The American Historian

Anne Firor Scott (1921–2019)

William H. Chafe

Anne Firor Scott, a brilliant historian who helped establish the field of women’s history in the 1970s, passed away at the age of 97 this past February. Anne was a devoted mother, wife and grandmother, an engaged colleague, a brilliant scholar, a dear friend. But above all she was a pioneer.

Born in the immediate aftermath of the struggle for women’s suffrage, she charted a course of independence in her life that Susan B. Anthony and Jane Addams would have admired. After graduating from college, she became a staff member with the League of Women Voters, the successor to the suffrage association. She then pursued a Ph.D. in history at Radcliffe. She married her husband Andy, a political scientist, and moved with him and their three children to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where Andy had taken a faculty position at the University of North Carolina.

There, Anne continued to pursue her own academic career, becoming one of the first historians of women at a major research university. Initially, Anne worked only part-time at Duke, but she started new classes in women’s history and by the mid-1960s had become a full-time faculty member, sparking Duke’s development as one of the first universities in the country to offer graduate degrees in women’s history.

I first met Anne as I was completing my graduate degree in women’s history at Columbia in 1971 and seeking a job at Duke. A year earlier, Anne had published The Southern Lady: From Pedestal to Politics, 1830–1930, one of the path-breaking books of the new feminist scholarship. She had also led the North Carolina Commission on the Status of Women and served on President Lyndon Johnson’s Citizens Advisory Council on the Status of Women.

Immediately, we hit it off. Rather than see me as a potential competitor, Anne welcomed me as an ally, a friend, a partner.

Thus began a deep friendship of almost 48 years. Anne and I had lunch together, discussed the ups and downs of women’s history, and started the Duke-UNC Center for Research on Women, which eventually became home to the feminist journal, Signs. Anne was fun. We laughed together and gossiped. We both loved to dance, and at Duke soirees, she and her husband Andy, and my wife Lorna and I, were always the first on the floor to do the fox trot. After I became Dean of the Faculty, Anne gave a hilarious toast at a faculty party in my honor.

More than almost anything else, Anne cared about teaching. One of her students, Dara DeHaven, wrote this to me about Anne:

"I met her my first day at Duke [in 1969] when she addressed the freshman class of the Women’s College. What a transformational experience. For the next few years I and my colleagues lined up for the privilege of taking her courses. She taught history, but so much more. The value of listening to lost voices and looking for additional perspectives. And always the challenge to think for yourself. After sending us to the ‘stacks’ to review primary documents, we were then grilled. What do you think? How would you have reported the events? As a student I admired her, respected, and yes, feared her a bit. But fundamentally we learned from her. Anne is now part of the past. But as with the history she so loved, she lives in the present and the future."

Anne helped lead the profession of history down a new path, one that has transformed the way we think and write about our past. The women’s movement of the last fifty years would not be the same without her research. Neither would the profession of teaching history.

Over and over again, Anne received recognition of her distinction. She was chosen chair of the history department at Duke, elected president of the Organization of American History (OAH), and received the Distinguished Service Award from the OAH. Anne wrote or edited eight additional books in addition to The Southern Lady, including Making the Invisible Woman Visible, and the 2006 volume, Pauli Murray and Caroline Ware: Forty Years of Letters in Black and White. The Lerner-Scott Prize, named for Anne and historian Gerda Lerner, is awarded each year to the best doctoral dissertation on the subject of U.S. women’s history by the OAH.

In perhaps the greatest tribute to her pioneering leadership, Anne received the National Humanities Medal from President Barack Obama at the White House in 2013. Fittingly, the award praised Scott’s “groundbreaking research spanning ideology, race and class” and noted that she had “helped open the floodgates both for women historians and women’s history. . . .”

But beneath all of this, Anne Firor Scott was above all a caring, candid, open-minded, and loving human being who enhanced the lives of all of us. What a gift we have received.