The Remarkable Life of Lawyer and Anthropologist Sally Falk Moore

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In 2018, anthropologist and Harvard professor emerita Sally Falk Moore, who was born in 1924 and raised in New York City, was named the Charles Homer Haskins Prize Lecturer. In recalling her early education and subsequent career, Moore spoke about the pivotal decision to apply to Columbia Law School when she was in her third year of college at Barnard in New York.

“My rough recollection is that there was something like 100 people in my class, only six of them were women. The women were often treated as a strange category of persons who didn't belong at the law school. For example, in class when called upon to present a case, all students who are dressed as Mr. So and So — the teacher just had the list of the names — and if a woman stood up to present a case, it was general laughter in the classroom,” Moore says.

This didn’t stop the headstrong Moore from pursuing her law degree, eventually becoming a staff attorney at the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg during the investigation of Nazi war criminals in 1946. But the high-profile case was merely the gateway for Moore’s next calling in life. Her experience at the Nuremberg Trials led her to the field of anthropology to study legal and political systems, which became her lifelong passion. In particular, she was interested in the inner workings of humanity and how we behave and live with each other, whether or not we are governed by formal law.

Moore received her Ph.D. in anthropology from Columbia University in 1957. According to an obituary published in The New York Times, she did her field work in Tanzania, studying the interactions between Indigenous, colonial, and postcolonial social and legal systems. Her published work focused on cross-cultural, comparative legal theory, drawing on her earlier work as a lawyer and dovetailing it with her study in anthropology.

"Academic accolades punctuated Moore’s long and distinguished career, but it’s the lives she touched along the way and the family she built that resonate."


“She helped to strengthen a tradition in which we look less at the literal prescriptions of formal law and more at the process through which they are interpreted — often very creatively, and always with respect to local values, needs, and conditions,” Michael Herzfeld, Ernest E. Monrad Research, Professor of the Social Sciences at Harvard, told The Harvard Gazette.

In 1948, Sally met her future husband, David Cresap Moore, and they married in 1951. They raised two daughters together and were both steeped in academia until his death in 2001. The Moores briefly lived in California, where Sally taught at USC and UCLA. She joined the Harvard faculty in 1981 and became dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences from 1985-1989. She even taught a very promising student at Harvard Law School, one Barack Obama.

Academic accolades punctuated Moore’s long and distinguished career, but it’s the lives she touched along the way and the family she built that resonate. It is a testament to a life well lived by a woman who let her curiosity about the world guide her, paving the way for others not just in her field of study, but by contributing a large body of work with a global impact, helping us to understand ourselves and our society just a little bit more.

“In almost all social settings in every society and social subgroup, several normative orders are an operation. Looking for these and describing them modifies one’s understanding of the positions and workings of the formal legal system. This concept has been the center of my life of learning throughout the years,” Moore says. “I've been able to travel the world. My interest in the micro politics of my multicultural Upper East Side, New York City apartment has developed into a life of trying to understand and explain how conflicts are resolved in other arenas. Although my work hasn't involved totem poles, I spent a good deal of time in grass huts studying the systems and structures that govern real lives. The limits of formal law that were suggested by my experience at Nuremberg and elsewhere turned out to be universal.”

Tags: Groundbreaking Women, Women's History, Gender Equality

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Written By

Genevie Durano

Genevie Durano has worked in various magazines in New York City, and currently is the food editor for Las Vegas Weekly magazine. See Full Bio

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