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Elise Boulding, 89

Elise Boulding, matriarch of peace studies movement, dies at 89

Elise Boulding
Elise Boulding (Family Photo - Family Photo)
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By Emma Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Elise Boulding, 89, a sociologist who was instrumental in establishing peace studies and conflict resolution as an academic discipline, died June 24 of complications from Alzheimer's disease at a nursing home in Needham, Mass.

Dr. Boulding, a Norwegian-born Quaker, taught at the University of Colorado at Boulder before retiring from Dartmouth College in the mid-1980s. As a matriarch of the peace studies movement, she emphasized the role of women and families in creating a less violent world.

"Elise Boulding was to peace studies what Rachel Carson was to conservation and Margaret Mead to anthropology," Colman McCarthy, a peace activist and former Washington Post columnist, wrote in an e-mail. "She gave academic legitimacy to the study of pacifism as both a moral force and a practical alternative to violence -- all the way from military violence to domestic violence."

Dr. Boulding raised five children long before she entered academia, and her experience as a mother convinced her that people can be taught to wage peace just as they are taught to wage war.

Lessons learned around the dinner table and on school playgrounds inevitably mold a person's method of dealing with conflict, Dr. Boulding thought. She wrote about the importance of educating children to become diplomats instead of aggressors and also about finding ways to raise children "to be sufficiently alienated from society, so they won't accept things 'as they are.' "

"We still don't know much about producing children who will irrepressibly dream about a better society than the one we have, and obstinately work for its realization," she wrote in notes unearthed by her biographer, Mary Lee Morrison. "Most of our writing about educating children for peace is concerned with helping children to become peaceful, rather than how to spur them to the rugged, often lonely task of peacemaking."

History's underside

Much of Dr. Boulding's scholarly work was grounded in what she called the underside of history -- the people and ideas that have been largely overlooked in narratives of the past. She wrote about important, little-heralded contributions by women from the Paleolithic period through modern times. As a counterpoint to studies of past wars and conflicts, she examined peaceful eras and cultures.

In her book "Cultures of Peace: The Hidden Side of History" (2000), Dr. Boulding said that peace is a daily and dynamic activity rather than a dull, static state. "Pacifism, which literally refers to the making of peace," she wrote, "is often mistakenly understood as passivism."

Elise Marie Biorn-Hansen was born July 6, 1920, in Oslo. She moved with her family to New Jersey when she was 3. Growing up, she came to know her native country through her mother's homesick tales, and she thought of it as a refuge untouched by the rest of the world's tragedies. Then Hitler's army invaded Norway in 1940.

"And that was when I realized that there was no safe place on earth," she said. "And I knew that I had found my life's mission."

She graduated from what is now Rutgers University and joined the pacifist Friends Church, where she met her future husband, Kenneth Boulding, a Quaker poet and internationally renowned economist.

As the couple moved frequently for his academic career, Dr. Boulding established an early reputation as a skilled networker. While living in Tennessee in the 1940s, she created a newsletter to connect Quakers living in the South; later, she created another newsletter to unite women against nuclear testing.

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