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Powdermaker, Hortense


POWDERMAKER, HORTENSE (1896–1970), pioneering scholar in American anthropology. Powdermaker was born in Philadelphia, one of four children of Minnie (Jacoby) and Louis Powdermaker, a German-Jewish middle class family. She attended Goucher College, where she became interested in the labor movement; after graduation she worked for the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America and organized workers in Cleveland and Rochester. In 1925 Powdermaker enrolled in a graduate course in social anthropology with Bronislaw Malinowski at the London School of Economics. Strongly influenced by Malinowski, she went on to receive a Ph.D. in 1928, writing a thesis on leadership in "primitive society." Powdermaker's first book, Life in Lesu (1933), was based on fieldwork in Melanesia; her second study, After Freedom (1939), reflecting her research in Indianola, Mississippi, was among the first anthropological studies of a modern American community. Her psychological analysis of black-white relations in the context of the larger communal dynamics in a racially divided city made this book a landmark achievement.

In 1938 Powdermaker founded the Department of Anthropology and Sociology at Queens College in New York City and during World War ii she also taught at Yale in an army training program focusing on the Pacific. During this time, her writing was focused on racial problems and included Probing Our Prejudices (1944), for high school students. In 1946–47, Powdermaker served as a part-time visiting professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, while conducting research on the Hollywood movie industry. The resulting book, Hollywood, The Dream Factory (1950) remains the only serious anthropological study of American filmmaking. In the 1950s, Powdermaker did research in a mining town in Northern Rhodesia and published her analyses in Coppertown (1962). Her 1966 volume, Stranger and Friend, compared and evaluated her four very different fieldwork experiences. Following her retirement from Queens College, Powdermaker moved to Berkeley, California. Among other honors, Powdermaker served as president of the American Ethnological Society and received an honorary doctorate from Goucher College. She also was awarded the Distinguished Teacher Award from the Alumni Association of Queens College.


B. Johnson. "Hortense Powdermaker," in: P.E. Hyman and D. Dash Moore (eds.), Jewish Women in America, vol. 2 (1997), 1099–1100; S. Silverman. "Hortense Powdermaker," in: U. Gacs, A.Khan, J. McIntyre, and R. Weinberg (eds.), Women Anthropologists: A Biographical Dictionary (1988), 291–96.

[Judith R. Baskin (2nd ed.)]

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