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Maria Lugones, feminist philosopher who studied colonialism’s legacy, dies at 76

Argentine-born philosopher María Lugones was a longtime philosophy professor at Binghamton University in New York.
Argentine-born philosopher María Lugones was a longtime philosophy professor at Binghamton University in New York. (Family photo)

María Lugones, a feminist philosopher who combined influential scholarship on gender, race and the legacy of colonialism with decades of work as a social activist in Latin America and the United States, died July 14 at a hospital in Syracuse, N.Y. She was 76.

The cause was cardiac arrest, said her niece Gabriela Veronelli. Dr. Lugones was being treated for her third occurrence of lung cancer, which returned late last year, and had been hospitalized with pneumonia-like symptoms after undergoing radiation treatment.

In a field overwhelmingly dominated by white men, Dr. Lugones was a striking figure — a tango-dancing, Argentine-born lesbian (friends say she preferred the Spanish slang term “tortillera”) who challenged the old division between theory and practice. She seemed to align herself with Karl Marx’s famous remark that while philosophers have long analyzed and interpreted the world, “the point is to change it.”

“I won’t think what I won’t practice,” she often said.

Dr. Lugones was a professor of comparative literature and women’s studies at Binghamton University, part of the State University of New York. But her scholarship ranged across disciplines, extending from social and political philosophy to Latino politics, Andean philosophy, decolonial feminism, popular education and theories of resistance.

“She was one of the most creative philosophers that I know,” said Sarah Lucia Hoagland, a lesbian-feminist philosopher and professor emerita at Northeastern Illinois University.

Dr. Lugones was part of a group of decolonial scholars, including Walter Mignolo and Binghamton colleague Aníbal Quijano, who connected European colonialism to the development of concepts of labor and race. Pushing that link further, Dr. Lugones argued that modern notions of gender, including separate roles for women and men, emerged out of colonial rule as well.

“Before that, you had women who knew farming, or pottery making, just as men did. That got erased,” Hoagland said by phone. “The stereotype of women that was constructed through that time of colonization, and that we still have, is that women are helpless, weak and need men to protect them.”

Dr. Lugones’s concept of the “coloniality of gender” paved the way for a new understanding of oppression and power, said her collaborator Catherine Walsh, a Latin American studies scholar at Simón Bolívar Andean University in Ecuador.

“María made visible the intersectionality of race, class, gender and sexuality in the Americas from colonial times to the present, and with it the multiple oppressions lived by women of color,” Walsh wrote in an email. “In so doing, she radically changed the ways we think about gender, making it inseparable from race and from the systemic patterns of power that continue to mark women’s bodies and the bodies of non-heteronormative peoples.”

Dr. Lugones’s scholarship was closely linked to her work as an activist, including with organization such as Critical Resistance, which challenges mass incarceration and police brutality, and Incite!, a group of radical feminists of color that aims to end violence against women.

She also worked with indigenous communities in Bolivia and campaigned to protect the land and water rights of a Chicano community in northern New Mexico, where she co-founded La Escuela Popular Norteña, a popular-education collective that holds workshops on community economics, health care and violence against women, among other topics.

“Her philosophy came out of her work with the community — that’s what animated her thinking,” said Cricket Keating, a fellow Escuela member who researches decolonial politics. Dr. Lugones, she added, was always asking, “How have people lived and thrived and supported each other?” while working to build a kind of “deep coalition” in which various oppressed groups worked together.

Many of her essays emphasized building community while working across differences in race, gender, sexuality and class. Perhaps her best-known article, “Playfulness, ‘World’-Travelling, and Loving Perception” (1987), advocated, in effect, seeing what you look like in someone else’s eyes — an act that Dr. Lugones found herself undertaking repeatedly as a woman of color in the United States.

“When I think of my own people,” she once wrote, “the only people I can think of as my own are transitionals, liminals, border-dwellers, ‘world’-travelers, beings in the middle of either/or.”

“María was interested in real people — living, breathing and dead,” said her friend Anne Leighton, Hoagland’s partner. “She loved ideas, but how do these ideas play out?”

“So much of philosophy is ‘brain in a tank,’ ” Leighton added, referring to a thought-experiment staple of introductory philosophy classes. “But she was not interested in ‘brain in a tank’ — well, maybe when she was drunk. She did study philosophy.”

María Cristina Lugones was born in Buenos Aires on Jan. 26, 1944. Her father was a biochemist who directed a pharmaceutical laboratory and served as a dean at the University of Buenos Aires, where Dr. Lugones studied before transferring to the University of California at Los Angeles.

She graduated in 1969 with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and enrolled at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where she received a master’s degree in 1973 and a PhD in philosophy in 1978, studying under Marcus George Singer, a noted philosopher of ethics.

While in Madison she met Geoff Bryce, a fellow philosophy student whom she later married, according to her niece, to live and work in the United States. They remained close collaborators, co-founding the Escuela in Valdez, N.M., in 1990 after being influenced by Myles Horton, whose Highlander Folk School taught civil rights leaders including Martin Luther King Jr.

Dr. Lugones taught at Carleton College in Minnesota before joining the Binghamton faculty in 1993. Early in her career, “feminist philosophy was just getting off the ground,” said her Binghamton colleague Surya Parekh, “and lesbian philosophy and women-of-color philosophy weren’t taken seriously.”

“A lot of her work was in building relationships with white lesbian philosophers and queer women of color philosophers,” he added. “And in opening up institutional spaces. At Carleton, she made the study of race and gender important in a way that it hadn’t been before she was there.”

Dr. Lugones returned to Argentina for about a year after the death of her brother Alejandro, a grass-roots political organizer who was found dead in 1983. She went on to investigate the circumstances of his death — “it was disguised as a gas leak,” said her niece Veronelli, but was generally believed to be a targeted killing as part of the country’s so-called “Dirty War” — before some relatives encouraged her to stop, fearing reprisals.

“She was terribly sad by his death. . . . I don’t think she ever recovered from that sadness,” Veronelli said. Dr. Lugones later dedicated her 2003 essay collection “Pilgrimages/Peregrinajes” to Alejandro.

Dr. Lugones received honors including the 2020 Frantz Fanon Lifetime Achievement Award from the Caribbean Philosophical Association, which praised her “groundbreaking contributions” to decolonial, feminist and indigenous philosophy, among other fields.

Her husband died in a car accident in 2004, and Dr. Lugones lived in recent years at a 13-acre property in Vestal, N.Y., where she grew marigolds and zinnias and held court with graduate students, conducting readings in a large wooden-floored meeting space where she also taught her PhD students to tango.

Friendship and sisterhood were crucial to her life, said Dr. Lugones, who is survived by a brother and sister.

“I am incomplete and unreal without other women,” she once wrote. “I am profoundly dependent on others without having to be their subordinate, their slave, their servant.”

Correction: An earlier version of this obituary incorrectly reported the year Dr. Lugones co-founded La Escuela Popular Norteña. It was 1990, not 1980.

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