Ruth Murray Underhill: Woman of the People

Throughout March, we will be celebrating Women's History Month with new photos to the Flickr Commons and a series of blog posts about women in science from the Archives' collections.

Ruth Murray Underhill, by Fremont Davis, 1941, Accession 90-105 - Science Service, Records, 1920s-19It is likely that the readers of this piece have never heard of Ruth Murray Underhill.  If you are not familiar with Dr. Underhill’s life and work, her resume includes the following: social worker; european traveler; World War I Red Cross volunteer; Ph. D. , Columbia University; Supervisor of Education, U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs; Professor of Anthropology, University of Denver; author; and scholar.  Intrigued?  If so, read on, and I will try to convey the accomplishments of this remarkable Woman of the People.

Ruth Murray Underhill was born on August 22, 1883 into a Quaker family residing in Ossining, New York.  Her father, Abram Sutton Underhill, practiced as a lawyer in New York City.  Her mother, Anna Taber Murray, raised Ruth, her two sisters and one brother, on the family farm, instilling pacifist values, the benefits of honest labor, and personal enlightenment through education among Ruth and her siblings.  The Underhill’s were a family of means, and Ruth enjoyed the benefits of a robust home library and family sojourns to Europe.  Her formal education began at the Ossining School for Girls and continued at the Bryn Mawr College Preparatory School in Pennsylvania.  Ruth enrolled in Vassar College in 1901, studying English and Comparative Literature, while also continuing her interests in human culture and languages.  She was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, and completed her curriculum with honors, receiving her A.B. degree in 1905.   After a brief stint teaching Latin at a boy’s military academy in Ossining, Ruth moved to Boston and became a social worker for the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.  Still yearning for knowledge and human experience, Ruth left for Europe in 1906, where she traveled extensively, studied social science and languages at the London School of Economics and the University of Munich, respectively. 

Ruth Underhill returned to New York in 1908 and found employment in social work.  The outbreak of World War I led Ruth to volunteer for the American Red Cross, including service in Italy as a relief worker assisting Italian orphans.   Following the war, and perhaps as a result of its harsh realities, Ruth’s interest in social work began to wane, as she discovered that her efforts did not impact society as much as she had hoped.  She considered other options, which included returning to the family farm and embracing traditional female roles.  Starkly independent, well-educated, ambitious, and eager to tread her own path, Ruth quickly realized that she would never be happy yielding to tradition.  She contemplated how she could satisfy her desire for independence in a male dominated society, and began to concentrate on her writing.  In 1920, Ruth published her first novel, White Moth, which featured a woman achieving a supervisory role in the business world; a bold rejection of conventional female subservience! 

Portrait of Ruth Underhill wearing bead necklace, by Margaret G, Marbeck, Ruth Underhill Papers, UniFor a brief period, Ruth Underhill was married to one Charles Crawford, who she soon found to be “the wrong man.”  Their marriage was quickly dissolved, without children.  In the immediate aftermath of divorce, she began taking courses at Columbia University, where she met Ruth Benedict, then an Assistant Professor in Anthropology, who encouraged Underhill to pursue studies as an Anthropologist.  Franz Boas, the “Father of Modern Anthropology,” was the chair of the Anthropology Department.  Boas provided Underhill with a small stipend to study the Papago Indians (Tohono O’odham) .  Underhill visited the Papago reservation in Southern Arizona four times during the period 1931-1933, living and working with Maria Chona, an elder Papago woman who, like Underhill, was fiercely independent, and shunned traditional female roles.  In 1936, Underhill published, Autobiography of a Papago Woman, Maria Chona’s autobiography, and the first published history of a Southwestern Native American woman.  Ruth completed her dissertation, "Social Organization of the Papago Indians," and received her Ph. D. in Anthropology in 1937. 

While working on her dissertation, Ruth Underhill gained valuable experience at Barnard College as an Assistant in Anthropology under the tutelage of Gladys Reichard, an Anthropologist who spent more than twenty-five years studying Navajo culture and the roles of Navajo women.  In 1934, Underhill and Reichard became involved with the Bureau of Indian Affairs Hogan School project, which taught the Navajo language to members of the Navajo tribe.  Ruth was also tasked with teaching applied ethnology to Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) employees.  Underhill was employed by the Soil Conservation Service from 1935-1937, where she conducted surveys concerning economic and social life among Southwestern Native American groups.  Later in 1937, Ruth was transferred back the BIA and received the title Associate Super visor of Indian Education.  Although she was now stationed in Sante Fe, NM, Ruth continued her work with the Papago, publishing A Papago Calendar Record in 1938 and Social Organization of Papago Indians in 1939. 

As Associate Supervisor of Indian Education, Underhill traveled through the Southwest, assisting reservation teachers with the development of curriculum for Native American schools.  Ruth was promoted to Supervisor of Indian Education in 1944, and transferred to Denver, CO.  She retired from the BIA in 1948 and accepted a Professorship in Anthropology at the University of Denver, where she taught until 1952.  Underhill traveled extensively in her retirement including a trip around the world in 1952 – 1953.  Ruth returned to Denver, where she lived in a log cabin, and continued to write and serve as a consultant on Native American matters.

Ruth Murray Underhill died on August 15, 1984, one week prior to her 100th birthday, and two months removed from receiving a special recognition citation from the American Anthropological Association for her body of work as an Anthropologist.  She published extensively throughout her life, and was a spokesperson for the rights of Native American women.  Both the University of Denver and the University of Oregon hold archival collections of her papers.  

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