Lucie Wood Saunders, 1928-2008

One of AMEWS’ earliest members and warmest supporters, Lucie Wood Saunders, passed away on July 26, 2008. Lucie received her PhD in Anthropology from Columbia University in 1959. Her dissertation research was on parallel cousin marriage in Arab families. She carried out research in Egypt, at the invitation of Laila el Hamamsy, Director of American University of Cairo’s Social Research Center, starting in 1961 and into the 1980’s in the Egyptian Delta village, Tafahna el-Ashraf. She worked with Sohair Mehanna of the SRC, authoring many articles with her on Tafahna el-Ashraf. Lucie was among the first Anthropologsits to write on issues of gender in the Delta villages. Her research inspected family and gender relations, the local zar cults, women and development issues around small businesses such as poultry, and medical anthropology. Her early work focused more on psychological issues and her later work more on economic issues.

One of her early colleagues was Cynthia Nelson who did research in a village near Lucie’s fieldwork. Lucie and Cynthia collaborated on an article on women and work in Lower Egypt, focusing on income-generating practices. She was a professor of Anthropology in Lehman College of the CUNY system in New York, and chaired that department from 1970 to 1996, when she retired.

Those who knew Lucie, knew her to be an indefatigable promoter of young women scholars, especially those who studied the Middle East. Her home on the Hudson River in Upper Nyack, New York, was a living salon for these scholars who were regularly invited to visit, to spend a weekend, to give Lucie their papers to read and critique. Young scholars such as Suad Joseph, Barbara Larson, Nadia Atif benefited from her largess. She always had an ear to lend and wise advise to impart. She was relentlessly on the lookout to help young women scholars advance their careers, helping them to meet each other, network, link to senior scholars. Once, when serving on the doctoral exam committee of one such scholar, she felt that another committee member was being unfair in their criticism. She decided she would “sit it out”, and continued to talk until the other member relented. “I figured I could sit longer,” she confided sometime after.

Her Southern diplomacy, hospitality, generosity served many people. Her peers, as well as her juniors found her a source of inspiration and a rock of friendship. Nicholas Hopkins, Ferial Ghazoul, Elizabeth Fernea, Jagna Scharf, Amal Rassam, Daniel Bates, Louise Lennihan, Georganna Chapin, Conrad Arensberg, Eric Wolf, Sydel Silverman are a few of the many who glowed in Lucie’s friendship and graced her home. She could be counted on not only as a good friend, but also as a tireless fighter for ethical causes, writing letters, strategizing, and using her good name and pen to foster important issues.

Lucie was very active in the New York Academy of Sciences, the Middle East Studies Association (serving on the Ethics Commitee in 1986). She served for one term as the President of the Middle East Section of the American Anthropological Association .

Lucie had battled cancer for a number of years. Her husband of many years, Jack Saunders, passed away in 2001. They are both buried in her family home in Virginia. She last attended AMEWS in its Washington, DC meeting a couple of years ago, thrilled to meet and talk to new generations of feminist scholars of the Middle East.

by Suad Joseph