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  • Writer's pictureK.E. Berr

Ruth Landes

Pioneer of Women and Race

Ruth Landes was an American anthropologist, who was best known for her extensive studies on women and race. She studied various Indigenous populations, but focused specifically on Brazil.

Ruth Landes in 1938.

Early Life

"Ruth gleaning in the field of Boaz" by Jean-François Millet.

Ruth Landes was born Ruth Schlossberg on October 8th, 1908 in New York City to Russian-Jewish immigrants. Her name was given to her after her pregnant mother saw the portrait "Ruth gleaning in the field of Boaz" by Jean-François Millet.

From an early age, Landes' home life was not one of comfort and love. Her mother was distant and cold, once even stating after Landes' birth that she never wanted children, despite the fact she already had Landes and would go on to have a son. Her mother's neglect when it came to parenting caused conflict and her relationship with her mother would remain strained throughout Landes' life.

Landes' father was also distant, often never having enough time for his wife or children. He was a prominent member of the Amalgamated Clothing Union (known by the acronym ACW) and tended to bury himself in his work.

Despite her fathers disconnect from his family, his work would go on to benefit Landes. She often followed him to meetings, being able to witness debates and giving her a strong understanding of labour politics. This also gave her a strong sense of where women stood in society. Unlike other unions, the ACW accommodated women, many of whom were suffragists. Landes witnessed women taking a strong stance, speaking out against representation in the workplace, working conditions, sexual harassment and pay. These women were considered radical, but to Landes, they served as role models.

Another perk of her father's involvement in the ACW was an educational program introduced in 1917. This program gave Landes an opportunity to see concerts, movies and even lectures by professors at Columbia University (then called the New York School of Social Work). These lectures often covered history, economics, English, arts, and anthropology.

As a child, Landes' further understanding of different backgrounds came from the ethnically diverse schools she attended as a child. This gave her an opportunity to meet people of different cultures and develop her own thoughts and feelings without the bias of mainstream society or religion. Despite Landes' own Jewish background, her upbringing had never been firmly based in religion.

School had always been an area in which Landes excelled. Despite the divide between Landes and her parents, she had always been encouraged to succeed in school. In 1924, Landes graduated from high school. She went on to study sociology at New York University and received her bachelor's degree in 1928. A year later, in 1929, she received a master's degree from Columbia University.

On June 14th, 1929, Landes married medical student Victor Landes. Before the wedding, Landes had taken her first job. Her parents and her husband both expected her to quit after the wedding, but Landes insisted that she keep the job. Compared to her parents, Landes was very liberal. Her parents practiced traditional, conservative marriage roles, and expected their daughter to be similar. The fact that she did not only led to more tension in their relationship. It also created strain between her and her husband. The strain was furthered by Landes' rejection to having children, something she was adamant about after her upbringing. The marriage ended after only two years. Although, she kept his name in order to avoid the stigma around being a divorced woman.

Landes returned to Columbia University a few years later to study anthropology, earning a Ph.D. in 1935. While studying anthropology, she studied under Ruth Benedict and Franz Boas. By 1935, she not only had a high school diploma but a bachelor's degree, master's degree and Ph.D., a feat for any woman.


Beginning in 1929, Landes worked as a social worker. Her career in anthropology, though, began the same year when she began a study on black Jews in Harlem. She continued this study until 1932 and wrote her first manuscript based on this study. She gave this manuscript to Franz Boas, and he sent it to his friend, another anthropologist by the name of Richard Thurnwald. It has now been lost after it was burned by the Nazis in 1934.

From 1932 until 1936 she studied Native American peoples. She first travelled to Manitou Rapids in Ontario, Canada to study the roles of Ojibwa women in their tribes. After, she travelled to Minnesota to study the Dakota and Chippewa. She also stayed in Kansas from 1935 until 1936 to study in-depth the Potawatomi tribe of Kansas.

The cover of Landes' book "Ojibwa Women" (1938)

With this research, she was able to earn her Ph. D in anthropology. She also published five monographs on her research, including Ojibwa Women (1938) and Cooperation and Competition among Primitive Peoples (1937), which was edited by Margaret Mead, another prominent anthropologist. This research would earn Landes a spot in the first generation of professional female anthropologists.

In 1937, she intended to return to the Potawatomi Tribe, but she was instead invited by Benedict to join a research team from Columbia University. This team was to travel to Bahia, Brazil and conduct research on Brazilian women. Ruth accepted this invite and cancelled her plans to return to the Potawatomi Tribe.

In order to prepare for her trip to Brazil, Landes briefly taught at Fisk University in Nashville. Through this job, she was able to access a large collection of African and African-American materials. She was also able to consult with sociologists Robert E. Park and Donald Pierson, who had both already studied African-American peoples. Donald Pierson had even already been to Brazil for research. During this time, Landes would also write Now, at Athens, an unpublished memoir of both fictional and non-fictional stories.

Landes in Brazil, circa 1938

In 1938, Landes arrived in the Candomblé region in Bahia. Here, she mainly studied the role of Brazilian women in their communities, although she also studied homosexuals and interracial relations, comparing the latter with the research she conducted in Harlem.

Part of the 1938 Brazilian research team. From left to right Claude Lévi-Strauss, Ruth Landes, Charles Wagley, Heloísa Alberto Torres, Luís de Castro Faria, Raimundo Lopes, and Edison Carneiro.

However, due to Landes status as a single female, she was unable to freely move around Brazil. Due to this, she often travelled with Boas and Benedict. However, she spent the most time travelling with Edison Carneiro, a Bahian journalist and folklorist. Carneiro would become a trusted colleague, often helping Landes to get into rituals and talk with people that would otherwise be closed off to her.

Landes with Carneiro, circa 1938.

Although, her close association with Carneiro would come to work against her. Carneiro had closely associated himself with the Brazilian Communist Party, and Landes was suspected of being a communist, too. She was forced to leave Brazil much earlier than expected, returning to America in 1939. These suspicions proved to be wrong. Landes actually was not a communist, but a socialist.

Landes did gain some valuable research from her brief trip, though. From itl, Landes was able to publish A Cult Matriarchate and Male Homosexuality (1940) and her most recognized book, City of Women (1947).

After returning to New York, Landes briefly worked for sociologist Gunnar Myrdal, where she studied African-Americans. Unfortunately, she lost this position, allegedly due to a slanderous letter. This letter claimed that Landes had used unethical research methods while in Brazil. These claimes were never proven to be true and Landes would struggle to find permanent work in the anthropological field after this.

Later Life and Career

In 1941, at the start of World War II, Ruth was appointed to research director for the Office of the Coordinator for Inter-American Affairs by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. She also served as a consultant for the President's Fair Employment Practices Committee on African-American and Mexican-American Cases from 1941 until 1945. This led to a position in which she directed a program to study pending New York anti-discrimination legislation.

Landes moved to Los Angeles in 1946 in order to begin working for the L.A. Metropolitan Welfare Council. Here, she studied race and youth in gangs. Her stint in Los Angeles, however, was short-lived. In 1948, she moved back to New York where she worked as a contract researcher for the American Jewish Congress. She held this position for two years until 1950.

During this time, Landes also participated in Columbia University's research into contemporary cultures, in which she studied Jewish families. This research lasted from 1949 until 1951. It also led to her co-authoring the study Hypothesis Concerning the Eastern European Jewish Family with Mark Zborowski. During this time, she was also finally able to return to study the Potawatomi tribe in Kansas.

In 1951, Landes moved to London, England to study race relations. She returned back to the United States a year later and held several short-term positions at various universities. Beginning in 1953 and lasting until 1954, Landes taught at the William Alanson White Psychiatric Institution in New York. From 1953 until 1955, she taught at the New School for Social Research, also in New York. In 1957, she briefly taught at the University of Kansas. From 1957 until 1962, she taught at the University of Southern California.

For a year, beginning in 1958, Landes served as the Director of Geriatrics at the L.A. Health Department. In 1959, when this ended, Landes travelled to Claremont, California to help create and direct Claremont Anthropology and Education Program at Claremont University. In 1963, she taught at both Columbia University and the Los Angeles State College. In 1964, she taught at Tulane University in New Orleans and returned to the University of Kansas.

Landes also remarried in 1956, to a man by the name of Ignacio Luterte Lopez. Although, this marriage was also short-lived, lasting only a year.

Landes, pictured during the 1960's.

Landes finally found steady work in 1965. That is when she took a job at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. Here, she taught Anthropology. In 1966, Landes also returned to Brazil, when she travelled to Rio de Janeiro in order to study the effects of urban development.

Despite the fact that in 1939 Landes was forced to leave Brazil due to her close association with him, she and Carneiro remained close. In fact, in 1967, when Carneiro was serving as the director of the Ministry of Education, he commissioned the first Portuguese translation of City of Women. Also in 1967, Landes rewrote and published her findings on black Jews in Harlem from 1929, under the title of Negro Jews in Harlem.

However, in 1973, at the age of 65, Landes was forced to retire from her job at McMaster due to Ontario's retirement laws. Although, she continued to serve as a professor emerita. She would refer to this time in Hamilton as "exile".

In 1971, Landes' father died at the age of 95, and in 1976, her mother passed away, also aged 95. Landes did not attend either funeral.

On February 11th, 1991, Ruth Landes passed away at 82 years old. Soon after her death, the Ruth Landes Memorial Research Fund was established at the Research Institute for the Study of Man under the Reed Foundation in New York.

Despite the struggles she faced throughout her personal and professional life, Ruth Landes is now recognized as a pioneer in the study of race and gender relations.

Further Resources

  • Ruth Landes: A Life in Anthropology, is a biography on Landes by Sally Cole. It covers the majority of her life, and gives further context to not only her life and work, but to her early life and how her parents influenced it.


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