Women in HerStory

Women In HerStory- Ruth Benedict


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.

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