Dunham was known as Stanley Ann Dunham through high school, then as Ann Dunham, Ann Obama, Ann Soetoro, Ann Sutoro, and finally after her second divorce as Ann Dunham. Born in Wichita, Kansas, Dunham spent her childhood in California, Oklahoma, Texas and Kansas, her teenage years in Mercer Island, Washington, and most of her adult life in Hawaii and Indonesia.
Dunham studied at the East–West Center and at the University of Hawaii at Manoa in Honolulu, where she attained a bachelor of arts degree in anthropology (1967), and later received master of arts (1974) and PhD (1992) degrees, also in anthropology. She also attended University of Washington at Seattle in 1961–1962. Interested in craftsmanship, weaving, and the role of women in cottage industries, Dunham's research focused on women's work on the island of Java and blacksmithing in Indonesia. To address the problem of poverty in rural villages, she created microcredit programs while working as a consultant for the United States Agency for International Development. Dunham was also employed by the Ford Foundation in Jakarta and she consulted with the Asian Development Bank in Gujranwala, Pakistan. Towards the latter part of her life, she worked with Bank Rakyat Indonesia, where she helped apply her research to the largest microfinance program in the world.
After her son was elected President, interest renewed in Dunham's work: the University of Hawaii held a symposium about her research; an exhibition of Dunham's Indonesian batik textile collection toured the United States; and in December 2009, Duke University Press published Surviving against the Odds: Village Industry in Indonesia, a book based on Dunham's original 1992 dissertation. Janny Scott, an author and former New York Times reporter, published a biography about Ann Dunham's life titled A Singular Woman in 2011. Posthumous interest has also led to the creation of The Ann Dunham Soetoro Endowment in the Anthropology Department at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, as well as the Ann Dunham Soetoro Graduate Fellowships, intended to fund students associated with the East–West Center (EWC) in Honolulu, Hawaii.
In an interview, Barack Obama referred to his mother as "the dominant figure in my formative years ... The values she taught me continue to be my touchstone when it comes to how I go about the world of politics."
Stanley Ann Dunham was born on November 29, 1942 at Saint Francis Hospital in Wichita, Kansas, the only child of Madelyn Lee Payne and Stanley Armour Dunham. She was of predominantly English ancestry, with some German, Swiss, Scottish, Irish, and Welsh ancestry. Wild Bill Hickok is her sixth cousin, five times removed. Ancestry.com announced on July 30, 2012, after using a combination of old documents and yDNA analysis, that Dunham's mother was descended from African John Punch, who was an indentured servant/slave in seventeenth-century colonial Virginia.