October 1, 2012

Cornell Prof. Norton Called Founding Mother of Colonial American History

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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.

Original Author: Jeff Stein