Cora Du Bois

Sam Smith

I only took one course from Cora Du Bois, but when I heard about Susan Seymour’s new biography of the anthropologist  – who had come to Harvard about the same time as I did – I immediately got hold of a copy.

As I observed a few years ago, “Anthropologists were often people, like myself, not totally at home in their own culture. You sensed this listening to Clyde Kluckhohn rhapsodize about France while pacing up and down the lecture hall stage in combat boots. Cora Du Bois, a onetime student of Franz Boas and Ruth Benedict, strode into class in a trench coat as if just off a flying boat from the Pacific and held me enthralled as she described the sex lives of the people of Alor, a small island in the Dutch East Indies where she had spent considerable time in the late 1930s, living alone and handing out medical supplies to win over the villagers. Her passion for trench coats may have come from her service in the OSS. She had headed its Indonesian section during WWII and later participated in the Free Thai underground movement. She was the only woman to have made it that far in the OSS.”

And it was Du Bois who wrote on my paper concerning the Nagas of India: “This is pretty good journalism but it is bad anthropology.”

Perception was one of her primary traits and it didn’t bother me particularly since I already wanted to be a journalist, a trade that shared with anthropologists and detectives a preference for inductive thinking, not particularly rewarded at places of theoretical obsession like Harvard. I was thus happy to spend my time as one of 20 anthropology majors in a school of 4,000 undergrads even if I didn’t impress my mentors.

Anthropologist Susan Seymour, who came to Harvard as a graduate student shortly after I left, clearly did much better. She writes:

Du Bois, I learned, made quick, and usually insightful, assessments of people. She knew that I had adequate material for a lecture and, as she assured me, I had a better command of the Nayar literature than she did. Beneath her outward presence, I would discover, she was self-effacing and, at times, highly self-critical. At the end of the semester I received a brief, handwritten note from Du Bois — in her tiny, precise penmanship — inviting me to join the Harvard-Bhubaneswar Project that she had just established…

Du Bois demanded clear, precise thinking and also believed that writing should have some degree of style and elegance. She regularly referred students to Strunk and White’s Elements of Style and to the New Yorker. In Washington Du Bois had a reputation for acerbic cables and memos that was established during her World War II service. When she was serving in the State Department after the war, Talcott Parsons, then a Harvard sociologist, sent her a paper with his ideas on government. She returned the paper, saying that she would consider it when he rewrote it in English.

Du Bois was the first female full professor at Harvard. At the time, Radcliffe students attended Harvard classes but were denied many of its other benefits. As the graduate of a co-ed Quaker school, having four sisters, and having even been already introduced to computers by a female high school teacher, I found this strange not so much for moral reasons as for ones of logic. It just didn’t seem to make sense. This especially struck home when my first place for Harvard in a varsity sailing race was cancelled after a formal hearing by the New England Intercollegiate Sailing Association. My crime: I had used a Radcliffe friend as my crew.

Seymour describes a more serious example:

By putting all the required readings for a course in Lamont Library, which could be entered only by male students, some faculty effectively prevented female students from taking certain courses. When one Radcliffe undergraduate told her honors anthropology professor, Douglas Oliver, that she could not read one of the books he had assigned because it was available only in Lamont, Oliver retorted, “You mean we still have an area of sanctity left!”

And Du Bois once commented:

Personally, as Radcliffe’s only Professor (ROP or Ropy as some of my friends called me) I experienced [many] of the various stresses and strains of the situation at Harvard. I was approved by both the Departments of Anthropology and of Social Relations as the only [female] tenured, full-professor and accepted with varied grace by its faculties… I was rarely included in departmental decisions arrived at fraternally and covertly. In the broader context of Radcliffe, I was not socially acceptable to deans who were loyal to old standards of being ladies devoted to female education. In the still broader aspects of Harvard I was rarely forgiven attitudes or faults [that were] forgiven [others] in the inner circles of what has come to be called male chauvinism. There were many occasions when my outspokenness was frowned upon as lacking delicacy and my gross disregard of social reciprocities was taken amiss by (I suspect) wives of the faculty invested in their husbands’ careers. I was not gracious nor did I have the energy, time, and funds to reciprocate.

And there was another problem that Seymour describes:

An issue that affected Du Bois’s life, and that is consequently woven through the book, is how she handled her sexuality in an era when the word “lesbian” was not used and when to be homosexual was considered deviant. One strategy was to keep her public and private lives separate — a compartmentalizing of life that, over time, had some pernicious effects. It also compelled her to censor the personal documents that she left behind, such as correspondence with her longtime partner, Jeanne Taylor. Fortunately, however, just as Du Bois opened the door of her home to trusted friends and students, she has revealed aspects of her private life in her poetry, journal entries, and letters to friends and relatives.

This is as close as Du Bois ever came to acknowledging some of the gender discrimination that she had experienced at Harvard. Not only was she paid less than her male colleagues, but she was often excluded from departmental meetings and other faculty deliberations. Male colleagues viewed her as too outspoken and Radcliffe administrators deemed her not sufficiently ladylike. In addition, her unique position as Harvard’s only woman professor was a social liability. She had no “wife” to handle the social side of academic life, and her domestic arrangements had to be kept private.

The problem was acerbated when, while working for the State Department, she became a target of the FBI’s McCarthyesque snooping, and was not helped by the fact that when offered a job as head of the anthropology department at Berkeley, she declined because she wouldn’t sign the required California loyalty oath.

After all, this was a time when anthropology was not high on the list of presumed patriotic academic topics. And cultural relativism was not considered a good way to conduct a Cold War.

Nonetheless, as all the above occurred, Du Bois was also becoming a great anthropologist and would, by the end of the 1960s, become president of the American Anthropology Association.

As I read Seymour’s fine description of this woman of intelligence, courage and wisdom, (aided in no small part by Du Bois’ archival inclinations), I fantasized the professor forgiving me for my awful paper on the Nagas and inviting me over for dinner, followed by numerous reprises in which our two tribes of one shared our misgivings about Harvard and the society it helped create. I also found myself repeatedly gazing at the book’s cover photo and imagining a movie in which Cora Du Bois and Humphrey Bogart, with cigarettes mutually sagging, shared their views of the culture in which they struggled with existential determination. (I also knew how to let my cigarillo sag under my dark glasses and black beret, but like many of that era, while I knew something was wrong, i had little idea what to do about it.)

Then something else came to mind: a book I had read some time ago about Frances Perkins, “the woman behind the New Deal.” Perkins was the first female cabinet member and a critically important adviser to FDR. She was one of the most important women of the American 20th century yet is still not even well known in feminist circles. In fact, if you use Google’s Ngram guide for Perkins and Du Bois you’ll find their mention in books has been falling since the 1960s.

Part of the problem is that, like Perkins, Du Bois got there before the modern feminist movement. And like Perkins, she wasn’t blessed to live long enough to see what happened next. She had both the courage and the loneliness of an explorer, only charting new values rather than new space.

Every generation has such people, but they are easily lost as we attend to the grander movements and changes that follow. We forget that behind such movements and changes are endless lonely struggles, forgotten stories, and people who dare to do what others won’t. Cora Du Bois is an inspiring example, and Susan Seymour has done us a terrific service by telling us why.


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