RUTH FULTON BENEDICT was an American anthropologist and folklorist born on this date (d: 1948).
She was born in New York City, attended Vassar College and graduated in 1909. After studying anthropology at the New School of Social Research under Elsie Clews Parsons, she entered graduate studies at Columbia University in 1921, where she studied under Franz Boas. She received her PhD and joined the faculty in 1923. Margaret Mead, with whom she shared a romantic relationship, and Marvin Opler, were among her students and colleagues.
Benedict was President of the American Anthropological Association and was also a prominent member of the American Folklore Society. She became the first woman to be recognized as a prominent leader of a learned profession. She can be viewed as a transitional figure in her field, redirecting both anthropology and folklore away from the limited confines of culture-trait diffusion studies and towards theories of performance as integral to the interpretation of culture. She studied the relationships between personality, art, language and culture, insisting that no trait existed in isolation or self-sufficiency, a theory which she championed in her 1934 book Patterns of Culture.
Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict are considered the two most influential and famous anthropologists of their time. One of the reasons why Mead and Benedict got along well was the fact that they both shared a passion for their work and they each felt a sense of pride in the fact that they were successful working women during a time when this was uncommon. They were frequently known to critique each other’s work; they entered into a companionship which began through their work, but during its early period, it also had an erotic character. Both Benedict and Mead wanted to dislodge stereotypes about women which were widely believed during their time and show people that working women could also be successful even though working society was seen as a man’s world. In her memoir about her parents, With a Daughter’s Eye, Margaret Mead’s daughter implies that the relationship between Benedict and Mead was partly sexual. In 1946, Benedict received the Achievement Award from the American Association of University Women. After Benedict died of a heart attack in 1948, Mead kept the legacy of Benedict’s work going by supervising projects that Benedict would have looked after, and editing and publishing notes from studies that Benedict had collected throughout her life.
The American Anthropology Association awards an annual prize named after Benedict. The ‘Ruth Benedict Prize’ has two categories, one for monographs by one writer and one for edited volumes. The prize recognizes ‘excellence in a scholarly book written from an anthropological perspective about a lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender topic’.
A U.S. 46¢ Great Americans series postage stamp in her honor was issued on October 20, 1995. Benedict College in Stony Brook University has been named after her.
In 2005 Ruth Fulton Benedict was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.