Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams — the Founding Fathers of the Revolution sit exalted in America’s historical pantheon, inseparable from the movement that birthed a country and irrevocably altered world history.
Now, perhaps, a different pantheon is being constructed: one for the scholars who revolutionized the study of the revolutionaries, themselves entwined with the upheaval that severed the colonies from Great Britain more than 200 years ago.
Through a series of discussion forums held on campus Friday and Saturday, more than 100 professors, doctoral candidates, undergraduates, librarians and history nerds called for one professor — Prof. Mary Beth Norton, history, the first woman ever appointed to Cornell’s history department — to be recognized in the illustrious ranks of those who have defined our understanding of the American Revolution.
“[Norton] means so much to American historiography ... She really is one of the very first people to make it a legitimate focus of study to look at everyday women and American women and their actual experiences,” said one of the event organizers, Prof. Susanah Shaw Romney Ph.D. 2000, history, University of Arkansas at Little Rock, and a former student of Norton’s.
Collectively titled “Liberty’s Daughters & Sons: Celebrate the Legacy of Mary Beth Norton,” the two-day event drew participants from Boston, Mass., to Williamsburg, Va., eager to pay testament to Norton’s achievements — “while I’m still alive,” Norton, who was born in 1943, wryly noted.
“What I’ve tried to do in my work is to think differently about the early period of American history,” Norton said. “Looking first at the Revolution from the standpoint of the loyalists, then at the Revolution from the standpoint of women — I had a different perspective on the kinds of events and processes going on in the Revolutionary period.”
Norton’s oeuvre is not limited to the American Revolution. In the Devil’s Snare, one of her most popular works, is widely seen to have upended previous explanations of the 1692 Salem Witchcraft Trials. She is also, as noted by several of the weekend’s panelists, regarded in the women’s history movement both as something of a maternal guardian and rockstar.
The composition of conference attendees reflected Norton’s explorations — a physical representation of the varied fields she has plumbed in more than four decades of historical research.
There was the delegation heralding Norton’s impact on gender studies and women’s history.
“Regarding the Salem project, I remember [Norton] saying something like, ‘It’s not about gender.’ And while that is true on some level, In the Devil’s Snare would not exist in the form it does without the analytic work of gender and the talents of Mary Beth as a historian of women and gender,” said a former graduate student of Norton’s, Prof. Kate Haulman Ph.D. 2002, history, American University.
Herself a historian of the colonial period and a fellow disciple of Bernard Bailyn, author of The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, Prof. Pauline Maier, history, MIT, traced the importance of gender to Norton’s work in her speech Saturday.
When the two were graduate students at Harvard, “There was a ... separate women’s entrance to the Harvard faculty club, which people like Mary Beth and I just refused to use,” Maier said. “It really was the bad old days in some ways.”
She added that pay was not always equitable for graduate students.
“If that augured ill for Mary Beth’s and my future we paid no attention. We did our thing and moved on,” Maier said.
Several of the attendees — female professors at Cornell and other universities — said they were the beneficiaries of Norton and Maier’s work, which Norton acknowledged was closely tied to the women’s movement of the 1970s.
“In the 1970s, I was very much influenced by a desire to give women of the revolutionary period a voice, and at that time most of women’s history was being written from the standpoint of men,” Norton said. “I wanted to have 18th Century women speak for themselves — and that was very much a feminist project, a 70s feminist project, but it still speaks to people today.”
Former students — who conceptualized and executed the events — also formed a large contingent at the forums.
“[Norton] inspired me to become a historian; she introduced me to her love of the discipline and all the joy it could bring,” said Prof. Molly Warsh 2000, history, University of Pittsburgh, one of the organizers.
Ultimately, however, Norton’s grandest legacy may be related to her expansion of what the American Revolution means — both because of her dissertation on American loyalists and her later work on the role of women in the Revolution.
Maier explained that Norton fundamentally transformed previous conceptions of the ideologies held by the loyalists — those who opposed the Revolution — and their relation to America. Whereas loyalists were previously thought of as conservative Tories, they began to be — accurately, Maier said — recognized as American Whigs, or liberals, after Norton’s work.
Norton’s doctoral dissertation tracked the difficulties loyalists faced adjusting to life outside of the colonies after the Revolution — convincing evidence, Maier said, that they belonged in the American ideological spectrum.
“[Norton] showed that the loyalists were not inexplicable anomalies but that they really fit into the mainstream of American history,” Maier said. “They weren’t just like other Englishmen … Outside America, they were troubled.”
Even more crucial to Norton’s Revolutionary legacy may be Liberty’s Daughters: The Revolutionary Experience of American Women, which chronicles the role of colonial women and was the namesake of the forum.
It was also the inspiration for a shirt sold at the event.
“Yes, I am one of Liberty’s Daughters (and sons),” one side of the shirt read. “Inspired by our Founding Mother: Mary Beth Norton,” said the other.