Feminist mentors and feminist activism: part II of my interview with Mary Beth Norton

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.

*       *       *       *       *       *       *       *

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.

23 thoughts on “Feminist mentors and feminist activism: part II of my interview with Mary Beth Norton

  1. I am quite fascinated by the concept of scholarly reinvention. While some scholars make huge contributions focusing on the same subject matter employing the same methods for their entire careers, for others sporadic–or even regular–reinvention has clearly been instrumental to their success. What I now understand about myself is that I need to continuously incorporate (or devise) new approaches into my research program, and about every ten years I need to enter subfields that are new to me. Mostly I think this is because I have a short attention span and easily get bored, and complementarily one of my greatest intellectual strengths is the ability to enter new territory and rapidly master its conceptual and methodological frameworks.

    In common with Norton, I have on occasion had more senior scientists express their “concern” with this predilection, and treat me as if it were something unseemly and impudent. Fortunately, both my pre-doc and post-doc mentors effectively inculcated in me a robust “go fucke yourself” attitude towards this kind of squelching, and my current understanding is that it represents the understandable fear of the dinosaur for the mammal.

    I would be very interested to hear more about the resistance Norton experienced in her own process of breaching subfield barriers.


  2. “my current understanding is that it represents the understandable fear of the dinosaur for the mammal.”

    Agreed. Gatekeeping is frequently deployed to shut down new avenues of inquiry for this very reason: in the land where everyone is blind, the man with one eye is king. That’s what I think the “perfectly OK” comment was about with respect to Norton and her changing intellectual agendas. (That, and probably a large amount of discomfort with the implicit feminism in such a move.)


  3. Impudence is never so valued (as in, the recognition of its potential impact) as when it’s being rebuked, warned against, re-channeled, and the like. In all fields, I assume, but certainly in history, there are some people who productively continue to mine a relatively coherent vein of interests or materials beginning with their “training” project, and others who equally productively tend to move around, sometimes very disjunctively. It probably has a lot to do with temperament and intellectual style in general, and also, as CPP suggests, depends on reinforcement and/or may be vulnerable to resistance or reprooval. I tend to think of myself as the jump around type; and I certainly got a lot of reinforcement in this approach–or at least lack of reprooval–as I went along earlier in my career. Boredom is a devilish thing, and curiosity a great tonic.


  4. Enjoying part two, too!

    As the first woman in my own department, I was pleased that I didn’t have to invent women’s history in the curriculum (especially since I had no training in women’s history but had to bring myself up to speed after I joined the faculty). Since then, we’ve built a strong gender history profile in teaching and research of which I’m proud to be one small part.

    Reinventing ourselves and our programs is something that’s often overlooked as part of our scholarly careers. Too often we’re afraid of moving into something new or shaking up what works. Or maybe we’re just too tired?

    I’m not proposing novelty for novelty’s sake – what historian would? – but it’s clear that along with the all-important efforts of mentoring and outreach as Mary Beth Norton has outlined, being willing to explore and champion innovative interests in research and teaching, as she’s done and continues to do, is vital if we’re not to fossilize in the field.


  5. A friend and colleague suggested to me earlier this year that if I look at my scholarly record, what I will find is cycles between fine detail and the big picture. He was right and I thought it interesting that he had this insight where I did not. My friend is very senior though.

    These days I find myself craving a new analytical methodology. It is not that I don’t like my primary field of study, I do, I just want a radically new intellectual challenge, to jump off into the deep end, perhaps. I’ve seen colleagues do this within the same broad research area but I’ve never seen a complete discipline jump. It must happen though.


  6. Can you really change disciplines at mid-career? I mean, and still keep your tenured position?

    I’m all for experimentation and challenging boundaries and the triumph of the mammals over the dinosaurs and all that–but changing disciplines seems like it would require a total career overhaul. (That is, if we really believe all of the crap we say here about teaching and research being mutually supportive rather than competing against one another, and all that, and I think we do. Or at least, I do, and I would find it difficult to continue to teach in a History department while my research migrated into Philosophy or Anthropology.)

    But I don’t think I’m nearly as ambitious as truffula, CPP, or Mary Beth Norton!


  7. I think there are different ways of defining a discipline, and depending on how one does this, a shift appears impossible or possible. If one is seeking a “new analytical methodology”, like Truffula, but retaining the substantive subject matter, then why the fucke not? And if you are retaining your methodological approach, but seeking a new substantive subject matter, then also why the fucke not? Where I could see it becoming potentially too difficult would be to shift both simultaneously.

    The other thing is how narrowly do you define a “discipline”? Is history a discipline, or is it a collection of disciplines? I mean yeah, if you were a historian used to poring through archives and shitte, it would be pretty hard to just up and decide to become an analytical philosopher studying formal logic and the foundations of mathematics, or whatthefuckever. But if you were a historian used to poring through archives for information about medieval beer production, couldn’t you decide to become a historian poring though archives for information about the twentieth century labor movement? And conversely, couldn’t you try to study medieval beer production using some approach other than poring through archives, like looking for references to it in literature or finding old beer bottles or whatever?


  8. I think maybe the way to do it, big or small, is as an apprentice. Keep the day job but find a partner for an interdisciplinary project that allows you to learn something new. It’s a start anyway. I just started reading Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s Decolonizing Methodologies and I have high hopes. For what, I don’t know, but I expect I can figure it out.

    CPP asks a great question about what defines a discipline.


  9. CPP asks a great question about what defines a discipline.

    One thing I can tell you is that before I was hired as an assistant professor by a physiology department, I would have never considered myself a “physiologist”. And I only do so now in a very loose sense, and consider myself several other “ist”s with equaly salience.

    And I can also tell you that when the olde fuckes in my department start blithering during job searches about whether so-and-so “is a physiologist” or whether such-and-such research program “is physiology”, I tell them to shut the fucke uppe (not in those exact words).


  10. blithering during job searches about whether so-and-so “is a …

    Ha ha! I actually am, by the names on my degrees, what my current department identifies itself to be but because of the methods I employ, some of my colleagues–and students–don’t identify me that way. Yet I know if I went with their classification of where I should be, I would not fit in at all. I fit where I am for the ways in which I frame research questions, not for the methods I use to answer them.


  11. I see what you two are getting at. I would not define the shift of either methodology or of subject matter a change of disciplines, but rather an interdisciplinary approach. I totally grok that, and I guess I’ve been borrowing promiscuously from environmental history and material culture studies for my current project.

    My confusion over this is perhaps due to the fact that history sees itself as the queen of disciplines, and it borrows pretty promiscuously from whichever discipline’s methodologies look like they’ll help.

    I think that’s the up side of having no real methodology of our own–others may disagree and think that we’re doin’ it all rong but that’s OK. There are no rules. We’re historians!

    I’ve heard a number of silly things said about job candidates, but I’ve never heard anyone ask if a candidate was actually a historian. I’m not saying it couldn’t happen, but I’m thinking that the discipline’s boundaries are much more flexible than physiology (for example.)


  12. Historians are the ultimate party-grazers when it comes to nibbling along the disciplinary and theoretical buffet table in the course of academic life. But you can also get “re-disciplined,” as it were, at least partly by external agency. I’m thinking of Caroll Smith-Rosenberg, who was initially hired into a Department of Psychiatry of a University Hospital because she was married to a historian in an institution that was averse to “nepotism” (as it was then conceived). She actually took a several year-long NEH (or other) fellowship in that subject, and I think it considerably contributed to the perhaps unpredictably different trajectory of the rest of her scholarly career. [This ironically happened roughly at about the time that Mary Beth Norton’s senior colleague was making that comment about “perfectly OK”]


  13. 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

  14. Historians do pick & choose a lot from other disciplines and subfields. For example, I already mentioned that I have had to read a lot of early modern English history. That’s still history, but Americanists who study later periods rarely venture across geographic lines in the way I’ve done, and which other Early Americanists also should (if they haven’t). One of my most recent grad students has worked on Dutch/American trade & she got heavily into early modern Dutch history, appropriately. But beyond history, I’ve read in anthropological works on gender and for the most recent book, Separated by their Sex, I read & drew on works by literature profs on both early modern English & American topics in a way I had never expected to do. Yet one such work gave me access to a term to employ for a phenomenon I had already identified, rhetorical femininity, and I used it to good advantage. (anyone interested in the definition can look it up in my book)
    As for moving into new areas to revitalize one’s teaching and research, yes indeedy! I certainly felt that way when I moved into women’s history and then added men to the mix in a gendered way in Founding Mothers & Fathers. Both changes were very intellectually stimulating. Now I am returning to an old topic of interest but with a very different mindset (see pt 3 of interview on this).

    And right now I am having an enormous amount of fun teaching a wholly innovative large lecture course with Steve Squyres, who runs the Opportunity rover on Mars and is part of the Curiosity team as well. We call our course “History of Exploration: Land, Sea, & Space.” It’s currently in its 3d iteration and requires me to lecture on Marco Polo along with more familiar topics like John Smith or Hernan Cortes. This time through I’m developing a lecture on women explorers, too. Plus I always know the latest news from Mars. . .which is amazing. Steve is a current explorer with a unique perspective on our subject. We think this is the only course in the country crosslisted between History & Astronomy. The students seem to love it. We both do too.


  15. I would almost join a MOOC to have a virtual opportunity to ride “shotgun” on one of those things moving around on Mars! And that’s saying something. You could almost imagine a graduate version of that, because I think going this far, far off-topic and methodology probably dislodges conceptions about the nature of inquiry and evidence that would not emerge from sitting in a standard book version of a seminar in a “cognate” discipline.


  16. Yow. I would leap at a class like history of exploration. I think it would be very interesting to play micro and macro (structure of the atom/structure of the universe for example) against each other or maybe feedbacks among different disciplines. So cool.


  17. “Can you really change disciplines at mid-career? I mean, and still keep your tenured position?”

    Sometimes, yes. It depends on what your subject is and your discipline, but if, for instance, I were to start working on an issue rather than a work or an author, and then start looking at that issue from the point of view of a discipline other than my own or in addition to my own … it could be done.


  18. I don’t know how it has fared in its field(s)–which are certainly not anywhere nearly related to any of my fields–but the essay below by Donald Fleming on the unanticipated disciplinary consequences of academic spatial and institutional migrations driven by the mid-20th century upheavals of Nazism and World War II was suggested to me many years ago as being worthy of a place on a comprehensive exam reading list treating the then much-talked-about “sociology of knowledge.”

    Donald Fleming, “Emigre Physicists and the Biological Revolution,” in Donald Fleming and Bernard Bailyn, eds. The Intellectual Migration (Cambridge: Harvard, 1969).

    There’s also an interview in print that I could retrieve from my print file about a guy who came to a famous American university and gave a job talk that he didn’t realize was a job talk and was offered (on the spot) a job that he didn’t know was available in a “field” that he had not trained in and that he didn’t even know existed. That was in the Annus Mirabilis of 1968, I should say, so maybe to exceptional to serve as an example.


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

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