Guest Post: Pauline Maier and the History of Women in History

Sara Damiano is a Ph.D. candidate at Johns Hopkins University. Her dissertation is entitled, “Gender, Law, and the Culture of Credit in New England, 1730-1790.”

How should we choose to remember the lives and works of historians, and what do these choices say about our profession? The recent deaths of Edmund Morgan and Pauline Maier have led me to ponder these questions. I have watched with interest as historians have taken to social media—blogs, H-Net listservs, Twitter, and Facebook—to celebrate the lives of Morgan and Maier and to critique commemorations in the national press.

Some historians protested the placement of Edmund Morgan’s obituary on page 24 of the New York Times. Surely a figure so prominent as Morgan, they insisted, deserved front-page attention. Others questioned summations of Morgan’s and Maier’s scholarship, particularly taking issue with the New York Times headline identifying Maier as the “Historian Who Described Jefferson as Overrated.” On Twitter, a few charged that this headline, which arguably trivialized Maier’s career, was sexist. Moving beyond these issues, all of which could certainly be discussed and debated further, I’d like to consider another way in which attention to gender—or lack thereof—plays into our remembrances of Pauline Maier.

Outside of the allegations of sexism, Maier’s gender has, to my knowledge, only minimally factored into historians’ reflections on her life. Joanne Freeman’s post on H-SHEAR caught my eye because it stood out from the others. Sharing a letter she penned to Maier, she wrote touchingly and frankly: “As a brand spanking new grad student, I wanted a strong female academic voice in my head — an aggressive female academic who could be a sort of role model.  And I was lucky enough to hear you speak at that time — in Williamsburg, I think.  From that point on, you have always been and will continue to be that person.” On Facebook, Tara Strauch, who recently earned her PhD in History from the University of South Carolina and who met Maier at the 2011 Colonial Society of Massachusetts Graduate Student Forum, similarly reflected, “I had the pleasure of sitting next to her at dinner three years ago and she was hilarious. She and Mary Beth Norton cracked up the whole night. Women like her allow me to be a historian–not just a woman historian–and to have a family as well.” To my knowledge, these kinds of statements are anomalies. Most writers have heaped deserved praise on Maier’s scholarship, her passion, and her collegiality without reference to her gender.

To me, how we recall Maier’s contributions is interesting precisely because a survey of her publications does not necessarily lend itself to a focus on gender. Maier was chiefly a political and intellectual historian of the revolutionary era, and women’s and gender history did not feature prominently in her many writings. Yet Pauline Maier, like other female historians of her generation, was among a minority in her profession, and this makes her rise to the position of named chair at MIT all the more notable. Maier earned her PhD from Harvard University in 1968, where, as the Washington Post noted, she was one of the first female students of Bernard Bailyn. At that time, according to 1970 “Rose Report” by the American Historical Association’s Committee on the Status of Women, women made up only eleven percent of new history PhDs. The Committee’s survey of leading history departments found they “employed between 98 and 99 percent men on their faculties, the women serving primarily in the lower ranks.”

What does it mean that we have only rarely and obliquely linked the history of female historians to our written remembrances of Pauline Maier? On the one hand, this is a form of progress. It is heartening that we can celebrate the work of a “leading scholar of the colonial, revolutionary, and early national periods” without regard to her gender. But I wonder if we may be overlooking key elements of Maier’s career even as we laud her accomplishments. Even more significant, I fear that we may be missing an opportunity to reflect on the history of women in academia, on their current status within our profession, and on the continuing importance of female mentors, role models, and trailblazers. Certainly much has changed since the AHA published the Rose Report two years after Maier earned her PhD, but, as a recent issue of Perspectives on History pointed out, much work remains to be done.

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