Pitzer Professor Susan Seymour’s New Biography Reveals the Remarkable Life of Harvard’s First Tenured Female Professor

2015-04-17-book-susan-seymourClaremont, Calif. (April 17, 2015)—Pitzer College Professor Emerita of Anthropology Susan C. Seymour’s upcoming book, Cora Du Bois: Anthropologist, Diplomat, Agent, tells the story of Harvard University’s first tenured female professor who served as a high-ranking intelligence officer during World War II. The University of Nebraska Press will publish the biography next month.

Du Bois was a trailblazer, and not only in academia. She was also the only woman to head one of the branches of the Office of Strategic Services (predecessor of the CIA) during WWII. She went on to become president of the American Anthropological Association. As an opponent of US involvement in Vietnam, a lesbian and a liberal activist living during the McCarthy era, Du Bois faced many obstacles throughout her career.

“She was a woman of principle and courage,” Seymour said. “Du Bois was, I argue, a ‘first woman’ in several arenas.”

In Cora Du Bois, Seymour draws on letters, journals, Du Bois’ poetry and scores of interviews with former students and colleagues. She also incorporates her first-hand knowledge of Du Bois, who served as Seymour’s professor and adviser when Seymour was a graduate student at Harvard. Seymour weaves all her sources into a page-turning portrait of this multidimensional woman’s personal and professional lives as well as the complex era she helped to shape.

“Susan Seymour has produced a captivating, extremely well-written narrative that has much to offer multiple audiences that include anthropologists and students of the history of ideas and social science, but also more general readers interested in the biography of a brilliant, independent gay woman who forged an important career in an era when social obstacles made such accomplishments very rare,” said David H. Price, professor of anthropology and sociology at Saint Martin’s University.

The journalist and social activist Sam Smith—one of Du Bois’ former students who Seymour interviewed for the biography—says that Du Bois “had both the courage and the loneliness of an explorer, only charting new values rather than new space.”

“Every generation has such people, but they are easily lost as we attend to the grander movements and changes that follow,” Smith writes in Undernews, the online report of the Progressive Review. “We forget that behind such movements and changes are endless lonely struggles, forgotten stories, and people who dare to do what others won’t. Cora Du Bois is an inspiring example, and Susan Seymour has done us a terrific service by telling us why.”

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

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