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Ruth Schachter Morgenthau

Africanist Scholar and Activist
1929 – 2006
by Judith Wechsler

Ruth Schachter Morgenthau was a wonderful friend; generous, thoughtful, witty and warm. Her achievements as an educator, an activist, and as a scholar of African politics deeply inspired those around her. After a brave struggle with a long and complicated illness, she died in Boston on November 4, 2006.

Ruth was born in Vienna on January 26, 1931. She and her family fled Austria shortly after Kristallnacht in 1938. They made their way through Switzerland to England, where they awaited passage to Cuba in March of 1939. In September 1940, their visas came through for the United States and from age 9 Ruth grew up in Washington Heights, New York, in a modern Orthodox home.

While an undergraduate at Barnard, Ruth became Vice President of the World Assembly of Youth and traveled to Africa for a meeting in Dakar, Senegal. She then joined a group from the Assembly that walked across India in the path of Gandhi. The trip to Africa proved to be an important passage in Ruth's life and served as a spring-board for her life's work on African politics, at a time when few scholars chose this field, at the end of the Colonialist period.

In 1962, Ruth married Henry Morganthau III, the son of the Secretary of the Treasury under Franklin Roosevelt. They met when Henry was producing Eleanor Roosevelt's "Prospects of Mankind" series for educational television. He called on Ruth in preparation to briefing Mrs. Roosevelt for a program on the Congo at the time of Lumumba and the Civil War. Needless to say, he was deeply impressed by Ruth.

Many of Ruth's friendships with African leaders date from the time of her studies in Paris as a Fulbright scholar at the Institut d'Etudes Politique and at Oxford where she received her doctorate. Ruth's book, Political Parties in French-Speaking West Africa, published in 1964, is a comprehensive analysis of French Policy and African Institutions. In preparing her dissertation on which the book is based, Ruth consulted with an extraordinary number of African leaders, many of whom became her friends.

An old friend of Henry and Ruth's from Africa, Adjoa Amana (Adai), who worked at the U.N., came to be with Henry and the family after Ruth's death. Adai's father, an African chief, Nana Kobina Enketzia IV, had met Ruth while they were both students at Oxford and they became life-long friends. Ruth and Adai felt much in common. Adai recounted Ruth saying that one of the many things they shared was the matrilineal structure of both Judaism and her Akan culture of Ghana.

Ruth served as a member of the U.S. delegation to the U.N., was a U.S. Representative to the U.N. Social Development Commission, and testified before U.S. Congressional committees as an expert on the politics of the developing world. She was a presidential advisor to Kennedy, Johnson and Carter. As Adlai Stevenson Professor at Brandeis, where she taught from 1963 to 2003, she influenced a generation of students, many of whom became leaders in Africa. Ruth served as an advisor to the World Bank and was later an administrator for Food Corps International, an organization that helped people in Africa, Latin-America, and Asia by researching low-cost agricultural technologies and by providing the training and seed money that enabled farmers to help themselves.

Ruth was a founder and chair of the Board of Directors of Pact, an international development organization with programs in 20 countries. At Ruth's funeral, Sarah Newhall, President and CEO of Pact, and a friend of Ruth's said:

Our vision is to pull 1,000,000 women living on less than $2.00 a day out of abject poverty, through literacy training, managing their own village banks, and creating a pool of savings which they can then loan to each other with interest to invest in small businesses. Ruth deeply believed that economic empowerment was the basis for increasing human rights and gender equity for women. If women have economic power, they gain confidence and courage, and become greater participants with increased voice in their communities. Everyone benefits when women benefit.

Ruth was a highly respected leader in development circles. Whether she was advocating for the United Nations Millennium Development Goals to end poverty by 2015, or with the World Bank to push harder for global anti-corruption standards, or with the policy crafters shaping United States Government fragile state policies, when Ruth Morgenthau spoke of the need for stronger support for civil societies, or the need for scaling-up corporate social responsibility, everyone listened. She had gravitas-and her absolute integrity and lifelong commitment to social justice deeply moved people and emboldened American social policy….

Right until the very end of her life, Ruth, a consummate networker for all seasons, used her influence and voice, and changed our lives and the lives of so many others around the world.

Ruth was committed to the Jewish community and particularly to Harvard Hillel's Worship and Study Minyan, an egalitarian Conservative group. Henry said that Ruth felt that the kind of dialogue at the Minyan was the key to her understanding of Judaism. Many of our events were held in the Morganthau house, as well as fundraisers for political and social change. At Sabbath dinner, after Kiddush and delicious, bountiful, healthy food, conversation would turn to politics or social issues. Often there was a visitor from Africa, as well as old friends from around Boston. Being in Ruth's presence at these gatherings was one of life's rewards.

As Adai said, "Ruth was one of those people you don't expect to go. She is supposed to be here. She always had a solution. She was larger than life."

Judith Wechsler is the National Endowment for the Humanities Professor of Art History at Tufts University. Her parents, Prof. Nahum and Anne Glatzer, were friends of Ruth and Henry and the friendship passed through the generations, to her and her husband Ben, and to her daughter Josie and their son Kramer.

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Full image
Ruth Schachter Morgenthau.
Photo courtesy of Harvard Hillel.

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Ruth Schachter Morgenthau, 1929 - 2006." (Viewed on July 31, 2014) <http://jwa.org/weremember/morgenthau-ruth>.

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