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Benedict, Ruth (1887-1948)  
 
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Ruth Fulton Benedict was among the first American women to study anthropology. She rose to the top of her profession, earning international respect for her insight and scholarship. She is best known for her theory of "patterns of culture" that brought together anthropological, psychological, sociological, and philosophical considerations to explain that human behavior and concepts of deviance are cultural products.

Benedict's family had deep roots in America: their heritage traced back to the Mayflower. Subsequent generations had gone into farming, but both of Benedict's parents were college graduates. Her father, Frederick Samuel Fulton, was a surgeon practicing in New York City when Benedict was born on June 5, 1887.

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Soon thereafter Dr. Fulton fell ill, and the family moved to the farm of the parents of his wife, Bertrice Shattuck Fulton, near Binghamton, New York, where a second daughter, Margery, was born. Only months later Dr. Fulton died. Benedict was not yet two years old.

To support her children and herself Bertrice Fulton found work as a teacher, first in the neighboring town of Norwich and then in Missouri and Minnesota. Eventually the family returned to their native state when Fulton got a job as a librarian in Buffalo.

Both Fulton sisters were excellent students and received scholarships to a private high school and then to Vassar College, where Ruth Fulton majored in English.

Among the works that she read in her classes were those of Walter Pater, whose Studies in the History of the Renaissance in particular spoke to her. Upon finishing it she felt "as if my soul had been given back to me, its eyes wide and eager with new understanding." Pater's belief that one should be "forever curiously testing new opinions and courting new impressions, never acquiescing in a facile orthodoxy" resonated with the young student.

After her graduation in 1909 Benedict--along with two other Vassar alumnae--had the opportunity to spend a year in Europe thanks to the generosity of a patron of the college. It was her first experience of other cultures, and she reveled in learning about them.

Upon her return to the United States, Benedict spent a year doing social work in New York and then moved to Los Angeles, where she taught at high schools for girls, but neither job brought her professional satisfaction.

During a summer vacation at her grandparents' farm she began a courtship with Stanley Benedict, a biochemist and professor at Cornell Medical College in New York City. The couple wed in June 1914.

The marriage brought Ruth Benedict material security, but life as a suburban housewife left her unfulfilled. Since her husband did not want her to work outside the home, she envisaged writing a series of biographies of "strong women" beginning with feminists Mary Wollstonecraft, Margaret Fuller, and Olive Schreiner. The project was never realized. Benedict completed a lengthy essay on Wollstonecraft but was unable to find a publisher for it. (Margaret Mead included it in An Anthropologist at Work [1959], a collection of Benedict's writings.) She did, however, begin publishing poetry under the pseudonyms Ruth Stanhope and Anne Singleton.

The Benedicts' marriage soon crumbled. The couple never divorced but eventually separated.

Seeking an avenue that would allow her to realize her self-worth and, in Pater's inspirational words, "to burn always with this hard, gem-like flame," Benedict went back to college in 1918, first spending a year at Columbia and next going to the New School for Social Research, where she began her study of anthropology.

Benedict enrolled in the doctoral program at Columbia in 1921. There she became the student of Franz Boas, then America's most prominent anthropologist. She earned her Ph.D. two years later with a dissertation entitled The Concept of the Guardian Spirit in North America.

Benedict served as Boas's teaching assistant in a course that he offered at Barnard College. There, in 1922, Benedict met and became a mentor of Margaret Mead. The two women also developed a romantic friendship and eventually became lovers. They did not establish a household but occasionally traveled together.

Biographer Margaret M. Caffrey states that it "is difficult to say what pertains to the Mead-Benedict relationship in Benedict's poems because of their inherent concealment and mixture of actual experience and the play of imagination," but she finds that several speak to relevant issues. "Reprieve" addresses a difference in age (Mead was fifteen years Benedict's junior). Several poems deal with the idea of permanence in love, which Benedict valued, whereas Mead, according to Caffrey, "had a pattern of falling in love with more than one person at a time."

Some poems express the danger that love between women may lead to their being outcast by society, but the joyful and sensuous "For the Hour after Love" concludes by asking what can "compete / With sleep begotten of a woman's kiss?"

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Ruth Benedict in 1937.
  
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