Whatever her brains, her talents and her dedication to the advancement of women, Stanley Ann Dunham appears most likely to be remembered, when she’s remembered at all, as “the white woman from Kansas” who married a black economist from Kenya and produced the 44th president of the United States, Barack Obama.
It’s a handy description, rich in contrasts, sexual drama and a sense of fateful forces at work. At the same time, it’s a woefully inadequate description of a woman who stood on the cusp of a new age for her gender and took advantage, with courage and spunk, of some of the immense opportunities it offered.
As former New York Times reporter Janny Scott observes in her illuminating new book, “A Singular Woman,” “To describe Dunham as ‘a white woman from Kansas’ is about as illuminating as describing her son as ‘a politician who likes golf.’” Or, we might add, Barbara Bush as a woman who fancies needlepoint pillows.
“Intentionally or not,” Scott contends, “the label obscures an extraordinary story -– of a girl with a boy’s name (her father also was named Stanley) who grew up in the years before the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the Vietnam War and the Pill; who married an African at a time when nearly two dozen (U.S.) states still had laws against interracial marriage; who, at age 24, moved to Jakarta with her son in the waning days of an anti-communist bloodbath…; who lived more than half of her adult life in a place barely known to most Americans, in an ancient and complex culture, in a country with the largest Muslim population in the world … who adored her children and believed her son in particular had the potential to be great. …”
All this and more is the real story of Dunham, who died in 1995 at age 52, a full 14 years before her biracial son became, in similar shorthand, the “first black president of the United States.”
It’s an awesome roster of achievement for a bright-eyed woman who found her life’s purpose not on the golden wheat farms of Kansas, but in academic and anthropological achievements in Hawaii and, subsequently, in Indonesia.
Stanley Ann Dunham was as distinctive as her name. She did not try to be like the Kansas girls who grew up around her. She strived to see and know the world and to understand the different cultures that had shaped it. Like her mother before her, she placed a high value on education. In fact, it’s fair to say that education counted more than almost any other pursuit for her. She would place the same value on it for her children.
Scott recounts for us President Obama’s wry observation that she had raised him “to be a combination of Albert Einstein, Mahatma Gandhi and Harry Belafonte.” The observation inspires a smile. Look closely, however, and in a reflection of the times there’s no woman on that list. Given the changing face of national politics, perhaps there soon will be. And Stanley Ann Dunham may be one of the reasons why.
Studying at the University of Hawaii after her parents moved to Honolulu, Ann Dunham met and married Barack Obama Sr., an aspiring economist from Kenya. She gave birth, at age 17, to a son. Life moved fast, and under the pressure of two diverging academic careers, the marriage faltered and failed.
Another marriage, this time to an Indonesian, Lolo Soetoro. Another child, this time a daughter, Maya, and, soon, another separation and divorce, this one in Indonesia, where she was trying to advance loan opportunities for women, led Dunham to a difficult decision. Her son “Barry” was 10 years old. He needed an education superior to any she could give him in Jakarta. So she sent him – alone – back to Hawaii to live with her parents. There, he would enter fifth grade at the prestigious private Punahou School, the first step on a journey in education that would take him, ultimately, to Harvard Law School.
Yet let’s not be too neat with our facts. Obama’s education began not in a schoolroom, but in the world around him. “The opportunity that Hawaii offered – to experience a variety of cultures in a climate of mutual respect,” he would later say, “is an integral part of my world view and a basis for the values that I hold most dear.”
Even so, his childhood years with his grandparents in Hawaii also marked another step in the unusual arc of Obama’s life that would fuel conjecture and criticism in later years about his citizenship and, by implication, his right to be president. Hawaii is not Kansas, and people who have never been there sometimes find its status as a full-fledged state difficult to grasp. For them, Hawaii is a strangely exotic place of leis and hula dancers, beaches and palms, not an incubator of presidents.
Scott, for her part, underscores a far different view. She elicits this comment about Obama from Elizabeth Bryant, an American who met Ann and her young son in Indonesia in those early years: “I think he’s a mixture of cultures, and that makes him more worldly. He has the manners of Asians and the ways of Americans … being patient, calm, a good listener. If you’re not a good listener in Indonesia you’d better leave,” Bryant affirms.
Meanwhile, with her son settled into school in Hawaii, Dunham moves on with her own studies of women and their options in economic development that would take up the rest of her life.
Before her life ended, however, she left an important message to her daughter, Maya, the child of her second marriage. “Women have choices, Ann reminded her. They had gone through the women’s movement, she said, yet they continued to act as if they had no options. They needed to ask themselves what they really wanted, then go out and get it,” Scott tells us.
That’s good advice for women and for the American president this challenging “white woman from Kansas” did so much to create.