role of women in society

Why Franz Boas, Father of Modern Anthropology, was a Champion of Equality

“There are two things to which I am devoted: absolute academic and spiritual freedom, and the subordination of the state to the interests of the individual; expressed in other forms, the furthering of conditions in which the individual can develop to the best of his ability—as far as it is possible with a full understanding of the fetters imposed upon us by tradition; and the fight against all forms of power policy of states or private organizations. This means a devotion to principles of true democracy. I object to teaching of slogans intended to befog the mind, of whatever kind they may be.” (From a letter from Boas to John Dewey on 11/6/39)

Although he’s called the “Father of Modern Anthropology”, Franz Boas (1858-1942) isn’t as famous as some of his contemporaries, or even some of his students, like Margaret Mead, who once gave George W. Bush a B+ in her class. That’s largely because he cared much more about scientific and personal integrity than about fame or personal ambition. His refusal to accept the limited role of women in society is another reason that his theories are still relevant today.

One of the most important concepts he introduced was cultural relativism, which holds that cultures cannot be objectively ranked as higher or better than others because we all view and judge the world with a perspective created by our own cultural conditioning. In Boas’ day, orthogeneticists believed that all societies progressed through the same sequential stages towards “progress”. For example, they argued that although the Intuit and German cultures were contemporaries, the German culture was at a later, more advanced stage of cultural evolution.

Boas, in opposition to many other scientists of his day, adhered to three scientific principles. The first was that science begins with questions, not answers or value judgments. The second was that science is dispassionate inquiry rather than ideology tinged with emotional prejudice, and the third was that the nature of science is inferential and judicious. He used these principles in scientific inquiry to make a great contribution to the social debate between nature and nurture.

In an experiment he conducted to determine whether bodily forms are also subject to processes of change, he studies 17, 821 people of seven ethnic/national groups. He found that the average cranial sizes of immigrants were significantly different from members of the same group who had been born in the United States. He also found that the cranial sizes of children born within ten years of their mothers’ arrival to the U.S. were different from those born more than ten years after their arrival.

This experiment clearly demonstrated that traits such as cranial size were not only inherited, but could also be affected and influenced by the environment. The results of this experiment led to his argument that any differences between races were not immutable. In a 1963 book titled “Race: The History of an Idea in America, author Thomas Gossett wrote that

“It is possible that Boas did more to combat race prejudice than any other person in history.”

Boas proved himself to be a man who lived according to his convictions on more than one occasion. For example, in 1892, he and another member of the Clark College faculty resigned to protest infringement of academic freedom by its president, G.Stanley Hall. In 1897, while with the American Museum of Natural History, he attempted to organize Native American exhibits according to cultural context rather than along evolutionary lines. That brought him into conflict with the President of the Museum, Morris Jesup, and its director, Hermon Bumpus who wanted the exhibits to express how much further behind in the evolutionary scale those cultures were compared to U.S. culture. Unable to reform the system or increase its educational potential, he resigned from the museum and never worked at another.

To his credit and the great benefit of science, Boas remained critical of his own work, and often, upon discovering new evidence, modified his own theories. For example, his study of the Tsimshian and Tlingit tribes on the northern coast of British Columbia revealed that their social organization consisted of matrilineal clans. The Nootkaand Salish tribes on the southern coast had a patrilineal social structure. The Kwakiutl tribe lived between the two and had a mixture of elements within their social structure. Before marriage, a man assumed his wife’s father’s name and family crest, his children taking them on as well. Boas at first thought that the Kwakiutl were evolving towards a patrilineal social structure, but later reversed himself, concluding that the evolution was in fact AWAY from a patrilineal structure towards a matrilineal one, learned from their northern neighbors.

Boas spent the final years of his career as a beloved and highly influential professor at Columbia University. Through his students, many of whom went on to found anthropology departments and research programmes inspired by their mentor, Boas profoundly influenced the development of anthropology. Among his most significant students were  A. L. Kroeber, Ruth Benedict, Edward Sapir, Margaret Mead, and Zora Neale Hurston, who all had their impact on Motherhood.

Because in much the same way that his work disproved many racist theories, his actions also helped discredit sexist ones, thereby changing the role of women in society. Before his death in 1942, he entrusted his female colleague Helen Codere with editing and publishing his manuscripts.

You can find more on this period of history, also greatly influenced by Emile Durkheim, the Father of Sociology, here.

role of women in society
Franz Boas, performang a Hamatsa dance. Hamatsa is Kwakwaka’wakw secret society of British Columbia, most likely a cannibal society


June 26,2015  |

Maternal craft

Maternal craft in 1850-1900: Disciplinary education

By the end of the nineteenth century not only medicine and science would have an impact but political and social changes as well. The imperial nations were in need of healthy and educated children. Maternal craft was essential. Social and racial progress was important for the welfare of its country.

The idealization of motherhood was strengthened. And moral reform came around the corner. Now women needed to stay virtuous and religiously dutiful but now also sentimental. Passivity and altruism were the virtues of a good wife. Open expression of feelings and emotions were condemned. Women became frail and sickly because they were educated this way. A day in bed when menstruating was a minimum. Prudery was an obsession. Not a coincidence this came in a time where paternal authority were promoted by state and church. Not a coincidence this came with total submissiveness of women to husbands and maternal craft expertise.

This is the time where extreme disciplinary education of children came to be.

The Beginning of the Maternal craft

Mothers read Elizabeth Chesser’s books on Mothering craft where the ideals of personal vocation and racial and national progress were put together. To provide morality, chastity and a desire to be a superior race were to be provided by the mothers only and nobody could do that task better. Women were born to do so.

Motherhood now a ‘science’ was thought through maternal craft courses

A scientific interest was omnipresent and Child Science and The Mothering or Maternal Craft was born. Motherhood was for the first time a ‘science’ that could be thought through courses. Important to note that the notion of maternal instincts, or natural bonds can not be further be removed.

The Child Study Movement, the Child Study Association, the Childhood Society, and the Parents’ National Education Union were all bodies that emerged in this period. They emphasized for the first time the importance of the first year of a child and the possibilities within a child to be realized according only to specific childcare methods and the mothering or maternal craft.

Now,  the mother role…

James Sull for example said that

“fathers rather than mothers should do most of the important observations of the development of the child. Mothers were likely to be  too involved, too sentimental and eulogistic.”

In America there was G. Stanley Hall the first American psychologist and also president of Clark University. He was the one who brought Freud to the US for his first visit and wrote many childcare manuals. He stressed the different development stages of children and the managerial tasks of the mother.

Women had fought their way into college and the first college educated women started to graduate. And it was at the same time that society believed it was absolutely crucial to be college educated to be a mother. And so the diploma of ‘mother’ or the maternal craft was invented. The demands of education were getting so high one needed to study four years to prepare for motherhood.

‘Women cannot conceivably be given an education too broad, too high, or too deep to fit them to become the educated mothers of the future race of men and women born of educated parents. The pity is that we only have four years of the college course to impart such knowledge to women who are to be mothers.

said Martha Carey Thomas, the American educator, suffragist, linguist, and President of Bryn Mawr College, in 1908.

Of course it was too good to be true to be both educated and be a mother and stay at home. Nothing in a woman’s life was more important than motherhood. The cult of motherhood was peaking. The reasons were multiple but are imbedded in its society. There were Darwin’s ideas: The Origin of the Species was published in 1859. And colonialism and the ideas on quality of race to begin with. But the Romanticism and the importance of religion had an equally important influence on the matter of Motherhood.

If you want to move  into the first part of the 19th century, head over to the spiritual education style during 1800 and 1850.

Maternal craft
Joseph Highmore by Joseph Highmore – The Yorck Project 10.000 Meisterwerke der DIRECTMEDIA Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

April 24,2015  |