Mary Lindsay Elmendorf

April 13, 1917–September 15, 2017

Mary Lindsay Elmendorf passed away in Sarasota, Florida on September 15, 2017. Born 100 years ago in an era when married women stayed home, Elmendorf became a dedicated activist in promoting human rights and equal opportunity for all. These interests began in college and she vigorously pursued them throughout her life as she worked in the United States and Mexico. Subsequently, she was the first woman anthropologist invited to join the World Bank staff and to raise gender issues there. She is known for her PhD research (Union Graduate School in 1972) on Mayan women in Chan Kom, Mexico and for her extensive work as an applied anthropologist and consultant. She received the 1982 Margaret Mead Award the first time it was jointly awarded by the AAA and SfAA, “for applying principles of anthropology to the resolution of issues of contemporary human concern.”

While employed as a social worker in the rural south and the slums of Boston and New Haven, she married John Elmendorf in 1937 whom she met at the University of North Carolina. Then in the early 1940s, she worked with the Putney School programs in Vermont and Mexico City. From 1944 to 1946, she worked with the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) in France helping displaced people and serving as Director of the Spanish Refugee Program. The Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the AFSC and British Friends, for their World War II work, which Elmendorf considered one of her greatest honors. Senator Joseph McCarthy later tentatively investigated the Elmendorfs’ “suspicious” activities in France and Mexico.

In the 1950s, Elmendorf accompanied her husband in his move to Mexico City College, excelling in her roles as anthropologist, and educator. She studied anthropology with Gonzalo Aguirre Beltran, Alfonso Villa Rojas, and others, and became director of the CARE development programs there. The Elmendorfs moved to Brown University in 1962 and then to Sarasota in 1965, when John Elmendorf became president of New College. After his death Mary worked with the World Bank and various NGOs, dividing her time between Sarasota and Washington, DC. In 1981, she married anthropologist John Landgraf who died in 2010.

Elmendorf became the first woman appointed to student government at the University of North Carolina in 1936. This marked the beginning of a lifetime of women’s rights and race relations activities. She went on to organize black and white women to integrate a Virginia Travelers’ Aid snack bar and rest room in 1945. Later, she participated in all four of the United Nations Conferences on Women.

Elmendorf’s many awards include the Distinguished Alumna Award, University of North Carolina (1993); the Outstanding Alumna Award, Queens College (1997); the Lifetime Achievement Award of PLACA (2007); and an Honorary Degree as Doctor of Humane Letters, Brown University (2009). In Mexico, she became the first woman program director in any CARE country. There, one town showed its appreciation of her work by naming their central plaza after her. Her lifetime papers are held at the University of Florida Smathers Libraries.

Mary Elmendorf is survived by her son Calvin and daughter Susan, nine grandchildren and six great grandchildren. Gifts can be made in her memory to The John and Mary Elmendorf Palm Court Endowed Scholarship Fund through the New College Foundation or to the AFSC, CARE, or the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Foundation, Inc. (Paul L. Doughty and Sarah Hernandez)

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More information about Mary Elmendorf and her career can be found in this American Anthropologist article.

Cite as: Doughty, Paul L. and Sarah Hernandez2017. “Mary Lindsay Elmendorf.” Anthropology News website, December 15, 2017. doi:10.1111/AN.726

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