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Eleanor Burke Leacock

Eleanor Burke Leacock

By Kristin Alten * Posted May 1998





Born: July 2, 1922

1944: Barnard College, BA

1952: Columbia University, Ph.D.

1963 – 1972: Professor, Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute

1972 – 1987: Professor, Chair, City College of New York

Died: April 2, 1987

Eleanor Burke Leacock

Eminent American cultural anthropologist Eleanor Burke Leacock is recognized primarily for her ethnohistorical studies of the changing social and gender relations of the subarctic Innu, her contributions to feminist anthropology, her examination of racism in US school systems and her reconsideration of the work of Lewis Henry Morgan and Fredrick Engels. Her prolific career, which spanned four decades, was marked not only by a long list of academic accomplishments, but also by her intense activism to fight race, sex and class discrimination.

Leacock, who was known as Happy to her friends, was born on July 2, 1922 and grew up commuting between her family’s farm in Northern New Jersey and their apartment in Greenwich Village. Her father, Kenneth Burke, was a renowned literary critic and social philosopher and her mother held a master’s degree in mathematics and taught secondary school. Although Leacock’s parents offered no obvious criticism of sexism during her childhood, her father often worked at home and on the farm, and her parents shared outdoor chores. Because of this, their lifestyles did not fit the expected gender roles of that era. In the city, her parent’s social set included artists, political radicals and writers who would discuss revolutionary thinkers, such as Marx, at social gatherings. The values she absorbed in her formative years mixed respect for manual labor that was characterized by the farming community and the intellectual integrity and independence that distinguished the writers and artists of Greenwich Village. “I grew up, then, to be scornful of materialist consumerism; to value—even revere—nature; to hate deeply the injustices of exploitation and racial discrimination…and to be committed to the importance of doing what one could to bring about a socialist transformation of society.” (Leacock, 1993, 5) These early experiences clearly influenced how she approached the field of anthropology and the Marxist and feminist tendencies that became the hallmark of her work.

Leacock had always attended public schools growing up, but as a teenager she was given a scholarship to the Dalton School, a prestigious private high school, where she thrived on the intellectual stimulation and progressive teaching styles. She was acutely aware, however, of the differences between her family’s standard of living and that of her more affluent peers. This experience made her more cognizant of class differences in society and influenced her thinking on “the culture of poverty” which became an area on which she focused.

As an undergraduate, Leacock attended Radcliffe College where she was introduced to neo-evolutionary works by V. Gordon Childe and C. Daryll Forde. She also began studying Morgan and Marx and became involved with politically radical student groups. Her second anthropology course was taught by Alfred Tozzer who told his female students that they should not go into anthropology if they did not have independent incomes because they would never get jobs. She remembers thinking smugly, rather than angrily, “I’ll show him”. She believed, at that time, that in order for her to prosper she only needed to prove her intellectual worth.

Leacock later transferred to Barnard where she studied under Gladys Reichard. In a drafting class there she experienced her first personal case of sex discrimination when she was not offered employment, solely because she was a woman, despite proving herself to be the most worthy candidate for the position. This made it clear for Leacock that discrimination, rather than ability, was what impeded women’s progress in the workplace and caused her to focus her interest more specifically on gender relations and inequality.

After graduating from college in 1944, Leacock wanted to work with Ruth Benedict in Washington D.C. at the Office of War Information to act on her opposition to fascism. However, she failed to pass an FBI background check due to “un-American” activities dating back to her times as a radical at Radcliffe and chose instead to attend graduate school at Columbia University. With her experience of being persecuted for her political beliefs behind her and the intense focus of the field on historical particularism, she chose to keep her Marxist leanings to herself. At Columbia, she took classes with George Herzog, Ralph Linton, Harry Shapiro, William Duncan Strong and Gene Weltfish, naming the latter two anthropologists as especially influential to her thinking. She was impressed by Strong’s historical orientation to culture and Weltfish’s refusal to ignore both the colonial status of the people studied and the political implications of research.

For her dissertation, Leacock asserted that family hunting territories, individually owned and inherited tracts of land, were not aboriginal among the Innu (Montagnais-Naskapi), the subarctic Indian people of Labrador. “Her path-breaking work exploded the prevailing antievolutionary and explicitly anti-Marxist theses (promoted by Frank Speck) that ‘communism in living’ had never existed and that private property existed even in gather-hunter societies. She found that subsistence resources were not privately owned, even after centuries of commodity production; although the rights to trap in given places were privatized, the rights to gather, fish, hunt for food, and so on were still communal” (Gailey 1988: 217). Leacock also looked into post-marital residence patterns and found that in the past, matrilocality had existed. This challenged the notion set forth by Julian Steward, who served on her dissertation committee, that hunter-gather societies were inclined to patrilocality because hunting and trapping were men’s activities.

With her first foray into fieldwork among the Innu of Labrador, Eleanor Burke Leacock began a forty year long relationship with the study of Native North American peoples. During this time, she pioneered the view that Native North American culture could only be conceived of by looking at the framework of the transformative and harmful forces of colonialism. She redirected the public’s attention to the sources of native cultural resistance and autonomy. By doing so she kept in mind mentor Gene Weltfish’s advice: “to document the impact of colonization on a people did them a disservice if you present colonialism as a one way process and ignored the active participation in their own history and bypassed their effect, in turn, on the history of Europe” (Sutton 1993: 14).

Leacock’s 1954 dissertation on family hunting territories among the Innu was widely cited in the literature about Native American culture change and for a period of over twenty years few scholars revived Speck’s theory of private land holding among subarctic people. With this work, she also made clear the effects that colonialism and capitalism had on Native North America during a time when this was either ignored by most anthropologists or explained away by acculturation theory. Leacock “was one of the very few scholars who challenged the ban on Marxist formulation which would help us to understand the presence of subsistence societies on the margins of commercial and industrial societies” (Sutton 1993: 104).

In 1952, she received her doctorate, but was given little support by the department at Columbia in finding a job. Being married, female, the mother of two small children, and a political radical, left Leacock isolated from many of the academic opportunities offered to her peers. It would not be until 1963 that she would get her first full time job teaching anthropology at Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute. During those eleven years, Leacock, who was semi-employed teaching evening classes at Queens College, City College and New York University and working on research projects, continued to gain anthropological experience and build an impressive list of publications. Her policy-oriented studies of schooling and mental illness not only reaffirmed her interest in urban and applied anthropology, but also made her work harder than her peers with academic positions at prestigious institutions. She has said that she would not let herself be pushed out of the discipline simply because she did not have an academic job.

Once she was fully employed, Leacock focused her writing and research on “the work on Lewis Henry Morgan concerning egalitarian societies and cultural evolution, the critique of the culture of poverty as class-based and racially biased,…anthropology and education and [published a] book on class and culture in urban schools” (Gailey, 1988, 218). She credits her concentration on interdisciplinary studies on the fact that she did not have an academic position early on in her career. With such broad interests, Leacock established herself as a scholar and critic and audiences both inside and outside anthropology took note.

It was during this time that Leacock honed her focus as a Marxist feminist, studying the relationship between gender and class in society. She took up Morgan’s hypothesis that an association existed between the development of patriarchy and the processes of class and state configuration.(Leacock, 1963: IIxvi) In so doing, Leacock became one of the first modern feminist anthropologists to reevaluate the connection between the development of the state and women’s loss of authority and sovereignty and provided inspiration for fledgling feminist scholars. However, she did not support the assumption made by some feminists that all social systems, the family unit in particular, were systems of gender inequality. Rather, she argued that egalitarian societies do exist where men and women can do different jobs and remain separate but equal. It was not until the advent of capitalism, according to Leacock, that the family was privatized and separated from the public world of work and the state. When this happened what had once been mere differences in gender, class and race were metamorphosed into inequalities between the colonized and colonizer as women’s work at home became marginalized and depreciated.

Leacock’s view that gender subordination was linked to the hierarchical nature of society, differentiated her from radical feminists who believed that patriarchy and reproductive relations rooted in the family were the main source of woman’s subjugation. Her concern with these issues, and her historical approach to better understanding them, preceded the first feminist anthologies by two years, putting her at the forefront of feminist anthropology (Sutton, 1993: 68).

In the 1960’s and 70’s, Leacock’s applied urban anthropology worked to dispute the intellectual notion of a set culture of poverty, which assumed specific political implications and its reinforcement in institutional structures. She observed that the role that poverty plays in urban settings is much like the role that “traditionalism” plays in rural environments. In both situations, the difficulties of reforming poverty and oppression are seen as the fault of the poor rather than as a reason to look more closely at existing configurations of inequality. During this period of time Leacock used her interdisciplinary background to look at how concepts of mental illness, housing, and education give rise to inequality. In Teaching and Learning in City Schools, Leacock disproved the notion that education levels the class, gender and racial differences inherent to any community. Instead, she shows that schools track students, effecting the reinforcement of these societal divisions. “[The] tracking system in education guarantees that economic and racial status, rather than ability, will determine who will be able to utilize the educational structure to gain jobs with economic security and prestige” (Sutton, 1993: 81).

In 1972, she was brought in as chair by the City College of New York to rebuild the Department of Anthropology, which had recently split from sociology. She remained there until her death in 1987. Among the many honors given to Leacock during this time was the New York Academy Sciences Award for the Behavioral Sciences in 1983, making her the first woman to receive this distinction. As she gained stature as an academic, she continued to speak out against both sexual discrimination and in opposition to racial and class discrimination, never sacrificing her strong political beliefs for her career. She used her personal experiences with such prejudice to support marginally employed junior colleagues and diversify the academy.

In both her academic and personal life, Eleanor Burke Leacock practiced the theories she developed and espoused with the ultimate objective being human liberation. She wrote about these matters in a language accessible to both academics and non-academics alike, deliberately rejecting the scholarly prose she considered elitist. Her research “trac[ed] the simultaneous emergence of gender and class oppression, as processes linked to commodity production, the formation of state institutions, or colonialism, and related models of development….Her critiques of the ‘culture of poverty’ thesis, male bias in anthropology in general, structuralism and sociobiology in particular, and racism and class bias in education influenced national and international constituencies far beyond anthropologists and the academy” (Gailey, 1988: 219).


Gacs, Ute, et al, eds.

1988 Woman Anthropologists: A Biographical Dictionary. New York: Greenwood Press.

Leacock, Eleanor B., ed.

Introduction. Lewis Henry Morgan, Ancient Society. Pp. I-xx. New York: Meridian Books
Sutton, Constance R., ed.

From Labrador to Samoa: The Theory and Practice of Eleanor Burke Leacock. Association for Feminist Anthropology/American Anthropological Association.
Selected Works by Eleanor Burke Leacock

1954 The Montagnais “Hunting Territory” and the Fur Trade. American Anthropologist Memoir 78.

1963 Introduction. Lewis Henry Morgan, Ancient Society. E. B. Leacock, ed. Pp. I-xx. New York: Meridian Books

1969 Teaching and Learning in City Schools. New York: Basic Books.

1971 Culture of Poverty: A Critique. New York: Simon and Schuster.

1972 Introduction. The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State by Frederick Engels. Pp. 7-67. New York: International.

1977 Women in Egalitarian Society. In Becoming Visible: Women in European History. R. Bridenthal and C. Koontz, eds. Pp. 11-35. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Myths of Male Dominance. New York: Monthly Review.
Interpreting the Origins of Gender Inequality: Conceptual and Historical Problems. Dialectical Anthropology 7:263-84.
Selected Co-authored Works

Leacock, Eleanor, Helen Safa, et al.

Women’s Work: Development and the Division of Labor by Gender. S. Hadley, Mass.: Bergin and Garvey.
Leacock, Eleanor, and Mona Etienne, eds.

Women and Colonization. New York: Bergin and Garvey/Praeger.
Leacock, Eleanor, and Richard Lee, eds.

Politics and History in Band Societies. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Leacock, Eleanor, and Nancy Lurie, eds.

North American Indians in Historical Perspective. New York: Random House.