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In Memoriam | Ann J. Lane

Ann J. LaneAnn J. Lane, a pioneer in Women’s History and Women’s Studies, passed away on Memorial Day, May 27, at the age of 81. She had retired in 2009 from the University of Virginia, where she was Professor of History and director of Women’s Studies (now the Women, Gender, and Sexuality Program) from 1990 to 2003. Like many others of her generation, she redeployed a commitment to social and economic justice learned through engagement with Marxism and civil rights to gender equality. She became caught up in the women’s movement; feminism brought her to women’s history. She was a fierce champion of white women and people of color within the university, speaking “truth to power.” It’s said that upon her hiring the Dean of the Faculty urged her “to make trouble” at the formerly all-male and all-white university.

Brooklyn born in 1931 to accountant Harry and housewife Betty Brown Lane, Ann Lane was a New Yorker through and through. She earned a BA in English from Brooklyn College in 1952, and then, in a pattern typical in those years for women and working-class students, she took another 16 years to obtain her PhD, earning an MA in sociology from New York University in 1958 and defending her PhD dissertation in history at Columbia University in 1968, a year of campus upheavals against the Viet Nam war and for black empowerment. Before arriving in Charlottesville, she taught at Douglas College, Rutgers University (1968-71); John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY (1971-83); and, from 1983 to 1990, Colgate University, another previously all-male institution where she first directed Women’s Studies.

Lane initially specialized in African American history, but she became known for innovative scholarship on women writers and intellectuals. In 1971, she published The Brownsville Affair: National Outrage and Black Reaction, a study notable for its emphasis on the internal politics of the black community. The same year she edited The Debate Over Slavery: Stanley Elkins and His Critics, a significant collection addressing an important interpretative controversy. Active in the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians (the “Little Berks”), she displayed the qualities of the thinkers that she later would work on when in 1973 she attacked the essentialism of anthropologist Lionel Tiger, a noted sociobiologist, during a plenary at the first large conference on the history of women. Lane made available the foundational writings of historian Mary Ritter Beard in a 1977 reader that not only connected private life to public activism but also underscored Beard’s concept of “women as a force in history.”

But it was her research on Charlotte Perkins Gilman for which Lane is best remembered. In publishing as a book the utopian serial Herland (1979) and gathering together short fiction in The Charlotte Perkins Gilman Reader (1980), Lane introduced a new generation of readers to the most provocative feminist intellectual of the early 20th century. As she explained in the preface to the 2nd edition of the Gilman reader: “Perhaps we do not, cannot, fully understand how severely we have been damaged by having been denied access to learning about ourselves.” Her motivation was clear: knowledge was power, and scholarship was essential to social change.

To ‘Herland’ and Beyond: The Life and Work of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Lane’s 1990 biography of the woman she called “my Charlotte,” made a splash with reviews in The New York Times, The Nation, and The New Yorker that underscored it as “remarkable,” “personal, reflective,” and “forthright, consistently readable and complex.” Lane boldly organized chapters around Gilman’s relationships: parents, husbands, women friends, and daughter. We learn about the intellect through knowing the life. “All the work that we do, especially the work of writing, is ultimately autobiographical,” Lane would reflect on Gilman--but also herself. Two central chapters analyze Gilman’s theories about human work. Lane was able to get beyond the racism, ethnocentrism, and anti-Semitism that Gilman shared with other Progressives to capture Gilman’s prescient understanding of gender and the way that women were reduced to a sex class, their humanity denied.

In long skirts and flowing jackets, “my Ann” offered a powerful model for directing women’s studies, combining interdisciplinary with historical perspectives, and advancing underrepresented groups in the academy with a fierce elegance. She could march to save women’s lives from violence in the afternoon and attend the opera in the evening. She brought me, a mother commuting from Charlottesville to Washington, DC, to UVA’s Women’s Studies Program in 1998 and she also taught me to drink champagne. Ann made it her business to help every UVA woman, faculty and staff, navigate and undermine the old boy network that still ran the place.

Of course, her care extended to students. At UVA, that concern took the form of advocating for a controversial code restricting consensual sexual relationships between professors and students. In the context of the classroom and the seminar, she argued, any such relationship manifested unequal power relations, almost always to the detriment of young women. She left uncompleted a cultural history, Sex and the Professors, based on extensive oral interviews that illuminated the pervasiveness of such relations and their often negative impacts.

Ann Lane knew that it wasn’t easy to combine work and family, but she managed to support her daughters, Leslie Nuchow and Joni Lane, in their various artistic pursuits with just the right mix of guidance and enthusiasm. She was married in the early 1950s to the historian Eugene Genovese and then to the New York Teamster’s official William Haywood Nuchow. Beside her daughters and three grandchildren, she leaves behind her brother Mark Lane, the civil rights lawyer and author, and Wayne Roberts, her companion.

Eileen Boris, Hull Professor and Chair, Department of Feminist Studies
Professor of History, Black Studies, and Global Studies
University of California, Santa Barbara