Who Is Barack Obama's Mother, Stanley Ann Dunham?

Stanley Ann Dunham Soetoro, mother of former President Barack Obama, was blazing trails all over the world decades before her only son would grow up to be the first Black U.S. President. Obama's mother's relatively short life is almost cinematic in nature, featuring a bold, relentless, and unapologetic leading lady who wasn't afraid of pushing against the status quo — the woman who would later shape the moral code of the future 44th President of the United States.

Named after her father, who wanted a boy, Stanley Ann Dunham lived in Kansas from her birth in 1942 to 1960, after which she ping-ponged between Hawaii and Seattle, Washington as she pursued her Bachelor's degree in mathematics. She met Barack Obama, Sr. while studying at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, where she graduated in 1967. From there, Dunham's journeys would take her to Indonesia and Pakistan, where she did groundbreaking work to support women, artisans, and families.

Her son might've grown up to be the leader of the free world, but her story was just as awe-inspiring. "A Singular Woman" biography author Janny Scott summarized her extraordinary life to The New York Times: "I never imagined that an American president would have a mother who had done the things that she did."

Stanley Ann Dunham marched to the beat of her own drum

Stanley Ann Dunham was a self-assured 18-year-old when she married Barack Obama, Sr. at a time when interracial marriage was considered a crime throughout most of the U.S. Black people also faced intense discrimination in Indonesia, where Dunham later moved with her second husband, Lolo Soetoro, and her young Black son, Barack Obama, in the late '60s. An acquaintance of Dunham's later spoke to biographer Janny Scott, saying Dunham taught a young Barack Obama to be fearless in the face of adversity, per the New York Times

While living in Indonesia, Dunham started working with metalsmiths and textile artisans, developing a microfinance model that helped these small businesses become economically sustainable enough to support local families. Dunham brought the same microloan program to Pakistan in partnership with the Agricultural Development Bank, and the financial model is still used in Indonesia today.

"A Singular Woman" author Janny Scott told NPR that Dunham sent Barack back to Hawaii to live with his grandparents so that he could have an English-language education. Dunham stayed behind in Indonesia, something Scott said contributed to the mother's feelings of longing for her son overseas. But despite the geographical distance, Dunham was able to impart values to the future president that he would continue to pursue as an adult, transforming Barack Obama into the man he is today.

Stanley Ann Dunham instilled a strong sense of family and honor in Barack Obama

Former President Barack Obama's childhood might've had considerable bouts of time across the Pacific Ocean from his mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, but her presence and influence were strong nonetheless. Janny Scott quoted Barack Obama in her biography of his mother, saying that Dunham provided "a sense of unconditional love that was big enough that, with all the surface disturbances of our lives, it sustained me entirely" (via ABC News).

And in a 2020 Medium blog post, the former President recalled when Dunham found out he was bullying a classmate. "She sat me down and told me that there were two kinds of people in the world: Those who only think about themselves and tear others down to make themselves feel important. And those who think about how others feel and avoid doing things that might hurt them. 'So,' she asked me, 'which kind of person do you want to be?' All these years later, her question still helps guide my decisions," Obama wrote.

Dunham was diagnosed with ovarian and uterine cancer in the mid-1990s, after which she returned to Hawaii from Indonesia. She spent her final days on the island before passing on November 7, 1995, 13 years before her only son would utilize the fearlessness, compassion, and integrity she instilled in him to make history as the 44th President of the United States of America in November 2008.