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  • Contingencies
  • Ann D. Gordon (bio)

When I retired in 2012, I also brought to its conclusion the historical edition that occupied thirty years of my life, the Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. I feel reasonably safe in saying that no one knows these two women as well as I do at this moment. That is not to claim that I have the best ideas about them. After reading every surviving diary entry, incoming and outgoing letter, speech, broadside, and essay at least twice, I know the evidence they left behind and what about them cannot be known. This is simply a by-product of the task I took on, to craft works that allow everyone else to learn about Stanton and Anthony. I retired in the midst of a presidential campaign in which women’s rights and voting rights were again contested. Improbably, the history of the woman suffrage movement was back at the center of politics. As I watched creative young feminists mobilize to protect our rights, I was struck by their ability to tap into that history and its imagery. They knew that their peers would get historical jokes as well as understand political stakes. Napoleon Sarony’s 1871 portrait of Stanton and Anthony seated together became an internet meme about voting. Conversely, when I was in my twenties, what activists did was unthinkable: Stanton and Anthony were invisible and uninvited to national political conversations. The purpose of editing their papers is in no small part to make sure that does not happen again.

I retired from the Department of History at Rutgers, where I had the rank of Research Professor. That title signals multiple truths: though a rank equivalent to Professor and full-time employment, it marked me as ineligible for tenure, grant-funded, and hired on a string of one-year contracts. I belonged to the fastest-growing sector of the academic labor force, a group variously called non-tenure track faculty, non-tenure eligible faculty, contingent faculty, and—in a more evocative term—“the precariat.” No one plans to practice the historical craft for decades without job security. No one pursues a contingent career. I landed in that uncertainty while looking for variety in the work a historian might do. By the time I discovered historical editing, precarious employment was the rule. I deposited my first grant-funded paycheck in July [End Page 188] 1975. By the time I directed a project, historical editors dubbed my cohort the “Soft Money Generation,” distinguished from forebears like Arthur S. Link, who turned to editing after they made their reputations and secured tenure in normative ways.1

Getting Started

I entered Smith College in the fall of 1962 and declared myself a history major at the proper time. To my recollection, no one in the department talked about why or what came next. Years later, in an essay about the girls who graduated from the Young Ladies’ Academy of Philadelphia in the 1790s, I wrote that Benjamin Rush and his colleagues modeled the girls’ curriculum after that for boys at the College of Philadelphia, even to the extent of instructing them in public speaking. Then the young ladies graduated—right off a cliff. Their graduation speeches are songs of farewell to experiences that would not recur.2 Shadows of that predicament lingered in my education. Our training was first rate. When I graduated in 1966, I had studied historiography, pursued historical research under expert guidance, and suffered my writing to be improved by a lot of people who made time to do that. At cross-purposes to the good intentions of the history faculty, however, there existed a student culture of husband-hunting, set to the cadence of the college president’s mantra that a liberal arts education would make us better mothers.

The ferment of the early Sixties agitated life at Smith and across what were then the Four Colleges of the Connecticut River Valley. Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) had a presence at Smith and Amherst, and together we organized Northampton’s first march against the war in Vietnam and protested the collaboration of colleges with the Selective Service System when...


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