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Women's history pioneer Anne Firor Scott, first female chair of Duke history department, dies

Anne Firor Scott, who pioneered the study of women's history, died in her Chapel Hill home Feb. 5 at the age of 97. 

Scott was the first female chair of Duke’s history department and revolutionized scholarship of women's history for future generations. 

Breaking away from the traditional veneration of Southern women as infallible icons of ladyhood and gentility, she instead emphasized their active roles in transforming Southern history, working to legitimize women’s history. In 2013, then-President Barack Obama awarded Scott a National Humanities Medal from the National Endowment for the Humanities. 

William Chafe, Alice Mary Baldwin professor emeritus of history, met Scott when he came to Duke in 1971 to study history. Chafe quickly came to know her as a close friend. 

“When I came to Duke, she could have seen me as a competitor. Instead, she saw me as a partner, an ally and a friend," Chafe said. "Even when the history department was somewhat in flux due to the demonstrations of ‘68 and ‘69, she took leadership of the department and supported our efforts to start a brand new oral history program.” 

When Scott first arrived at Duke as a young scholar in a male-dominated field, it took a long time for her to get a regular faculty position, something "typical of women in the workplace in that period," said Linda Gordon, university professor of humanities at New York University. 

"However, once people got to know her, they found she was a very thoughtful and judicious person," Gordon said. "It is hardly surprising that someone who at first was not considered for a regular faculty position would end up as the chair of a very distinguished history department." 

Gordon noted that even in the conservative culture of the South, Scott "persisted in doing what she wanted to do." 

"If you looked at almost any of the books in the field, you would find people who knew her and you would see how direct her influence on them was,” Gordon said. 

Scott was best known for her book, The Southern Lady: From Pedestal to Politics, 1830-1930. Scott’s research into women’s history revolved around primary sources like diaries and letters. 

As she mentored a whole new generation of students, this kind of research became “the new norm, a reference point for a new generation of historians,” Chafe said. 

“[One of my first students] took a seminar with her and was told to go out and find a primary source and write about what it conveyed. That student said this experience changed his life," Chafe said. "Never before had he dealt with how feeding into someone’s personal experiences and writings could influence the way in which you understood history. [Scott] was instrumental in involving students in this kind of first-person research.”


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