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Lamphere's lawsuit a landmark for equality

When Lamphere was denied tenure in May of the next year, she filed a class action lawsuit against the university on the basis of sex discrimination. The case, Louise Lamphere v. Brown University, paved the way for increased gender equality in academia nationwide.

Brown University recently recognized Lamphere’s achievements with a special symposium at the Pembroke Center for Teaching and Research on Women.

Lamphere, now a distinguished professor emerita at UNM, began teaching at Brown in 1968. Her research, which focused on kinship and family structure, emerged during a time of social change both within academia and in the United States at large.

“There was a very important anti-war movement in the country, and people at Brown were involved in that,” Lamphere said. “It was also the beginning of second-wave feminism. Some colleagues and I began to get involved in feminist activities.”

She said she became friends with politically-involved graduate students through activities like attending the legislative hearing on abortion rights. Her research was also becoming increasingly focused on the experiences of women. During her time at Brown, she went to England on a research grant to study working-class women.

“By the time I came back, I was beginning to pull away from people in the department and form a group of friends that was mostly involved in these kinds of activities,” Lamphere said.

She began teaching courses on women and co-edited “Woman, Culture, and Society,” a book that, according to the preface, attempted “to integrate an interest in women into a general theory of society and culture.”

While the book received positive feedback, Lamphere’s colleagues were not as supportive of her new academic focus. In fall 1973, the chair of the department, Phil Leis, called her into his office and said there were concerns about her teaching. A memo received by Leis, later released during the lawsuit, revealed a colleague’s criticism of “the narrowness of (Lamphere’s) perspective” and her “militant feminism.”

Lamphere became concerned about receiving tenure and asked colleagues and friends to write letters to the administration on her behalf. She also received support from the co-editor of “Woman, Culture, and Society,” who was out of the country doing research at the time. Beyond that, there was nothing she could do but wait for the department’s decision, she said.

“Around the end of May, about 10 days before graduation, they finally called me into a conference and said I wasn’t getting tenure,” she said. “Phil said that my research on women was theoretically weak.”

Anne Fausto-Sterling, a professor at Brown at the time, said that terms like “too ideological” and “theoretically weak” were common ways of denouncing feminist scholarship at the time.

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“Women who were introducing gender into their scholarship in one way or another were getting into trouble because it wasn’t the mainstream of the profession,” Fausto-Sterling said. “It was very early days in feminism, so all of the men were just freaked out about it in one way or another.”

Lamphere said she came out of that meeting feeling shocked and dismayed but also sure that she had to do something about it. She filed a grievance and tried to get the attention of the administration, but the department stood by its decision. When it became clear that the situation would not change within the university, she hired a lawyer and filed a class action lawsuit on the basis of sex discrimination.

Lamphere said that her legal team decided to file the lawsuit as a class action because she felt that the discrimination she encountered was more widespread than her individual circumstances. She said that this decision would have larger implications.

“Having it as a class action was actually crucial because that meant that you could change the institution,” Lamphere said.

The university contended that she had been denied tenure due to budgetary issues rather than discrimination. While the case was in progress and her future at Brown uncertain, she became an associate professor at UNM’s department of anthropology.

Finally, a turning point in the case came when the judge required that Brown release correspondence between members of the department. The letters revealed unprofessional and discriminatory comments about women and minorities from Leis and his colleagues. Lamphere said that these letters, along with a new president at Brown, led to the university’s decision to settle.

“The university had been sort of fighting us at every turn,” she said. “Somehow we decided to ask (the new president) if he would be willing to meet with us. We got to have this meeting without any lawyers, and that’s when we talked about the possibility of settling the case.”

Since the case was a class action suit, Brown settled on the condition that a consent decree would be created to help prevent further cases of discrimination. The decree transformed the way Brown hired faculty, implementing practices that encouraged fairness and transparency, she said.

“The Consent Decree required that Brown establish policies and processes for hiring, promotion, and tenure,” reads “The Lamphere Case,” an exhibit at Brown’s Pembroke Center. “Today such processes are standard operating procedure at universities across the country, but at the time of the Lamphere case, they were hotly debated.”

Lamphere went on to receive a tenured position at Brown, but she said that her relationship with people in the department became strained and she decided to return to UNM for a full professorship in 1986.

“I started feeling like I was never going to get anywhere at Brown because there were people in the department that I wasn’t on speaking terms with,” she said. “I wanted to move back to the West. I had always liked New Mexico ever since I did research on the Navajo reservation.”

Lamphere continued to work at UNM until she retired in 2009. She still works with graduate students and has an office on campus. She said she never anticipated that the Brown lawsuit would have the wide-ranging implications it did.

“It’s one of the most important things I’ve ever done in my life, because I really changed an institution,” she said. “I feel that if you want to and the circumstances are right, you really can make a major change.”

Lena Guidi is a freelance reporter at the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at or on Twitter @DailyLobo.

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