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History Doyen: Anne Firor Scott

What They're Famous For

Anne Firor Scott, a pioneer historian of American women, is W. K. Boyd Professor Emerita of History at Duke University. Scott joined Duke's history department in 1961 on a visiting appointment. Nineteen years later she was named William K. Boyd Professor of History and appointed chair of the department. Professot Scott holds the distinction of being the first woman to chair the Duke history department, yet she also stands as the first professor at Duke to include women's scholarship in her teaching and research. She was educated in her home state at the University of Georgia, as well as at Northwestern University and Radcliffe College. In addition to her tenure at Duke, she has taught at Haverford College and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Anne Scott is author of The Southern Lady (1970, 1995), One Half the People (with husband Andrew M. Scott), Making the Invisible Woman Visible (1984), Natural Allies: Women's Associations in American History (1992), Unheard Voices: The First Historians of Southern Women (1993), and most recently, Pauli Murray and Caroline Ware: Forty Years of Letters in Black and White (2006).

In 1970 her book The Southern Lady: From Pedestal to Politics, 1830-1930 virtually established the modern study of southern women's history, and it has never gone out of print. Southern Lady: From Pedestal to Politics, 1820-1920, was one of the first studies in what come to be called "the new women's history," and the first to be based on close study of women's personal documents.

Since then, Anne Scott has taught at Duke and all over the world, inspiring legions of younger followers to insist on the importance of women in southern history. To honor her eightieth birthday, the Schlesinger Library for the History of Women in America held a symposium in 2001 in which a number of scholars paid tribute and Scott reflected on the highlights of her career. In 1987, a group of her former students and colleagues established the Anne Firor Scott Research Fund, an andowment to help support students conducting independent research in women's history. In the spring of 1989, the Women's Sudies living group elected to name the domoitory in honor of Professor Scott. In the scholarship fund and the dormitory dedication Anne Scott's students, friends, and colleagues honored the first professor at Duke to introduce scholarship into the curriculum.

She has edited several volumes and has published essays, introductions, lectures, and book reviews dealing with the history of American women. She was president of the Organization of American Historians in 1984 and of the Southern Historical Association in 1989. She is an editor of the American Women's History Series at the University of Illinois Press and has long been an editor for UPA. Scott received the OAH Distinguished Service Award in 2002. She also has served on President Lyndon B. Johnson's Advisory Council on the Status of Women.

Personal Anecdote

Contingency is everything. Being born in 1921, just when women got the right to vote, meant that I grew up in a different world than that of my forbears. As the first born I got the full attention of education minded parents; by the time three brothers came along I had consolidated my position, and assumed the role of all-knowing Big Sister. . Nobody told me, and I didn't pick up from the environment, the idea that my chances in life would be limited by gender. It did not occur to me to play dumb or the benefit of the males in my class. Of course in high school I got a reputation as a nerd and longed to be popular. No luck There was nothing to do but make good grades.

College was different. Aspiring to become a foreign correspondent, I joined the mainly male staff of the school newspaper. Some of them invited me to dances and didn't seem to notice that I was a good student.. I had left my miserable high school years behind me.

I was 18 when Germany invaded Poland and for the next few years opportunities for women were everywhere. Graduate fellowships, internships in Washington, multiple job offers—it was a heady time to be female. Much as I felt guilty about my friends who were overseas, that didn't stop me from having a wonderful war. My job on the staff of the National League of Women Voters educated me more than anything up to that time had done. When things closed down after 1945 the genie was out of the bottle. I was not prepared to adopt the feminine mystic or to retire to suburbia. When a young man said "Come marry me and go to Harvard, I took him up on both parts of the invitation. The program in American civilization allowed me to sign up for courses in both history and government and, since there was only one woman on the Harvard faculty, I studied with famous men: Samuel Eliot Morison, Perry Miller, Benjamin Wright Louis Hartz, Oscar Handlin. Only Wright and Handlin paid any serious attention to me but that attention was of the utmost importance. I learned a great deal from Morison, though he hardly recognized my existence, and, studying with Miller I learned to stand up for myself in the face of sometimes bitter sarcasm. Hartz, a convinced Marxist was friendly and a useful gadfly.

My dissertation began as a study of the progressive era in the South, which in Cambridge was usually viewed as an oxymoron. But Handlin knew better, and encouraged the research. Though I must admit that his theory of mentoring was “sink or swim" pride determined that I would swim. In the end I focused on the southern progressives in Congress of whom there were a good number. Since I tended to have a baby every chapter it was a long process.

The real significance of the dissertation, was that I discovered that the most interesting southern progressives were women. From that insight, in a very long "due course,” grew The Southern Lady, , product of my considerable curiosity about these women of whom hardly anybody seemed to have heard.. There was no model for such a book, and I was often discouraged. My husband, a systematic thinker (which I am not) kept me at it until, finally, in 1970 it emerged in print. I had no notion that the result would be seen as a new way of studying the past, and as inaugurating a major historiographical shift.

By the time the book came out I had been teaching for a decade. Women were still comparatively rare in history departments in 1957, but the (then) all-male Haverford College took me on for a year; after which we moved to North Carolina and I found a part time job in the UNC History Department. I loved teaching -again in an all-male department. Then we went off to Italy on a Fulbright. -a year worth ten ordinary ones for developing perspective—and in the spring I was astounded by a letter from the chairman of history at Duke inquiring if I could come to teach “until we can find somebody.” Overlooking the implication, I agreed, and came home to begin what turned into a forty year stint in that department.

By the 1970s women were suddenly "in" both as historical subjects and as potential colleagues. By this accident of timing I had chances to visit or lecture at many institutions here and abroad, an experience which has led me to reflect a great deal about the way we educate people, or think we do. I hope somehow to find the time to put these thoughts in coherent prose before I die.

The surprising thing—in retrospect—is how one things leads to another , how the resume grows. . . and suddenly, or so it seems, one is a senior person, called on for advice, for mentoring, to preside over this and that learned society, to sit on boards and give advice.

All this surprised me. Looking back, next to creating a family which is now into the third generation, the most satisfactory part of it all has been teaching -students, adults, grandchildren. Many of the people I have taught are now teachers themselves, and when they come to see me, one and all, what they remember if not so much the substance of what we studied together, but the pedagogy I had learned from my father, who, late in his life, said : "It is said that I am a good teacher, and I do not wish to deny it. But insofar as that is true it is because I never knew the answers, and my students and I have sought them together." My books will be revised, and eventually remanded to some remote storage in the Library, but I hope my students will have students who have students. . .until global warming finishes us all off. 

Quotes By Anne Firor Scott

● Anne Firor Scott in "Self-Portraits: Three Women" first published in Uprooted Americans: Essays to Honor Oscar Handlin (Boston: Little Brown,1979 pp 43-76.) (The original book is out of print but the essay can be found in Anne F. Scott, "Making the Invisible Woman Visible" (Champaign, 1984) which is in print)

The eighteenth century, to borrow Bernard Bailyn's phrase, was not incidentally but essentially different from the present, and many of the elements of that essential difference can be most clearly seen in the lives of women. Colonial history has so long been written in terms of high achievement, of political theory, of Founding Fathers, of economic development, of David-and-Goliath conflict that it is easy to forget how small a part such things played in most individual lives. Seen from the standpoint of ordinary people, the essential theme of the the eighteenth-century experience was not so much achievement as the fragility and chanciness of life. Death was an omnipresent reality. Three children in one family die on a single day from epidemic disease; fathers are lost at sea; adolescents mysteriously waste away; mothers die in childbirth; yet life goes on to a constant underlying murmur of "God's sacred will be done." In these circumstances, how is the meaning of life perceived? What social structures do people build to sustain the spirit? What, in this context, become the central values? What is the texture of daily life? The life histories of three colonial women give some clues. . .

"[There follow studies of women from three parts of the early colonies-become-states: Jane Mecom of Boston, Elizabeth Drinker of Philadelphia, and Eliza Lucas Pinckney of Charleston.] 

"[The essay concludes] . . . I have tried to learn from the records left by these three women what it was like to be an eighteenth century person. They take us to the heart of daily life: to scenes of childbearing and nerve-racking struggle to keep babies alive, to scenes of mysterious illness and sudden death, of wartime stringencies and dislocations, to the struggle to "git a living" or -at another level—to get rich. Through their eyes we see the chanciness of life, and begin to understand the central role of kinship in providing such security as was possible in a world so filled with uncertainty....

● Anne Firor Scott, "How Has Studying History Affectistorians Affected Your Life?" article in honor of receiving the OAH Lifetime Distinguished Service Award in 2002.

The whole thing began almost by accident. Duke University has consolidated all reunions into one large gathering in April, and people all over campus organize events, which they hope will lure alumni to their particular domains. In April 2000 the Women’s Studies Program announced that a handful of faculty, of whom I was one, would be on hand to greet former students. Eight of my former students attended, and lingered long after the appointed hour. They spoke so enthusiastically about this chance to bring me up to date on their doings that in 2001 I let the Alumni Office know that I would be in a certain room on Saturday afternoon of the reunion for a conversation with former students. A single sentence in the fat program included this information. That time forty-nine people showed up. This caught the attention of the organizers who asked me to do it again in 2002 and offered an elegant venue—the Rare Book Room in the Library—and prime time. I thought it might be a good idea to provide a topic for the discussion and came up with “How has the study of history affected your later life?”

The response was overwhelming—ninety people attended. The group varied markedly in age, ranging from a member of the class of 1937 to a couple of students who graduated in 1992. Husbands and wives came—some even bringing their teenage children—and all sorts of careers were represented including doctors, lawyers, social workers, teachers, and volunteer leaders. Only a few professional historians attended.

The discussion was a bit like the best class one had ever taught: everyone wanted to talk about an amazing variety of things. They wanted to report on the books that they had read, ask for other people’s views, and make speeches. Some even wanted to argue.

But when it came to the announced question, there were surprises. I don’t quite know now what I expected. I suppose without too much reflection I had assumed that somehow the study of history would tend to make people wiser, more reflective, less dogmatic than their contemporaries who had little knowledge of the past. At the end of the discussion I realized that no generalization is justified.

All the participants seemed to think that their historical studies had been and still were important to their lives—exactly how these studies were important, however, was not so clear. The libertarian, for example, insisted that studying history would show anybody that the American people had been hoodwinked into accepting the sixteenth amendment. (Murmur around the room: “What was the sixteenth amendment?”) Others had equally firm convictions—not necessarily related to what they had been taught— about the significance of the past. Many people testified to an ongoing desire to read well-written, popular history. Some attendees wanted my opinion about the recent plagiarism scandals. (I tried to be judicious, which might translate as timid.)

One interesting moment came when I asked my students if they remembered our long and intense discussions about the Great Crash of 1929 and its aftermath. Indeed, they did—and demonstrated the fact. I then asked if that knowledge affected their decisions about investments in the past three years? There was a sudden silence and a good deal of embarrassed head shaking accompanied by murmurs of “Well, I should have remembered.” Nobody, however, testified to having recognized a speculative bubble when it was before their eyes.

What did I learn from this experience?

 The "uses of history" are not at all clear cut. People take from the past what they are prepared to understand, and not what some teacher thinks they should understand. Some summon their perception of the past to support whatever they want to do now. Others search for parallels and seek explanations for what is happening at the moment.

 Good teachers are remembered long after the fact. Names of a few of my colleagues came up over and over. “As Professor X said . . .” was a recurrent phrase.

 The attendees enjoyed challenging each other and me—they clearly would rather be challenged than entertained. 

As I pondered this experience, I was reminded of an earlier encounter. Last fall the library celebrated my eightieth birthday and invited two former students to speak. One of the speakers, an engineering graduate, had taken several social history courses with me. He was, I should probably note, a top notch student; the best in his class. He told me that the primary sources he had read in my class two decades prior—which dealt with the lives of ordinary people in the rapidly changing society of the early twentieth century—profoundly affected his own life. He works for a major engineering firm in a major American city and has a disabled child. His resources and training are such that he has been able to become a major advocate for such children with his local school board. “Because of what I learned in that course,” he said, “I was able to recognize the number of families with children like mine, who had no voice and no way of making their needs clear to the powers in our town. So I have tried to represent them as well as myself.”

Although this is only one story it is enough to make any teacher forget all the blue books, all the neglectful or cocky students, all the hard work and occasional frustration. Think well—a few stories like this make it all seem worthwhile.

About Anne Firor Scott

● "Twenty-five years ago The Southern Lady created a new field of historical inquiry and shaped a generation of southern women historians. What Anne Firor Scott wrote about antebellum and Progressive-era white women-their discontent with subordinate roles, their determination to find meaning in work, their subversion of patriarchial assumptions-aimed straight at the heart of male-dominated academic scholarship. After the publication of The Southern Lady, antebellum planters and southern Progressives no longer meant simply masters and male reformers but conflicted mistresses and female activists. By tracing tracing white women Progressives from missionary work through the Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) club work, the Consumer League, anti-sweatshop agitation, and interracial cooperation, Scott demonstrated the combined efforts necessary to develop a collective female consciousness....

The reprint of The Southern Lady evokes memories. Anne Scott's spirited grandmother graces the cover of this splendid new edition. In an afterword, the author traces her own work for the League of Women Voters. Her travels for the league brought her into contact with surviving suffragists and national board members. Scott's association and imterviews with longtime activists produced the most powerful and sustaining effect on her thought. She interviewed Judge Lucy Somerville Howorth, and Howorth's memories of her mother's career as a church and WCTU member, and later a suffragist and Mississippi legislator, convinced the author of the recurrent patterm of women's activism....

But memory serves another pupose as well. The 1970s generation of scholars remembers that these life histories and the author's clear and determined purpose strenghtened its resolve to open "[d]oor after door" (p. 104). -- Jean E. Freidman, University of Georgia reviewing "The Southern Lady"

● "A valuable contribution not only to the general field of women's history, but also to our understanding of one woman historian's personal and professional odyssey." -- Joan Hoff-Wilson, Women's Review of Books reviewing " Making the Invisible Woman Visible"

● "The splendid 'Self-Portraits' is the very best piece she has written and is destined to become a classic. . . . There is real artistry here, as well as real scholarship." -- Linda K. Kerber, author of Women of the Republic reviewing " Making the Invisible Woman Visible"

● "One Half the People is a book I use regularly in class because it is the ' most succinct way I know to make the point that the suffrage ammendment is not trivial; that it was the result of a long political struggle and a complex philosophical argument. It certainly out to be used in women's history and in general history courses. Students find the mix of official legal documments (like Supreme Court opinions) and informal ones (like speeches and responses and hearings) teacheable. [It] constitutes the best treatment of women's fight for the vote." -- Linda K. Kerber reviewing "One Half the People"

● "This is a greatly needed book, the best available on the topic and indispensable for teaching women's history. I use it in all my courses, whenever appropriate, and have found students stimulated by it. -- Gerda Lerner reviewing "One Half the People"

Basic Facts

Teaching Positions:

Haverford College, Haverford, PA, lecturer in history, 1957-58;
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, lecturer in history, 1959-60;
Anne Firor Scott JPGDuke University, Durham, NC, assistant professor, 1962-65, associate professor, 1965-70, professor of history, beginning 1971.

Occasional lecturer, Johns Hopkins Center, University of Bologna, 1960-61, 
Chairperson, North Carolina Governor's Commission on the Status of Women, 1963-64;
member of federal Citizens Advisory Council on Status of Women, 1964-68.

Area of Research: 
American Women's history, Southern Women's history

University of Georgia, A.B., 1941;
Northwestern University, M.A., 1944;
Radcliffe College, Ph.D., 1949. 

Major Publications:

  • The Southern Lady, (University of Chicago Press, 1970).
  • The American Woman: Who Was She?, (Prentice-Hall, 1970).
  • Women in American Life, Houghton, 1970.
  • (With Andrew M. Scott) One-Half the People, (Lippincott, 1976).
  • Making the Invisible Woman Visible, (University of Illinois Press (Urbana, IL), 1984).
  • (With Suzanne Lebsock) Virginia Women: The First Two Hundred Years, (Colonial Williamsburg Foundation (Williamsburg, VA), 1988).
  • Natural Allies: Women's Associations in American History, (University of Illinois Press (Urbana, IL), 1991).

Editor, Contributor, Joint Author:

  • (Editor) Jane Addams: Democracy and Social Ethics, (Harvard University Press, 1964).
  • (Contributor) Wayne Booth, editor, The Knowledge Most Worth Having, (University of Chicago Press, 1967).
  • (Contributor) Kenneth Underwood, editor, The Church, the University and Social Policy, Volume II, (Wesleyan University Press, 1969).
  • (Editor) What Is Happening to American Women?, (South Atlantic Newspaper Publishers Association, 1970).
  • (Editor) Unheard Voices: The First Historians of Southern Women, (University of Virginia (Charlottesville, VA) (London, England), 1993).
  • (Author of introduction) James Weber Linn, Jane Addams: A Biography, (University of Illinois Press (Urbana, IL), 2000).

Contributor to literary journals and popular magazines, including American Heritage.

Awards and Grants:

American Association of University Women national fellow, 1956-57;
National Endowment for the Humanities senior fellow, 1967-68, 1976-77;
OAH Distinguished Service Award, 2002;
Elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences class of 2004.

Additional Info:

Scott worked for the International Business Machines Corp. (IBM), Atlanta, GA, private secretary, 1941-42;
League of Women Voters of the United States, Washington, DC, program associate, 1944-47, congressional representative and editor of National Voter, 1951-53.
The OAH Lerner-Scott Dissertation Prize was given for the first time in 1992 for the best doctoral dissertation in U.S. women's history. The prize is named for Gerda Lerner and Anne Firor Scott, both pioneers in women's history and past presidents of the Organization of American Historians.