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Stanley Ann Dunham (November 29, 1942 – November 7, 1995), the mother of Barack Obama, the 44th President of the United States, was an Americanmarker anthropologist who specialized in economic anthropology and rural development. Dunham was nicknamed Anna, later known as Dr. Stanley Ann Dunham Soetoro, and finally Ann Dunham Sutoro. Born in Kansasmarker, Dunham spent her childhood in Californiamarker, Oklahomamarker, Texasmarker and Kansasmarker and her teenage years in Mercer Island, Washingtonmarker, and much of her adult life in Hawaiimarker and Indonesiamarker.

Dunham studied at the University of Hawaii and the East-West Center and attained a bachelor's, master's and Ph.D. in anthropology. Interested in craftsmanship, weaving and the role of women in cottage industries, Dunham's research focused on women's work on the island of Javamarker 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. Dunham was also employed by the Ford Foundation in Jakartamarker and she consulted with the Asian Development Bank in Pakistanmarker. Towards the latter part of her life, she worked with Bank Rakyat Indonesia where she helped apply her research to the largest microfinance program in the world.

After her son assumed the presidency, interest renewed in Dunham's work: The University of Hawaii held a symposium about her research; an exhibition of Dunham's Indonesian batik textile collection toured the United States; and in December 2009, Duke University Press is scheduled to publish Surviving against the Odds: Village Industry in Indonesia, a book based on Dunham's 1992 dissertation.

In an interview, Barack Obama referred to his mother as "the dominant figure in my formative years... The values she taught me continue to be my touchstone when it comes to how I go about the world of politics."

Early life

Stanley Ann Dunham was born on November 29, 1942, at St. Francis Hospital in Wichita, Kansasmarker to Madelyn Payne and Stanley Armour Dunham. Her parents were born in Kansas and met in Wichita where they married on May 5, 1940. After the attack on Pearl Harbormarker, her father joined the United States Army and her mother worked at a Boeing plant in Wichita.

Named after her father because he wanted a son, as a child and teenager she was known as "Stanley". Other children teased her about her name but she used it through high school, "apologizing for it each time she introduced herself in a new town". By the time Dunham had begun attending college, she was known by her middle name "Ann" instead. After World War II, Dunham moved with her parents from Wichita to Ponca City, Oklahomamarker, and from there to Vernon, Texasmarker, and then to El Dorado, Kansasmarker. In 1955, the family moved to Seattlemarker, Washingtonmarker where her father was employed as a furniture salesman and her mother worked as vice president of a bank. They lived in an apartment complex in the Wedgwood neighborhood where Ann attended Nathan Eckstein Junior High School.

In 1956, Dunham's family moved to Mercer Islandmarker, an Eastside suburb of Seattle. Dunham's parents wanted their 13-year-old daughter to attend the newly opened Mercer Island High School. At the school, teachers Val Foubert and Jim Wichterman taught the importance of challenging social norms and questioning authority to the young Dunham, and she took the lessons to heart: "She felt she didn't need to date or marry or have children." One classmate remembered her as "intellectually way more mature than we were and a little bit ahead of her time, in an off-center way," and a high school friend described her as knowledgeable and progressive: "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."

Family life and marriages

Stanley Armour Dunham, Ann Dunham, Maya Soetoro and Barack Obama, mid 1970s (l to r)
In August 1959, Hawaiimarker became the 50th state to be admitted into the Union. Dunham's parents sought business opportunities in the new state, and after graduating from high school in 1960, Dunham and her family moved to Hawaii. Dunham soon enrolled at the University of Hawaii at Mānoamarker. While attending a Russian language class, Dunham met Barack Obama, Sr., the school's first African student.

At the age of 23, Obama had come to Hawaii to pursue his education, leaving behind a pregnant wife and infant son in his home town of Nyang’oma Kogelomarker in Kenyamarker. Dunham and Obama were married on the Hawaiian island of Mauimarker on February 2, 1961, despite parental opposition from both families. Dunham was three months pregnant at the time of her marriage. Obama Sr. eventually informed Dunham about his first marriage in Kenya but claimed he was divorced. Years later, she would discover this was false. Obama Sr.'s first wife, Kezia, later said she had granted her consent for him to marry a second wife, in keeping with Luo customs.

On August 4, 1961, at the age of 18, Dunham gave birth to her first child, Barack Obama II. Friends in Washington State recall her visiting with her new baby in 1961. By January 1962, she had enrolled at the University of Washingtonmarker, and was living as a single mother in the Capitol Hillmarker neighborhood of Seattle with her son while her husband continued his studies in Hawaii. LeFevre and Lipson wrote:
Mary Toutonghi....recalls as best she can the dates she baby sat Barack as her daughter was 18 months old and was born in July of 1959 and that would have placed the months of babysitting Barack in January and February of 1962.... Anna was taking night classes at the University of Washington, and according to the University of Washington’s registrar’s office her major was listed as history. She was enrolled at the University of Washington in the fall of 1961, took a full course load in the spring of 1962 and had her transcript transferred to the University of Hawaii in the fall of 1962. Along with the Seattle Polk Directory, Marc Leavipp of the University of Washington Registrar's office confirms 516 13th Ave. E. was the address Ann Dunham had given upon registering at the University.
Both Anna Obama and Joseph Toutonghi were listed as residing at the same address, in the Seattle Reverse Directory, 1961-1962. See Dougherty, Phil. “Stanley Ann Dunham, mother of Barack Obama, graduates from Mercer Island High School in 1960,” (2009-02-07). Retrieved (2009-02-13). When Obama Sr. graduated from the University of Hawaii in June 1962, he was offered a scholarship to study in New York City with which he could have supported his family, but he declined it, preferring to attend the more prestigious Harvard Universitymarker. He left for Cambridge, Massachusettsmarker, where he would begin graduate study at Harvard in the fall of 1962. Dunham filed for divorce in Honolulumarker in January 1964. Obama Sr. did not contest, and the divorce was granted. Dunham returned to the university to study anthropology. During this time, her parents helped her raise the young Obama, and she also received food stamps. Dunham graduated from the University of Hawaii in 1967 with a bachelor's degree. Obama Sr. received a Masters degree (MA) in economics from Harvard in 1965 and in 1971, he came to Hawaii and visited his son Barack, then 10 years old; it was the last time he would see his son. In 1982, Obama Sr. was killed in a car accident.

Lolo Soetoro in 1971, with Ann, Maya and Barack.
It was at the East-West Center that Dunham met Lolo Soetoro, a student from Indonesia. They married in 1966 or 1967 and moved with six-year-old Barack to Jakarta, Indonesiamarker, just after the unrest surrounding the ascent of Suharto. In Indonesia, Soetoro worked as a government relations consultant with the American petroleum company Mobil. On August 15, 1970, Soetoro and Dunham had a daughter, Maya Kassandra Soetoro. In Indonesia, Dunham enriched her son's education with correspondence courses in English, recordings of Mahalia Jackson, and speeches by Martin Luther King Jr. Though the decision was painful for her, she sent the young Obama back to Hawaii to attend Punahou Schoolmarker rather than having him stay in Asia with her. Madelyn Dunham's job as a vice-president at the Bank of Hawaii helped pay the steep tuition, with some assistance from a scholarship. In the 1970s, Dunham wished to return to work, but Soetoro wanted more children. She once said that he became more American as she became more Javanese. Ann Dunham left Soetoro in 1972, returning to Hawaii and reuniting with her son Barack for several years. Soetoro and Dunham saw each other periodically in the 1970s when Dunham returned to Indonesia for her field work but did not live together again. They divorced in 1980 and she began using the name Ann Dunham Sutoro, with a modern spelling of her former husband's surname.

Dunham was not estranged from either ex-husband and encouraged her children to feel connected to their fathers.

Professional life

Dunham returned to graduate school in Honolulu in 1974, while raising Barack and Maya. When Dunham returned to Indonesia for field work in 1975 with Maya, after three years in Honolulu, Barack chose not to go, preferring to finish high school in Hawaii while living with his grandparents.

Having been a weaver, Dunham was interested in village industries, and she therefore moved to Yogyakartamarker, the center of Javanesemarker handicrafts. In 1992 she earned a Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Hawaii, under the supervision of Prof. Alice Dewey, with a dissertation titled Peasant blacksmithing in Indonesia: surviving and thriving against all odds. Anthropologist Michael Dove described the dissertation as "a classic, in-depth, on-the-ground anthropological study of a 1,200-year-old industry". Dunham's paper challenged popular perceptions regarding economically and politically marginalized groups, and countered the notions that the roots of poverty lie with the poor themselves and that cultural differences are responsible for the gap between less-developed countries and the industrialized West. According to Dove, Dunham

found that the villagers she studied in Central Java had many of the same economic needs, beliefs and aspirations as the most capitalist of Westerners.
Village craftsmen were "keenly interested in profits," she wrote, and entrepreneurship was “in plentiful supply in rural Indonesia,” having been “part of the traditional culture” there for a millennium…Based on these observations, Dr. Soetoro concluded that underdevelopment in these communities resulted from a scarcity of capital, the allocation of which was a matter of politics, not culture.
Antipoverty programs that ignored this reality had the potential, perversely, of exacerbating inequality because they would only reinforce the power of elites.
As she wrote in her dissertation, "many government programs inadvertently foster stratification by channeling resources through village officials," who then used the money to further strengthen their own status.

Dunham then pursued a career in rural development championing women’s work and microcredit for the world’s poor, with Indonesia’s oldest bank, the United States Agency for International Development, the Ford Foundation, Women's World Banking, and as a consultant in Lahore, Pakistanmarker. She mingled with leaders from organizations supporting Indonesian human rights, women's rights, and grass-roots development. While at the Ford Foundation, Dunham worked with Peter Geithner, father of Tim Geithner (who later became United States Secretary of the Treasury in her son's administration), to develop the Foundation's microfinance programs in Indonesia.

Illness and death

In late 1994, Dunham was living and working in Indonesia. One night, during dinner at a friend's house in Jakarta, she experienced stomach pain. A visit to a local physician misdiagnosed her symptoms as indigestion. Dunham returned to the United States in early 1995 and was examined at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Centermarker in New York City and diagnosed with uterine cancer. By this time, the cancer had spread to her ovaries. She moved back to Hawaii to live near her widowed mother and died on November 7, 1995, at the age of 52. Following a memorial service at the University of Hawaii, Obama and his sister spread their mother's ashes in the Pacific Oceanmarker at Lanai Lookoutmarker on the south side of Oahumarker. Obama scattered the ashes of his grandmother (Madelyn Dunham) in the same spot on December 23, 2008, weeks after his election to the presidency.

Obama touched upon his mother's death in a 30-second campaign advertisement ("Mother") arguing for health care reform. The ad featured a photograph of Dunham holding a young Obama in her arms as Obama talks about Dunham's last days worrying about expensive medical bills. The topic also came up in a 2007 speech in Santa Barbara:

I remember my mother.
She was 53 years old when she died of ovarian cancer, and you know what she was thinking about in the last months of her life?
She wasn’t thinking about getting well.
She wasn't thinking about coming to terms with her own mortality.
She had been diagnosed just as she was transitioning between jobs.
And she wasn’t sure whether insurance was going to cover the medical expenses because they might consider this a preexisting condition.
I remember just being heartbroken, seeing her struggle through the paperwork and the medical bills and the insurance forms.
So, I have seen what it's like when somebody you love is suffering because of a broken health care system.
And it's wrong.
It's not who we are as a people.

Posthumous interest

In September 2008, the University of Hawaii at Mānoamarker held a symposium about Dunham. Duke University Press announced that they would publish a version of Dunham's dissertation in the fall of 2009 named Surviving against the Odds: Village Industry in Indonesia. The book was revised and edited by Dunham's graduate advisor, Alice G. Dewey and Nancy I. Cooper. Maya Soetoro-Ng wrote the foreword for the book and an afterword was composed by anthropologist Robert W. Hefner of Boston University. Hefner describes Dunham's research as "prescient" and her legacy as "relevant today for anthropology, Indonesian studies, and engaged scholarship."

In 2009, an exhibition of Dunham's Javanese batik textile collection (A Lady Found a Culture in its Cloth: Barack Obama's Mother and Indonesian Batiks) toured six museums in the United States, finishing the tour at the Textile Museummarker of Washington, D.C. in August.Early in her life, Ann Dunham explored her interest in the textile arts as a weaver, creating wall hangings for her own enjoyment. After moving to Indonesia, she was attracted to the striking textile art of the batik and began to collect a variety of different fabrics.

Ann Dunham: A Most Generous Spirit, a feature documentary depicting Dunham's life, is scheduled to begin production in 2010. Charles Burnett, writer and director of Namibia: The Struggle for Liberation (2007) will direct the film. Shooting will take place on location in Indonesia, Hawaii and Washington. The production team is currently negotiating for the participation of President Barack Obama.

Personal beliefs

In his 1995 memoir Dreams from My Father Barack Obama wrote, "My mother's confidence in needlepoint virtues depended on a faith I didn't possess... In a land [Indonesia] where fatalism remained a necessary tool for enduring hardship... she was a lonely witness for secular humanism, a soldier for New Deal, Peace Corps, position-paper liberalism." In his 2006 book The Audacity of Hope Obama wrote, "I was not raised in a religious household... My mother's own experiences... only reinforced this inherited skepticism. Her memories of the Christians who populated her youth were not fond ones... And yet for all her professed secularism, my mother was in many ways the most spiritually awakened person that I've ever known." "Religion for her was "just one of the many ways — and not necessarily the best way — that man attempted to control the unknowable and understand the deeper truths about our lives," Obama wrote.

Maxine Box, Dunham's best friend in high school, said that Dunham "touted herself [then] as an atheist, and it was something she'd read about and could argue. She was always challenging and arguing and comparing. She was already thinking about things that the rest of us hadn't." However, Dunham's daughter, Maya Soetoro-Ng, when asked later if her mother was an atheist, said, "I wouldn't have called her an atheist. She was an agnostic. She basically gave us all the good books — the Bible, the Hindu Upanishads and the Buddhist scripture, the Tao Te Ching, Sun Tzu — and wanted us to recognize that everyone has something beautiful to contribute." "Jesus, she felt, was a wonderful example. But she felt that a lot of Christians behaved in un-Christian ways."

In a 2007 speech, Obama contrasted the beliefs of his mother to those of her parents, and commented on her spirituality and skepticism: "My mother, whose parents were nonpracticing Baptists and Methodists, was one of the most spiritual souls I ever knew. But she had a healthy skepticism of religion as an institution."

Obama also described his own beliefs in relation to the religious upbringing of his mother and father:

My father was from Kenya and a lot of people in his village were Muslim.
He didn’t practice Islam.
Truth is he wasn’t very religious.
He met my mother.
My mother was a Christian from Kansas, and they married and then divorced.
I was raised by my mother.
So, I’ve always been a Christian.
The only connection I’ve had to Islam is that my grandfather on my father’s side came from that country.
But I’ve never practiced Islam.


Dunham's heritage consists mostly of English ancestors and smaller numbers of Irish, Scottish, Welsh, French, Alsatian, Swiss and German ancestors, who settled in the American colonies during the 17th and 18th centuries. Prior to migrating to Kansas in the 1870s, her paternal ancestors settled in Tipton County, Indianamarker, in the 1840s and her maternal ancestors settled in Newton County, Arkansasmarker, also in the 1840s.

She was a distant cousin of former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney and former U.S. Presidents Lyndon Baines Johnson and Harry S Truman. According to oral history, Dunham's maternal grandmother had a Cherokee ancestor, although no recorded evidence has been found to prove or disprove this claim.



  1. Jones, Tim. "Barack Obama: Mother not just a girl from Kansas," Chicago Tribune via Baltimore Sun (2007-03-27).
  2. Regarding the 1961 visit to Washington state: "Susan Blake,[Botkin] another high-school classmate, said that during a brief visit in 1961, Dunham was excited about her husband's plans to return to Kenya." Regarding her enrollment at University of Washington: "By 1962, Dunham had returned to Seattle as a single mother, enrolling in the UW for spring quarter and living in an apartment on Capitol Hill."
  3. Susan Blake [Botkin] (Stanley Ann Dunham's high school classmate)
  4. At some point, she gave her old friends the impression that she was on her way to visit her husband at Harvard (where he would not enroll until the fall of 1962). See Maraniss 2008.
  5. One source says the scholarship was for New York University: ; others say it was for the New School for Social Research: e.g., and
  6. Sutoro, Ann Dunham, and Roes Haryanto. 1990. "KUPEDES Development Impact Survey." BRI Briefing Booklet. Jakarta.
  7. OBAMA BIDS FAREWELL TO GRANDMOTHER - New York Post - December 24, 2008
  8. See also: Surviving against the Odds: Village Industry in Indonesia

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