Cora Du Bois: Anthropologist, Diplomat, Agent

Cora Du Bois: Anthropologist, Diplomat, Agent

by Susan C. Seymour
Cora Du Bois: Anthropologist, Diplomat, Agent

Cora Du Bois: Anthropologist, Diplomat, Agent

by Susan C. Seymour


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Although Cora Du Bois began her life in the early twentieth century as a lonely and awkward girl, her intellect and curiosity propelled her into a remarkable life as an anthropologist and diplomat in the vanguard of social and academic change.

Du Bois studied with Franz Boas, a founder of American anthropology, and with some of his most eminent students: Ruth Benedict, Alfred Kroeber, and Robert Lowie. During World War II, she served as a high-ranking officer for the Office of Strategic Services as the only woman to head one of the OSS branches of intelligence, Research and Analysis in Southeast Asia. After the war she joined the State Department as chief of the Southeast Asia Branch of the Division of Research for the Far East. She was also the first female full professor, with tenure, appointed at Harvard University and became president of the American Anthropological Association.

Du Bois worked to keep her public and private lives separate, especially while facing the FBI’s harassment as an opponent of U.S. engagements in Vietnam and as a “liberal” lesbian during the McCarthy era. Susan C. Seymour’s biography weaves together Du Bois’s personal and professional lives to illustrate this exceptional “first woman” and the complexities of the twentieth century that she both experienced and influenced.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780803274280
Publisher: Nebraska
Publication date: 05/01/2015
Series: Critical Studies in the History of Anthropology
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: eBook
Pages: 432
File size: 5 MB

About the Author

Susan C. Seymour is the Jean M. Pitzer Professor Emerita of Anthropology at Pitzer College in Claremont, California. She is the author of several books, including Women, Family, and Child Care in India: A World in Transition.

Read an Excerpt

Cora Du Bois

Anthropologist, Diplomat, Agent

By Susan C. Seymour


Copyright © 2015 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8032-7428-0



Cora was a real tomboy and, in later life, the star of the family.

— George Straub

Cora Du Bois — the woman who was to become the Zemurray Professor of Anthropology at Harvard University, renowned for her eloquent English prose — began her writing career in English with a simple, charming, but also revealing diary that she began keeping in 1913, when she was nine years old. Although born in the United States, she and her family lived in France during her first years of schooling, and French was her first language. As she reported later in life, she had been a slow talker who, after her family moved to France when she was four and a half, had not learned English. Instead, she had developed a jargon that only her mother and aunt understood. "It was my own language. You had to be broken into it. When I first began speaking comprehensively, it was French."

Cora's parents were fluent in English, French, and German, and they maintained a French-speaking household while living in France. So when the Du Boises returned to the United States, Cora did not know English and was held back two years in school until her English skills improved. This undoubtedly motivated her to try hard and, at her parents' suggestion, to begin to keep a diary in which to practice English.

Cora named her diary — "Diary of a real Tom-girl" — and decorated it with drawings of family members and of herself. Why "tomgirl" rather than "tomboy"? Probably this reflected her lack of command of colloquial English, but it is clear that she wanted to identify herself as a tomboyish girl — a girl who enjoyed outdoor sports and other male-defined activities. One of the drawings on the back of the diary shows Cora building a fort with another girl, her friend Helen. There are two other drawings, of her playing the piano and walking to school, but there are no drawings of more stereotypical girls' activities such as playing with dolls, cooking, or playing "house." There are also no such journal entries. Rather, Cora frequently mentions going out to play basketball or going fishing down on the wharves.

The drawings on the inside cover of "Diary of a real Tom-girl" are intriguing. The top figure is a man turned sideways. He is dressed in a black jacket with striped pants and is holding a sword, upright, in his left hand — an overtly male figure that is labeled "PAPA." Surely this is intended to be Cora's father, Jean Du Bois. His position above the other figures puts him in a dominant position as head of the household, but Jean was also the family member whom Cora most liked. Below him are two abstract figures that have both male and female features. One is considerably larger than the other, and together they are labeled "no good." It is likely that they represent the remaining two members of Cora's immediate family, her mother and older brother — the two antagonists in her childhood.

The first entry in Cora's diary, which is written on lined paper in a large, carefully formed, schoolgirl-type script — very different from the tiny, precise handwriting of Cora's later years — reads as follows (without corrections):

January 10 Cloudy no rain
Friday Have a muscik lesson.
And I found a girl
that could speak French
in school. Trided to write
a story but could'nt
If got to take may
muscik lesson so good by.

She begins with the weather and ends by saying, good-bye because she has to run off to a piano lesson. In between, however, she mentions two significant things: First, she has met a girl at school who speaks French — someone with whom she can really communicate and who might help make her feel less isolated and alone. Second, she mentions having been unsuccessful in writing a story in English — presumably a school assignment. The latter may have provided the final impetus to practice her English skills by keeping a diary.

The Beginning: Family Background

The relationship of a person to his or her society and culture is deeply affected by his or her family — something that Cora Du Bois was instrumental in studying in the 1930s as part of the culture and personality movement in American anthropology. The family — in whatever form it takes — is the principal context in which children learn about their world and begin to form their sense of personhood, self, and identity. So it is appropriate and necessary to begin with a brief account of the rich family heritage that, combined with extensive international travel and intercultural experiences, helped form the young Cora Du Bois.

Cora Alice Du Bois was born into an international, entrepreneurial family on October 26, 1903, the second child of Jean Jules Philippe Du Bois and Gertrude Martha (Mattie) Schreiber Du Bois. If all had gone according to plan, she would have been born in Johannesburg, South Africa, as had her older brother, Claude, five years earlier. However, historical events had intervened — as they would numerous times in Cora's life — and, instead, she was born in Brooklyn, New York, not nearly so romantic sounding a birthplace as Johannesburg, the center of both diamond and gold rushes in the late nineteenth century. But the outbreak of the Second Boer War (1899–2002) — one of the first major military clashes of the twentieth century — would force her family to flee southern Africa and seek temporary refuge with her mother's father, stepmother, and siblings in Brooklyn.

Cora's parents had met in Heidelberg, Germany, in 1895. Jean — a stylish young multilingual Swiss explorer and entrepreneur — had recently returned from the Transvaal in southern Africa to visit family members in Switzerland and Germany. While visiting friends in Heidelberg, he was introduced to Mattie Schreiber, a very attractive young American woman traveling with her German American father, American stepmother, and younger siblings. (Her own mother, Cora Horton Schreiber, had died in 1890 when Mattie, the first of four children, was twelve.) It was love at first sight, and the couple was married in Heidelberg soon thereafter. On the back of a photo of her mother from that time period, Cora penned, "Perhaps in year she and Father spent 'cutting capers all over Europe' after their marriage." Following their European honeymoon, Jean took Mattie back to the Transvaal in southern Africa. He was twenty-six and Mattie seventeen.

Cora grew up hearing the stories of her parents' sojourn in Johannesburg. In 1891 her father had followed his older brother Philippe to the Transvaal, the northeast part of southern Africa where the Boers had established a republic. Jean was the second son of prosperous parents from the French-speaking canton of Neuchâtel, Switzerland, and was studying law at the University of Neuchâtel when his brother enticed him to southern Africa. Philippe, with the help of his father and other Swiss investors, had leased land from Cecil Rhodes — the British diamond miner, financier, and statesman — to run cattle, develop salt plants, and explore for minerals. Due to the discovery in the Transvaal of huge diamond deposits in 1868, and gold in 1886, many young Europeans were flocking to where fortunes could be made in these valuable minerals and related trades.

Jean, at the age of twenty-three, joined his brother and spent several years exploring the Limpopo River basin in what was then the northeast corner of the Transvaal and the southwest corner of Portuguese Mozambique, looking for phosphate deposits and other minerals. In 1895, having accumulated some wealth, he took a trip home and met Cora's mother. When they returned together to Johannesburg, it was to a town that had grown to more than one hundred thousand residents, only a small fraction of whom were citizens due to the recent waves of immigration by foreign adventurers and speculators. Mattie, at seventeen, was put in charge of a large home with numerous African servants while her husband and brother-in-law traveled, scouring the countryside for gold and other minerals. It must have been both exciting and challenging for this adventurous, young American woman with only a grammar-school education. Despite her lack of formal schooling, Mattie was fluent in both English and German, knew some French, had been exposed to other cultures through travel, and was a person of strong will. She also had a sister-in-law living nearby. Philippe had married the preceding year in Durban, Natal, and he and his wife also lived in Johannesburg.

In 1897, two years after their arrival in the Transvaal, Mattie gave birth to their first child, Jean Claude, Cora's older brother. What was intended to be a prolonged sojourn in this part of the world, however, where both Du Bois brothers would make their fortunes, was abruptly eclipsed by the outbreak two years later of a treacherous three-year war between British imperial forces and Boer guerrilla soldier-farmers. The diamond and gold rushes had produced tensions between Britain, which was competing with other European powers for control of southern Africa, and Boer settlers who, together with native populations, inhabited this suddenly valuable region of Africa. Britain decided to take steps to control the entire region.

Only fragments of information remain about Jean and Mattie Du Bois from this period. When the British invaded the Transvaal, Jean and Philippe put their wives and infant sons on a ship back to Europe to get them out of harm's way, but not long thereafter they also had to flee, leaving behind their land and investments. Arriving back in Europe penniless, they were not popular with their Swiss relatives who had invested in their South African enterprises. Probably with the help of his younger brother Georges, Philippe was able to find work in London, where he and his wife lived permanently. Jean also went to London temporarily but then found employment, in 1900, with a French company that was mining phosphate in Florida and Tennessee, which brought him to the United States for the first time. Meanwhile, Mattie and Claude had sought refuge with her father, stepmother, and younger siblings in Brooklyn, where Mattie's father, a prosperous dentist, also owned a restaurant and department store. Once Jean arrived in the United States, Mattie and Claude accompanied him to Florida and Tennessee for several years. However, when the mining operations did not materialize into a secure job, the Du Boises returned to Brooklyn, where Mattie's father helped Jean find a job as a bank clerk; hence their residence in Brooklyn when Cora arrived in 1903.

Cora Alice Du Bois may have arrived during an unsettled and economically difficult period for her parents, but she was born into two strong family lineages — one based in the United States and the other in Europe.

The Du Bois Family

The Du Bois family from which Cora is descended has roots that can be traced back for centuries in the canton of Neuchâtel, Switzerland, but it also has branches that have spread worldwide. It is a family of merchants, watchmakers, and international explorers, businessmen and professionals who have traveled the globe, and yet with many remaining rooted in one small town, and surrounding vicinities, in Switzerland. The town is Le Locle, located within a few miles of the French border in the Jura Mountains of northwest Switzerland and renowned for its two centuries of watch- and clock making. In fact, in 2009 it became a UNESCO World Heritage site. There is evidence of Du Boises living in Le Locle since the early sixteenth century, probably having migrated there from southern France for religious reasons. An impressive family genealogy and history traces its roots back to a Jaquet DuBoz in 1507 and works its way forward to 1986. Although Cora took only a minimal interest in her family genealogy, she grew up knowing many of her Swiss relatives and hearing tales of their adventures. She visited them as a young child and again when she graduated from high school, and she maintained correspondence with many of them throughout her life. Cora always said that her inclinations to travel and explore the world came from her Swiss side.

Cora's father, Jean, grew up mostly in Le Locle, today one of Switzerland's smallest cities with a population of just over ten thousand residents. It still has the feeling of a village, with churches, shops, and restaurants clustered together in a narrow valley surrounded by homes perched on mountain slopes. Two Du Bois homes remain intact — one, a nineteenth-century manor set high on a hill overlooking the town; the other, a four-story, eighteenth-century home-cum-watchmaking-atelier located mid-town, across from a central square with an imposing church and clock tower. The former, the Chateau des Monts, has become a premier horological (clock and timekeeping) museum. The latter, known locally as "La Maison Du Bois," has recently been turned into a small bed and breakfast that is owned and operated by the wife of the last male descendant of Philippe Du Bois & Fils, the oldest watchmaking firm in Switzerland. It was built in 1785 to house the family on its upper two floors, reserving the second floor for business offices and the first floor for assembling watches. Until watchmaking factories were introduced, watch parts were made by individual farmer-craftsmen scattered throughout the surrounding hills and mountains. The parts would then be gathered together and assembled into watches in Le Locle and, once assembled, would be exported to such commercial centers as London, Amsterdam, and Frankfurt, which required travel by this branch of Du Boises.

Although Cora's father, Jean, was not a member of the watchmaking branch of the Du Bois family, his father — Philippe Henri Du Bois — was engaged in commerce that took him regularly to Frankfurt am Main, which was a free city until 1881 and hence an attractive location for international business. In fact, Jean's mother — Louise Philippine Andreae — was from Frankfurt and several of his seven siblings were born there. Philippe Du Bois & Fils kept a home and offices in Frankfurt, which still stand today and which served as a family base for various members of the Du Bois clan. Eventually, Jean's younger brother Georges would also settle in Frankfurt, marrying a member of the Andreae family, and would provide yet another home for visiting Du Boises, including Cora when she was seventeen.

Jean and his four brothers lived international lives. As already mentioned, his older brother Philippe settled permanently in London after fleeing southern Africa. Jean would make several international moves during his lifetime. Albert, the third-oldest Du Bois brother, who had a degree in agriculture from the prestigious Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, spent twelve years in Santo Domingo, the Dominican Republic, overseeing the cocoa and sugar plantations that supplied the Suchard chocolate manufacturing company in Neuchâtel. When he returned home, he became the technical director of the Suchard chocolate plant in Lörrach, Germany — the first Swiss chocolate factory to be established abroad, in this case just across the border from Basel, Switzerland.

The fourth-oldest Du Bois brother, Georges, was perhaps the most distinguished. He first studied at the Royal Academy of Mines in Freiberg, Germany, during which time he participated in a three-year expedition to Surinam, where he gathered geological and ethnographic collections now housed in museums in The Hague and Neuchâtel. Then he completed a PhD in chemistry at Rostock University in Germany, followed by travels to much of Asia, including stops in North America on the way home to visit mines in California, Nevada, Utah, and parts of Canada. In 1905 Georges settled in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, where he married and became a director of the Deutsche Gold-und Silber-Scheideanstalt. Later known by the acronym DEGUSSA, it was a metallurgical and chemical company founded in 1840 by Friedrich Ernst Roessler in the then–Free City of Frankfurt. In addition to his business responsibilities, Georges became a diplomat and was in charge of the Swiss consulate in Frankfurt. He and his family resided there in an imposing home facing the Main River until his retirement in 1933, when he returned to Switzerland. He and his wife settled in his parents' home, the Villa Montperreux, next door to his brother Albert, in Peseux — a small town perched on a hill overlooking the city of Neuchâtel with its spectacular setting on the banks of Lake Neuchâtel. These stately homes, with lovely views of the lake, had gardens that sloped down to vineyards, which grew on the hills surrounding the town and lake. Peseux is not far from the family's origins in Le Locle and is where Cora visited her grandparents when she was a young child and, again, in her youth.

Jean's youngest brother, Hugues, also had a successful business career, in Frankfurt, Paris, and New York City, but died, unmarried, at a relatively early age at the onset of the First World War. Of Jean's three sisters, one also died young. The other two both married — one to a Protestant minister and the other to a medical doctor — and settled permanently in Switzerland. It was an era when sons, not daughters, went abroad to study and make their fortune.

The Schreiber Family

By contrast with her paternal lineage, which can trace its roots back to the sixteenth century in one small town in Switzerland, Cora Du Bois's maternal lineage is, in many respects, typically American. Her maternal grandfather, Henry William Schreiber I, was born in Germany in 1856, emigrated to New York as a youth with only a third-grade education, became apprenticed to a dentist, and married into an already established American family of British and Scottish Presbyterian ancestry. He became a self-made man who by the time of Cora's birth was well established in Brooklyn with several business enterprises. Despite his limited formal education, he became the commissioner of education for the city of Brooklyn.


Excerpted from Cora Du Bois by Susan C. Seymour. Copyright © 2015 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations,
Series Editors' Introduction,
Resources and Acknowledgments,
Prologue: Cora and Me,
1. Tomgirl,
2. Escape and Resolve,
3. Becoming an Anthropologist,
4. Culture and Personality,
5. A Pioneer in Culture and Personality Research,
6. World War II and the OSS,
7. Disillusionment in the Cold War Era,
8. Harvard, Crown of Roses or Thorns?,
9. Sociocultural Change in India,
10. Looking Inward,

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