Dr. Cora Du Bois, American Bad-Ass of the OSS in Southeast Asia
As Women’s History Month draws to a close, I wanted to share some insights about one of my favorite scholars at war,anthropologist Dr. Cora Du Bois (1903–1991). During the Second World War, Du Bois served with the Office of Strategic Service (OSS)’s Research and Analysis (R&A) Branch. Initially a researcher in the “Chairborne Division” (as R&A was often called) in Washington D.C., Du Bois made her name as Chief of the OSS’s R&A Division at Kandy, Ceylon (today’s Sri Lanka), under the British-run South East Asia Command (SEAC). She was the only woman, let alone lesbian, to hold such a post. Documents available at the U.S. National Archives in College Park, Maryland, underscore gender biases she faced from her own side during the war, and how she weathered such storms by virtue of her talent, dedication, and service. Her career and service are worth celebrating.
Born in Brooklyn on October 26, 1903, Du Bois came from a family of Swiss watchmakers and French entrepreneurs. Her brother was the black sheep, and Cora the star attraction: a brilliant “tom-girl” who liked adventures in the wild and sports as much as school and writing poetry. Her father’s early death from lung cancer shattered the family, but also provided a trust for her future in academia.
Du Bois received her MA from Barnard College in medieval history, but her intellectual curiosity was bound to the rising field of anthropology. She worked with pioneers such as Ruth Benedict, mentor of anthropology “rock star” Margaret Mead. Benedict had a penchant for working with what one sour colleague called “the deviants … the women, homosexuals, and Jewish students.” As Du Bois discovered her own sexuality, she took solace in writing poetry to express her true “nature,” as Oscar Wilde would put it, and gravitated toward anthropology’s more complex view of human culture and, especially, the role of outsiders, individuals, and outcasts.