On Anne Firor Scott's Turf
Historians who labor in a field often stake out a topic as their own turf. They fence it and defend it—sometimes in scathing reviews—from all trespassers who encroach bearing differing interpretations. Historian Anne Firor Scott understood these turf wars better than did most scholars. She also knew that, at the beginning of her career, the overwhelmingly male historical profession saw the history of women as peripheral to the landscape of U.S. history, a sort of untilled, patchy turf, one that could be mostly ignored, located down past even the lower forty.
The complete neglect of women's history gave Scott some scrubby cover as she toiled in the 1960s on her first book, The Southern Lady: From Pedestal to Politics, 1830–1930 (1970).1 Even after its publication, some historians might have glanced at the title and assumed that their own turf remained secure. So barren was the field of women's history in 1970 that Scott could stake out a vast swath of space to write a century-long account of white women across the South. Historian A. Elizabeth Taylor's review of The Southern Lady in the Journal of Southern History noted a "dearth of period studies on southern women [w]ith the exception of Julia Cherry Spruill's excellent history of the colonial period" and "several accounts of women during the Civil War."2
Writing one definitive history of middle- and upper-class southern white women would have been an impossible task, but the title is, perhaps deliberately, misleading. Scott was not writing a history of all southern ladies; instead, her goal was to demolish the myth of the southern lady. In prescient ways, Scott dismantled that gendered stereotype to dismantle the existence of southern women's frailty, which historians had argued justified patriarchal protection, or to undermine prevailing accounts of Confederate women's universal willingness to sacrifice during the Civil War. Instead, Scott [End Page 123]
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[End Page 124] emphasized women's discontent with the slaveholding patriarchy and argued that the Civil War provided opportunities for liberation from it. She revealed that postbellum women's organizations brought women into the public sphere and were para-political. Certainly, her interpretation of the southern woman suffrage movement as an instrument for southern reform, rather than solely as a racist campaign to prevent the African American vote, countered standing interpretations.3
Most reviewers recognized and took up the broader implications of The Southern Lady, even if few—for example, A. Elizabeth Taylor—objected to Scott's "convey[ing] the impression that the cult of ladyhood might have been something of a brainwash to keep women submissive and that it was a barrier to their fulfillment as human beings." Taylor gently mourned the "decline in refinement and gentility."4 But Bell I. Wiley crafted a wily review that began by establishing "Mrs." Scott's bona fides, referring to her as someone "born and reared in Georgia, who received her doctoral training at Radcliffe under Oscar Handlin, and who is a successful wife, mother, and careerist." He then compared Scott's smashing of the southern lady cult to exploding the myth of the happy slave and approved of both.5 Scott proved, as George M. Fredrickson pointed out, women's "undercurrent of discontent with the patriarchal institutions of a slave-holding society."6 Gerda Lerner praised the book but gently noted its lack of race and class analysis.7
Scott's foremost goal was to make southern white women visible, not to have the last word. Her expansive and provocative work has proved incredibly generative in the almost half-century since its publication. Scott's long chronicle provided a through line to prove that the history of southern white women posed challenges to the accepted account of all of southern history, as well as to the modest outpouring on northeastern women's history, which generally dismissed southern women as an unimportant exception to the larger national narrative. Criticism that she had overemphasized white women's discomfort with slavery and the Civil War, neglected race and class, and overlooked racially repressive [End Page 125] aspects of women's Progressive-era work and the suffrage campaign proved generative as well.
Instead of making moves to protect her turf, Scott invited subsequent generations of scholars to camp out there. She published volumes to insert women's history into classrooms, including Women in American Life (1970) with selected readings; The American Woman: Who Was She? (1971), which compiled eyewitness accounts; and, written with her husband Andrew MacKay Scott, One Half the People: The Fight for Woman Suffrage (1975), an overview of the suffrage campaign with primary documents.8 Equally useful was her coeditorship of the microfilm series Southern Women and Their Families in the Nineteenth Century.9 Few historiographical essays can equal Scott and Jacquelyn Dowd Hall's painstaking "Women in the South," which credited work on women and steered scholars to promising topics.10
Moreover, Scott continued to hack away at the larger corpus of U.S. history, including its political history arm, with admonitions to include—to see—women. The epigraph for her article "On Seeing and Not Seeing: A Case of Historical Invisibility," in the Journal of American History, is an Albert Szent-Gyorgyi quotation: "Discovery consists in seeing what everybody else has seen and thinking what nobody else has thought." Ever so tactfully, she chided, "Historians, looking at the past, do not see all that is there." She did not mandate that all write "women's history," but rather that every historian writing on any topic take into account that the simple fact that women existed—that they acted and were acted upon—impinged on every historical topic. Not seeing women limits historical analysis.11
Scott aspired to use scholarship on women to revise not only southern history but also U.S. history more broadly. She announced as much in the first two sentences of her second monograph, Natural Allies: Women's Associations in American History (1991): "This book is about women. For that reason many of the familiar landmarks of American social and political history will appear in a new light."12 [End Page 126] She began research for this book by pulling threads on southern women's activism that she had woven into The Southern Lady and connecting them in a national tapestry. "On Seeing and Not Seeing" had been her 1984 presidential address to the Organization of American Historians, often an occasion for well-deserved turf tending and basking in past glory. But after her address, she recalled, "my friend," the historian Thomas Holt, congratulated her, "paused a moment, looked quizzical, and added, 'But are not black women invisible to you?'"13
Scott did not defer that suggestion by delineating her turf; rather, with characteristic Scottian resolve, she set out to research black women's associations for inclusion in Natural Allies. Five years later, she entitled her 1989 presidential address to the Southern Historical Association "Most Invisible of All: Black Women's Voluntary Associations." After Natural Allies appeared in 1991, historian Nancy F. Cott wrote that Natural Allies sprang from Scott's "vital conviction that the sheer bulk, the accomplishments, and the social significance of these efforts have been vastly overlooked by historians, to the detriment of our understanding of the development of American society."14
Two tribute volumes testify to Scott's openness to new work about southern women and to her generosity toward those who sought to complicate her interpretations. Nancy A. Hewitt and Suzanne Lebsock's edited volume Visible Women: New Essays on American Activism includes essays on working-class women, Latina women, black women, and women from across the United States. The editors wrote, "We call this collection of essays Visible Women in recognition of Anne Scott's persistent concern with historical vision. Our title is also intended as a statement about the astonishing increase in our knowledge since Scott first faced the void more than thirty years ago. Scott herself is responsible for much of this increase." Nancy Weiss Malkiel wrote of Scott, "We are grateful for her eagerness to hear us, her generosity in giving us space of our own, her willingness to entertain ideas and support scholarly efforts that may criticize, take issue with, or supersede her own work."15 Scott continued to invite young scholars into her field. Some eighteen years after her first Festschrift, [End Page 127] another generation of scholars honored her in Writing Women's History: A Tribute to Anne Firor Scott.16
Scott's last book was a labor of love: a heavily annotated and beautifully narrated collection of letters between Pauli Murray and Caroline F. Ware. Scott had known Ware when both worked in politics in post–World War II Washington, D.C. Scott was a young college grad; Ware was a veteran New Dealer. Pauli Murray and Caroline Ware: Forty Years of Letters in Black and White appeared when Scott was eighty-five years old; I remember reading drafts in a very large font.17 Our last telephone conversation, when Scott was in her midnineties, ended with her saying, "I've got to run to class." She was teaching women's history to residents at her retirement home. No invisibility there, or now. [End Page 128]
Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore is the Peter V. and C. Vann Woodward Professor of History Emerita at Yale University.
1. Anne Firor Scott, The Southern Lady: From Pedestal to Politics, 1830–1930 (Chicago, 1970).
2. A. Elizabeth Taylor, review of The Southern Lady: From Pedestal to Politics, 1830–1930, by Anne Firor Scott, Journal of Southern History, 37 (May 1971), 295–96 (quotation on 295); Julia Cherry Spruill, Women's Life and Work in the Southern Colonies (Chapel Hill, 1938).
3. In his review, George M. Fredrickson was intrigued, but skeptical, on this point. George M. Fredrickson, review of The Southern Lady: From Pedestal to Politics, 1830–1930, by Anne Firor Scott, American Historical Review, 76 (October 1971), 1223–24, esp. 1224.
4. Taylor, review of Southern Lady, 295 (first quotation), 296 (second quotation).
5. Bell I. Wiley, review of The Southern Lady: From Pedestal to Politics, 1830–1930, by Anne Firor Scott, North Carolina Historical Review, 48 (April 1971), 214–15 (quotations on 214).
6. Fredrickson, review of Southern Lady, 1224.
7. Gerda Lerner, review of The Southern Lady: From Pedestal to Politics, 1830–1930, by Anne Firor Scott, Journal of American History, 58 (June 1971), 162–63.
8. Anne Firor Scott, Women in American Life: Selected Readings (Boston, 1970); Anne Firor Scott, The American Woman: Who Was She? (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1971); Anne F. Scott and Andrew M. Scott, One Half the People: The Fight for Woman Suffrage (Philadelphia, 1975).
9. Anne Firor Scott et al., eds., Southern Women and Their Families in the Nineteenth Century: Papers and Diaries (Series A–H, microfilm; Bethesda, Md., 1991–2006).
10. Jacquelyn Dowd Hall and Anne Firor Scott, "Women in the South," in John B. Boles and Evelyn Thomas Nolen, eds., Interpreting Southern History: Historiographical Essays in Honor of Sanford W. Higginbotham (Baton Rouge, 1987), 454–509.
11. Anne Firor Scott, "On Seeing and Not Seeing: A Case of Historical Invisibility," Journal of American History, 71 (June 1984), 7–21 (quotations on 7).
12. Anne Firor Scott, Natural Allies: Women's Associations in American History (Urbana, 1991), 7.
13. Anne Firor Scott, "Most Invisible of All: Black Women's Voluntary Associations," Journal of Southern History, 56 (February 1990), 3–22 (quotations on 3).
14. Ibid.; Nancy F. Cott, review of Natural Allies: Women's Associations in American History, by Anne Firor Scott, Journal of American History, 79 (March 1993), 1605–6 (quotation on 1605).
15. "Introduction," 1–13 (first quotation on 1), and Nancy Weiss Malkiel, "Invincible Woman: Anne Firor Scott," 381–92 (second quotation on 391), both in Nancy A. Hewitt and Suzanne Lebsock, eds., Visible Women: New Essays on American Activism (Urbana, 1993).
16. Elizabeth Anne Payne, ed., Writing Women's History: A Tribute to Anne Firor Scott (Jackson, Miss., 2011).
17. Anne Firor Scott, ed., Pauli Murray and Caroline Ware: Forty Years of Letters in Black and White (Chapel Hill, 2006).