In 1956, Constance Sutton, a recent master’s degree graduate of the University of Chicago, was hired by Margaret Mead, the pre-eminent anthropologist, to edit her latest book. Dr. Mead, who was teaching at Columbia University, was impressed by Ms. Sutton’s credentials but was baffled by one question: Why, after finishing all of her course work, hadn’t she gotten her doctorate?
Dr. Sutton (she eventually did earn her Ph.D.) later recalled that she didn’t even paused to reflect: Her doctoral adviser, she told Dr. Mead, had demanded to know how she could possibly conduct on-site research abroad when she was already on her second marriage and when neither of her husbands was an anthropologist.
“Either you had to be a spinster, or you could accompany your husband if he was an anthropologist,” Dr. Sutton explained in 2015 in an interview with the New York Public Library’s Community Oral History Project. “But to go yourself as a woman anthropologist to do field work was not heard of.”
“Margaret Mead, in her characteristic way, said, ‘That’s fiddlesticks.’ ”
Dr. Sutton added, “I realized I had moved into a very different setting than I was around at the University of Chicago, where it was not imaginable that you would leave your husband if you were married.”
Dr. Mead, an adjunct professor at Columbia, hired Dr. Sutton as a teaching assistant, launching her groundbreaking four-decade career as a scholar. Dr. Sutton brought a feminist perspective to anthropology and a special focus on the migration and cultural evolution of Afro-Caribbean people, challenging whether male dominance in societies was universal.
Dr. Sutton, the first chairwoman of the anthropology department at New York University’s Bronx campus in the 1970s, died on Aug. 23 in Manhattan at 92. Her son, David, said the cause was complications of a stroke and cancer.
As a teacher, researcher and role model, Dr. Sutton had influence well beyond the campus. In the 1960s she led campaigns against unspoken barriers that kept black prospective tenants from renting west of Broadway in Washington Heights. And she sought to remove hurdles for women in academia in general and anthropology in particular.
“The anthropology that Connie introduced me to not only offered an intellectual grounding but mandated moral and political commitments as well,” Susan Makiesky Barrow, who collaborated with Dr. Sutton on several studies, wrote in the journal Identities in 1999. “She taught, wrote and marched for social justice, fought against racism and sexism within and beyond academic settings, and provided mentorship and support to scholars and activists throughout the Caribbean and elsewhere.”
Dr. Sutton wrote or edited several books, including “Caribbean Life in New York City: Sociocultural Dimensions” (edited with Elsa Chaney, 1987). That book concluded that cheap airfares and readily available communication links had transformed the city into a geographic center for West Indian immigrants, creating a “continuous and intense bidirectional flow of peoples, ideas, practices and ideologies between the Caribbean region and New York City.
Her other books include “From Labrador to Samoa: The Theory and Practice of Eleanor B. Leacock” (1993) and “Feminism, Nationalism, and Militarism” (1995).
Constance Rita Woloshin was born on Jan. 29, 1926, in Minneapolis to Jewish immigrants from Russia. Her father, Boris, was an electrical engineer. Her mother, Vera (Constantinovska) Sutton, was a homemaker.
She graduated from the University of Chicago with a bachelor of philosophy degree in 1946. She went on to earn a master’s there and, later, a doctorate in anthropology from Columbia.
After a brief marriage that ended in divorce, she married Samuel Sutton in 1952. He died in 1986. In addition to their son, she is survived by her husband, Antonio Lauria; two grandsons; and a sister, Phyllis Rose.
Dr. Sutton conducted extensive comparative research into gender and power among the Yoruba people in Nigeria, and she studied the evolution of black sugar-cane plantation workers in the Caribbean from peasants to politically mobilized trade unionists.
She was chairwoman of the New York Academy of Sciences’s anthropology section and a founder, with the social theorist Eleanor Leacock, what became the New York Women’s Anthropology Conference.
Dr. Sutton retired as an associate professor from N.Y.U. in 2002.
Through her Afro-Caribbean research Dr. Sutton had a circle of black literary friends with whom she held politically charged colloquies around her kitchen table on Riverside Drive, near Washington Heights. One friend was Maya Angelou, the poet and civil rights advocate, who lived in the Suttons’ apartment for several months in 1965 while organizing civil rights campaigns in New York for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and writing her autobiography “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”
One day, as Dr. Sutton recalled in the oral history, Ms. Angelou and Dr. Sutton were engaged in a conversation about race when David Sutton, not quite 2 years old, asked them, “What do you mean, white people and black people?”
Trying to explain the difference, Ms. Angelou stood up, her six-foot frame towering over the little boy, and asked him, “What am I?”
David, who grew up to be an anthropologist himself, replied, “You tall.”