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July 20, 2016

The Institute for Research on Women, Gender, and Sexuality is saddened to report the death of IRWGS faculty affiliate and Professor of Anthropology M. ELAINE COMBS-SCHILLING (1949-2016)

Margaret Elaine Combs-Schilling died quietly in her bed from the effects of a brain tumor on the morning of July 7, 2016 in the loving company of her husband, Rev. David Schilling, and son, Prof. Jonathan Combs-Schilling. She was 67. 

A subversive but proud daughter of the south, Elaine was born on February 13, 1949 in Knoxville. She grew up in Appalachia and in 1967-8 spent a year in Belgium before returning to the United States and attending Stanford University, where she obtained her BA with honors in 1972. Having met and married her husband in 1969, she continued on to graduate study at the University of California, Berkeley, receiving her doctorate in anthropology in 1981. The focus of her Ph.D. research was the impact of a new road on merchant culture, and her dissertation was entitled “Traders on the Move: A Moroccan Case Study in Change.” Over the years, and in tandem with new directions in anthropology, Elaine became progressively more interested in how ritual informs daily life, and in 1989, published the highly acclaimed book, Sacred Performances: Islam, Sexuality, and Sacrifice, which examines the relationship between ritual, state and the gendered politics of a Moroccan national imaginary. 

Elaine continued to undertake field research in Morocco into the 1990s, focusing especially on the life of Lalla Aziza, a little-known fourteenth-century female “saint” from the High Atlas Mountains who resisted gender, political, and cultural norms in her own time and whose memory lives on in the region, having served as a figure of empowerment and struggle during the French colonial period. Elaine’s far-ranging interest in the praxes and power of performance also led her, in 1998, to shadow a production of Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro at the Metropolitan Opera to examine how operas can give sound, sight and material form to “unofficial versions of reality,” which became the main focus of her scholarship in later years. 

Elaine’s awards and honors included 3 different Fulbright fellowships and grants from the Social Science Research Council and the National Endowment for the Humanities, among many others. In 1993, she was named the 49th annual Tannenbaum Lecturer. 

At Columbia, Elaine Combs-Schilling’s 33 year-long career commenced with her hiring as assistant professor in 1983. She was tenured in 1991, one of only two women to have achieved that status in the department since 1937, when Ruth Benedict was made Associate Professor. In the same year she became Vice-Chair, going on to become the first female chair since the department was founded in 1896. During her tenure, the department was significantly transformed, with new hires that focused on both the aesthetic dimension of cultural life in modernity and the historical production of social power. 

During the 90s Elaine was also a teacher and active participant in The Institute for Research on Women and Gender where she team-taught a number of interdisciplinary graduate courses and provided wise counsel in the formative years of the Institute’s history. 

A devoted teacher of both undergraduates and doctoral students, Elaine taught courses on a wide range of topics, from the traditions of North Africa and the Middle East, to ritual and religion (especially Islam), feminist theory, theories of language and subjectivity, and operatic performance. For many years, she also led the anthropology department’s undergraduate thesis seminar, and over the years, helped dozens of young scholars to arrive at projects inflected by their personal passions and reflective of their best intellectual selves. 

Further information about Elaine and about future memorial services may be obtained at the following website: hatsoffelaine.com. In addition, a memorial fund is being set up through the Institute for Research on Women, Gender and Sexuality that will support graduate work in feminist scholarship. Contributions to the Elaine Combs-Schilling Memorial Fund can now be sent directly to the Institute, as checks written to COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY, but with the tagline "Elaine Combs-Schilling Memorial Fund.” They should be addressed to: 

Terence Roethlein
Manager, Communications and Finance
Institute for Research on Women, Gender, and Sexuality 1200 Amsterdam Avenue
763 Schermerhorn Extension MC5510
Columbia University
New York, NY 10027 

University Memorial infromation is available below: