Posts Tagged ‘S. Ann Dunham’

A Singular Woman:The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mother by Janny Scott

Monday, March 23rd, 2015

March is Women’s History Month and the way I choose to celebrate this occasion is to review of A Singular Woman by Janna Scott, a New York Times reporter who has written this book eloquently.   The subtitle is “The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mother.” And it is quite a story.


The author has certainly done her homework. As the back flap of the book cover states: “Exploring the many unknown chapters of Dunham’s life, Janny Scott traveled to Indonesia and Hawaii, and across the continental United States.” The book includes many interviews with family members, friends, and colleagues and reveals a woman who lived a short, but unorthodox life filled daily with her need to pursue her love of anthropology.

Dunham was born in 1945, only five years after I was born, so reading about her childhood in Kansas had some similarities, although she was much braver than I was as a teen.  In one speech, when Obama described his father and mother in 2008, he noted: “I am the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas,” he does not adequately describe this “singular woman” who raised a bi-racial son (Barack) and daughter (Maya) with courage and generosity during a time when interracial marriage in the U.S. was unaccepted. Her first husband was from Kenya and her second husband was from Indonesia. She did not stay married to either of them and basically was a single mother.

The book is fascinating, taking us from Dunham’s life in Kansas to her life spent as an anthropologist in Indonesia, where she was well ahead of her time in discussing  and developing the idea of micro-credit and micro-financing. As Wikipedia states:  “Interested in craftsmanship, weaving and the role of women in cottage industries, Dunham’s research focused on women’s work on the island of Java and blacksmithing in Indonesia. To address the problem of poverty in rural villages, she created microcredit programs while working as a consultant for the United States Agency for International Development.” Her 1992 Ph.D. thesis/dissertation was made into a book. It is entitled: Surviving against the Odds: Village Industry in Indonesia, based on Dunham’s original 1992 dissertation.

After reading her life, I have to say that at a very young age, Dunham seemed to be on a mission to make a difference in the world. Her values and research and travels had an impact on her children and helped shaped President Obama’s own life, which he has noted, despite that fact that his mother sent him back to her parents in Hawaii for much of his later schooling, because his mother felt he needed a better education than what was available in Indonesia. A large part of the book also acquaints us with Dunham’s younger child, Maya, who became a teacher.

The book has many black and white photos showing Ms. Dunham and her children, husbands, and colleagues from the very early years to the 1990s. Her untimely death from cancer at age 52, as her son was campaigning for public office, meant that she never really knew how far he could go, even thought she thought he would become someone important. But the choices in life that she made, her work in cottage industries in Indonesia, the courage to marry men of color, and her strong desire to give her two children strong values do show how far she did go to shape her and her children’s lives.

This book was not only well written, but a joy to read. Perhaps seeing how one Kansas-born American woman can make a difference not only in her children’s lives, but in the lives of those she touched while working in Indonesia was very uplifting to me.

A Singular Woman by Janny Scott is published by Riverhead Books and costs $26.95. It would make a great gift to any young woman looking for a role model to carve out a career where she makes a difference in the lives of many other women.

P.S. I recommend that you check out the website for National Women’s History Museum, a project in Washington, DC. The website is: Here is an important announcement from their website:

Congress Votes To Create Congressional Commission To Study Creation of National Women’s History Museum

DECEMBER 12, 2014 – WASHINGTON, D.C. – The National Women’s History Museum (NWHM) today announced Congressional approval of legislation calling for the creation of a privately funded, bipartisan congressional commission to study and produce a plan for a national women’s history museum in the nation’s capital. The bipartisan legislation co-sponsored by Senator Susan Collins (R-ME), Representative Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) and Representative Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) now heads to the White House where it awaits President Obama’s signature.