Johns Hopkins Gazette: March 17, 1997

Felicity Northcott
Building Career By
Crossing Barriers

Stacey Patton
Editorial Intern
Is Women's History Month, like Black History Month, a time of reflection and celebration? Or is it a time of the year to promote issues pertaining to lesbians, sexual violence and abortion? Is it a time in which all women can unite based on shared experiences as females, or is it a time for white middle and upper class women to engage in dialogue about their own experiences?

Felicity Northcott, senior lecturer in Anthropology and assistant director of the Institute for Global Studies, wrestles with these questions. While she recognizes that women have come a long way in terms of gaining social, economic and political rights, she is fully aware that women are still not on the same level of equality as men.

"Women are still not taken as seriously as men," she says. "They are cast into certain roles and expectations in the social world and in the world of academics. Women are subjected to violence, and they are paid less than men in terms of salaries."

Northcott, who is one of four women in the Department of Anthropology, exerts her assertiveness and continues to cross barriers and boundaries, not even thinking twice about the fact that she is a woman. This native of Sheffield, England grew up as a "faculty brat." Her father was a professor of Germanic languages and literature at the University of Chicago. She enjoyed the university atmosphere as a youngster and decided to follow in her father's footsteps.

"I enjoy teaching," Northcott says. "I like to learn. Teaching is one way I keep learning. It is a constant acquisition of new knowledge and rethinking already learned knowledge."

In her first year teaching at Hopkins, Northcott strives to teach her students how to understand cultures from a non-ethnocentric standpoint. Stepping outside one's own culture to learn about other cultures is central to anthropology.

"I want my students to stop thinking so much based on how they feel about things and learn to look at some of the larger theoretical issues that face us. I want my students to be more critical about how they perpetuate their own social practices."

As a graduate student for nine years at Hopkins, Northcott did extensive research on the homeless. She completed 26 months of field research in Baltimore city with homeless men. While interacting with men in soup kitchens, men's shelters, and shelters for men considered as mentally ill, Northcott talked to and hung out with those men to learn who they were, where they lived, how they constituted themselves, and how they survived.

Some people may regard Northcott as a bold woman because of her interactions with over 250 homeless men whom she has interviewed for her own ethnography on homeless people.

"One homeless man lived with my family for four months. He became a part of the family," she says.

Homelessness has often been looked at as a major problem that needs to be fixed and extinguished. Northcott views it as a problem that needs to be understood from a cultural perspective. She plans to publish her book, now in dissertation form, entitled: "Acting in a Manner Not Usual for Law Abiding Citizens: Constructing Homelessness in Baltimore." She hopes it will help people face the harsh realities of homelessness.

The courses that she teaches: "Welfare, Carefare, What's Fair?" and "Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves: Outsiders in Urban Society," deal with issues of the homeless, racism, sexism, classism, exclusion in education and a whole range of other social and political topics.

Northcott has also been working on a book proposal with one of her undergraduates. The project is focused on children who have been placed outside of the family sphere in either foster homes, detention centers, drug rehabilitation centers, group homes, or in adoptive care. The research is to bring out the voices of these children who are affected by the drastic changes in their lives.

While it is difficult being a first year teacher, and a young woman in a male dominated environment, Northcott continues to cross lines of race, class and sex while developing her own true understanding of culture and womanhood. This is one way in which women can create a sense of history.

"Women are so divided by class and race," Northcott explains. In terms of understanding women as a culture and people Northcott says, "We need to develop a corporate vision of who women are, where they have come from and where they are in the present."

Some people often make the mistake of believing that the whole idea behind feminism is that women were united in sisterhood to fight for equality. However, race, class and sexuality have in one sense made women half sisters in women's struggles and in history. With this in mind one must ask how Women's History Month combats this problem.

Northcott believes that Women's History Month should not be broken off from the way in which history as a whole is taught. She believes the same for Black History Month. By doing so we somehow lessen the value of women's history, women as a culture of people, and the experiences of women.

"For the future of women I hope that mothers teach their daughters to be assertive so that they can go anywhere and cross any barriers and boundaries."

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