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During the last presidential election campaign, we heard scant little about the woman who gave birth to and raised President Barak Obama. This is a shame, as she was an extraordinary woman, who rose from a simple past to achieve great things in her short life.
She was born Stanley Ann Dunham in 1942 in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, while her dad was serving in the US army. An only child — a disappointing girl — she was named for her father who had hoped for a son.
After the war, her family moved to California, Texas, and Seattle, Washington, where her father was a furniture salesman and her mother was a vice president of a bank. In 1956, when she was 13, they moved to Mercer Island, Washington, so she could attend Mercer Island High School. There, she was encouraged to challenge societal norms and question authority.
Dunham took to these lessons wholeheartedly. She gravitated toward an intellectual clique, saw foreign films at Seattle’s only art-house theater, and trekked to University District coffee shops to talk about jazz, the value of learning from other cultures and the “very dull Eisenhower-ness of our parents.”
She questioned pretty much everything and became a budding beatnik. Her school friends remember her as “intellectually way more mature than we were and a little bit ahead of her time, in an off-center way.” One high school pal described her: “If you were concerned about something going wrong in the world, Stanley would know about it first. We were liberals before we knew what liberals were.” Another called her “the original feminist.”
Upon her high school graduation, the family moved to Hawaii and she enrolled in college there, introducing herself for the first time as Ann. While a student at the University of Hawaii, she met a Kenyon student Barack Obama, Senior. Her liberal values allowed her to break the taboo of the time and date him. Within a year, they were married with the consent of Barack’s first wife, which was a tribal custom, though against the wishes of all four parents.
In 1961, at age 18, she gave birth to a son, Barack. She quit school to take care of him, while Barack, Sr. finished his undergraduate work. When he was offered a scholarship to Harvard, he left Ann and his one-year old son, to see him only one more time in his life nine years later. She filed for divorce, enrolled in school first in Seattle and then in Maui, where she struggled as a single mother and full time student.
While still an undergraduate student, she met and fell in love with an Indonesian student, Lolo Soetoro. They married in 1967 and moved to Jakarta, Indonesia. In Indonesia, Dunham enriched her son’s education with correspondence courses in English, recordings of Mahalia Jackson, and speeches by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. She sent the young Obama back to Hawaii rather than stay in Asia with her, an extremely painful decision.
Soetoro and Dunham had a daughter, Maya Kassandra Soetoro, in August 1970. In the 1970s, as Dunham wished to return to work, Soetoro wanted more children. She once said that he became more American as she became more Javanese. Ann Dunham left Soetoro in 1972, returned to Hawaii and to graduate school in Honolulu in 1974, while raising Barack and Maya. When Dunham returned to Indonesia for field work in 1977 with Maya, Barack chose not to go, preferring to finish high school in the United States.
Although Ann loved and married two Muslim men and her parents were Christian, she, herself, was a free thinker. She gave both her children the holy books of the world’s religions — the Old and New Testament, the Koran, the Upanishads, Buddhist texts — and encouraged them to find their own spiritual paths. She was a firm believer in rigorous intellectual thinking and action based on compassion.
Ann earned a BA in mathematics in 1967, a MA in Anthropology on o1983, and finally a PhD in Anthropology in 1992. She then pursued a career in rural development championing women’s work and micro-credit for the world’s poor, working with Indonesia’s oldest bank, the United States Agency for International Development, the Ford Foundation, Women’s World Banking, and as a consultant in Pakistan. She was active in her support of Indonesian human rights, women’s rights, and grassroots development.
Her career was cut short in 1994, when she was diagnosed with both ovarian and uterine cancer. She moved back to Hawaii to live near her widowed mother, and died there in 1995 at the age of 52.
Queen Ann accomplished a great deal in her abbreviated life. She succeeded in breaking through the barricades of a conservative 1950s upbringing to create an interesting, expansive, multiculturally rich life for herself and her children. This single accomplishment has already made a huge impact on our country and the entire world.
* Please send me your thoughts about power. Also stories of your own empowerment. When shared, these ideas and examples are extremely inspiring to others. Thanks.
The Queen welcomes questions concerning all issues of interest to women in their mature years. Send your inquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Queen Mama Donna offers upbeat, practical and ceremonial guidance for individual women and groups who want to enjoy the fruits of an enriching, influential, purposeful, passionate, and powerful maturity.