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“What was the vision for AFA at its founding?” I ask. Naomi Quinn’s (one of three founders of AFA) response was simple: “We three just filled a hole we thought needed filling.” It is a response that reminds us of the necessity and importance of feminist anthropological work in all spheres, and it opens the space for recognition of all the scholars who have come in between Quinn and her colleagues and Carla Jones, the current president whose interview in Anthropology News sparked this brief foray into its past. Shortly after an interview with Carla was published on AN in 2018, Naomi Quinn, professor emeritus at Duke University, got in contact with her, sharing a short retelling of the moments of the association’s inception. We followed up with Naomi, asking her to elaborate and take us back to this moment in time, bringing this connection to the early days of AFA to its current membership.

As Quinn’s reflections illuminate, it took the steadfast work of a few dedicated women, and then more, and then more, to build the intellectual community we have today. As she suggests here, the need for this work goes far beyond any individuals and is a reminder of the ways scholars resolutely work to create the space for feminist work.

The following narrative is in Quinn’s own words, taking us to back to AFA’s founding. See Carla Jones’ interview for some current reflections on its future:

The three of us—Sylvia Forman from U Mass, Carole Hill from U Georgia, and I—were just standing around chatting in the hotel lobby at a meeting of the AAA. I later estimated this to be November 1988 or 1989, during Skip Rappaport’s presidency. Probably 1989. As I recall, there had been so many new section requests upon his invitation for such applications, that they were going to have to stop approving new sections imminently. That is probably why Sylvia, Carole, and I felt we had to get our request in right away. The request had to be accompanied by by-laws for the new section, so Sylvia, who knew about such things, sat down at a hotel computer (or was it a typewriter?) and banged some out. I remember helping with that—looking over her shoulder while she smoked and worked.

Sometimes an action is ripe to happen, and just needs a little shove.

Anyway, we were standing around chatting. In the hotel lobby, as I recall, always the epicenter of annual meetings in those days. Meetings were smaller (only one hotel) and less dispersed back then. We just happened to be talking, we did not know one another particularly well. Carole had been a formative undergraduate teacher to a graduate advisee and lifelong friend of mine, Holly Mathews. I did not know Sylvia at all before that, perhaps had never spoken to her, although of course in that small of an organization we knew of each other. All women with activist backgrounds, we might have been trading war stories. Anyway, at some point we agreed as how among all these sections being created, there should be one for feminist anthropology. So, why didn’t we start one? Sylvia was a go-getter, and might have pushed the idea most fervently, but I recall us all being sold on it. I remember some indeterminacy as to whether it should be called the Association for Feminist Anthropology or the Association of Feminist Anthropologists. We settled on the former as being more academic and general.

Honestly, though, we had no specific vision of what it should be. We had all been busy at our various institutions (I at the University of Hawaii before coming to Duke) agitating for women and women’s rights in the university, and I think we just looked on this as another hole that needed to be filled, a fight for the acknowledgment of women anthropologists and feminist work in the profession. We just knew there should be such an association; to that degree we certainly had the idea that the visibility and validity of feminist research was to be supported, in line with the AFA goal of today. Some years before, Louise Lamphere had settled with Brown U (in Brown v. Lamphere), in an agreement that reversed her tenure decision, which had denied her tenure on the grounds that her research was on women and therefore unimportant. I’m sure that case was on our minds, as well as the struggles each of us had undergone and the lessons we had learned at our own universities. (At Hawaii, I remember, a group of us women faculty brought a successful Equal Opportunity claim against the university, enjoining it to hire substantially more women faculty. At that time the Equal Opportunity Commission, chaired by Eleanor Holmes Norton, still had a budget, and was a force to be reckoned with. At Duke, where I had gone in 1972, I pursued a cluster of issues, including but not limited to the hiring of women faculty, as an active member of a group of faculty women called “The Women’s Network.” Each of us took on different issues at our own institutions; I think Sylvia had trained a whole cohort of women graduate students in feminist anthropology, for instance.)

To our surprise thereafter, the new section was met with enormous enthusiasm. We named an organizing committee with a year-long mandate to create a structure and purpose for the new section. I don’t recall whether the organizing committee was an AAA requirement of new sections, it might have been, or whether we thunk it up ourselves. In any event, its membership of about 12-15 (all women, I believe) would have read like a roster of all the well-known feminist anthropologists of the time. I was mainly responsible for appointing this committee, as I recall, and had no trouble getting those I asked to agree to serve on it. That’s probably where Louise and Rayna Rapp, who were undoubtedly members of the organizing committee, may have gotten the idea that they were the association’s founders. In any event that’s how they portrayed themselves at a (tenth?) anniversary celebration they put on at a later AAA Annual Meeting. I was initially hurt by the three of us being so completely forgotten, but those who carried the association on probably did not even realize how it got started. And the organizing committee undoubtedly did greatly enhance the new association’s vision and direction.

So, as I recall it, the association just took off thereafter. After the appointed organizing committee there was an elected board. I do recall that Carole ran to be a member of that board, and ironically enough, lost. I was busy with institutional matters, and with being a single mom to my two daughters. I was actually glad that the association became self-sustaining, and was not my responsibility any longer. Sylvia eventually succumbed to lung cancer, I think it was. And Carole too (successfully) fought cancer, and busied herself with retirement, with running a gift shop for awhile I seem to remember, and with her love of horses. All of us lost touch with the AFA and its evolution thereafter. If you want to know more about that you will have to talk to surviving feminist anthropologists of the day like Rayna and Louise, who actually had a hand in making the AFA what it is today. The association’s founding was a kind of unplanned, accidental happening, which in itself is interesting. Sometimes an action is ripe to happen, and just needs a little shove. Of course, that is not to deny the substantial efforts that came after, needed to stabilize the AFA and set it on its present course. Just that there was another set of enthusiasts ready and willing to take on this next stage.

Naomi Quinn is professor emeritus of cultural anthropology at Duke University.

Emily de Wet is the contributing editor for the Association for Feminist Anthropology’s news column. If you would like to contribute by addressing topics concerning Feminist Anthropology, contact her at [email protected].

Cite as: Quinn, Naomi. 2019. “‘Sometimes an Action Is Ripe to Happen.’” Anthropology News website, February 13, 2019. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1085