Born in New York in 1944, Michelle Zimbalist attended Radcliffe College (Harvard College's sister school, formally merged with Harvard in 1999), where she concentrated in English literature. She spent a summer among the Maya in southern Mexico as part of a field trip arranged by Evon Z. Vogt. After receiving her AB, she began graduate study at Harvard in social anthropology.
Michelle Rosaldo and her husband, anthropologist Renato Rosaldo, both carried out their dissertation fieldwork with the Ilongot people in northern Luzon, the Philippines, during 1967-1969. Rosaldo's research focused on Ilongot concepts of emotion (an exercise in ethnopsychology, the study of local or folk concepts of mind), while her husband collected material on the history of Ilongot headhunting practices, which were dying out at the time of their research. Rosaldo received her PhD in social anthropology from Harvard in 1972. After completing their PhDs, Michelle and Renato Rosaldo were both hired at Stanford University. The couple returned again to the Ilongot in 1974 for further research, published as Knowledge and Passion (1980).
Michelle Rosaldo wrote or edited several important works in the anthropology of women and gender relations and co-founded the Program in Feminist Studies at Stanford University. In 1979 she received Stanford's Dinkelspiel Award for outstanding service to undergraduate education.
Michelle Rosaldo died from an accidental fall while conducting fieldwork in the Philippines in 1981. She was survived by her husband and their two sons.
The Michelle Z. Rosaldo Summer Field Research Grant was later established in her memory at the Department of Anthropology at Stanford University to provide funding for undergraduate students to conduct fieldwork.