Ann Dunham: A Personal Reflection

Alice Dewey and Geoffrey White

Article reproduced from Anthropology News, November 2008, page 20.
All images courtesy of Bronwen Solyom.


Ann Dunham at Tanaha, Bali 1990s

Ann Dunham (also Ann Soetoro), now gaining recognition as Barack Obama’s late mother, was an anthropologist who embodied many of the values and visions of her time. Given that she is attracting increasing attention as the campaign for the Presidency heats up, we felt that other anthropologists would appreciate hearing something about her career (see, for example, David Maraniss, “Though Obama Had to Leave to Find Himself, It Is Hawaii That Made His Rise Possible,” Washington Post, August 22, 2008). Whereas the scope of an AN essay does not allow any kind of comprehensive portrait, our goal is to offer a brief personal reflection about Ann Dunham’s formative years as a practicing anthropologist. We’ve chosen an interview format, with one of us (White) interviewing the other (Dewey) as friend, colleague and former chair of Ann Dunham’s doctoral committee at the University of Hawai‘i.

Geoffrey White: What do you recall of Ann Dunham as a former student?


Ann Dunham and colleagues, Bank Rakyat Indonesia. 1989.

Alice Dewey: Well, first there is the matter of her name. Stanley Ann Dunham is her birth name. Her father had wanted a son so they called her Stanley. Then she got married and her name was Mrs. Barack Hussein Obama until she married her Indonesian husband and became Mrs. Lolo Soetoro, the old Dutch spelling. Everybody in Indonesia knew her as Ann Soetoro. She moved to Indonesia because she married Lolo Soetoro, a Javanese. But she soon came to love Java and the arts. She was herself a craftsman and weaver. She taught weaving and just loved it. Most of her clothes were Indonesian. Java was as much her home as Honolulu. Ideally, she moved back and forth. She’d be in Indonesia for a few years and then she’d get home sick for Honolulu and move back here for some months to pursue her studies, see her parents and friends, and then back to Java because she’d get homesick for Java and also need to earn money.


Ann and friend. Toraja?, Indonesia

GW: What can you tell us about Ann’s entry into anthropology?

AD: Despite some reports that she majored in mathematics, she majored in anthropology here at the University of Hawai‘i (BA 1967, Department of Anthropology, prior to the MA and PhD). That’s when she met Obama senior in a Russian language class and eventually married him. After she broke with Obama she married her second husband, Lolo Soetoro, in 1965 I think. When Ann, Lolo and Barack returned to Indonesia, she taught English in Jakarta. Her son Barry, who was six-ish, was starting first grade I think and her daughter Maya with Lolo was born several years later.

GW: It is obvious that Indonesia transformed Ann. Since that is your own field of interest, how do you read her involvement there?

AD: Ann stayed about four or five years in Indonesia before she and Barry returned to Hawai‘i. In the early 1970s she applied for graduate school and received a scholarship from the East-West Center, so she appeared back here with a lot of knowledge of Java and the crafts. She wasn’t like the undergraduate who finishes their BA, and shows up saying, ‘Gee what do I look at in my dissertation?’ She knew well what she wanted to do (“Well, there are these crafts that I want to study.”) When she came to do the MA she was already thinking about the dissertation. She was one of those students that you think ‘Why don’t I let her lecture?’ She had much more contemporary knowledge of Indonesia [than I]. She did really good research, intensive work in central Java. It was a time when the modernization paradigm held sway and the prevailing view was still that the village is falling apart and peasant society and the handicrafts had all disappeared. We both knew this was crap. And Ann knew that this is what she wanted to do for the rest of her life, to study this type of thing, talk about it, explain it, clarify it for other people, and guide people on how to assist the crafts people. There was also a gender dimension to her interest that would surface more clearly beyond the PhD as she took up work with the Ford Foundation and later USAID and the World Bank projects concerned with policies that would be, “beneficial to poor women with micro and small enterprises”. Just as Ann’s mother was a tough working woman, women in Indonesia are that. Nine tenths of the market is women. Iron tools are made and sold by men but the rest are women traders, craftswomen, farm women. They’re an essential part of the economy and the family.


Ann and friends. tile project, Lombok Indonesia.

GW: Why blacksmithing as a focus for her dissertation? (titled “Peasant Blacksmithing in Indonesia: Surviving and Thriving Against all Odds” 1992)?

AD: It’s powerful, spiritually powerful. The smithy area is sacred; women couldn’t go into that area. The story is that blacksmiths forged human souls for the next generation. There’s a carving in one of the temples depicting one of the demi-god heroes as a blacksmith. It’s highly symbolic. You put offerings on the anvil. So you have a sacred craft that developed over some 2000 years. She wanted to do the whole spectrum of crafts but that wasn’t practical for the kind of in-depth dissertation that she did. I’d say, “For God’s sake, choose one!” So she wrote a thousand pages on one, on the blacksmiths. The blacksmiths study was an example of a larger phenomenon. She was interested in crafts and their markets. Every time, she’d go to Indonesia, she’d go back to her blacksmithing village, Kajar near Yogyakarta, and get a chance to go to six other crafts villages as well, especially Batik. So she was constantly in and out of these villages and adding new ones and going out to the outer islands. She eventually set up microcredit schemes all over Indonesia as well as in Pakistan and Kenya.

Ann completed requirements for the MA in 1974 [although it was not formally granted until 1986]. Prior to that she was offered a job with the Ford Foundation (Regional Southeast Asia office in Jakarta) that suited her so well we said, “you’re still getting your degree but this is just the job you want when you finish. Go grab it now while the offer is hot.” And so she did. The best way to summarize the range of her work at that time is to quote from a letter written to Alice February 13, 1984:

“This year I have major projects for women working on plantations in West Java and North Sumatra; for women in kretek factories in Central and East Java; for street food sellers and scavengers in the cities of Jakarta, Jogja and Bandung; for women in credit cooperatives in East Java; for women in electronics factories, mainly in the Jakarta-Bogor area; for women in cottage industry cooperatives in the district of Klaten; for hand-loom weavers in West Timor; for shop girls along J1. Malioboro and market–sellers in Beringharjo (still tentative); for slum dwellers in Jakarta and Bandung; for street food sellers in Thailand….”

It wasn’t until 1992 that Ann would file her dissertation, just prior to taking up a position with Womens World Banking in New York. At the time of her death she was working for Bank Rakyat of Indonesia. She died on November 7, 1995 back in Hawai‘i.


Alice Dewey, Professor Emeritus, Department of Anthropology, University of Hawai‘i
Geoffrey White, Professor and Chair, Department of Anthropology, University of Hawai‘i

Ann Dunham at Tanaha, Bali 1990s

page last updated March 9, 2009