Not a typical academic

Social Anthropologist Dr Barbara Bodenhorn became a Fellow at Pembroke in 1990 and an Emeritus Fellow in 2013. She is currently working on an environmental virtual exchange programme involving students from village schools in Anglia (England), Alaska (United States) and Oaxaca, (Mexico).

Bodenhorn-178-7ASome of my students assume that feminism started in the 1970s and a number of my colleagues remember that earlier, it was difficult for women to have both a career and a family. This isn’t necessarily the case: I am the third generation of professional women in my family. Neither my maternal grandmother (who was a single mother and a teacher during the Depression), nor my mother (the oboist Lois Wann who, by the way, was a dedicated feminist), had to make a decision about whether to have kids or have a career, or else I wouldn’t be here.

My mother became a musician when women were not part of the national music scene; she was the first woman oboist in the US to be hired by a national orchestra. She just assumed she had the right to follow her passion and also the right to have a family. My father, who was also a musician, helped to make that possible. I grew up thinking that a household was run as a team effort, and gender didn’t really define your role. Whatever constitutes my feminism started there. It was never presented to me as an ideology – it is just how things were in our family.

I suspect I’m not a typical academic; I often say I’ve had four or five lives before I came here. My first permanent job after undergraduate study was as a special education teacher in an alternative school in Cambridge, Mass, for instance; then I supported myself on the piano for a couple of year and after my MPhil, I worked for the Inupiaq Community of the Arctic Slope (the regional tribal government in northern Alaska) for several years; for a women’s shelter up in Barrow; and finally as an anthropologist working on a project with the Inupiat History, Language and Culture Commission. That was before I got my PhD. Overall, I had a sort of political education than in no way assumed that intellectual value resides only within the university.

I got my first degree (in German literature and Political Science at the University of Michigan) in 1968, my MPhil in 1979 and my PhD in 1990 (both Social Anthropology at Cambridge), so each tranche was informed by living in the world in between my degrees. I constantly tell my students that having a job doesn’t need to hinder you from succeeding as an academic. If you are a social scientist, it actually gives you confidence and a basis for thinking about things.

My time working with the Inupiaq community showed me that I really preferred to listen to what other people had to say and that I really didn’t like telling them what to do. So being a director of a department wasn’t very satisfying. Once I realised what really interested me was trying to understand somebody else’s point of view, I decided to shift my focus and become an anthropologist.

In 1990 I was writing up my PhD. My Pembroke predecessor, Professor Henrietta Moore (1989), was leaving and asked me if I had put in my CV for her job. I applied, but mainly out of solidarity – to ensure that there was a reasonable representation of women on the shortlist. I assumed that being an American woman over 40 years old would count as three strikes against me.

When I showed up for my interview, it was the very first time in my entire life that I had been addressed as Dr Bodenhorn. Despite thinking that it had gone horribly, I was offered the job. However, my impression of Pembroke pretty much came from Tom Sharpe’s Porterhouse Blue and I wasn’t sure that was something I wanted to be a part of.

I went to talk to Lord Adrian, who was the Master at the time. I said to him, ‘I’ve been the only woman – or only white person, or only American, or only whatever – before, so I know I can do it. I just don’t know if I want to.’ He convinced me that Pembroke was genuinely serious about opening up its admissions – of students and Fellows – to reflect the entire makeup of Britain’s population, which included increasing the number of women. I thought: ‘That is a job I can get up in the morning in order to do.’

When I arrived, there were only 3 women Fellows in a fellowship of 45, and people were very sensitive to this imbalance. Several of the students asked me what it was like being the only woman. Of course, I wasn’t the only woman; there were two other woman fellows at the same time, it is just that they were not very visible within the College. Professor Valerie Gibson, a physicist, was usually in Geneva. Dr Sathiamalar Thirunavukkarasu was usually down at the hospital, although she played crucial role in providing support for some of the students who were in difficulties.

It seemed to me that for a long time I was more interested in general problems of inequality than my students were. There was quite a lot of apathy and the students were very self-absorbed. Then there was a wave of engagement. These waves seem to oscillate and during my time here I have seen both. We have to be careful not to assume that history goes in one direction.

That said, the ratio of women to men in the fellowship has improved significantly. It is not perfect now, but our fellowship has about 30 per cent women, as opposed to some minuscule per cent. No longer do you go into a room and look around to see if there are other women there.

I always felt that my job as a Director of Studies was to make sure that my students got the best education they possibly could. However, I realise that we were also redefining what constitutes a Fellow and acting as role models for the students.

I thought for sure that I’d only be here for five years but I got so hooked in to students, I’d think: ‘I’ve just got to see the next lot through.’ All of a sudden it was last year and it was time to retire – although I am still teaching, I am still travelling and I am still embarking on new research projects that originate in the communities I work with.