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Ruth Benedict

AKA Ruth Fulton Benedict

Born: 5-Jun-1887
Birthplace: New York City
Died: 17-Sep-1948
Location of death: New York City
Cause of death: unspecified

Gender: Female
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Bisexual
Occupation: Anthropologist

Nationality: United States
Executive summary: Anthropologist, Patterns of Culture

Ruth Benedict is regarded as one of the pioneers of cultural anthropology. She was also one of the first to apply anthropology to the study of advanced societies. Benedict is best remembered for her works dealing with the national character of various culture groups, most famously the Japanese circa World War II. Her book The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture (1946) is still recommended as introductory reading for students of Japanese culture. Other significant published works include: Patterns of Culture (1934), Zuni Mythology (1935), Race: Science and Politics (1940).

Ruth Benedict was born Ruth Fulton June 5, 1887. Most sources list her place of birth as New York City, but close friend and colleague Margaret Mead claimed Benedict was born in a farm town in the Shenango Valley in upper New York State. Of far greater note is the fact that Benedict's father died suddenly when she was still a toddler. Her mother, who also had one other, younger, daughter, was hit hard by the tragedy, and Benedict grew too deeply resent her mother for wallowing in constant sorrow and anxiety.

To cope, the young Ruth Benedict withdrew emotionally and invented an imaginary friend. She also developed depression, fits of vomiting, and extreme tantrums. When she later entered school in 1895, she was found to be partially deaf. When Benedict was around 10 years old, she moved to Buffalo and changed schools. Now at the elite St. Margaret's Academy, she found herself set apart among girls from well to do families, who were accustomed to fine things. Benedict and her sister meanwhile made do with very little, dependent on their mother's small salary at the Public Library. At the same time she battled the added challenge and frustration brought by her hearing impairment. Throughout this period she continued to struggle with crying jags and terrible outbursts of temper which she labored to control.

Later, in 1905, she entered Vassar College, majoring in English Literature. She worked hard, and seemed bent on getting beyond the difficulties of the past to find her own purpose and potential. But when she exited college in 1909 she drifted about, first traveling, then trying her hand at charity work. Next, she took a teaching position in Los Angeles, moving in with her now married sister in Pasadena. But she worried about becoming an old maid, a spinster schoolteacher, society's stereotype of the unfufilled woman. When she met a young biochemist named Stanley Benedict, she left her position and married him. The couple moved back East, settling in a Long Island suburb and Stanley took a position at Cornell Medical College in New York City.

Before long, Ruth found married life was not so fulfilling after all. She sought to remedy it by becoming pregnant. But eventually she discovered that she could not have children, and this pathway closed. But at the same time she had already begun taking courses at The New School for Social Research. Here, studying under Elsie Clews-Parson and Alexander Goldenweiser she fell in love with anthropology. When she enrolled in graduate school at Columbia University she fell under the tutelage of Franz Boas. Boas helped Benedict get her time at The New School for Social Research transferred and applied toward her graduate work. Essentially all she had left to do was her actual thesis work.

What this meant however was that while many of her fellows at Columbia had imbibed that institution's emphasis on history, Benedict brought in a quite different perspective. From her undergraduate work, she had a background in literature, and in the various ways of studying a text to grasp its various levels of meaning. From Goldenweiser meanwhile she had inherited an emphasis on religion, mythology, and symbolism. This meant that in her studies of various cultures, whether primitive or advanced (as with the Japanese and the Germans), she did not concern herself as much with history as did her peers. Rather, she was looking for repeated themes, for the importance given various values and beliefs, and for how all of this fit together (or didn't).

It has been remarked by her own students that often times what she did, and how she did it, seemed a mystery. There was perhaps some intuitive faculty at work. And this fact did not win her any points in a field, and at a university, that was then almost completely male dominated and at a time when many in anthropology were seeking to define their work as part of the hard sciences. By contrast, Benedict also incorporated indirect, circumstantial evidence. Furthermore, she did no fieldwork in Japan and did not even speak the language (two absolute criteria for most anthropological studies). Nonetheless, from the perspective of hindsight, much of her work holds up remarkably well. Predictions that she made based on her research (for example, predictions as to how the Japanese would behave after the surrender of Emperor Hirohito and the military leaders) proved correct. Therefore, whatever one might say about her approach to anthropological method, she was clearly on to something.

Such distinctions aside, one influence that she did take from the Boas, or perhaps it was merely drawn forth by him, was her commitment to social causes. She became an outspoken opponent of racism and religious bigotry, and did not hesitate to use her anthropological knowledge base to point out the fallacy behind such prejudice. Boas meanwhile served as a kind of father figure in her life, helping her to get credit for her earlier graduate work, finding her available positions, etc. But if he was sympathetic to her gifts, despite her gender (as many others were not), he was unfortunately not able to help much in advancing her career. Boas had alienated many at Columbia, as well as elsewhere, because of his own outspoken and sometimes unpopular views. And for this fact, his male as well as his female students, paid a heavy price in being passed over from praise, positions, and promotions.

Nonetheless the passionate Boas was lighting a fire under his students, and sending them out to explore and catalogue the American West before the varied and unique cultures of its indigenous tribes disappeared forever. Benedict was an active participant in this work, performing ethnographic studies among the Serrano of Southern California (under the supervision of Alfred Kroeber; among the Zuni, Cochiti, Apache, and Pima of the American Southwest, as well as among the Blackfoot plains tribe. But while she enthusiastically embraced the purpose and challenge of these physically demanding studies, her interests stretched beyond cataloguing Native American diversity. Nor was she content to simply recording dying cultures. She hungered to understand how culture shaped the lives of everyone, primitive and modern alike.

Nonetheless it was while documenting these various tribes that she noticed how very marked were the differences between their cultures. And that in fact one could go so far as to note polarized differences in values, in temperament, and in approach to living between some groups. Each had their own particularized identity and outlook, even at very simple levels of technological development. This gave her the insight that culture was to society as personality is to the individual. She further applied and explored this insight in work with a variety of primitive cultures. But she wanted to better understand the dynamic between individual and society, between who we are as unique individuals and the way our culture tells us we should be -- and the kinds of choices that we then make. And she wanted to be able to explore and apply that understanding not merely to primitive societies, but also to more complex "modern" societies as well.

Fortuitously, World War II, and the conflicts in both the Pacific and European theaters, gave her the chance to combine her professional interest with her passion to work for social good. Note that it should be remember that the Japanese military, in addition to bombing Pearl Harbor, had horrified the world with the rape of Nanking and other atrocities against innocent civilians in various parts of Asia. The U.S. government wanted studies of national character, similar to her previous work among primitive societies, carried out upon Japanese culture, and later that of the Germans. The government's intent was that such work would allow its military and diplomatic personnel to best understand how to interact with members of these societies so as to bring about desired U.S. goals. Much of the material that Benedict worked with was classified and could not be made public. However the fruit of her labors, classified matters aside, was later made available in The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, which found immense popularity even with the general public.

In more recent years however, Benedict's "national character" approach has been criticized as being subjective, and at times even demeaning -- she characterized Dobu people, for example, as mean-spirited and paranoid. Anthropologists were now eager to get away from imposing their own culturally created value judgments on other societies. And Benedict appeared to have gotten caught up the mentality of her era, a mentality that wanted to see people of different nationalities in stereotyped ways. Additionally, her approach has always been criticized for not putting greater emphasis on class differences.

But what Benedict's critics often failed to point out was her visionary emphasis on the disenfranchised individual within cultures, a focus that resonates with the now popular work of philosopher Michel Foucault. Perhaps inspired by her own life experience, Benedict was fascinated by the choices that individuals made and by the interplay between individual goals/yearnings and the dictates of that person's culture. The individual could try to follow the life path praised by his/her culture, even if it conflicted with their own inner inclinations. Or, they could seek to go against the norm, to varying degrees. Like Boas, she did not wholly buy into cultural determinism, and she believed that culture itself was the product of human choices. The example of her personal life suggests she was quite familiar with the struggles of such a path. She was a female academic and bisexual when neither were "allowed". And she was shy and polite, while at the same time firmly adhering to her course. Of course, just how much freedom she personally believed an individual had within the indoctrinating constraints of a culture's belief systems is still under debate. It is always possible that she herself did not know.

Interestingly, yet not surprisingly, she was fairly circumspect about her own sexual orientation. That is, while she wrote openly, and open-mindedly, about sexual variations and deviances within other cultures, she never mentioned her own lesbian affairs. When she passed away, she seemed to pass the ball (of disclosure) to sometime lover Margaret Mead. But Mead too chose to be silent about the true depth of their mutual intimacy. Only after Mead's death was it deemed safe to "out" the relationship. Revealing letters between the two were at last made available for investigation, and a fairly frank exploration of the subject has since become available (Intertwined Lives: Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, and Their Circle, by Lois W. Banner).

But in any event, Mead was much more to Benedict than a lover and a confidant. She was a source of encouragement, a rebellious female cohort within male academia. And she was a colossal free spirit within her own right, both in her personal life, and in her fearless exploration of other cultures and their value systems. Each in their own way, they explored what these other cultures had to tell us about the roles that our own society encourages us to lead, and about the myriad other choices individuals, including women, might possibly make -- choices that our own culture had cloaked in secrecy or taboo. But overall it was Benedict who, in all her work, emphasized the importance of tolerance, of ending the persecution of other individuals on the basis of "deviance".

On September 17, 1948 Ruth Benedict died. Only two months earlier she had, at last, been appointed full professor at Columbia University. Sadly there were those in academia who gloated over her death, the death of that unbudging, unconventional woman who'd trespassed in their domain. Meanwhile, in the years since her passing, her work has continued to fade in and out of favor as sub-varieties of anthropology multiply and develop and focuses and fads develop and recede. But regardless of it all, Benedict herself continues to be remembered as one of the founding figures within the field of cultural anthropology, and certainly as a feminist pioneer within the social sciences.

Father: Frederick S. Fulton (surgeon)
Mother: Beatrice Shattuck (school teacher)
Sister: Margery
Husband: Stanley Benedict (biochemist, m. 1914)
Slept with: Margaret Mead

    University: BA English Literature, Vassar College (1909)
    University: New School for Social Research
    University: PhD Anthropology, Columbia University (1923)

    National Women's Hall of Fame (posthumous) 8-Oct-2005

Author of books:
Patterns of Culture (1934, anthropology)
Zuni Mythology (1935, anthropology)
Race: Science and Politics (1940, anthropology)
The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (1946, anthropology)


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