It’s Women’s History month and I’m going to try and blog about as many of Ossining’s inspiring women as I can. (I must editorialize a moment though and confess that I don’t much care for these theme months. It seems to me we’re perpetuating exactly what we’re hoping to fix, the idea that women’s history or Black history or any of the other myriad histories that are celebrated on a monthly basis are a separate thing from just plain history. But, until we teach a deeper, more inclusive history, I guess we need to keep doing this. Sigh.) Okay, off my soapbox.
For my inaugural Women’s History post, I want to share a bit about an Ossining woman I’m sure few have heard of – Dr. Ruth Murray Underhill.
She was one of several remarkable Underhill siblings who pushed the envelope of what was acceptable and expected at the time – her sister Elizabeth was a lawyer, a banker and a suffragist, and her brother Robert a mountaineer.
The daughter of Abram S. Underhill and Anna Murray Underhill, Ruth’s pedigree stretched back to one of the earliest European settlers of this country – Captain John Underhill who arrived on this shore in 1632. (More on him in a moment.) Further, according to a 1934 article in the Democratic Register, the Underhills were related to a William Underhill of Stratford-upon-Avon who reportedly sold William Shakespeare his home. How’s that for a fun fact?
Dr. Ruth Murray Underhill was a renowned anthropologist celebrated for her work with Native Americans. She was also a social worker, a writer, a lecturer, a professor, a Supervisor with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and a local television/radio host. Multi-lingual, Underhill spoke several Western languages, as well as Papago and Navajo.
Ruth was born in Ossining in 1883 and grew up in this rambling Victorian at 38 Linden Avenue that her father had built in about 1878. (I’ve always wondered about this grand house just off the corner lot. Now I know.)
She attended Clara Fuller’s Ossining School for Girls and went on to Vassar College, graduating in 1905.
Unsure of her true calling, she spent the next decade searching, briefly serving as a social worker for the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, then traveling to Europe to study at the London School of Economics and Munich University. When World War I hit, she volunteered for the Red Cross.
In 1919 she married Charles Crawford, but they would be “divorced amicably” a decade later.
In 1920 she published a novel entitled White Moth about a successful woman in the business world, which was respectfully if not enthusiastically received. You can read it here if you like and form your own opinion.
After her divorce, at age 46 she went back to school, enrolling in Columbia University. Dr. Ruth Benedict, a professor in the Anthropology department (and a bit of a legend), encouraged her to pursue a PhD in the field. At the time, the Dr. Franz Boas, considered by many to be the “father of modern anthropology” was the Chairman of the Anthropology Department and seemed to be unusually encouraging towards female students – Margaret Mead and Zora Neale Hurston also studied with him, though a bit before Ruth did.
For her doctoral thesis, Underhill lived with and studied the Papago (Tohono O’odham) in southern Arizona for over three years. Out of that came her Autobiography of a Papago Woman (1936) about Maria Chona, a Papago elder and leader of her tribe. This was the first published autobiography of a Native American woman. Now, I cannot tell a lie — some of the attitudes are a little cringy for today’s sensibilities. But for the time it was groundbreaking – Underhill documented the rites, ceremonies and history of Chona and her tribe. Underhill even wrote about the rituals surrounding menstruation, which must have been shocking for that time. Heck, it’s kind of shocking for THIS time.
Underhill received her doctorate in 1937 and began collaborating with Dr. Gladys Reichard at Barnard studying Navajo culture. From there, Underhill went on to work for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, becoming Supervisor of Indian Education and helping develop curricula for Native American reservation schools. (The irony of course is that one of her ancestors, Captain John Underhill, is infamous for his brutal tactics against the Native Americans in the 1600s. He led several bloody massacres and murdered hundreds (if not thousands) of Lenape during the Dutch era in New York State. Here’s an example of a nearby atrocity he spearheaded.)
Underhill spent her career traveling extensively, studying, writing and teaching. Here’s her 1952 visa to Brazil which I include just because I have this image:
Ruth ended her career as a Professor of Anthropology at the University of Denver and died just shy of her 101st birthday.