Why Don’t You Stay (Just a Little Bit Longer)?
A Few Thoughts About Women in History
In the past few weeks, we in the community formerly known as women’s history have suffered some difficult losses. Marilyn Blatt Young, Professor of History at New York University specializing in China and US foreign policy died on February 19; and Mary Maples Dunn, a colonial historian and Dean at Bryn Mawr College, the eighth president of Smith College, and a Director of the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America at Harvard University died on March 20. Historiann has a wonderful post here about Mary, and I have left a comment which I will repost below.
But I have a few other words to say first.
It is, perhaps, very difficult for much younger women to know how very tight we who went to graduate school in the 1980s were — and remain — with our foremothers. Part of this had to do with entrenched sexism: by the time I entered graduate school in the fall of 1982, women like Alice Kessler Harris were just starting to come up for tenure, and there was real doubt in some quarters whether scholarship in women’s history was tenurable. One of my dear friends, Mary Beth Norton, recalled for me that in the 1960s, when she entered graduate school at Harvard, women enrolled in the history Ph.D. were still banned from the collections of Lamont Library (read Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s account of “womanless Harvard” for the extent of Harvard’s reluctance to fully embrace gender integration well into the 1990s.) Recently, Carroll Smith-Rosenberg told me that, having graduated from Columbia with the same history Ph.D. as her husband Charles Rosenberg, and guided by the same mentor (Richard Hofstadter), Charles was hired as an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania and Carroll as an Instructor. This was commonplace, and I believe this was Marilyn Young’s story at the University of Michigan as well: her husband Ernest was hired in the History Department, while Marilyn was relegated to undergraduate teaching at the Residential College where, according to a friend of mine who studies with her, she was “a tremendous influence on a whole group of us.”
By the time I hit graduate school, the integration of women into history faculties had occurred, but just barely. When Marilyn Young and Molly Nolan were hired at New York University shortly before I arrived it was, as Molly recalled at Marilyn’s memorial service, the first time the department had employed more than one tenure-track woman at a time. As a consequence, they were frequently called by the other’s name, despite the fact that — in my memory — they looked completely different. Molly had long dark hair, sharp features, wore skirts and dresses, and had an intense way of interacting. Marilyn, on the other hand, was considerably shorter, had a prematurely grey, butch haircut, usually wore blue jeans, sneakers, and a casual shirt (guess who Tenured Radical takes after?) and seemed constantly on the verge of laughter –except when talking about war. We who were their students knew that our mentors had won, sometimes at great cost, a toe-hold in a profession that had, before them, not really thought women were worth employing. WE also knew the fight wasn’t over. UCLA’s Margaret C. Jacob talks about some of that here.
And they embraced us, to an extent that I now find astonishing. Mary Dunn, as some of you know was my godmother, which I write about a bit below, but after a hiatus of some years, I reintroduced myself to her at a conference. “Aunt Mary,” I said, coming up out of the crowd, “I’m a historian now.” (I was actually in my third year of graduate school.) She looked at me sternly. “Well,” she finally said, after the inspection was complete, “You’ve grown.” Then she burst out laughing and gave me a hug.
They took us places, literally and figuratively. They insisted that we join The Berkshire Conference of Women Historians, and they told us where all the best parties would be at the American Historical Association Annual Meeting. Molly Nolan gave me two of the best pieces of interviewing advice ever: “Ask the committee members something about themselves,” she advised; “and try to keep your glasses pushed up on your nose. It’s really distracting when they fall down like that.” They read our work, sat on our panels, connected us to their friends, and when the time came, they gave us job letters, tenure letters, grant letters and promotion letters. In my generation of New York area graduate students, last names were not necessary. There were so few of them and they meant — and continue to mean — so much to us. We would say Mary Beth, or Nell, or Alice, or Carroll, or Joan, or Itsy, or Deborah, or Judy, or Linda (well, actually there were two of them), or Blanche, or Nancy, or Vicki, or Eileen, or Louise, or……..you get the point. Why bother with last names? They were our people.
Mary was also special to me because she was my mother’s graduate school friend. From a very early age, Mary’s career at Bryn Mawr — first as a history professor and then as Dean of the College — was the most tangible piece of evidence I had that it was possible for a woman to have a career as an intellectual. This is the comment I left at Historiann a few days ago:
I remember visiting Mary and Dick when I was little: they had a study with desks facing each other so that they made one huge table, and there they could lay out all the documents they were working on and discuss them, and I thought “This is the perfect way to live.” But Mary’s sense of humor was perhaps one of her outstanding qualities: I will never forget listening to her, as a graduate student, delivering a deadpan account of Cotton Mather toggling between bouts of prayer and bouts of masturbation — this was on a panel at The Berks.
But on a serious note, when I was on the job market as a senior person, she coached me through every step of it, including one fully administrative and one partially administrative job interview, by helping me analyze the institutions, their needs, their fundraising histories and trajectories, and giving her advice about what the right candidate would bring to the table. Like so many in the generation(s) ahead of us, she was profoundly generous with her time and advice, and there were a couple of times in my life, when discussing a transition with my mother, that she would say: “I think you should call Mary.”
She and Dick were my godparents because Mary was my mother’s roommate in a group house of Bryn Mawr graduate students (Mom is ABD in English from Bryn Mawr.) And it was Mary who had the idea of teaching everyone how to make a good martini, and throwing the martini-themed party where my Dad — invited by another housemate — first met my Mom. I would say my mother has had about four true female friends in her adult life, and Mary was one of them. Needless to say, yesterday’s call to her was very hard to make.
We will all miss her so much: and on that note I would like to warn off all other senior women from dying any time soon. Please. We are not ready to let go of you yet.
OK, can I repeat that last point? I am not ready to lose any more of you now. Please stay — just a little bit longer?
Claire Potter is Professor of Hisory at The New School and Executive Editor of Public Seminar. You can follow me on Twitter @TenuredRadical.