The Past Is Present:
Henrietta Schmerler, Sexual Assault During Fieldwork, and the Pitfalls of Anthropology's Project of Prevention
What happens when an ethnographer is sexually assaulted during fieldwork?
Abstract: In July 1931, a young anthropologist named Henrietta Schmerler was raped and murdered by her interlocutors. This incident opened up a public conversation about sexual assault, gender, and vulnerability during fieldwork among many of American anthropology’s founding figures, including Ruth Benedict, Franz Boas, and Alfred Kroeber. Records from Benedict’s private correspondence, debates in Anthropology Newsletter from the 1980s, and several published personal accounts of sexual violence during fieldwork reveal how anthropologists have historically responded to experiences of sexual assault in the field by denying their own vulnerability and blaming victims. This impulse to blame and deny grows out of a well-intentioned but flawed project of prevention, which presumes disseminating accounts of misfortunes will help future anthropologists avoid them. The conflation of competence with control in retellings of Schmerler’s story is still relevant today. Anthropologists’ inability to admit they lack control during participant observation research is reflected by how anthropologists continued to distort, police, and interpret narratives of Schmerler’s rape and murder over many decades.