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  • Remembering Susan Groag Bell
  • Laura E. Nym Mayhall (bio)

In January 2016, the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University hosted a conference celebrating the achievement and ongoing influence of Susan Groag Bell’s scholarship in the field of women’s history. A group of men and women who knew and worked with Susan for more than three decades organized the conference held on January 25, 2016, which would have been her ninetieth birthday.1 Together, the six talks that follow this introduction laid out the contours of Susan’s scholarship, charting the development of the field of women’s history through the work of one of its earliest and most intriguing practitioners.

Born in the Sudetenland in 1926, Susan and her mother fled to England when the Germans invaded Czechoslovakia in 1939. Marriage took her to the United States where, by the time she completed her undergraduate education at Stanford University in 1964, she had divorced, remarried, and parented teenaged stepchildren. When Susan completed her undergraduate education at the age of thirty-eight, she applied to the doctoral program in history at Stanford University, but the department said they could not admit her because she was “too old.” She instead went on to earn a master’s degree in 1970 at Santa Clara University.2 In the late 1960s, Susan began giving illustrated lectures on women’s history throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. Represented by Women Perspectives, a speakers’ agency, she offered six lectures under the title, “Our Future is Rooted in the Past,” which were available singly or in a series and featured color slides illustrating two thousand years of western art. Titles of her talks ranged from “Women and Work from Evolution to Revolution” to “Concepts of Mother and Child.”3

In the 1970s, Susan joined a group of female scholars who shared her interest in the study of women at the Center for Research on Women (CROW) at Stanford. CROW later became the Institute for Research on Women and Gender (IRWG), and is now the Clayman Institute for Gender Research. Susan never held a permanent faculty position at Stanford University, although she taught courses in the Modern Thought and Literature and Continuing Studies programs. She contributed greatly, however, to Stanford’s intellectual community. Throughout the various iterations of the Clayman Institute, she and other women built an institutional structure to support the scholarship of women—especially that of independent scholars, a category of academics that universities typically neglect. For [End Page 186] more than four decades, the Institute was a key site of Susan’s intellectual life and work. There she made deep and enduring friendships, and there she worked through many of the ideas she would develop into books and articles. Future historians interested in understanding the development of women’s history as an academic discipline in the United States will find much of interest in Susan’s papers, now housed in the Stanford University archives. Her papers reveal the personal networks and institutional foundations underpinning the remarkable flowering of scholarship on women and gender across multiple disciplines and among a great variety of institutions of higher education from the 1960s onward. They also show the resilience and determination of a generation of women who created a field of study while facing professional and institutional apathy and hostility.

The breadth and depth of Susan’s scholarship became apparent at the Clayman Institute’s conference in January 2016, titled “Susan Groag Bell (1926–2015): A Pioneer in Women’s History.” Each of the six speakers, whose contributions are included in this forum, sketched a dimension of her intellectual biography and each demonstrated the contribution that aspect of her work made to the larger project of women’s history. The essays that follow are largely those presented that day. My essay reconstructs an early research project of Susan’s on women and gardens in Western history that grew out of the slide lectures on women’s history she gave in the Bay Area and connects it to her final book, The Lost Tapestries of the City of Ladies (University of California Press, 2004). Carolyn Chappell Lougee shows the role that Susan’s 1973 publication, Women...


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