Cora Du Bois: Anthropology, Diplomat, Agent

Cora Du Bois: Anthropology, Diplomat, Agent

Susan Seymour

Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2015, 423 pp.

Reviewed by Carol C. Mukhopadhyay


Seymour’s meticulously researched biography on Cora Du Bois skillfully weaves together threads from a myriad of often obscure, intensely personal documents, to produce a magnificent reconstruction of the life and personality of this major anthropological figure. In the process, we experience a personalized history of anthropology, especially culture and personality studies, from letters describing faculty-student life at the UCB “Tin Bin” to interviews with former Harvard students. We also glimpse what women, and lesbians, experienced in these timeframes and settings.

The book is organized chronologically, around periods in Du Bois’ life. A chapter provocatively titled “Tom Girl,” introduces us to Cora’s family and early life. Chapter 2 traces Cora’s intellectual, personal, and aesthetic growth as a student during the “roaring” 20s, when few women completed high school much less college. Diaries provide fascinating insights into her personality, character, and intellect and reveal, according to Seymour, recurring life themes (e.g. outsider, traveler, independent, curious, principled).

Chapters 3-5 trace Du Bois’ development as an anthropologist: graduate school at UC Berkeley, post-graduate research on the Ghost Dance religion, and attraction to psychological theories. Chapters 4-5 describe her immersion in the East Coast “hotbed” of psychology, collaboration with psychoanalyst Abram Kardiner on culture-personality theory and the Kardiner-Du Bois Seminars. Chapter 5 follows her to Alor, a remote Indonesian island, for 18 months of fieldwork, culminating in her pioneering theoretical and methodological study, The People of Alor (1944).

Chapter 6 chronicles Du Bois’ World War II stint in the Office of Strategic Services, as chief of research and analysis in the Southeast Asia Command, the only woman to head an OSS branch. Here Du Bois meets long-time friends, Julia and Paul Child, and life-long partner, Jeanne Taylor. Chapter 7, “Disillusionment in the Cold War”, describes Du Bois’ State Department employment, her opposition to U.S. Southeast Asia policy, the Red [and Lavender] Scare, impacting Du Bois and her partner; and her courageous refusal to sign University of California’s “Loyalty Oath,” costing her a Berkeley faculty position.

Chapters 8-10 cover Du Bois’ return to academia in 1954. Chapter 8, aptly titled “Crown of Roses or Thorns?,” describes Harvard’s “boys club,” the niche she carved out, and glimpses into her private life, in an era when same-sex relationships were not openly acknowledged. Chapter 9 focuses on Du Bois’ long-term (1961-1972) study of sociocultural change in Bhubaneshwar, India, which involved several Ph.D. students, including author Seymour. Chapter 10 leads us through the final stages in Du Bois’ life, her 1969 retirement, the India project completion, and her AAA (1968) and AAS presidencies amidst the political turmoil over Vietnam. The book concludes with her gradual retreat into a more contemplative, smaller world of intimate family-personal relationships, and, eventually, her death, at age 87.

Seymour’s book is a must-read, must-have book for multiple audiences. Du Bois’ professional life and private persona are both fascinating and complex. Seymour manages, through judicious use of letters and diaries, to bring her to life. We eavesdrop on her conversations, some witty, some caustic, always probing. We witness her questioning, self-criticism, reflections on her work, individuals, relationships, culture, life. By book’s end, I, like Seymour, was calling her “Cora.”

From a feminist anthropological perspective, the book deepens our understanding of our “foremothers’” experiences, accomplishments, and survival strategies. Du Bois’ life illustrates the marginal position of even prominent women within anthropology.[i] Upon receiving her PhD in 1932, she struggled to find a tenure track academic position. The only jobs open to women were untenured lecturers, or research assistants at universities, museums, or government organizations.[ii] Among Du Bois’ age cohort, women receiving PhDs in the 1920s and 1930s, only one woman, besides Du Bois, had a “successful” academic career. Even UC Berkeley, a relatively female-supportive environment, did not offer a faculty position to a woman until 1952… to Cora Du Bois

Harvard, however, was truly a boys club when Du Bois, in 1954, became the first woman awarded a tenured professorship. Seymour’s painstaking research shows how Radcliffe College, through a female alum’s family (Zemurray), actually funded the position. But Harvard’s all-male faculty controlled the selection, insisting she be prominent, not “just” a woman. So Harvard got a free faculty position, an eminent woman to enhance their scholarly “creds,” and help with the domestic work of the department (teaching, advising-supervising the “kids”).

Once hired, DuBois was marginalized, her office isolated from other (all male) faculty, often excluded from departmental decision-making, unable to enter Harvard Faculty Club’s front door entrance and dining room, underpaid. Harvard’s male students, unaccustomed to women faculty, expressed hostility to Du Bois, booing her at least once in an undergraduate class, and describing her as a “castrating mean bitch.”

Du Bois publically denied experiencing sexism at Harvard. However, late 1970s, handwritten biographical notes recounted her treatment and the double standard by which she was judged relative to male colleagues.

Du Bois life and work reflect gender’s marginality, even within cultural-personality studies, a time when gender was, at best, a variable on which data might be collected while pursuing “real” theoretical problems…such as the culture-personality relationship. Anthropologists were more critical of ethnocentric assumptions in Freudian theory than their own Euro-centric misogynist biases.

Du Bois once considered a critical study of Freud’s female masochism concept. A detailed research proposal on sex differences, Seymour argues, foreshadowed subsequent feminist theorizing. Her Alor fieldwork produced data on gendered work and male and female personalities, and she “concluded” culture outweighed gender in producing Alor “modal” personality. Yet her long-term India research project (1961-72) virtually ignores gender and women (as informants, researchers, in social change) except for Seymour’s family and child-rearing study.

Du Bois showed little interest in feminism, including the mobilization of Harvard faculty women, many part-time lecturers for decades. Seymour says Du Bois rejected political feminism but not gender as a research topic. Yet she apparently missed their interconnectedness, that the marginalization of women and gender in anthropology was related, that her own career, research, publications, and personal life, as a lesbian, was profoundly shaped by the politics of gender.

But personal experiences and historical context shape us. For Du Bois (and others) gender invisibility-discrimination was perhaps “normal”… not even noticed. Du Bois’ strategy, overall, was to adopt a “suit of armor,” persist, utilize networks, find ways around—rather than dwell on—obstacles, or to find new opportunities. This enabled her to produce pioneering theoretical and methodological contributions and a body of data which future feminist scholars can mine!

If there are any gaps in this extraordinary book, they reflect limited materials available to Seymour. She began this biography after Du Bois’ death, precluding interviews to fill gaps, especially on Du Bois’ experiences as a woman and lesbian, and on her most intimate relationships. We learn mainly from reading between the lines or from indirect sources Seymour ferrets out. Yet these gaps reflect Cora Du Bois, the person, as revealed by Seymour, compartmentalizing her private and professional life to the very end.

Seymour’s personal relationship with Du Bois does shape the book, as she warns us in “Cora and Me.” In some ways, Seymour is trying to write “Cora” as she might have written herself. That bias occasionally emerges, as in accounts of Du Bois’ relationship with Margaret Mead. But that is nit-picking. For this book is an exceptional achievement, a massive documentation of a complex life and person, an enormous labor of respect, admiration, love. Cora would have been proud of her former student!

Carol C. Mukhopadhyay is Professor Emerita, San Jose State University. Her feminist research focuses on gender divisions: in households, politics, and particularly science and engineering, in the U.S. and India. Publications range from the classic 1988 Annual Review of Anthropology article “Anthropological Studies of the Status of Women Revisited: 1977-1987” (with Patricia Higgins) to “A Feminist Cognitive Anthropology: The Case of Women and Mathematics” (2004) and Cognitive Anthropology through a Gendered Lens (2011). Work on race/ethnicity includes the AAA RACE project/exhibit and How Real is Race: A Sourcebook on Race, Culture and Biology (Mukhopadhyay, Henze and Moses, 2nd edition 2014). For further publications, downloadable materials, see her website:

[i] These following sections rely on Seymour’s extensive research rather than Du Bois’ own memoirs.

[ii] Even when the Bureau of American Ethnology (BAE) hired women as fieldworkers, they could not join the Anthropology Society of Washington (p.96).

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