A Fellowship Changes a Woman’s Life (and Women’s History)March 26, 2014
As lovers of American women’s history, we owe a lot to Anne Firor Scott, the Duke University history professor who revolutionized American women’s history. An AAUW fellow from 1956–57, Scott challenged traditional notions of history with The Southern Lady: From Pedestal to Politics, 1830–1930. This 1970 book examined the stereotypes that defined Southern American women of the 19th and early 20th centuries and demonstrated that the truth of their existence was far more complicated than the stereotypical image of the submissive Southern lady. It also helped pave the way for the rise of social and women’s histories as legitimate disciplines.
In 1955, when Scott applied for an AAUW fellowship, she was a young wife and mother of three children, whose doctoral dissertation on progressive politics in the South had taken a back seat to other responsibilities. The fellowship funding played a critical role in launching her career.
“Leafing through the Journal of the American Association of University Women, I came across an announcement of a fellowship program,” she wrote in the afterword to a new edition of The Southern Lady in 1995. “In a somewhat now-or-never mood I asked for money to pay a nanny, so that I could finish my dissertation. To my astonishment, it was provided, and I finally finished.”
Scott expressed her gratitude to AAUW in a 1966 post-fellowship survey. “I suppose the AAUW fellowship was the single most important prerequisite for anything I have done professionally since 1957. … I am eternally grateful to the Fellowship Committee for taking a chance that a married woman with three young children would in fact come through.”
Support 125 More Years of Fellowships and Grants
Her experience demonstrates not only the life- and career-changing impact of an AAUW fellowship, but the groundbreaking effect that it can have on an entire academic discipline. Scott went on to become the chair of the history department at Duke University, retiring in 1991. Duke and the Organization of American Historians give awards in Scott’s name for undergraduate research and outstanding doctoral dissertations, respectively.
In the afterword to the new edition of The Southern Lady, Scott also mentioned a number of women who inspired her while she was writing the book. Of one such woman, Julia Cherry Spruill, she wrote, “She was at once a pioneering scholar in the field and an invaluable example of a kind of experience common to 20th-century Southern women who aspired to scholarship.”
The same can now be said of Scott herself. Historians of the current generation owe a great deal to Scott and other scholars like her, who demonstrated that the lives of women, minorities, and other traditionally ignored groups are worthy of academic attention.
This post was written by AAUW archives intern Elizabeth Beckman.