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Reflecting on notable female historians, in celebration of Mother’s Day

A 2010 report by the American Historical Association showed that women comprised 35% of all history faculty, mirroring similar trends in gender disparity across academia. While the academic history field has traditionally been male-dominated, Mother’s Day serves as a day to celebrate significant women in our lives. In tribute to this year’s Mother’s Day, we wish to acknowledge and celebrate the many contributions by women to the field. Several OUP authors shared their thoughts on the female historians that have inspired them and shaped the field.  Some are mentors and advisors that have supported careers, while others are admired for their work from afar.  All are noteworthy for their contributions to the history field.

“My academic life changed in the fall of 2005. I had just started my PhD work at UC Davis when my advisor Kathy Olmsted–a brilliant historian in her own right–handed me a copy of Mary Dudziak’s Cold War Civil Rights and asked if I had read it. “Not yet.” I devoured it on the train ride home, amazed at the brilliant argument and the clean, beautiful writing. When Dudziak asserted that US government officials both embraced (and occasionally limited) civil rights reforms because of their concern over America’s image during the Cold War, I was amazed. Were there other times when domestic incidents during the Cold War impacted how other countries viewed the United States? The question led me to Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and productive research that led to my first book. I might not have asked the question if it hadn’t been for the thought-provoking work of the extraordinary Mary Dudziak.”—Lori Clune, author of Executing the Rosebergs: Death and Diplomacy in a Cold War World

“While she is rightfully known for her groundbreaking scholarship, Eileen Boris deserves equal recognition for her dedicated mentorship and commitment to forwarding conversations about US women’s and gender history and feminist studies at every possible turn. I was fortunate to find myself within Boris’s orbit during my graduate studies and I was quickly awed of her ability to balance dedicated activism, a prodigious scholarly output, and ample time for her students. Almost twenty years later, I still don’t know how Boris does it. But I do know that I am joined by many others who benefit from her close reading of work, incisive comments at conferences, ability to answer almost any question about the state of the field, and amiable company at the end of the day.” – Kristin Celello, co-editor of Domestic Tensions, National Anxieties: Global Perspectives on Marriage, Crisis, and Nation

“I am so lucky to count four female historians as my inspiration, including Eleanor Zelliot, Emily Rosenberg, Linda Gordon, and Elaine Tyler May. Given the tightness of space, I will highlight Eleanor Zelliot, the historian who got me started. Eleanor is a scholar of modern South Asia, with a special focus on pluralistic religious traditions in Maharashtra, as well as the Dalit movement. Eleanor’s scholarship excavates the spiritual and political lives of subaltern communities through interdisciplinary sources, including devotional songs, poetry, theater, and religious pilgrimages. The clarity and power of her writing pushes me to be accessible to a wide audience. On a personal note, Eleanor enthusiastically encouraged me to pursue a career as a historian—supporting my path at every turn, including my three-year hiatus between my undergraduate and graduate education as a flight attendant. She mentored me through a difficult entrée into graduate school when my initial advisor told me that it was “wonderful” that I was pursuing a Ph.D. in History because “as a wife and mother, you can write an article periodically while staying home and raising children.” A year later, Eleanor supported my move to American social and cultural history. When I was hired at UT-Austin as a newly minted Ph.D. with two babies in tow, Eleanor immediately got in touch with her friends there and told them to take care of me. And they did.”—Janet M. Davis, author of The Gospel of Kindness: Animal Welfare and the Making of Modern America

“I am inspired by Jill Lepore because of her smart, elegantly written essays and books. I was first fascinated by her 2006 New Yorker essay, “Plymouth Rocked: Of Pilgrims, Puritans, and Professors,” a layered examination of Samuel Eliot Morison’s career at Harvard, a brief history of the early years of the Plymouth plantation settlement, and an explanation of how journalists and historians approach their projects differently. This general approach is what makes all of Lepore’s work so interesting and vital—the way she presents the narrative intertwined with a meditation on how historians practice their craft. In 2013, I couldn’t put down her Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin, a creative biography that explores what written records do and do not reveal. Lepore’s most recent book, The Secret History of Wonder Woman traces the development of titular comic book character through the history of feminism while it explains how a historians tracks down and uses sources. Both books recover a hidden corner of history and present the work of a historian as every bit as exciting as a detective.”—Theresa Kaminski, author of Angels of the Underground:  The American Women who Resisted the Japanese in the Philippines in World War II

“How to single out one female historian from such an endless and distinguished roster? Rather than turning to one that influenced me early in my career, let me note one more recently on the scene, writing with verve, researching with fervor, and taking chances. Ruth Scurr first caught my attention with her book, Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution (2006). Here was Robespierre rendered vivid and complex. Then, in 2015, Scurr published John Aubrey: My Own Life. The delicious irony is that Aubrey never published his own life or diary. What Scurr has achieved, with deft handling of many materials, is to capture Aubrey’s rhythm, voice, and knowledge. Scurr writes that the French Revolution “teems with life and burns with human, historical, intellectual, and literary interest.” The same may be said of her first two books.”—George Cotkin, author of Feast of Excess: A Cultural History of the New Sensibility

“Gerda Lerner.  Her Creation of Patriarchy (1986) greatly influenced my thinking about the history of American librarianship, which has been dominated by women since the late 19th century. Shortly after the book was published I invited Gerda to give the Library History Round Table’s annual lecture at the American Library Association conference. As I rose to introduce her, I handed my copy of Patriarchy to my wife Shirl, seated immediately to Gerda’s left.  “Would you like me to sign that?” Gerda asked. “Sure!” Shirl said, and handed her the copy.  “To Shirley – for women’s emancipation,” Gerda wrote. Shirl still has the book.”—Wayne A. Wiegand, author of Part of Our Lives: A People’s History of the American Public Library

"UW-Madison history professor Gerda Lerner" by UW-Madison Archives via Wikipedia Commons
“UW-Madison history professor Gerda Lerner” by UW-Madison Archives via Wikipedia Creative Commons

“Amy Dru Stanley, professor of history at the University of Chicago and author of the now classic From Bondage to Contract: Wage Labor, Marriage, and the Market in the Age of Slave Emancipation, is an enduring source of inspiration. I regularly return to her penetrating scholarship on the moral conundrums spurred by slave emancipation and the rise of industrial capitalism for its deep historical insights as well as its compelling methodology. Ideas come first for Stanley, but her approach to intellectual history is neither top down nor bottom up. Rather, she works from the middle out, showing how ideas—richly debated and often fraught with paradox—connected former slaves, industrial workers, and other ordinary men and women with policymakers, high intellectuals, and other elites. This approach reflects Stanley’s abiding pragmatic historicism as well as her own ethical commitments to social democracy. To me, it shines as a model of how to explore the history of American democracy true to its varied participants and attentive to its manifold contradictions.”—Kyle G. Volk, author of Moral Minorities and the Making of American Democracy

“Kathleen Brown, my graduate advisor and professor of history at University of Pennsylvania, is the female historian who has inspired me the most. Kathy’s scholarship has been enormously important in early American and gender history.  Perhaps more important for me than her scholarship, however, is her mentorship. She appreciates her students as whole people, not just academics. I feel incredibly fortunate to have had a scholar who so well combines a sharp intellect with warmth and compassion guide my academic journey and continue as my mentor.”—Cassandra A. Good, author of Founding Friendships: Friendships between Men and Women in the Early American Republic

“On the occasion of Mother’s Day, I can think of no better female historian to honor than my own Ph.D. advisor, Estelle Freedman. Imagining doctoral mentorship in genealogical terms is a commonplace, but Freedman is part of a pioneering generation of women scholars and scholars of women who challenged the notion that the male “Doktorvater” and his proverbial sons were the sole worthy holders of intellectual authority. Interestingly, given the occasion for this post, Freedman’s scholarship has been so powerful in part because she explores women as more than mothers: as sexual agents, as reformers, as political actors. Similarly, Freedman’s influence on the profession not only legitimized women’s history as a field, but within a generation also helped make that very designation feel narrow, as she has produced and inspired work on gender, feminism, and sexuality much more broadly. My generation of historians owes many intellectual and activist debts to Freedman and her colleagues, one of which is seeing blog posts like this both as progressive in highlighting the contributions of women and as problematic in that the term “female historian” (like “lady astronaut” and “girlboss”) assumes a normative male.”—Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, author of Classroom Wars: Language, Sex, and the Making of Modern Political Culture

“Three of my favorite historians are captivating writers and inspiring mentors – and great mothers. Their published works, their dedicated teaching, their service to the discipline and their outreach are models of what academic engagement with the world can and should be. They have served as role models for me personally and professionally. They each have wide, interdisciplinary interests, a good sense of humor and a gift for international friendship. Gabrielle Spiegel, Krieger-Eisenhower University Professor of History, Johns Hopkins University and former president of the American Historical Association writes on critical theory and the linguistic turn. Much of her work is highly specialized, but the questions she addresses and her humane approach are relevant far beyond the field. Olga Litvak, professor of History at Clark University and the author of Haskalah: The Romantic Movement in Judaism (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2012) is  an invigorating and challenging interlocutor of eastern Europe and Modern Jewish history who asks me to think differently about things we all thought we knew. Miri Rubin, Professor of Medieval and Early Modern History at Queen Mary, University of London is a celebrated author with a wide popular following. Most recently she has published a translation from the Latin of Thomas of Monmouth’s Life and Passion of William of Norwich. This is the major source underlying my The Murder of William of Norwich: The Origins of the Blood Libel in Medieval Europe (OUP 2015). It is a pleasure to recommend her translation be read alongside my work to see what was said in the Middle Ages and then how it was interpreted.”—E.M. Rose, author of, The Murder of William Norwich: The Origins of the Blood Libel in Medieval Europe

“Mother’s Day—any day, really—is a perfect occasion to acknowledge and celebrate the work of women historians. Two of extraordinary accomplishment who deserve attention (and applause) are Barbara Tuchman and Margaret MacMillan. Both wrote books that expanded readers’ understanding of the origins and agonies of the Great War. Tuchman’s The Guns of August and The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before the War, 1890-1944 helped stake out the territory back in the 1960s, and MacMillan’s more recent study, The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914, took the subject of the war’s beginning to previously unexplored regions of inquiry. In her case, she also produced a masterful account of the critical events that followed the fighting: Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World. Yet neither Tuchman nor MacMillan is a narrow specialist, confined to a single subject or period. Both have admirable range and tackle an array of topics and times. Tuchman, for instance, examined Stilwell and the American Experience in China, 1911-45; A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century; The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam, and The First Salute: A View of the American Revolution. In MacMillan’s case, she has published Women of the Raj, Nixon and Mao: The Week That Changed the World, and, most recently, History’s People: Personalities and the Past. Each, too, has stepped back from her specific historical studies at the moment to assess more general questions of their profession, with Tuchman collecting several of her essays in Practicing History and MacMillan developing a series of lectures into Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuses of History. Besides their admirable scope, Tuchman and MacMillan are superb stylists who compose prose that animates people, events, and ideas in original and compelling ways. In their hands and through their words, the past vividly mirrors the times they’re describing and dramatizing. To say that future historians will learn lessons about their craft by closely reading Barbara Tuchman and Margaret MacMillan borders on understatement. Their work enhances the field and makes us see how we arrived where we are today.”—Robert Schmuhl, author of Ireland’s Exiled Children: America and the Easter Rising

Featured image credit: “Lisboa #05” by Nelson L. No known copyright restrictions. Via Flickr Creative Commons.

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