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social sciences

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Benedict, Ruth (1887-1948)  
 
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Although their physical relationship ended, Benedict and Mead remained lifelong friends, bound by deep personal affection and the utmost professional respect.

After receiving her doctorate Benedict had hoped to be appointed to the teaching position at Barnard College that Boas was about to leave. Another candidate was chosen, but Boas helped arrange various research and teaching jobs for Benedict over the next several years. Her work included fieldwork trips among the Zuñi, Cochiti, and Pima peoples.

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In 1931, with the support of Boas, Benedict was hired as an assistant professor of anthropology at Columbia after nearly a decade of teaching without a sustained appointment. With the security of this new position she was able to separate from her husband and begin a truly independent life.

Benedict quickly became prominent in the field of anthropology. Her Patterns in Culture (1934) is considered a classic. Her thesis is that each culture values and privileges certain behaviors and personality types. Thus, one cannot evaluate one culture using the standards of another. She also pointed out that every culture exerts pressure on its members to conform to its society's pattern and tends to reward those who do.

She noted, however, that a behavior valued in one culture could be stigmatized in another. In both Patterns of Culture and her 1934 article "Anthropology and the Abnormal," she cited the example of homosexuality, presented in Plato's Republic "as one of the major means to the good life."

She further noted that in American Indian tribes "homosexuals are often regarded as exceptionally able." She discussed the institution of berdaches (men who adopt the clothing and occupations of women). She contrasted the situation of the berdache, whose role could bring him esteem, with that of the invert (as gays and lesbians were then called) in cultures who could feel "guilt...[and a] sense of inadequacy" because of "the disrepute which social traditions visit upon him."

During the decade of the 1930s Franz Boas, disturbed by the rise of the Nazis in his native Germany, resolved "to undermine the pseudo-scientific theory on which anti-Semitic propaganda is based." Benedict shared his concerns and began working with various organizations to educate the public about the menace of racism. Previously not particularly engaged politically, Benedict was becoming an activist in the cause of racial equality.

In the same period Benedict's personal life was taking a new direction as well. She fell in love with medical student Natalie Raymond, who moved in with her. In her journal Benedict recorded that "loving Nat and taking such delight in her I have the happiest condition for living that I've ever known."

The two eventually parted ways around 1938, but soon thereafter Benedict met psychologist Ruth Valentine, who would become her partner for the rest of her life.

Benedict continued her campaign for cultural understanding. In 1943 she moved to Washington, D. C. to become the head (and initially the sole member) of the Basic Analysis Section of the Bureau of Overseas Intelligence of the Office of War Information, a position she sought to use "to get policy makers to take into account different habits and customs of other parts of the world." She used anthropological analysis to produce papers on a number of countries, including Germany, Holland, Rumania, and Thailand (then called Siam).

She also undertook an in-depth study of the culture of Japan, which was bewildering to many Americans. Her book The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture (1946) proved extremely influential, not only in educating Americans about the Japanese people but also in providing policy makers with an understanding of the society that could facilitate relations in the post-war period.

At the war's conclusion the Office of Naval Research set up a program for human behavior studies. Benedict was chosen to head one of their initial projects. With a budget of $100,000 she was able to establish the organization Research in Contemporary Cultures. Among those whom Benedict named to direct it with her were Ruth Valentine and Margaret Mead.

Benedict achieved the status of the most prominent American anthropologist of her generation. In 1946 she was elected the first woman president of the American Anthropological Association.

In the spring of 1948 Benedict accepted a UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) invitation to lecture at a seminar in Czechoslovakia. Although her health was poor, she agreed to participate. In her remarks she reiterated her belief that accepting "different ideals and alternative social arrangements" was essential in the quest for peace and cooperation.

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