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Arts & Culture

Historian Destroyed Myth Of The Perfect But Powerless 'Southern Lady'

Anne Firor Scott
Les Todd
Duke Photography

Earlier this week, President Obama awarded Chapel Hill historian Anne Firor Scott the National Humanities Medal.

She was honored "for pioneering the study of southern women. Through groundbreaking research spanning ideology, race, and class, Dr. Scott’s uncharted exploration into the lives of southern women has established women’s history as vital to our understanding of the American South."

In 1970, Anne Firor Scott of Duke University helped open the floodgates both for women historians and women’s history with The Southern Lady: From Pedestal to Politics, 1830–1930. Through her use of period diaries, letters, and other papers, Scott not only destroyed the myth of the perfect but powerless “southern lady,” but demonstrated how southern women found their own roles in the public square. Scott “is the mother of looking at women in a different way, not in relation to their fathers, husbands, and children, but in the community,” says Elizabeth Anne Payne, professor of history at the University of Mississippi and editor of Writing Women’s History: A Tribute to Anne Firor Scott (2011). The Southern Lady “emphasized women’s friendship, their roles in church and in reform circles,” she says, while Scott’s use of the diaries of southern women also conveyed “the everyday experiences of women. It gave meaning and texture to their lives.”

Scott was nineteen years old when she graduated from the University of Georgia. She then earned a master’s degree from Northwestern and a doctorate from Radcliffe.

With her doctorate in hand, Scott taught ... in a part-time position at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, making her the first woman ever to join the history department. The next year, with the family in Italy for her husband’s Fulbright year, Scott received a letter from Duke University, asking if she could fill in as a part-time instructor in the fall of 1961 “until we can find somebody,” meaning a male scholar. By 1980 she was Duke’s history department chair. >>Read the full profile.

Anne Firor Scott marvels at how many women are now represented in academia. In an essay in her book, Making the Invisible Woman Visible (1984) she wrote:

“In 1958 all the historians of women in the United States could have met in the tiny hotel room, which was all any one of the three could afford at historical meetings. Twenty years later conferences on women’s history attracted 2,000 people and overran whole college campuses.” 

Anne Firor Scott awarded National Humanities Medal
Credit Jecelyn Augustino / NEH
Duke's Anne Firor Scott awarded National Humanities Medal


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