Mary Beth Norton: A Founding Mother tells all.

Today and for the next two posts, Historiann is thrilled to present an interview with the distinguished senior scholar and women’s history great Mary Beth Norton.  Norton is the Mary Donlon Alger Professor of American History and a Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellow at Cornell University.  Even those of you who have never met her in person probably know of the legendary energy, enthusiasm, and industry that have made her a legendary scholar in both early American history and American women’s history.  Quite simply, Mary Beth Norton is a force of nature.

She is the author of The British-Americans:  Loyalist Exiles in England, 1774-1789 (1972), Women of America:  A History (1979, with Carol Berkin), Liberty’s Daughters:  The Revolutionary Experience of American Women, 1750-1800 (1980), Founding Mothers & Fathers:  Gendered Power and the Forming of American Society (1996), In the Devil’s Snare:  The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692 (2002), and most recently, Separated by their Sex:  Women in Public and Private in the Colonial Atlantic World (2011).  Aside from numerous important articles, she is also the co-author of an American history textbook, A People and a Nation, and she is the co-editor (with my colleague at Colorado State University Ruth Alexander) of Major Problems in American Women’s History.

You’d think that someone with a groaning shelf of books like this wouldn’t have time to answer her own e-mail, but when I contacted her this summer about interviewing her, she wrote back immediately and enthusiastically.  (But I shouldn’t have been surprised–after all, this is a woman who took the time to answer a snail mail letter I had written her in 1994, when I was still an obscure, blogless , and mostly clueless ABD, in contrast to the peerless wrangler of the non-peer reviewed internets that I am today.)  It’s this generosity with junior scholars that I’m sure will be recognized and celebrated, along with the more concrete contributions to her fields, at Liberty’s Daughters and Sons, the conference that will be held in her honor September 28 and 29 in Ithaca, New York.

So here’s part one of my three-part interview, in which we talk about her evolution as a scholar over the past forty years, and in particular her conversion to the emerging field of women’s history in the 1970s.  I had just finished reading Separated by their Sex, which explores the exclusion of women from politics in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  Norton argues that elite women in colonial British America and in England occupied informal political spaces without controversy until the mid- and later seventeenth century, when all women’s interest and influence in politics was openly ridiculed on the basis of their sex, in striking contrast to their previous claims to political influence based on class or rank.  As more men staked their claim on the body politic, they aggressively mocked, derided, and crowded out women’s influence in the public sphere, first in England, and then in the English colonies as well.

Historiann:  I really enjoyed Separated by their Sex, and I think you’ve given us a fascinating narrative and timeline for understanding the specific exclusion of women from politics on the basis of gender in both English and Anglo-American history in the later seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.  When I look back on all of your books, you’ve clearly been interested not just in women’s lives but in women’s relationship to the state.  Did your interest in this come out of your interest in another marginalized population in early American history, about whom you wrote in your first book, The British-Americans:  Loyalist Exiles in England, 1774-1789 (1972)?

Mary Beth Norton:  In retrospect, I have definitely recognized the connection you identify here between my dissertation on the (marginalized) loyalist exiles and my later focus on (marginalized) women’s history. It didn’t occur to me at the time I chose a second project, though. I seem to have spent my career examining the major events of early American history and politics from the perspective of people who are usually placed on the sidelines of historical inquiry. I think that has led me to some insights that other historians–those who take a more standard approach–have missed. And yes, I have long been interested in women’s relationship to the state, a key theme in Liberty’s Daughters.

H:  Tell me more about what you think you’ve been able to perceive that other historians–whose work may have focused on history’s winners–could not.  Were you aware of this distinction at the time you delved into your women’s history work, or is this a conclusion you’ve come to more retrospectively?

MBN:  I realized early on that I had developed a different perspective on the American Revolution than most scholars because I had focused on the losers rather than the winners. Indeed, that perspective informs my current project (more on that below). One key example of an insight I gained by looking at the world through women’s eyes came in my work on Founding Mothers & Fathers. I chose to investigate the intersection of women’s actual social and political position with the Filmerian notion that “Honor Thy Father & Mother” was the true source of all authority in society. What did that idea mean for women? I asked. If women had power in the family (as everyone recognized), and political power came from the family, could women be seen as legitimately having power in the state? The answer, of course, turned out to be yes–for certain high-status women. And that helped to explain events had had otherwise been seen as anomalous in the early colonies–Margaret Brent, of a gentry family, being named chief financial officer of Maryland for 18 months, for example; or, most notably, Anne Hutchinson’s impact in Massachusetts Bay, which derived not only from the attractiveness of her ideas but from the fact that she was a gentlewoman who deserved deference from others. I did not begin my research with the idea that status sometimes trumped gender as the important factor in women’s lives, but I certainly ended the project with that notion firmly fixed in my head. Today, I teach my students to be fully aware of status designations when they read 17th-century documents. Significantly, Mrs. does not mean ‘married.’ It means Mistress, a high-status woman, married or not, just as its analogue, Mr. (Master) means high-status man, married or not.

H:  What inspired your interest in women’s history?  How did shifting to focus on women’s history affect your career?

MBN:  I came to women’s history through academic politics and interdisciplinary Women’s Studies. When I was in graduate school in the mid-to-late 1960s, of course, hardly anyone was studying women’s history. (I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit that I once had a fleeting thought about writing a dissertation on Mercy Otis Warren, but rejected the idea because I did not want to be ‘typed’ as a woman writing about a woman. As I look back, I’m very glad I didn’t write that dissertation, because it would not have been very good.)

I finished my PhD and started teaching at the University of Connecticut in 1969. I read the early articles on women’s history as they were published (e.g., Barbara Welter’s “Cult of True Womanhood”), but didn’t think of tackling the topic myself until after I moved to Cornell in the fall of 1971. I was the first woman ever in the Cornell History Dept, although the university had admitted women undergraduates almost since its founding in the 1860s and over the years Cornell had trained some prominent female history PhDs. That fall, about five young women were hired in the College of Arts & Sciences; several of us met at the reception for new faculty. I quickly became friends with Judy Long (then Laws), a new member of the Sociology Department, who was already doing scholarly work on women. At the time, Cornell had an existing, underfunded graduate-student run “Female Studies” program. Dissatisfied with it, Judy convened a group of female (and one male) faculty members to brainstorm about creating a program on a sounder academic footing. Cornell had very few women with tenure-track (much less tenured) appointments at the time, so I felt it incumbent on me to participate in establishing that program, even though I was not initially interested in Women’s Studies. Yet extended contact with Judy and the others members of the group led me to start thinking about the role of women in the Revolution. . .and to use a cliché, the rest is history.

My focus on women at such an early stage in the evolution of the historical study of women made me stand out from the crowd in the 1970s, not always in a good way. Some people were very skeptical about what I was doing and its value.  One senior historian I knew rather well said to a female friend of mine (who was then still a graduate student and reported the comment to me): ‘why did she have to switch to women? Loyalists were perfectly OK.’ Fortunately, Cornell had already given me tenure on the basis of my first book, so venturing into a ‘risky’ area, as it was then seen, did not affect my academic position there. Also, the Cornell history department gives its members great flexibility in the choice of topics for courses, so when I was ready to begin teaching as well as researching women’s history, I didn’t have to jump through any hoops to start doing so. Coincidentally, that I was working on revolutionary era women during the bicentennial also gave my research more visibility than otherwise it might have had. So I made frequent appearances on the lecture circuit before Liberty’s Daughters appeared in 1980.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Stay tuned for tomorrow’s installment, when Mary Beth Norton talks about feminist activism in History, the early days of her involvement in the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians, and the founding days of the Berkshire Conference on the History of Women (a.k.a. the “Big Berks.”)


12 thoughts on “Mary Beth Norton: A Founding Mother tells all.

  1. Reading Mary Beth’s comments — which recalled the world when I entered grad school in the late 1970s — made me rethink a conversation here a few weeks ago. As marginal as we sometimes think women’s history still is, it’s useful to remember back to the time when there was almost nothing. The “senior” women doing women’s history (especially anything before the 19th C) were newly tenured women like Mary Beth. So while the continued blindness of many scholars to issues of gender is a source of constant annoyance, women are far more visible now as historians and subjects of history than they were 35 years ago. So maybe we should pay attention to the half full glass as well as the half empty one?

    And while I’m not sure I’m the one who reported the “loyalists were OK” line, I know I heard a similar comment from an eminent historian of the period. Gah.

    I was lucky enough to start my career with a post-doc at Cornell, where I had Mary Beth as a colleague. She has been a model of intellectual rigor and historical curiosity, as well as zest for living. Thank you, Mary Beth!


  2. The next two installments are even more dishalicious!

    (This comment looks idiotic now that I’ve found and rescued Susan Amussen’s comment from my SPAM filter, but it was originally written in response to CPP’s comment.)

    And now for a more informed conversation. Carry on, friends!


  3. Oh, Historiann – I’m loving this! Mary Beth Norton’s work is informing my current research on early modern English stepmothers as I work to understand authority within the family. I need to learn much more about Colonial America since that makes an important branch of early modern history. Her books have been eye-opening for the events I never studied before, at least not in any depth!, as well as the insightful analysis.


  4. It’s hard to imagine a senior scholar back then–when I was in graduate school–who would have tolerated, much less encouraged, someone to stand pat with a line of work that they regarded as being merely “perfectly OK,” so this sounds even more casually dismissive the more you look at it. It’s a good thing that MBN just ignored it, but what if she hadn’t had tenure? Then again, back then I sat in a graduate seminar in which the professor–who was also the graduate chair–called the male students “Mr.” and the (two) women by their first names, which he almost literally invariably transposed!


  5. Susan, you weren’t the one who reported the comment, but I’m not surprised you heard something similar as people (men) did say the same to me directly.
    And Janice, whoever you are, thanks for being an English historian interested in the folks who moved across the Atlantic! I have long bewailed the fact that although Early Americanists read English history, the reverse so rarely seems to occur (this doesn’t include you, Susan, especially not since your most recent work on the Caribbean moved you across the pond.)


  6. What a great tribute to the amazing MBN, Historiann! I enjoyed this first installment so much, and have loved reading people’s comments and stories above, too. Mary Beth has mentored so many people at so many different stages of their careers. What a wonderful, generous, and rigorous scholar and woman she is.


  7. This was great! I cannot wait to read the other parts and share them on NC’s FB page.

    Oh and BTW, I have suggested Norton’s book on Salem to several of my students who are developing a historical fiction piece on Salem.


  8. Liberty’s Daughters got a fair few footnotes in my book too, and I’m a Scottish historian. I, however, feel the same sense of pain as Mary Beth Norton that historians of Europe/the (ex-)European colonies have to read English history, and that we all make the English comparison when explaining the peculiarities of our own countries of interest, but so few English historians bother to engage with the histories of other nations. And, this is especially annoying in the case of Scotland, with whom they shared a blinking monarch and later a parliament for the last several hundred years.


  9. Pingback: Feminist mentors and feminist activism: part II of my interview with Mary Beth Norton : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

  10. Pingback: Trilogies, trade presses, and books in print: part III of my interview with Mary Beth Norton : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

  11. Pingback: Trilogies, trade presses, and books in print: part III of my interview with Mary Beth Norton | Historiann

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