Cultural Anthropology

Cultural Anthropology and Early Feminism

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Ruth Benedict carried her ideas of what constituted the Dionysian and the Apollonian duality throughout her life. This theory which she used in regard to the culture and personality of the Hopi Indians and appears in her famous book, Patterns of Culture, was also her definition of the terms on which she based her own existence. She included in her work other anthropologists’ studies on the Dobuans, Kwakiutl, and Zuni (Kuklick 560).

If trying to understand the reasons of suicide, for example, Benedict was interested in the meaning of a ceremony in a child’s life. She thought understanding the impact of these kinds of events would lead to the understanding of the causes of the person’s eventual suicide.  In contrast, in Japan, a Samurai warrior took his life as an honorable act if he lost a battle (Maslow 322).

Many opportunities came Ruth Benedict's way; she had good fortune early in life. People outside of her family were willing to pay for her education and travel in Europe.

She used these opportunities to help forge her own identity. Benedict “wrote that configurations were not fixed, that behavior traits and institutions could change and be changed if one knew the essential pattern important to the culture” (Caffey 209). Through her use of the pseudonym, Ann Singleton, she was able to give voice to relationships others have felt obligated to marginalize and consider incidental.

Perhaps her greatest contribution developed through her relationship with Dr. Franz Boas, her colleague at Columbia University. She became an activist against anti-Semitism during World War II. Her book, Race, and her subsequent Resource Unit for teachers on cultural relationships laid the foundation for the understanding of different cultures. Her research is now referred to, in part, as cultural diversity. The term “cultural diversity” was coined in an attempt to view cultural differences with understanding, leading to acceptance rather than prejudice.

Anthropologists and social scientists have the not-so-hidden agendas of desiring to initiate social change. During the first half of the twentieth century, anthropology switched from being historically biological to being cultural and ethnological. The field of anthropology was largely male-dominated with few nationally-recognized woman social scientists. Ruth Benedict was someone at Columbia whom female students could look to for help in overcoming the obstacles to completing their studies. “Anthropology was for Benedict what she hoped it would be for her readers: a vehicle for self-examination and realization” (Kuklick 560).

The Progressive era of the early twentieth century was an attempt to modify the meaning of individualism to accommodate the new era of urban collectivism. Previously, individualism had flourished in the nineteenth century as part of an agrarian society.

The resurgence of feminism during the Progressive era led women to seek personal fulfillment in the belief that this would lead to the betterment of their homes and families. Part of this fulfillment could be achieved through the pursuit of academics.

People like Ruth Benedict saw the relationship between the suppression of women and the suppression of races. People of certain ethnic and racial backgrounds were precluded from advancement just like women were.  Women and other minorities were subjected to quotas in colleges, for example. During this time period, except for Columbia, the number of women receiving Ph.D.s in anthropology at universities was in the single digits.

The book, Ruth Benedict: Stranger in the Land, can be described as the documentation of one woman’s decision to use her self-discovery as a basis to explore mankind and to carve out a niche for her convictions in society which led to its benefit. It is encouraging to others because it covers a positive example of what can happen when someone uses childhood experiences as a fulcrum to break the mold of a rigid male-dominated society instead of an excuse for knuckling under it. Ruth Benedict emerges as a true heroine.

Work Cited

Caffey, Margaret M.  Ruth Benedict: Stranger in the Land.  Austin: University of Texas. 1989.

Kuklick, Henricka. “Review: Ourselves and Others, Ruth Benedict: Patterns of a Life by Judith Schacter Modell,” Contemporary Sociology, Vol. 13, No. 5, September 1984: 558 – 562.

 Maslow, Abraham H., and John J. Honigmann. “Synergy: Some Notes of Ruth Benedict,” American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 72, No. 2, April 1970: 320 – 322.

More about this author: Shirley Lendway

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