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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Gene Weltfish


Dr. Gene Weltfish, Boasian anthropologist, is known for her studies of Pawnee Indian culture, art theory, and race and prejudice. She is acclaimed for her work detailing Pawnee Indian culture and linguistics, especially for her book The Lost Universe. Weltfish co-authored the United States propaganda pamphlet, "The Races of Mankind", with Ruth Benedict. She was a proponent of race equality. This, at times, along with her Communist affiliations and viewpoints, caused her to face persecution. Although she is admired for many of her viewpoints, much of which are dominant cultural positions today, she was the object of controversy during her era.

Childhood and Adolescence

Regina (Gene) Weltfish was born on August 7, 1902 (Pathe, 1988). She was the oldest daughter of Eve Furman Weltfish and Abraham Weltfish. She was born in her maternal grandparent's house and she lived in the top-floor apartment of the building with her parents and younger sister, Florrie. They lived there until Gene was ten years old. She lived among many relatives, including two grandparents and "seven young aunts and uncles". According to Pathe's biography of Weltfish, Gene "spent a happy childhood" with all these relatives around. Gene's grandmother was the matriarch of the family and she was a "strong and positive influence on those around her". This extended to Gene and she thought of her grandmother as a "protector and friend".

Gene's first language was German. Her grandfather was a jeweler from Vienna and he insisted on hiring a German governess for his first granddaughter, in order to ensure that she learned "the language of the culture". "As a child, Gene spoke both English and German fluently and later learned French".

Gene's father died unexpectedly when she was thirteen, three years after the family had moved out on their own. She decided to recite the Kaddish, a Jewish ceremony traditionally performed by the son of the deceased father, after the advice of her paternal grandmother. The Kaddish is recited during the seven-day bereavement period known as Shivah, and, like certain practices in Judaism, is reserved only for males. Gene's grandmother encouraged her to "follow her heart and break the rules". It is no doubt that her grandmother's encouragement to "break the rules" had its roots in the fact that her own father had secretly educated her in Hebrew.

Her father's death caused many problems for the family. Gene's father died without a will. In 1915, an estate would not automatically go the wife in the event of her husband's death. Instead, it was forced into a trust fund for the family. This caused quite a problem, because the family had to petition a state-appointed lawyer for even the smallest amounts of money. The petition process was "lengthy and cumbersome", thus deterring her family from receiving funds easily. Gene's mother had a degree from a business college, yet she could not earn enough money to make ends meet. These two reasons caused Gene to take a job as a clerical assistant in a public school at age fourteen. She went to school part-time in the evenings and graduated from high school in 1919 (Pathe, 1988).

College Education

Weltfish first attended Hunter College, where she majored in journalism, and then she transferred to Barnard College. She worked at "various commercial jobs" until her senior year, saving money until she could attend school full time. Weltfish studied under John Dewey and Franz Boas at Barnard (Pathe, 1988). Boas was the founder of the anthropology department at Barnard and taught there from 1918-1928, after being told he could not teach at Columbia College "because of his radical pacifist views" (Rothschild, 2002). It was during her senior year that she first took one of his classes, introducing her to anthropology. Ruth E. Pathe, biographer of Weltfish, calls Boas "the most influential force in shaping her ideology- and indeed, her life" (1988, p. 373). His belief in the "inherent equality of all peoples" definitely shaped her work as an anthropologist and as a human being (Rothschild, 2002). During this same year, Gene met Alexander Lesser, another student of Boas. They "eventually married," and then divorced fifteen years later (Pathe, 1988, p. 373).

In 1925, Gene Weltfish graduated from Barnard and "enrolled in the graduate program in anthropology at Columbia University". Her dissertation, entitled "The Interrelationship of Technique and Design in North America", examined the existing theory that design elements of North American Indian baskets were modified by the techniques of basket weaving. Weltfish talked to many different tribes in order to understand the origin of the "visual motifs" of Native American designs. Weltfish concluded that "the artist's concept, rather than the weaving technique, determined the design" of the basket. She completed her thesis in 1929, yet could not receive her degree officially until 1950. It would have cost Weltfish $4000 to publish her dissertation, which she could not afford. When Columbia changed its policy and began accepting less expensive mimeographed theses in 1950, Weltfish finally published "The Interrelationship of Technique and Design in North America".

1928-1939: Pawnee Research and the Beginning of a Family

In summer 1928, Weltfish and Lesser went to Oklahoma because Boas suggested it. Weltfish started her linguistic fieldwork with the Pawnee Indian and Lesser studied kinship patterns among the Sioux. Dr. Weltfish focused on the monolingual people in the group. She was able to understand them by transcribing their stories, then having her interpreter, Henry Chapman, translate from Pawnee to English. Slowly, she began to recognize dialects and also the "underpinnings of the language" (Pathe, 1988, p. 373-4).

Dr. Weltfish returned to Columbia for the 1928-29 school year, and she went back to study the Pawnee during the summer of 1929. In 1930, she received a Social Science Research Fellowship, allowing her to live with the Pawnee for a year. According to Pathe, she loved it and she "fit easily into their lifestyle" (1988, p. 374). Dr. Weltfish learned the art of basket weaving, an art done completely by women, and she documented the process of her teachers' hands as they wove baskets. She also knew particularly the women on a personal level, sharing "the daily problems and events of their lives". Dr. Weltfish also visited the Cochitit, the Rio Grande Pueblos, the Hopi, the San Carlos Apache, the Jicarilla, and the Mescalero, studying their basket weaving, pottery making and the process of making a tobacco pipe- "an art of the men of the tribe". This work resulted in various papers and "organized exhibitions of Indian crafts" at places such as the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, the Field Museum of Chicago, and the University Museum of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

Dr. Weltfish gave birth to her daughter, Ann, in 1931. She chose not to lessen her workload, and so she continued to travel and research, often with Ann in tow. Ann was educated from early on about subjects of anthropological and archeological study like Native Americans, Eskimos, and dinosaurs. Ann was brought with Dr. Weltfish when she returned to the Pawnee to study "social relations and surviving customs and traditions" in 1935. That summer's work, undertaken with Mark Evarts, "a Pawnee who had become a 'major resource and ally'", gave Weltfish information that helped to form a reconstruction of the seasonal year of 1867. In 1965, she published the resulting book, The Lost Universe, after years of checking her accounts with existing material, archaeological information and eyewitness accounts from that time (Weltfish, 1965). It is a book that distinguished Weltfish, and it remains the authoritative ethnography of the Pawnee even today (Pathe, 1988).

This time period resulted in two others written works. The first was "Composition of the Caddoan Linguistic Stock", which she co-authored with her husband. It showed the "interrelationships of the dialects, thereby creating a classic introduction to the Caddoan language for linguistic scholars who followed in their footsteps". The second was Caddoan Texts, which consisted of forty folktales presented both in the Caddoan language and in English (Pathe, 1988).

Teaching at Columbia While Helping with the War Effort

In 1935, Dr. Gene Weltfish was invited by Boas to teach in the graduate anthropology program at Columbia University. She taught both traditional and non-traditional classes, including subjects such as linguistics, archaeology, and "invention and technology in human culture". She also taught one of the first classes in the country on race problems. Weltfish also helped developed Columbia's School of General Studies, which developed new classes at the suggestion of five or more students. Ruth E. Pathe states that Weltfish was "one of those few" that was excellent in both research and teaching. Dr. Weltfish developed "a following of students" due to her caliber of teaching.

The 1940s were a period of rapid change for Weltfish and the world at large. Dr. Weltfish and her husband divorced in 1940, and she became a single parent. She worked hard to convey the ideas of race equality to the public, including publishing the pamphlet "The Races of Mankind" with Ruth Benedict. Dr. Weltfish was called to testify twice to government committees about her involvement in Communist activities and her Communist beliefs. She was the target of controversy on a number of occasions (Pathe, 1988).

The change in Weltfish's life was a reflection of world change, first as a reaction to Hitler's rise to power. During the 1940s, the United States had entered World War II. Weltfish's mentor, Franz Boas, traveled extensively throughout the United States and the world, and he lectured on race and human biology. He was refuting Hitler's ideas. Weltfish wrote about this period, stating:

"During the first four years of my graduate training at Columbia, Hitler rose to power in Germany, bolstering his heinous operations with racist theories developed from distorted anthropology. The books of Franz Boas' were burned in Germany. In 1942, after [Boas'] death, Ruth Benedict, my senior colleague in the Anthropology Department, and I felt that we should carry the banner on the race question. In 1943, Ruth Benedict and I collaborated on a pamphlet, "The Races of Mankind," published by the Public Affairs Committee. The pamphlet was originally written at the request of the U.S.O. for distribution to the men in the armed forces who had to fight side by side with allies such as the Huks in the Philippines and the Solomon Islanders. รท "The Races of Mankind" was used, not only for orientation by the army, but in the de-Nazification program in Germany after the war." (Weltfish in Pathe, 1988, p. 375)

"The Races of Mankind" disputed such Nazi ideas that there are Jewish or Aryan races, that superior character is inborn, and that intelligence stems from race (Benedict and Weltfish, 1943). The pamphlet talks about the similarities of all humans and that all races come from different balances of melanin and carotene. It states that blood type, height, and head shape are similar in each cultural group. Each "race" has the same blood types, a range of heights of people, and possible variation in head size. The pamphlet also disputes the view that head size determines intelligence. These are commonly held viewpoints today.

Dr. Weltfish worked hard to spread the message of racial equality. Weltfish traveled all over the country, giving as many as 300 presentations in one year (Pathe, 1988). She organized an animated film, comic books and children skits designed to counter racism. Dr. Weltfish also organized a community council to settle disputes between a white and a black New York City neighborhood. She also did scholarly work on racism, completing three pamphlets and two articles during 1943-44, in addition to her research on Native American Indians. Rather than leaving to work in government agencies in Washington, D.C. like her other colleagues, Weltfish stayed at the insistence of government psychologists. Instead, she helped the war effort also by "assisting in orientation training for overseas personnel and working for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS).

Despite its widespread use until then, "The Races of Mankind" was banned from armed forces libraries in 1944. It continued to be translated and read around the world. There was a dispute over whether or not the pamphlet showed northern blacks as smarter than southern whites. Weltfish showed that the section in question actually discussed how economic and educational advantage affects intelligence scores, and that is the cause for differing test scores. This foreshadowed the problems that the United States Government would have with her in the years to follow.

Accusations of Communist Affiliation

Weltfish became more involved in the women's movement after she divorced in 1940. This may not have been the only reason for her involvement, for she had firmly believed in human equality ever since she studied with Boas at Barnard. In 1945, she was elected vice president of the Women's International Democratic Federation, an organization that lobbied for women rights all around the world, for "the improvement of health and welfare of the world's children and for world peace" (Pathe, 1988, p. 376). She later became president of its American affiliate, the Congress of American Women (Shipp, 1980). "Both organizations criticized Harry S. Truman and policies they feared were leading the country toward another war."

In 1946, the Congress of American Women was listed on the roster of subversive organizations. In 1949, the House Committee on Un-American Activities stated that the group was made up of "primarily a hard core of Communist Party members and a circle of close sympathizers". Her publicly declared connection to Communism made many of the Columbia University trustees nervous (McCaughey, 2002).

In June 1952, Dr. Weltfish charged the United States with using chemical weapons in the Korean War. This was the same position as the Soviet Union, thus inferring that she was a Communist. About three months later, she was called to testify before McCarthy's Senate Internal Security Subcommittee. She was questioned about her involvement in the two women's organizations and about "The Races of Mankind", which was now declared subversive material (Pathe, 1988). Weltfish was also asked about her political beliefs. When asked directly if she was a communist, Dr. Weltfish refused to answer, citing the Fifth Amendment (Shipp, 1980). She also stated that "she thought of herself as a good American and acted on issues as her conscience and knowledge dictated" (Pathe, 1988, p. 377).

In February 1953, Columbia University decided not to renew her contract as a lecturer (Shipp, 1980). Grayson Kirk, the new president of Columbia following Dwight Eisenhower, tried to please the Trustees who may have had reservations about his presidency (McCaughey, 2002). Ike did not want him in office, and the Trustees may too have had concerns or simply may have not wanted Eisenhower to leave. The Trustees wanted no Communists or ex-Communists who declined to testify against others in the university. A "substantial portion" of the faculty and most vocal students disagreed with the Trustees' position. Kirk had been given incriminating information about Weltfish's political beliefs from the FBI, conservative columnist George Sokolsky, and New York Congressman Frederick R. Coudert, Jr. This information, along with Dr. Weltfish's accusations of chemical warfare against Korea, her involvement in government declared subversive organizations and her testimony during the McCarthy hearings, put Weltfish in the desired category for removal from Columbia. Kirk, in his attempt to win the Trustees over, decided to go about Weltfish's termination indirectly. He proposed that lecturers who had not been promoted after five years be either promoted or let go (a way of enforcing the recently instituted "up-or-out" rule). After questioning if this rule would apply to Weltfish, the Board of Trustees passed the proposal unanimously. Her department petitioned for Dr. Weltfish's promotion to a tenured rank, but it was not approved, thus ousting her from the university (Pathe, 1988). At the time, the university denied that Weltfish's termination had anything to do with her political views. "When asked thirty years later about pressure from the Trustees to fire Weltfish, he described it as "very great"" (McCaughey, 2002).

1953-1980: Life After Teaching at Columbia University

Weltfish was unable to secure a teaching position for the next nine years (Pathe, 1988). She continued her research as an anthropologist, despite her focus on human rights issues and the personal turmoil that resulted from that. Some of this work resulted in the 1953 book The Origins of Art. It discussed "why art began and how it developed". From 1954-58, Dr. Weltfish traveled back and forth between New York and Lincoln, Nebraska, researching the Pawnee at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. This allowed her to complete the research needed to support her field notes from the 1930s. A two-year grant that she received in 1958 helped her to complete the manuscript for The Lost Universe. It detailed the everyday life of the Pawnee throughout one seasonal year. She also applied Pawnee ways of thinking and ideals to contemporary problems in industrialized societies. This book was listed by the American Library Association as "one of the most notable books" to be published in 1965. It has been used as required reading for anthropology courses.

Dr. Weltfish started teaching at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison, New Jersey in 1961. By 1968, she was a full professor of undergraduate anthropology. Just like at Columbia, she was an involved and dedicated professor. She started an International Club for students and she also was an advisor for the National Model U.N. General Assembly, a mock version of the United Nations that included students from over 1000 United States colleges and universities.

Dr. Weltfish continued to work with the community during this time, initiating various projects including research, programs to get area residents involved in local history and archeology, and projects for the aged. Her attention turned to gerontology as she got older and she established a senior scholars' program at Fairleigh Dickinson and a community center for older people in Madison, New Jersey. Dr. Weltfish also "instrumental" in the beginning of the Gerontological Society of New Jersey and the Grey Panthers in New York City.

Weltfish was forced to retire at age seventy from Fairleigh due to an age limit for professors. She was awarded professor emeritus status. Dr. Weltfish continued to teach for the rest of her life as a part-time faculty member at the graduate department of the New School for Social Research and at the Manhattan School of Music. She was also had a Visiting Professorship at Rutgers University's new Gerontology program.

Dr. Weltfish Weltfish died August 2, 1980, five days before her seventy-ninth birthday. Her daughter, Ann Margetson, and two grandchildren survived her (Shipp, 1980). One of her grandchildren, Neil Margetson, followed in his grandmother's footsteps, studying anthropology in the late 1980s (Pathe, 1988). His graduate work focused on housing problems in New York City. It is interesting to note that her funeral reception was held at Columbia University (Shipp, 1980).

As per her arrangement, Dr. Weltfish's books and papers are preserved in a collection for other scholars in Fairleigh Dickinson University, Madison's Special Collections Division (Pathe, 1988). Weltfish believed that "science and knowledge should be used 'for the good of humanity and against the destructive forces of the world'". It is evident that she worked hard during her lifetime to achieve this aim. Her work continues on in this way, for extreme right political groups still view Dr. Weltfish's work as part of the "Boas conspiracy theory" (Winston, 2001). This conspiracy allegedly "eliminated the study of race in psychology and anthropology as preparation for the defeat of 'White Civilization' by the Jews". Her work, particularly on race, stands as a testament against these views even after her death. Because her work challenges the views of racists and Neo-Nazis today, it continues to act "against the destructive forces of the world". Dr. Weltfish's work also continues on today through the countless people she inspired as a professor, mother, grandmother and mentor (Pathe, 1988).


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