Aligning with the patriarchy has sometimes paid off for Jewish women, while, all too often, challenging it has had devastating consequences. This is a tale of two Jewish women anthropologists—Ellen Hellmann and Ruth Landes—whose different career paths reflect patriarchal and racial expectations.
Ellen Hellmann and Ruth Landes both received their doctoral degrees in the 1930s, in South Africa and the United States, but they experienced divergent career trajectories. Their marital status, the ethnicity/race, career, and political stances of their significant others, and their specific Jewish family backgrounds (including class and politics) shaped their professional paths.
Ellen Hellmann’s alliances with elite white men in her philanthropic pursuits within the German Jewish community in South Africa were correlated with her financial and institutional stability. In contrast, Jewish women of eastern European descent, like Ruth Landes, who challenged patriarchal, assimilationist, and white middle-class norms (especially around marriage and same-race sexuality) often found stable institutional posts difficult to obtain and maintain. The content of their writing about black women mirrored their placement within patriarchal and racial systems. Hellmann adopted commonly held assimilationist and conformist stances regarding black women’s sexuality and families. But Landes contested these assumptions and argued that sexuality was a source of financial and spiritual power. These two case studies illustrate how only analyzing Jewishness and gender is not enough to understand the patriarchal effects on Jewish women’s career trajectories; in order to understand the differences, we must use an intersectional lens by looking at racialization in connection with class, politics, and gender-/sexuality-conformity and nonconformity.
Urban anthropologist Ellen Hellmann grew up in a wealthy, strict German Jewish household in Johannesburg, South Africa. In 1936, her father, Bernard Kaumheimer, hired a Swiss architect to build what Hellmann called the “parental mansion” in Houghton, an upper-class suburb. Ellen and her father fought constantly. Hellmann remarked in 1982 to historian Riva Krut, “I said argument was the spice of life. … I was a very, very stubborn little girl, very difficult.” Hellmann’s experience with her father could explain her opposition to strict disciplinarian styles of parenting and displacement of this opposition onto the subjects of her research. In her 1940 dissertation, “Problems of Urban Bantu Youth,” she argued that young people’s disobedience stemmed from African parents’ sternness. Ellen felt like “the ugly duckling in this family of lovely girls,” since her father favored her sister, Inez. Ellen suffered from long-term depression and self-doubts about her “standing in the scientific world.” She remarked to Ruth Landes in 1968: “A diet of futile opposition isn’t always v. heartening! ... I thrive selfishly and often with a sense of inevitable guilt on the compensations that our country offers those who have the right skin colour.”
Ellen’s first husband, a Lithuanian Jewish lawyer, Joseph Hellmann, committed suicide in 1941 during military service in North Africa. “One of the troubles, not the sole one, about my first marriage, was that he was an Eastern Jew, a Jew of Eastern Jewish descent”; this was “not good,” Hellmann told Krut in 1982. Then Ellen married Bodo Koch, a German Jewish refugee surgeon, in 1948.
With her father’s earnings and her two husbands’ employment, Ellen was a “privileged person” who felt she “owed” those with less privilege. Thus, she felt it would not be “right” to accept a salary, according to her daughter, Ruth Runciman. Hellmann served in philanthropic leadership capacities for Johannesburg organizations such as the Joint Council of Europeans and Africans (1940–48), lobbying city agencies for services for “Africans.” She also worked for the Public Relations Committee of the Jewish Board of Deputies (1940–50) and the Zionist Socialists (1930s). The Jewish Board of Deputies, dominated by German Jews like Hellmann, viewed “Western Jews” as superior to, and more “civilized” than “Eastern Jews,” whom Ellen Hellmann compared to [black] “non-Europeans,” a commonly used association. As Riva Krut explains, middle–class Jewish men wished to establish Jewish assimilation into the whiteness of South African nationalism and “anglicize” the “oriental” traits of the “raw Russian Jew.” Hellmann was a leader in the Progressive Party (1959–71), advocating for the qualified franchise, requiring proof of property ownership, financial stability, and verifiable “civilization” to vote. Ellen’s professional networks were made up of white men from the South African Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR), where she served for forty years. Hellmann described the SAIRR in 1974 as a “middle of the road body” centered on the “pursuit of truth,” and “objective fact-finding.”
Her master’s thesis on a Johannesburg slum yard, Rooiyard (researched 1933–34, published 1948) posited that European culture represented “higher civilization.” She critiqued the effects of the colonial system on “native” Africans, including unsanitary living conditions, yet she wanted them to “adopt such elements of European culture as may enable them to an ordered and economically secure social life.” She also adopted assimilationist standards of white middle-class gender and sexuality norms in her critique of black women who engaged in extramarital relationships in Johannesburg’s “locations,” townships, mine-quarters, and slums. The percentage of unmarried parents did not exceed 15 percent in Hellmann’s sample groups, yet she contended that these low statistical rates were not a “true reflection of the laxness of sexual morality in the urban Native community.”
While Hellmann reproduced the patriarchal critiques from her father in her work on South African cultures, American anthropologist Ruth Landes challenged her mother’s criticisms. Anna Schlossberg, a Russian Jew, was hypercritical of her daughter Ruth’s appearance, reminding her to wash her “greasy” face (1959); later, Landes theorized (1950) that Jewish mothers perceived their daughters as competition within a patriarchal family structure. In 1938–39, she sought out Candomblé priestesses in Brazil who “did not care about being dainty” and argued that Candomblé was a matriarchal religion “made up almost exclusively of women and in any case controlled by women.” In City of Women (1948), Landes theorized sexuality as power that Candomblé priestesses used to gain spiritual authority and financial independence.
These theories about women’s centrality within the Afro-Brazilian religion Candomblé were not popular in the academy, since patriarchy rather than matriarchy was posited to be foundational to Candomblé by male scholars who dominated Afro-Brazilian Studies at that time: Jewish American anthropologist Melville Herskovits and white Brazilian anthropologist Arthur Ramos. Her controversial theories in combination with her close working relationship with Edison Carneiro, an Afro-Brazilian scholar, triggered gossip about Ruth Landes’s interracial relationships and her status as an unmarried/divorced woman.
The academic scandal about her interracial relationships began with a letter from German anthropologist Rüdiger Bilden to Melville Herskovits on December 6, 1937:
“Landes is a damn fool and a disgrace to the Department of Anthrop. As far as I can see, she has done little or no Brazilian preparation here or anything else, except getting herself sexually involved with colored members of the faculty. Sex seems to be her forte, particularly in its practical aspects.”
At the time of Bilden’s letter, Landes was conducting research on race relations at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, in preparation for her fieldwork in northeastern Brazil the following year. Based on her fictionalized memoirs, she engaged in a romantic relationship with black physicist Elmer Imes during her time at Fisk.
Rumors also spread about Landes’s political orientations because of the men in her life. Landes was associated with communism because of her involvement with Edison Carneiro, her Afro-Brazilian research partner, and socialism because of her Russian Jewish father, Joseph Schlossberg (founder of the labor union Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America). He also wrote for Yiddish socialist papers.
Landes was unable to obtain a tenure-track position for thirty years after she received her PhD. She was itinerant and institutionally unstable. Hellmann married Jewish men with economic and institutional prestige and assimilated to gendered and racialized norms for behavior, distancing herself from the subjects of her research, who were black. She enjoyed institutional stability. Ruth Landes, however, is an example of how disobedience to entrenched norms of “proper” white feminine sexual behavior can ruin careers in an age of racialized patriarchy.
For more information and to see the sources that I used for this article, you can download my full dissertation at: https://digitalcommons.fiu.edu/etd/3575/.