A Global Anthropologist Found the Worst Sexism Was at Home

In her 1961 speech, AAUW Achievement Awardee Cora Du Bois called for advocates to continue marching for equality. Image via Google Images

May 11, 2016

Cora Du Bois was an American cultural anthropologist and an important figure in cultural and personality studies and psychological anthropology. She led by example, demanding equal opportunities and recognition for women by creating her own opportunities.

Born in 1903, Du Bois was raised in New Jersey and graduated from Barnard College. She received her doctorate in anthropology from the University of California, Berkeley, and although she received a number of honorable degrees, she was unable to solidify a university position due to prejudices at the time against women in academics. Acutely aware of the discriminatory powers working against her and other women across the country, Du Bois spoke out at an AAUW Education Center dedication ceremony in 1961: “American women have less recognition in power positions than women in the new free and the new communist nations. They are … compared to many other nations of the world, less exploited but also less empowered.”

Refusing to give in to the sexist power structure, Du Bois continued with her work. She took up a position at Berkeley as a teaching fellow and research assistant shortly after she graduated. At Berkeley she researched a number of Native American groups from Northern California and the Pacific Northwest, and she published the results of her ethnographic studies in The 1870 Ghost Dance in 1939. A study of a religious movement among Native Americans in the Western United States, her research is regarded as an essential contribution to the ethnographic record of Native Californian cultures before World War II.

Not stopping there, she received a national Research Council Fellowship in 1935 and used it to explore the overlap between anthropology and psychiatry. From 1937 to 1939, she lived and conducted research on the Indonesian island of Alor, then known as the Netherlands East Indies. On the island she collected detailed case studies, conducted life-history interviews, and administered various personality tests that she interpreted and later published in The People of Alor: A Social-Psychological Study of an East Indian Island in 1944.

Du Bois was not simply conducting research and interpreting data; she was making unprecedented theoretical strides in her field. She coined the concept of “modal personality structure,” a theory that transformed the contemporary idea of basic personality structure within the culture and personality school of anthropology. The theory explained that although there are a variety of different personalities within a particular culture, each culture tends to support a particular type. American culture, for example, tends to favor hardworking, innovative, and self-reliant personalities. Du Bois’ research influenced many famous psychiatric anthropologists, including Robert I. Levy and Melford Spiro.

AAUW Achievement Awardee Cora Du Bois

AAUW Achievement Awardee Cora Du Bois

Du Bois also spent time serving the U.S. government. She was a member of a U.S. intelligence agency, the Office of Strategic Services, where she served as chief of the Indonesia branch of research and analysis. In 1944 she moved to Ceylon, modern Sri Lanka, where she worked as chief of research and analysis for the U.S. Army’s Southeast Asia Command.

Du Bois was a force to be reckoned with. In a field dominated by men, she made a name for herself. But she realized that the United States still had a long way to go toward women’s equality. In her 1961 AAUW Achievement Award acceptance speech, Du Bois questioned the progress that she and many others had made. She noted, “Militance to gain equality of opportunity is no longer necessary. But, have we won a battle only to lose a war? Having secured equality of opportunity, have we failed to garner equivalent rewards?”

The war, perhaps, is still being fought, but there’s no doubt of Du Bois’ role as a pioneer for all women and, as she termed herself, “a vanguard of today’s accomplishments in women’s education.”


This post was written by AAUW Fellowships and Grants Intern Jordan Brunson.


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