Women's Intellectual Contributions to the Study of Mind and Society

Students, as part of an advanced seminar, examined and wrote about the lives of these women, their intellectual contributions, and the unique impact and special problems that being female had on their careers.

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by Susan K. Hochman


There is some discrepancy over the birthplace of Ruth Fulton. Stevens and Gardner (1982) and Caffrey (1989) say it was New York City, while Mead (1974) writes that it was in a farming community in the Shenango Valley in northern New York State. There is, however, no dispute over the date which was June 5,1887. Her father, Frederick S. Fulton, was a promising young surgeon who died suddenly of an obscure disease when Ruth was only two an a half years old. This tragic event would have a tremendous impact on Ruth for the rest of her life. Her mother, Beatrice Shattuck, was a Vassar graduate who, in addition to being a mother, taught school. The death of Ruth's father shattered her world in two parts, "the world of my father, which was the world of death and which was beautiful, and the world of confusion and explosive weeping which I repudiated" (Mead, 1959 p.99). Ruth's real world was dominated by her traumatized mother of whom she said, "I did not love my mother; I resented her cult of grief, and her worry and concern about little things" (Mead, 1959 p. 99).

Ruth's contrasting of worlds was not limited to those of her mother and father, she also had an imaginary friend whom she preferred to her younger sister, Margery, her mother's favorite. Ruth withdrew into her fantasy life out of preference, her contacts with the outside world being dominated by severe temper tantrums. She also experienced during her childhood periodic bouts of violent vomiting, a type of psychogenic seizures and occasional fits of depression. The depressive episodes lasted well into her adulthood. When Ruth entered the Norwich Public School in 1895, it was discovered that she was partially deaf, a factor that somewhat justified her difference from the rest of her family. Towards the end of that decade, Beatrice moved to Buffalo in order to work in the Public Library and enrolled her two girls in the elite St. Margaret's Academy. Her situation there proved difficult due, again to a contrast; that between her stringent economy and the wealth of her classmates. During these years she struggled to master her uncontrollable tantrums," to maintain a cool and tearless exterior while experiencing intense inner turmoil"(Mead, 1974 p.7). It was also around this time that Ruth began to write poetry sometimes under the pen name Ann Singleton.

In 1905, Ruth and Margery entered Vassar together. During her college years, Ruth became dedicated to realizing her own potential and to the achievement of her own personal goals. Unlike her peers, she remained uninvolved in social causes. Caffrey (1989) points out that the reason for Ruth's lack of involvement was due more to the fact that she didn't see imposed, external social matters such as women's suffrage as important lasting change, rather than blatant self absorption. Ruth majored in English Literature and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. On graduating in 1909, Margery married Robert Freeman, a minister while Ruth traveled to Europe with friends from California for a year. Following this, she moved to Buffalo and went to work for the Charity Organization of Buffalo, which she described as unsatisfying because she was not good at it. She then took a teaching job in Los Angeles and went to live with Margery in Pasadena. She was searching for meaning in her life and had come to the conclusion that women need to have love in their lives but that finding a great love was highly unlikely for her. It was then that she met Stanley Benedict, a young biochemist and brother of a Vassar classmate. Fearing that she may become an "old maid" school- teacher like so many of those around her, she married Stanley in 1914 and moved back to New York.

The newly wed couple set up house in Douglas Manor, a suburb in Long Island. Stanley was a biochemist at Cornell Medical College in New York City. Ruth was once again plagued with the inner turmoil that continually revisited her life. She hoped that a baby would resolve her situation, but the child she longed for did not come. In 1917, Stanley was badly gassed in an accident, while working on the biochemistry of poison gas. He insisted on spending large amounts of time at their summer home in Hew Hampshire. Ruth was not happy with this arrangement. Then to make matters worse, they moved to Bedford Hills, which was even farther from the city. In 1919, Ruth began to take classes at The New School for Social Research in an attempt to fill her days intelligently. Ruth learned at this time that she could not conceive a child unless she had a dangerous operation to which Stanley would not consent. Knowing now that she must commit herself to a world of her own creation and inspired by lectures by Alexander Goldenweiser and Elsie Clews Parsons, she discovered anthropology.


As Ruth Benedict "learned what culture is, she came to feel that it was possible to view a primitive culture holistically, much as works of art are viewed in our culture - as something to be discovered, something that was not fashioned but that came to be in an integrated whole" (Mead, 1974 p.19). In 1921,at the age of 34, Benedict entered Columbia University to begin studies under Franz Boas. This was no easy task as Boas was known for his legendary mumble and Ruth Benedict was partially deaf. But through Boas, Edward Sapir and Margaret Mead, she would find a new set of "figures" through whom to interpret her life. Because of her age, she was unable to get financial help through grants or fellowship money, so her personal life was necessarily austere. She lived in a rented room during the week and on the weekends returned to her house in Bedford Hills to be with Stanley.

Boas became an important mentor to Benedict and had a major influence on her life until his death in 1942. He became the "father substitute" for whom she had been searching - she even called him "Papa Franz". He arranged for Columbia to give her graduate credit for some of the work she did at The New School for Social Research. Thus, she was able to complete her studies in only three semesters. Her Ph.D. in anthropology was conferred in 1923. Her dissertation, "The Concept of the Guardian Spirit in North America" (1923) discusses the cultural implications of an individualized religious experience. This sets the tone for the rest of her work as she established the innovative approach of examining cultures through choices made by individuals. Benedict's friendship with Edward Sapir began when he wrote to her after reading her dissertation. He encouraged her to pursue her interest in the interaction between individual creativity and cultural patterns. In 1922, he arranged for Benedict to teach an anthropology course at Barnard College. It was here that she first met Margaret Mead, a student who was studying psychology at the time. Benedict convinced her to switch her major to anthropology. Mead remembers Benedict as the perfect role model as she was so capable of explaining Boas's ideas. Mead also recalls Benedict's inarticulate shyness and her habit of always wearing the same dress - and not a very becoming one. (Mead, 1959) Until 1932, Benedict remained Boas's administrative assistant in addition to her responsibilities as a lecturer at Columbia.

Benedict began a series of field studies in 1922 of the Serrano, of the Zuni in 1924, the Cochiti in 1925 and the Pima in 1926. Her experience with the Southwest Zuni Pueblo is considered her formative fieldwork. It provided the basis for her theory that "culture is personality writ large" (Modell, 1988). By studying the differences in temperament and culture between the Pueblo and Plains Indians, Benedict discovered the culture-personality isomorphism that would continue to be her unique approach to the study of anthropology.

With regards to her personal life, Stanley was not the least enthusiastic about Ruth's career. In fact, he discouraged her from the idea of taking up a profession. If this wasn't bad enough, the fact that she was "Mrs. Benedict", wife of a successful biochemist, prevented her from receiving a salary for her efforts at Columbia. She was considered financially supported by her husband. This status changed when, after sixteen years of marriage the couple separated. As a consequence, Ruth became an assistant professor to Boas in 1931, her first regular faculty appointment after nine tears of service. Around this time her friendship with Sapir began to wane and she became aware of her "female nature" as a result of her intimate relationship with Mead.

Now that her personal life was in order, it was time to do the same with her professional life. In 1934 she published Patterns of Culture which became an American classic and vaulted her to immediate acclaim. It remains one of the most widely read books in the social sciences ever written. Mead describes it as "a book which for a generation has stood as a bridge between those who cherish the uniqueness of individual achievement and those who labor to order the regularities in all human achievement" (cited in Stevens and Gardner, 1982 p.165). In this, her signature work, Benedict describes and contrasts three different cultures. Through her own fieldwork, she characterized the Pueblo Indians as "placid and harmonious". The research of Reo Fortune (1932) described the Dobu Islanders as paranoiac and mean spirited. Franz Boas provided data showing the self-aggrandizing, megalomaniac character of the Kwakiutl. Benedict went on to classify the Zuni Pueblo as Apollonian or having a distrust of excess and orgy as compared to the surrounding Plains Indians who were Dionysian or valuing excess as an escape to an order of existence outside of the five senses (Mead, 1974). She arrived at these designations by observing the death rituals of both cultures. Finally, she made an appeal to the common man as she offered her conclusions as a parable for " an American society gone awry, training individuals for roles they could not assume" (Benedict, 1938b cited in Modell, 1988 p.4).

In 1936, Stanley Benedict died, shortly before Ruth was appointed acting executive director of the Department of Anthropology at Columbia. In 1937, she became associate professor as well as executive officer of the department. The year 1939 saw her last trip into the field as she studied the Blackfoot Indians. This was followed by a yearlong sabbatical spent in California near her mother and sister. During that year she wrote Race: Science and Politics. At the same time, while still in California, Benedict joined the Committee for National Morale. The purpose of the group was to identify ways in which the sciences of anthropology and psychology could be applied to the problems of morale building during wartime. Later, in 1941, back in New York, she became a founding member of The Institute for Intercultural Studies. As such, she was asked by the Office of War Information to write about European and Asian cultures. She concentrated her efforts on Japan by using Japanese propaganda films to study cultural themes. She also used the confiscated diaries of captured Japanese soldiers. In 1945, at the end of the war, she was invited to visit Germany in order to study occupation problems. Her own health problems prevented her from going. She, thus, took off another year and once again went to California to write The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, another best seller. In addition to her own research described above, she also was privy to classified information, which could not be acknowledged at the time. The integration of the materials was uniquely her own.

In the fall of 1946, Benedict returned to Columbia unenthusiastically. There still remained difficulties within the Department and in her relations with the university administration. She was again passed over for full professorship. She did, however, win the Annual Achievement Award of the American Association of University Women. That spring she was to begin her last big project. She was able to get a $100,000 grant in order to begin the Columbia University Research in Contemporary Cultures project. This enormous endeavor lasted for four years (1947-1951) and involved over 120 participants working on seven different cultures. It was in connection with this project that Ruth Benedict finally realized her dream of traveling to Europe in order to see first hand how accurate her cultural assessments had been in Czechoslovakia, Poland, Holland and Belgium. She was pleased to learn that her studies from afar had been extremely successful. The arduous journey took its toll on Benedict, and she died of a coronary thrombosis on September 17, 1948 at the age of sixty-nine. Ironically, she had been awarded a full professorship in July but was never able to teach a class as such.


Within Benedict's "cultural determinism" brand of anthropology there exists a mixture of accuracy and misunderstanding. She emphasized the power of custom and learning as an argument against nature and for the infinite capacity of human beings to change. Regarding her reflections on the individual in culture, she implied neither that inborn temperament was negligible nor that the individual had no control over her surroundings. Because she knew the significance of temperamental differences, especially those crossing cultures such as gender roles, she emphasized tolerance. She believed that an individual could successfully alter the conditions of her life and in so doing, alters society. She is criticized for not taking the knowledge gained from her research a step further by outlining a plan beyond tolerance and awareness of individuals. Benedict's work continues to hold its value as the strengths of her anthropological approach are appreciated by those professionals who share her concern with the impact on data of the researcher's position in her home society as well as with the impact on an audience of reported facts (Modell, 1988).


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