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  • Leonore Davidoff 1932–2014
  • Catherine Hall (bio)

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Lee on a Thames barge, Maldon, c. 2012.

Photo: Michela Redoano.

Leonore Davidoff, who died on 19 October 2014, was a wonderful historian, a pioneer in the teaching of women’s and gender history in higher education, the founding editor of Gender and History, and a key figure in developing initiatives in relation to the field both nationally and internationally. Always convinced of the benefits of collaborative work she wrote with others and organized with others over many years and in multiple projects. She established an extensive international network and her death has been mourned by historians across the world.

As a close friend and co-author this is a personal tribute. Rather than giving an account of her writings over the years I will focus on three of what I see as major aspects of her thought and her methods: her use of the case study, her interest in family and servants, and her attention to gender and the economy.

It is the combination of her brilliant capacity for rich historical detail and her abiding interest in social theory that makes for such a powerful mix in her work. Her micro-histories were always connected to the macro – her [End Page 319] project to describe and theorize modern British society with gender and family at its core. She herself wrote of her work as coming from the margins. But as she pointed out, every centre is defined by its rim and the liminal, as well as the repressed, will always come back to haunt in some form. Her attempts to draw ‘smells, urges and bodies’ and the messiness and materiality of everyday life into the centre ‘meant swimming against mainstream intellectual and scholarly conventions, including much of the radical tradition’.1 Her focus on the marginality of her work and indeed herself was, I suggest, to do with the problems of doing this kind of work in the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the very slow institutionalization of such approaches, and the difficulties of being both sociologist and historian, crossing disciplinary boundaries. Lee’s work is in fact central to any understanding of modern British society. Weber was the social theorist who probably did more to frame her thinking than any other. Like Weber she was interested in the transition to modern society and she followed his lines of inquiry into history, power, questions of economic resources, market position and status as well as class: but she made a crucial addition, feminist thought. Her work enables us to see the place of gender and family/kin and of systems of classification and categorization in the reconfiguring of English society during the development of capitalism, establishing a new ‘order of things’. As she put it: ‘the effort to conceive gender – or class or race – as an abstract logical grid without a notion of historical process is doomed for the categories are only worked out during that process and are emergent in social practices’.2 Her work explored those processes of ‘working out’ – but always drew out the conceptual implications.

But first, given her own interest in intergenerational stories, it seems absolutely right to start with something of hers. Towards the very end of her life Lee started to tell me a lot more about her parents and grandparents, and she wanted me to read the memoirs of her mother and father. Her father Leo Davidoff was an immigrant from Latvia. He was born in 1898 in the village of Talsen, near Riga, one of nine children. His father had been apprenticed to a shoemaker as a boy and worked in that trade before becoming the ritual slaughterer for the Jewish community in Talsen. The family were very poor, his mother made hats, sisters took in sewing. In an attempt to find a better life his father, though Jews were officially not allowed to leave Russia, managed to get to Sweden, then to South Africa and then to Boston with his oldest son. Lee told me that if they had landed at Ellis Island at that time they would never have managed to get in, fortunately...


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pp. 319-328
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