Ann Dunham Biography

Academic, Anthropologist (1942–1995)
Ann Dunham was the mother of Barack Obama, who became the 44th president of the United States and the first African-American to hold this office.


Ann Dunham (born November 29, 1942) met Kenyan national Barack Obama, Sr. while at the University of Hawaii and married him after she became pregnant. They later divorced and she cared for her son while juggling a full college course load. She went on to perform doctoral fieldwork in Indonesia, and became an activist and social scientist. She died of cancer on November 7, 1995 at the age of 52.

Early Life

Activist and social scientist Stanley Ann Dunham was born on November 29, 1942, in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, to parents Madelyn and Stanley Dunham. Madelyn was the first female vice president of a local bank, and Stanley was an army veteran and furniture salesman.

Stanley Ann Dunham was named after her father who had always wanted a son. In spite of being teased about her name, Stanley Ann was a resilient and liberal minded daughter. During her formative years, she and her parents relocated between Kansas, California, Texas, and Washington. After high school, Stanley Dunham moved the family to Honolulu despite his daughter's early acceptance to the University of Chicago. After enrolling in the University of Hawaii, Stanley Ann began going simply by "Ann."

Marriage and Barack's Birth

It was in a college language class that Ann Dunham met Barack H. Obama, Sr. He was a Kenyan national recruited overseas on a college scholarship, and was reputed to be an opinionated, magnetic debater. He and Dunham soon began dating. Several months later, Dunham became pregnant. She and Barack were married in a private ceremony on February 2, 1961. On August 4, 1961, Ann gave birth to a boy and named him Barack Obama, Jr. after his father.

After one semester at the University of Hawaii, Ann Dunham withdrew from college to help care for her new family. Soon after, Barack Sr. accepted a scholarship to pursue a Ph.D. in economics at Harvard University. Acknowledging her husband's life quest of revitalizing Kenya's economy, Dunham decided to remain behind in Hawaii. In 1964 Ann filed for divorce, a decision which Barack Sr. did not contest.

Approximately one year later, Dunham returned to the University of Hawaii. With help from her parents and government food stamps, she was able to juggle a full schedule of classes while caring for her son. Despite life as a struggling young mother, Ann Dunham earned her undergraduate degree in four years. During her tenure at the University of Hawaii, Dunham became romantically involved with fellow student Lolo Soetoro.

Move to Indonesia

Polite, even-tempered Soetoro was an international master's student from Indonesia. In 1967 he proposed to Dunham. Once married, Ann changed her surname to Soetoro and the new family relocated to Indonesia near the city of Jakarta. In 1970, Ann gave birth to daughter Maya.

Ann Soetoro was often grieved by the quality of life for local Indonesians. Those who were close to her say she was compassionate almost to a fault, and would give money to countless ailing beggars. As Ann became more interested in Indonesian culture, her husband Lolo began working for a Western oil company.

Bored by the domestic, traditional course her marriage had taken, Ann intensified her focus on formal education. She began teaching English in the American Embassy. In the mornings she would give Barack Jr. his English lessons, and in the evenings she would give him books on civil rights and play him Mahalia Jackson's gospel songs.

Return to Hawaii

When her son was 10 years old, Ann sent him back to Hawaii to attend prep school and reside with his grandparents. One year later, Ann and her daughter also returned to Hawaii. Here she enrolled in graduate school at the University of Hawaii to study cultural anthropology of Indonesian peoples. In 1980 she would file for divorce against her husband Lolo.

After several years of schooling, Ann Soetoro returned to Indonesia for doctoral level fieldwork. Wishing to remain with his grandparents, 14-year-old Barack Obama Jr. declined to join his mother. Once back in Indonesia, Soetoro began working for the Ford Foundation studying women's employment concerns. From 1988 to 1992 Soetoro helped install a microfinance program in Indonesia where small business owners could gain small loans. Many credit Soetoro's research with informing fiscal lending policies, making Indonesia a world leader in microfinance loans.

Early Death

Through the years, Ann and her daughter would move around the world to Pakistan, New York, and back to Hawaii. In 1992 Ann Soetoro finally finished her doctoral dissertation: a 1,000-page analysis of peasant blacksmithing. In 1994 during a dinner party in Jakarta, Soetoro complained of stomach pains. Months later she was diagnosed with ovarian and uterine cancer. She died on November 7, 1995 at the age of 52.

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