters, 1957-58 and Fall 1958. Accepting graduate credits transferred from Columbia courses I took as a Barnard senior, and allowing me to complete the last six credits with an independent research project,[6] Harvard’s Anthropology faculty was, one might say, extremely lenient. My cohort included Dena Dincauze, Ruth Gruhn (Bryan), Fumiko Ikawa-Smith, Hind Sadek(-Kooros), Betsy Baldwin (Garland), Dolores Newton, and Cynthia Irwin(-Williams), plus men including my husband Thomas Kehoe, Ikawa’s husband Philip Smith, Gruhn’s husband Alan Bryan, David Gradwohl, and Irwin’s brother Henry Irwin, as well as George Cowgill, James Deetz, James Hirabayashi, Lee Parsons, Olaf Prufer, Ralph Rowlett, and others I’ve forgotten. None of the women were actively mentored: we took courses, took exams, handed in dissertations. They were signed and we had our PhDs. My dissertation was accepted in its first draft of 114 double-spaced pages, signed by Evon Vogt, J. O. Brew, and, upon order by Vogt, Stephen Williams (he wrote me that Vogt had directed him to sign). We women and the men I knew well, my husband and Alan Bryan, were never invited to tea, or to consult in their offices, or directed to funding or to jobs, by the faculty. How many of the men were actively mentored, I do not know; it was not spoken of. Indeed, I had no idea of how selected men were invited into professors’ offices, their futures discussed, told their dissertation would be based on a funded project already prepared, and their dissertation preparation supported. This I gleaned years later from listening to David H. Kelley and his classmates reminiscing in the Kelley home in Calgary after conferences.

Bricker has one error in her memoir: “Beginning several years before I arrived, all the women who took the [Generals] exams had failed, and this pattern continued during the two years while I was taking courses” (88). Since she arrived in 1962 and I took my Generals in 1960, she repeats a myth. None of the women in my cohort failed Generals; all received PhDs. An exception, named Merrilee, dropped out early, badgered by her mother to get a husband; she married a lawyer. Bricker attributes her success to mentoring by the single tenured woman professor, Cora Du Bois, who was there only because wealthy patron Doris Zemurray Stone, herself a Radcliffe anthropology graduate working in Mesoamerica, had recommended her for the chair the Zemurray family endowed specifically for a woman. The myth about Generals becomes iconic in Cooper’s book, because Jane Britton was scheduled to take her Generals the morning that she was murdered. She had been staying up late in her apartment, studying. The lighted, opened window on a fire escape caught the eye of the rapist-murderer in the street. 

Harvard’s Anthropology Department is among the oldest in North America. That it tenured wealthy upper-class White men has never been questioned, nor has its reputation for failing to recognize talented women. Poster child for White Supremacist Patriarchy, the Department has a complicated and nuanced history, as strongly factored by social class as by gender. Much of its history is what gentlemen do not discuss: money, class status, personal quirks and deficiencies, charisma. Silences let myths emerge, plausible because they echo our emotions. That a Harvard anthropology professor or grad student brutally murdered a young woman about to pass her Generals felt so likely that it was told on and on, along with the myth that women were not allowed to pass Generals. What a challenge to any historian of academic anthropology in North America!

Cooper’s book has been reviewed in the New York Times[7] and in the New Yorker’s Briefly Noted Books.[8] It will contribute to the mythos of women suffering at Harvard. Bricker’s sunnier memoir will find far fewer readers. Disparate as they are, both have value for historians of anthropology and of women in academia. Now, we need men to record their experiences of Harvard Anthropology, the practices that women hardly glimpsed.


[1] David L. Browman and Stephen Williams, Anthropology at Harvard: A Biographical History, 1790-1940, Peabody Museum Monographs 11 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013).

[2] David Browman, personal communication, June 13, 2018; Drew Gilpin Faust, “Mingling Promiscuously: A History of Women and Men at Harvard,” in Yards and Gates: Gender in Harvard and Radcliffe History, ed. Laurel Ulrich (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), 317-328.

[3] Alison Wylie, “Feminist Philosophy of Science: Standpoint Matters,” Presidential Address delivered to the Pacific Division APA, in Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association 86, no. 2 (2012): 47-76.

[4] James S. Bikales, “Protected by Decades-Old Power Structures, Three Renowned Harvard Anthropologists Face Allegations of Sexual Harassment,” The Harvard Crimson, May 29, 2020, https://www.thecrimson.com/article/2020/5/29/harvard-anthropology-gender-issues/; “Harvard Anthropology to Form Committee to Address Department’s ‘Long-Standing Problems’,” The Harvard Crimson, May 31, 2020, https://www.thecrimson.com/article/2020/5/31/anthropology-department-forms-standing-committee/.

[5] Alice B. Kehoe (in press, scheduled for February 2022), Girl Archaeologist: Sisterhood in a Sexist Profession (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press).

[6] Alice B. Kehoe, “Ceramic Affiliations in the Northern Plains,” American Antiquity 25, no. 2 (1959): 237-246.

[7] Emily Eakin, “Harvard Crimson, Indeed,” New York Times (Section C), November 6, 2020. Online version: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/04/books/becky-cooper-we-keep-the-dead-close-harvard-murder.html.

[8] New Yorker, December 7, 2020, 69. Online version: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/12/07/wintering-we-keep-the-dead-close-bring-me-the-head-of-quentin-tarantino-and-music-for-the-dead-and-resurrected.


Editor’s note: On 30 August 2021 HAR published a response by Susan Seymour. You can find that response here.

Authors
Alice B. Kehoe: contributions / akehoe@uwm.edu / Professor of Anthropology, Emeritus, Marquette University

1 Comment

  1. Carol Mukhopadhyay

    August 27, 2021 at 2:02 am

    I am surprised and deeply concerned by Kehoe’s comment in an otherwise interesting book review.

    Kehoe states:

    “Bricker attributes her success to mentoring by the single tenured woman professor, Cora Du Bois, who was there only because wealthy patron Doris Zemurray Stone, herself a Radcliffe anthropology graduate working in Mesoamerica, had recommended her for the chair the Zemurray family endowed specifically for a woman.

    “only because of”.??!!… Kehoe echoes one of the most conventional sexist explanations for women’s success….that it’s “only” because of x, y, or z [connections, “special” programs, “sleeping with the boss”]. Within a week of my starting a Tenure Track position, I was told twice that I was hired‘”only” because of Affirmative Action, despite my being far more qualified than the two “insider” old boys the department had hoped to hire.

    Sadly, we women too often internalize the same myths as do our brothers!!

    As usual, the facts tell a different story. I refer readers [and Kehoe] to Susan Seymour’s exquisitely researched biography of Cora DuBois. . DuBois got the position on her own merits!

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