The death of her father when she was twenty-one months old affected forever how Ruth Fulton Benedict would view society. Frederick Fulton had finished medical school two years before her birth. Her mother, Beatrice Shattuck Fulton, graduated from Vassar College five years earlier. Because Frederick Fulton suffered from fevers and a wasting disease, the family moved to Norwich in central New York State when Ruth was a baby. Beatrice bore another child, Margery, on December 26, 1888, three months before her husband’s death. Benedict retained throughout her life the memory of her hysterical mother holding her over the serene and peaceful body of Frederick Fulton as he lay in his coffin. For the frightened child, death represented serenity and repose, whereas her mother’s hysterics represented chaos and confusion.
During her childhood, Benedict had measles, which left her partially deaf. This condition made her shy and socially withdrawn. She was, nevertheless, bright and industrious, succeeding well enough in her studies at St. Margaret’s Academy in Buffalo, where her mother had moved to take work as a librarian, to win the scholarship that made possible her attending Vassar. She was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa and graduated in 1909.
For the next five years, Benedict did social work in Buffalo and taught school in Los Angeles, where she lived with her sister, then married. In 1914, she married biochemist Stanley Benedict, admitting that she embarked upon the marriage to control a vague restlessness that surged within her. During the early years of her marriage, she planned to write biographical studies of three feminists but completed only the work on Mary Wollstonecraft, for which she was unable to find a publisher.
Her marriage, which remained childless, did little to assuage the restlessness that still plagued Benedict. This restlessness led her to write poetry, which she published under the pseudonym Anne Singleton.
In 1919, she enrolled in the New School for Social Research, where she took anthropology courses with Alexander Goldenweiser and Elsie Clews Parsons. Parsons insisted that Benedict meet Franz Boas, the famed Columbia University anthropologist and, in 1921, arranged the introduction that the self-effacing Benedict approached with fear and uncertainty.
Benedict was soon admitted to...
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