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Author, filmmaker, anthropologist

Elizabeth Janet Warnock Fernea ’49

A picture of Elizabeth Warnock Fernea

Elizabeth Janet Warnock Fernea ’49, December 2, 2008, at her daughter's home in La Canada, California, following a long illness.

Bette or B.J., as she became known at Reed, was a influential writer, anthropologist, and filmmaker who worked extensively on the role of women in the Middle East.

Born in Wisconsin, B.J. spent her childhood in Flin Flon, Manitoba—700 miles northwest of Winnipeg—where her father worked for an American mining company. The family moved to Portland in 1941. B.J. received a scholarship to Reed and attended as a day-dodger, earning a BA in English literature. She did graduate work at Mt. Holyoke College, before returning to Reed as public relations director in 1950–54.

In 1956, she married anthropologist Robert A. Fernea ’54. For the first two years of their marriage, B.J. and Bob were guests of Sheik Hamid in El Nahra, Southern Iraq, where Bob did field research for his doctoral thesis. “Those two years really did change my life,” she told Nancy Stewart Green ’50, who interviewed her in 2005 for the Oral History Project. “I began to look at everything with a new eye. And the Iraqis had a completely different way of looking at the world. Different attitudes toward men, women, children, family.” From her journals recorded during that time, she published her first book, Guests of the Sheik: An Ethnography of an Iraqi Village.

The couple later spent six years in Cairo, where their three children were born. B.J. wrote two additional books about her experiences in the Middle East, A View of the Nile, and A Street in Marrakech. She credited Reed for enlarging her view of humanity—a benefit and requirement for life abroad. “ I realized that people are who they are. You may not agree with their political, personal, and philosophical views, but they're worthy of respect.”

The family settled in Austin, Texas, where both Bob and B.J. taught at the University of Texas; B.J. joined the faculty in 1975 as a senior lecturer, holding a joint appointment in the Center for Middle Eastern Studies and in comparative literature. She served as chairwoman of the Women's Studies Program from 1980 to 1983, and retired as professor emerita in 1999. Her scholarly books include Middle Eastern Muslim Women Speak, In Search of Islamic Feminism: One Woman's Global Journey, and Remembering Childhood in the Middle East: Memoirs from a Century of Change. She was coauthor of The Arab World: Personal Encounters (The Arab World: Forty Years of Change), and, with Bob, she wrote Nubian Ethnographies. After consulting on a film about Moroccan women in 1981, she produced a number of films, including Saints and Spirits; Reformers and Revolutionaries: Middle Eastern Women; The Struggle for Peace: Israelis and Palestinians; The Price of Change; A Veiled Revolution; Women under Siege; The Road to Peace: Israelis and Palestinians; and Living with the Past—three were funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

B.J. was renowned in the field of woman's studies, particularly in the Middle East, and was asked to lecture throughout the world. She also was instrumental in starting the Women's Studies program at UT. In the early ’90s, she served as the first female president of the Middle East Studies Association of North America. She received an honorary doctorate from the State University of New York at Plattsburgh, and, at her 50th-class reunion at Reed, was presented with the Foster-Scholz Distinguished Service Award. B.J. was devoted to family, students, and friends—“a nurturing, caring, and loving person.”

She and Bob left Austin to live in San Diego, to be nearer their two daughters and to spend more time with grandchildren. She is survived by Bob; two daughters, including Laura Ann Fernea ’83; one son; and eight grandchildren.

View a "Life and Times," a video biography on YouTube.

"The Quest and the Front Page Fraud," Reed magazine, March 2015

Appeared in Reed magazine: May 2009

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