Today’s post is part two of a three-part interview with Mary Beth Norton. If you missed yesterday’s post, catch it here and get with the program!
At the end of yesterday’s interview, Norton talked about how she transformed herself from a historian of loyalists in the American Revolution into a women’s historian. She spoke of an anecdote in which a senior scholar in her field wondered why she had given up loyalists to study women, when her loyalist work was “perfectly OK!” In today’s conversation, Norton and I move from a discussion about feminist scholarship to a conversation about feminist activism in the historical profession. She also talks about her feminist mentors in the academy, and about the relationships and organization that has sustained her through her career.
Historiann: I am pretty sure that if you had stuck with the loyalists, you would not have achieved the stature in your fields that you have as a women’s historian!
I assume that as your star rose as a historian that you were able to make some changes in the Cornell history department itself, such as hiring more women and continuing to diversify the curriculum. Can you tell us more about this side of your feminist activism? Who or what was most helpful to you, and what (if any) obstacles still remain in your view to sex equality in academia or the historical profession in particular?
From a local perspective on feminist activism and institutional change, your trip to Colorado State University as the Furniss Lecturer in 1985 is remembered as a watershed in my department. You were the first woman ever honored as our Furniss Lecturer although the annual lecture series had started in 1967. My senior colleagues (now all retired, all of whom at the time were men) did two things after your visit: first they decided that one of them should start teaching women’s history, and so (perhaps not coincidentally) my predecessor in early American history, Art Worrall, developed a one-semester survey of American women’s history. Secondly, they believe that your influence was probably decisive in hiring your student Ruth Alexander (and future collaborator on the Major Problems in American Women’s History reader), who became like you the first woman ever to be hired in a tenure-track line in the History department at CSU, in 1988. Ruth was the first of a new generation of hires, and she eventually became the Chair of the department when it hired me and several of my women colleagues.
That’s a series of big changes that you are credited with starting, with real consequences for the faculty and the History majors and M.A. students in my department.
Mary Beth Norton: I think you are correct that if I had, indeed, stuck with the loyalists (as that senior scholar recommended) my career would not have taken off as it did. But of course at the time it was not clear that women’s history would become the force in the field that it has. Still, in retrospect I think you can say that I was a pioneer, certainly in early American women’s history, along with Linda Kerber and Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, both of whom have since moved into later periods of historical research.
There was, however, one person there before me, Mary Maples Dunn (whom you know well)! Mary, the only senior woman I knew in Early American history, was a very important mentor to me as I started my career. At AHA and OAH conventions, she made sure that I met the right people and she took me to the right parties. She also wrote a key letter of recommendation for me when I won my first major fellowship, from the National Endowment for the Humanities, for my first full year of work on what became Liberty’s Daughters. In my own professional life, I have tried to ‘pass it on,’ mentoring others as Mary mentored me, helping out with introductions, letters of rec, advice on publishing, etc etc–all those things that are so important to a professional career but most of which one doesn’t learn in graduate school. (At least, I never learned them at Harvard in the 1960s.) This has extended beyond my graduate students to other young women (and men too), including my undergraduates who have chosen to enter the historical profession and, especially women I have met through the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians.
Indeed, I probably first met Mary Dunn through the Berks, which I joined while I was teaching at the University of Connecticut, at the urging of my senior colleague Emiliana Noether, who was then the Berks president. (I had never heard of the Berks before Emiliana invited me to the annual spring meeting.) Ever since, the Berks has been very important to me and my professional career. And here I mean not just the “Big Berks” (for which I once served as co-program chair, at Smith in 1984), or the Berkshire Conferences on Women’s History, but rather the “Little” or “Real” Berks–that is, the organization of women historians, not all of whom study women–that has sponsored the women’s history conferences since 1973.
I never miss our meetings unless I have some sort of schedule conflict; it is so wonderful to attend an unstructured, low-key weekend gathering with a small number (usually no more than 30) of other women historians at some nice setting in the northeast to talk, hike, and generally get to know one another and to exchange ideas informally. Lately our formal sessions with talks and professional papers are only at night, so we have part of Friday, all day Saturday, and part of Sunday just to hang out. I always look forward, for example, to walks that Margaret Hunt and I take on Sunday mornings. . .wherever we are and regardless of what else we do during the weekend.
I’m pleased to learn of my impact on your own department, but you should know that in part the transition was in part instigated by the chairman who invited me to be the Furniss Lecturer. Mark Gilderhus, whom I had met at a convention, called to ask me to come to CSU for that occasion, making it clear that he had an agenda: he wanted to convince the university that there was sufficient interest in women’s history to hire someone one in the field. I thought it was entirely appropriate when a few years later that hire turned out to be my own student, Ruth.
As for my own department, yes, I have long been involved in working to increase the number of my female colleagues. For 5 years I was the only woman, then for another 10 plus, one of two. But in the mid-1980s that started to change, and now we comprise more than a third of the department. I have, in fact, 13 female colleagues, and I have started a mini-tradition of regularly hosting ‘ladies teas’ for them. In fact, I just had one last week to mark the beginning of the fall term. Last fall they put on a potluck dinner for me to celebrate my 40th year at Cornell and all sported matching tee-shirts with that theme. What a treat!
Here, at least in our department, I am pleased that sex-equity issues seem to have been resolved. That is not yet true in the wider Cornell university, though; women are still greatly underrepresented in our STEM departments, for example, and in some of the social science departments. But the university’s leadership is committed to greater diversity in hiring, so I am hopeful in that regard.
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Stay tuned for our next and final installment, in which Norton talks about how Liberty’s Daughters became a trilogy of books on women and gender in early America, and the benefits and disadvantages of trade versus university presses.
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