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June 5, 2024 10 mins

On this day in 1887, American anthropologist Ruth Fulton Benedict was born in New York City.

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Speaker 1 (00:00):
This Day in History Class is a production of iHeartRadio.
Hello and Welcome to This Day in History Class, a
show that pays tribute to people of the past by
telling their stories. Today, I'm Gay Bluesier, and in this episode,
we're celebrating the life and trailblazing work of cultural anthropologist

(00:23):
Ruth Benedict. The day was June fifth, eighteen eighty seven.
American anthropologist Ruth Fulton Benedict was born in New York City.

(00:43):
Often regarded as America's first female anthropologist, she had to
contend with many obstacles in pursuit of her chosen vocation,
from societal barriers like opposition to women doing field work,
to personal challenges including a lifelong hearing, But at every
turn Benedict's keen intellect and dogged determination saw her through.

(01:07):
Her subversive theories on race, culture, and personality helped lay
the foundation for modern anthropology, and she's now recognized as
one of the most influential anthropologists of the twentieth century.
Ruth Benedict Nay Fulton was the daughter of Beatrice and
Frederick Fulton, a school teacher and surgeon, respectively. Her father

(01:31):
is believed to have contracted an infectious disease from one
of his patients, and subsequently died from it just a
few months shy of Ruth's second birthday and mere weeks
after the birth of her younger sister. Benedict herself also
grappled with a serious illness during childhood. It rendered her
partially deaf, but her condition wasn't discovered until after she

(01:55):
began attending school. A lack of understanding about hearing loss
created additional problems for the young girl, as several teachers
and other adults in her life chastised her for not
following directions. At the same time, Benedict's widowed mother, still
grief stricken from the loss of her husband, was struggling

(02:15):
to find a job that would pay her enough to
support her family. These early hardships led Benedict to consider
the ways in which society was structured to encourage and
reward certain traits and behaviors while marginalizing those who don't
adhere to the norm. This realization instilled in Benedict a

(02:35):
desire to defy societal expectations. She went on to attend
Vassar College, where she found an outlet for her observations
through writing poetry. She graduated in nineteen o nine with
a bachelor's degree in English literature, and then spent the
next year touring Europe and considering potential career paths. After

(02:56):
returning to the States, Benedict settled in California, where she
tried her hand at a variety of jobs, including social
work and teaching at an all girls school. The positions
left her feeling stifled and unfulfilled, but it was during
her tenure as a teacher that she developed an interest
in Asian culture, an area of study that would one

(03:17):
day lead her to anthropology. After spending a few restless
years in California, Benedict returned to her family's farm back
east to do some soul searching. During this time, she
met and ultimately married Stanley Benedict, a chemist and the
brother of a classmate from Vassar. Benedict soon began writing again,

(03:38):
and even published some of her poems under the pseudonym
Anne Singleton. She then enrolled in the New School for
Social Research in New York City in the hope of
finding a new career. The search led her to the
field of anthropology, the study of human behavior, culture, and society.
In nineteen nineteen, Benedict transferred to Columbia University, where she

(04:01):
studied under the pioneering German American anthropologist Franz Boas. She
earned her doctorate in anthropology in nineteen twenty three and
stayed on as a teacher at Columbia for many years.
One of her early students was none other than Margaret Meade,
another notable cultural anthropologist, with whom Benedict would develop a

(04:23):
close personal friendship and, according to some sources, a romance
as well. In nineteen thirty one, Ruth Benedict was promoted
to assistant professor at Columbia, making her the first woman
to become a full time faculty member at the school
and the only other full time member of the anthropology
department besides her former mentor Franz Boas. That same year,

(04:47):
Benedict divorced her husband after drifting apart, and although the
split took an emotional toll, it also allowed her to
draw a salary for the first time in her career
at Columbia. Prior to that, she had been a married
woman and was therefore expected to live off her husband's wages.
In her time at Columbia, both as a graduate student

(05:08):
and a professor, Benedict conducted extensive field work and research
on the religion and folklore of Native Americans, including that
of the Pueblo, Apache, Blackfoot, and Serrano peoples. Due to
her hearing loss, Benedict couldn't rely on audio recording devices
like other anthropologists did in the field. Instead, she developed

(05:31):
an observational method now known as visual anthropology, which employed
human perception, photography, and video recording to analyze different aspects
of a culture. Benedict published her findings in a number
of books and papers, such as nineteen thirty one's Tales
of the Kocheeti Indians and a nineteen thirty five two

(05:52):
volume collection on Zuni mythology. But perhaps her most notable
work on the subject is nineteen three thirty four's Patterns
of Culture, in which Benedict theorized that every culture is
essentially a distilled expression of that society's preferred personality type.
In other words, each society is defined by a cluster

(06:15):
of personality traits that are valued by and encouraged in
its individuals. Benedict argued that while this arrangement helps foster
a sense of kinship and community within most members of
a given society. It also results in the exclusion of
those with different personality traits and values. As a result,

(06:35):
only a small part of the range of possible human
behavior is deemed acceptable in any given culture. Six years later,
Benedict used her concept of cultural patterning to refute long
standing racist theories. In her book titled Race, Science and Politics.
She debunked myths regarding the alleged differences in brain size, intelligence,

(07:00):
and morality between races, and argued that the very concept
of racial superiority was just another cultural construct rather than
a scientific fact. Benedict continued her exploration of the relationship
between individual personality, race, and culture during World War II.
From nineteen forty three to nineteen forty five, she worked

(07:23):
as a special advisor to the Office of War Information.
Her primary task was to analyze the behavior of the
Japanese people and their emperor to help the US identify
the dominant traits of their culture and determine how best
to deal with them during and after the war. In
light of her findings, Benedict advised President Roosevelt that it

(07:45):
was vital that the emperor be allowed to remain on
the throne as part of any potential Japanese surrender, a
condition that was eventually upheld. After the war, Benedict published
her research on Japan in a book titled The Chrysanthemum
and the Sword Patterns of Japanese Culture. Like her earlier works,

(08:06):
the book challenged racist and ethnocentric viewpoints and argued that
cultural diversity was something to be respected and learned from,
rather than feared or ridiculed. Following the book's publication in
nineteen forty six, Benedict returned to Columbia and was made
the chair of the anthropology department. The following year, she

(08:27):
was named the president of the American Anthropological Association, and
in nineteen forty eight she became a full professor at
Columbia rather than an assistant or associate professor, once again
becoming the first woman to achieve that position. The appointment
was a long overdue acknowledgment of Benedict's outstanding contributions to

(08:49):
her field, but unfortunately she never got the chance to
assume the role. That summer, she embarked on a new
research project as director of a study of contemporary Uars,
European and Asian cultures, but after returning to New York
from Europe in the fall. She suddenly fell ill and
passed away on September seventeenth, nineteen forty eight, at the

(09:11):
age of sixty one. Benedict once said that she had
gambled on having the strength to live two lives, one
for herself and one for the world. Anyone who's ever
felt out of place or othered by their own society
should be glad that her gamble paid off, because, as
she once wrote, no man ever looks at the world

(09:33):
with pristine eyes. He sees it edited by a definite
set of customs and institutions and ways of thinking. And
the purpose of anthropology is to make the world safe
for human differences. I'm gay bluesiay, and hopefully you now

(09:53):
know a little more about history today than you did yesterday.
If you'd like to keep up with the show and
follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram at TDI HC Show,
and if you have any comments or suggestions, feel free
to send them my way by writing to this day
at iHeartMedia dot com. Thanks to CASB. Bias for producing

(10:16):
the show, and thanks to you for listening. I'll see
you back here again tomorrow for another day in History
Class

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