Gene Weltfish (Born Regina Weltfish) (August 7, 1902 – August 2, 1980) was an American anthropologist and historian working at Columbia University from 1928 to 1953. She studied with Franz Boas and was a specialist in the culture and history of the Pawnee people. Her 1965 ethnography The Lost Universe is considered the authoritative work on Pawnee culture to this day.
She is also known for the 1943 pamphlet for the U.S. Army called The Races of Mankind, which she co-wrote with Ruth Benedict, meant to teach military personnel about the cultural differences between the peoples of the world. In the text they argued that perceived differences between the races are cultural rather than biological. Among the data used in the text was an IQ study that had found higher scores among some northern Blacks than among some southern Whites. The pamphlet was not widely circulated within the army, and eventually it was banned as subversive. Weltfish was engaged in social activism and attracted the attention of the FBI which suspected her to be a communist. In 1952 and 1953 she was called in for questioning by two of the committees dedicated to investigating "un-American activity" during the 1950s red scare. Two weeks before appearing at the 1953 hearing in which she refused to answer questions from Roy Cohn and Joseph McCarthy as to whether she was a communist, her 16 year appointment at Columbia was terminated, and she was unable to find an academic position for nearly a decade.
One of two daughters born into a German Jewish family in New York's Lower East Side, Gene Weltfish grew up speaking German as her first language, taught by a German governess hired by her grandfather. Her father, to whom she was very close, died when she was 13. Encouraged by her grandmother, she went to the synagogue to say the kaddish for him, an honor and responsibility traditionally reserved for a son. Without a father, the family was in a difficult economic situation. Because her father had died without a will, his estate was kept in trust by the state, which required formal notarized petitions for every disbursement. To help the family, at 14 Weltfish started working as a school clerk while attending high school in the evenings.
Graduating from high school in 1919, she entered Hunter College where she majored in journalism, then transferred to Columbia University's Barnard College. At Barnard she minored in philosophy under John Dewey. She graduated from Barnard in 1925 and enrolled in Columbia's graduate program in anthropology. She had already taken courses with Franz Boas during her senior year and continued to study with him as her adviser. She married fellow graduate student Boasian anthropologist and Siouanist, Alexander Lesser, and they remained married for 15 years. Their daughter Ann was born in 1931. The two did their first field work together in Oklahoma, working on Siouan kinship systems. Initially not sure which indigenous tribe to work with for her dissertation, Weltfish met a Henry Moses of the Pawnee tribe in New York and decided to do her work with his community. She arrived in the mostly monolingual community with no prior knowledge of the Pawnee language, but during her studies she picked it up. She focused on the study of aesthetics and craftsmanship, learning the art of basket-making practiced exclusively by Pawnee women. Her doctoral dissertation from Columbia was titled The Interrelation of Technique and Design in North American Basketry. She completed her dissertation in 1929, but did not formally receive her Ph.D. until 1950, when Columbia modified its policy requiring the costly publishing ($4,000) of dissertations and began accepting mimeographed theses as well.
Career at Columbia University
In 1935 she was invited by Boas to teach at Columbia, where she stayed on a year-to-year appointment until 1953. Among her students at Columbia was Eleanor Leacock. Columbia University never granted her tenure, most likely because of a long standing practice of discrimination against tenuring women. Once Ruth Benedict, the first woman to ever have achieved tenure at Columbia, intervened on her behalf at a board meeting, when the trustees were considering terminating her employment.
The Races of Mankind
One of Weltfish's minor works, cowritten with Ruth Benedict, had a surprisingly great effect. Published in 1943, The Races of Mankind was a pamphlet intended for American troops. It set forth, in simple language with cartoon illustrations, the scientific case against racist beliefs. The publication of this pamphlet and the subsequent political furor that it caused, when it was decried as a piece of socialist propaganda, attracted the attention of anti-Communist authorities.
The pamphlet represented the Boasian way of thinking about race which later became the standard view in anthropology and was endorsed with a 1948 UNESCO declaration, but at the time this was politically controversial, especially in the American South, where Jim Crow was still in rigor. Weltfish herself described her motivations for writing the pamphlet:
"During the first four years of my graduate training at Columbia, Hitler rose to power in Germany, bolstering his heinous operations with racist theories developed from distorted anthropology. The books of Franz Boas were burned in Germany. In 1942, after [Boas'] death, Ruth Benedict, my senior colleague in the Anthropology Department, and I felt that we should carry the banner on the race question. In 1943, Ruth Benedict and I collaborated on a pamphlet, "The Races of Mankind," published by the Public Affairs Committee. The pamphlet was originally written at the request of the U.S.O. for distribution to the men in the armed forces who had to fight side by side with allies such as the Huks in the Philippines and the Solomon Islanders. "The Races of Mankind" was used, not only for orientation by the army, but in the de-Nazification program in Germany after the war."—(Memo by Weltfish, October 24, 1967, quoted in Pathe 1989:375)
The most controversial statement was the mention of a set of IQ tests administered to the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) in World War I, in which "Southern Whites" scored below "Northern Negroes". Weltfish and Benedict argued that "The difference....[arose] because of differences of income, education, cultural advantages, and other opportunities," since southern schools spent only a fraction of the amount spent on education in the North. This was the statement that led to a general outcry in the military. The bulk of the pamphlet was dedicated to explaining that perceived differences in group mental abilities vary in accordance with social and cultural factors, not biological ones.
Far-right political groups in the US and elsewhere still consider Weltfish's work to be part of a conspiracy by Boas and his students to eliminate the study of race in psychology and anthropology in "preparation for the defeat of 'White Civilization' by the Jews".
Blacklisted during the McCarthy period
In 1953 Weltfish lost her position at Columbia University, after 16 years of employment as an adjunct lecturer. The FBI had been interested in her political activities for some time, and in 1944 the head of the Anthropology department Ralph Linton, who had replaced Boas in 1937, reported her to the FBI for alleged communist sympathies. The FBI investigated Weltfish's activities noting her political engagement in the Congress of American Women, her signatures on civil rights petitions, and her appearance on the radio station WNBC. The Congress of American Women, of which Weltfish was once president, had been placed on a list of subversive organizations in the 1940s when they criticized some of President Truman's foreign policies.
In 1952 Weltfish was quoted in the Daily Worker as repeating a claim made by Soviet critics that the US Army had used germ warfare in the Korean War. Shortly thereafter she was subpoenaed to appear before the McCarran Senate Judiciary Committee to Investigate the Administration of the Internal Security Act, where she was questioned in the fall of 1952. She refused to answer questions about her political affiliations, but when asked about the Daily Worker article she said that she had been misquoted.
In 1953 Senator Joseph McCarthy's Senate Committee on Governmental Operations was conducting hearings to determine whether un-American literature was being purchased by American libraries. Weltfish was called in for questioning regarding her role in writing the pamphlet The Races of Mankind, which had been declared subversive. Two weeks before she was scheduled to appear, the trustees of Columbia informed Weltfish that her employment would not be renewed at the end of the year. The university stated that the reason for her dismissal was the introduction of a new policy against the prolonged use of annual contract-based lecturers, although other lecturers affected by the change were advanced to tenured positions rather than being dismissed. Weltfish herself maintained that she was fired because she was a woman. Later historians have concluded that she was in fact fired because the trustees saw her as a political liability in the politically charged environment of the red scare.
On April 1, 1953, she was questioned by the United States Senate Subcommittee on Internal Security staffed by Roy Cohn and consisting of Senators Joseph McCarthy, Karl Mundt, John McClellan and Stuart Symington. Weltfish responded negatively to the committee's demands that she name colleagues with communist sympathies. Asked about her own political position she refused to answer, invoking the Fifth Amendment. Weltfish simply noted that "she thought of herself as a good American and acted on issues as her conscience and knowledge dictated". When asked about the nature of the claim made in the pamphlet that some northern blacks had scored higher on intelligence tests than southern whites, Weltfish responded that that particular data set came from the US Army's own records.
Having lost her employment at Columbia, Weltfish was effectively blacklisted and remained unable to find a teaching position for the next eight years. She did receive some research support from the Nebraska Foundation and Bollingen Foundation which allowed her to work on museum materials from the Pawnee collection at the University of Nebraska. This she used to write the book The Lost Universe about Pawnee history and ethnography, published in 1965.
In 1961 she found employment at Fairleigh Dickinson University, where she worked until 1972, having reached the mandatory retirement age of 70. After her retirement from Fairleigh Dickinson University, Weltfish continued teaching, as a part-time faculty member at the New School for Social Research and Manhattan School of Music and as a visiting professor at Rutgers University, where she participated in a new program in gerontology. She died in August 1980.
- 1930a. Prehistoric North American Basketry Techniques and Modern Distributions. American Anthropologist 32:454-495.
- 1930b. Coiled Gambling Baskets of the Pawnee and Other Plains Tribes. Indian Notes and Monographs 7:277-295. Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation.
- 1931a. Pottery Implements of the Ancient Basket-Makers. Plains Anthropologist 33:263.
- 1931b. White-on-red Pottery from Cochiti Pueblo. Plains Anthropologist 33:263-264.
- 1932a. Preliminary Classification of Prehistoric Southwestern Basketry. Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections, Vol.87, No.6.
- 1932b. Problems in the Study of Ancient and Modern Basket-Makers. American Anthropologist 34:108-117.
- 1932c. Composition of the Caddoan Linguistic Stock. (Coauthor Alexander Lesser) Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections, Vol.87, No.6.
- 1936. The Vision of Fox Boy, a South Band Pawnee Text, with Translations and Grammatical Analysis. International Journal of American Linguistics 9:44-75.
- 1937. Caddoan Texts: Pawnee, South Band Dialect. Publication of the American Ethnological Society, Vol.17.
- 1943. The Races of Mankind. (Coauthor Ruth Benedict) The Public Affairs Committee, New York.
- 1953. The Origins of Art. Bobbs-Merrill, Indianapolis, Indiana.
- 1956. The Perspective for Fundamental Research in Anthropology. The Philosophy of Science 23:63-73.
- 1958a. The Linguistic Study of Material Culture. International Journal of American Linguistics 24:301-311.
- 1958b. The Anthropologist and the Question of the Fifth Dimension. In Culture in History, edited by Stanley Diamond. Columbia University Press, New York.
- 1959. The Question of Ethnic Identity, an Ethnohistorical Approach. Ethnohistory 6:321-346.
- 1960. The Ethnic Dimension of Human History: Pattern or Patterns of Culture? in Selected Papers, Fifth International Congress of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences, edited by Anthony C. Wallace. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia.
- 1965. The Lost Universe. Basic Books, New York.
- 1971. The Plains Indians: Their Continuity in History and Their Indian Identity. In North American Indians in Historical Perspective, Edited by Eleanor Burke Leacock and Nancy Oestreich Lurie. Random House, New York.
- Pathe, R.A. (1988). "Gene Weltfish (1902-1980)". In U. Gacs, A. Khan, J. McIntyre, and R. Weinberg (Eds.), Women Anthropologists: A Biographical Dictionary (pp. 372-381). New York: Greenwood. ISBN 9780313244148. p. 373
- Ogilvie, Marilyn; Harvey, Joy, eds. (2000). "Weltfish, Gene". The Biographical Dictionary of Women in Science: L-Z. Taylor & Francis. pp. 1364–6.
- Pathe (1988), p. 374
- Pathe (1988), p. 378
- Benedict received tenure in 1938, after having been an assistant professor since 1931, much longer than any man would have had to wait, and she only received a full professorship in 1948 months before her death
- Silverman, Sydel. (2004). Totems and Teachers: Key Figures in the History of Anthropology. Rowman Altamira p. 118
- Benedict, R. and Weltfish, G. (1943) The Races of Mankind. New York: The Public Affairs Committee. Inc.
- Price, David H. (2004). Threatening Anthropology: McCarthyism and the FBI's Surveillance of Activist Anthropologists. Duke University Press p. 112
- Pathe (1988), p. 375
- Winston, A.S. (2001) "The Boas Conspiracy": The history of the behavioral sciences as viewed from the extreme right. In History & Theory of Psychology Evening Colloquia 2000-2001 announcement. Available: 
- Price 2004:132 notes that Pathe 1988 is in error when he states that she was fired in 1952
- Pathe (1988), p. 377
- Price (2004), pp. 123-4
- Grutzner, Charles (September 26, 1952). "Senate Red Inquiry 'Visitor' Put on Stand as Spy Suspect". The New York Times.
- Price (2004), pp. 131-2
- Lissner, Will (April 1, 1953). "Columbia is Dropping Dr. Weltfish, Leftist". The New York Times.
- Bosmajian, Haig. (1999). Freedom Not to Speak. NYU Press. pp. 134-5
- Price (2004), pp. 127-8
- Price (2004), p. 133