Norton, Mary Beth 1943-
NORTON, Mary Beth 1943-
PERSONAL: Born March 25, 1943, in Ann Arbor, MI; daughter of Clark Frederic (a political science professor; a legislative assistant; and an employee for Congressional Research Services) and Mary (a professor; maiden name, Lunny) Norton. Education: University of Michigan, A.B., 1964; Harvard University, A.M., 1965, Ph.D., 1969. Politics: Democrat. Religion: Methodist.
CAREER: University of Connecticut, Storrs, assistant professor of history, 1969-71; Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, assistant professor, 1971-74, associate professor of American history, 1975-87, Mary Donlon Alger professor of American history, 1987—.
MEMBER: American Historical Association, Organization of American Historians, Society of American Historians, American Antiquarian Society, Berkshire Conference of Women Historians, Conference Group on Women's History, Coordinating Committee of Women in the Historical Profession, Phi Beta Kappa, Mortar Board, Phi Kappa Phi.
AWARDS, HONORS: Woodrow Wilson fellowship, 1964-65; Alan Nevins Prize of Society of American Historians, 1969, for best doctoral dissertation in American history; National Endowment for the Humanities Younger Humanists fellowship, 1974-75; Charles Warren Center fellowship, Harvard University, 1974-75; Shelby Cullom Davic Center fellowship, Princeton University, 1977-78; Berkshire prize for Best Book, Woman Historian, 1980, for Liberty's Daughters: The Revolutionary Experience of American Women, 1750-1800; Alice and Edith Hamilton Prize, 1980; Douglass Adair Prize, 1980; Berkshire Conference prize, 1981; Rockefeller Foundation fellow, 1986-87; Society for Humanities fellow, Cornell University, 1989-90; John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation fellow, 1993-94.
The British-Americans: The Loyalist Exiles in England, 1774-1789, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1972.
(Editor, with Carol Berkin) Women of America: A History, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1979.
Liberty's Daughters: The Revolutionary Experience of American Women, 1750-1800, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1980, reprinted, Cornell University Press (Ithaca, NY), 1996.
(Coauthor) A People and a Nation: A History of the United States, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1982, 6th revised edition, 2001, 6th brief edition, 2003.
(Editor, with Carol Groneman) "To Toil the Livelong Day": America's Women at Work, 1780-1980, Cornell University Press (Ithaca, NY), 1987.
(Editor, with Ruth M. Alexander) Major Problems in American Women's History: Documents and Essays, D. C. Heath (Lexington, MA), 1989, 3rd revised edition, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 2003.
Founding Mothers & Fathers: Gendered Power and the Forming of American Society, Knopf (New York, NY), 1996.
In the Devil's Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692, Knopf (New York, NY), 2002.
Contributor to Women in the Age of the American Revolution, edited by Ronald Hoffman and Peter Albert, 1989; The Transformation of Early American History, edited by James Henretta, and others, 1991; and Learning History in America, edited by Lloyd Kramer, and others, 1994. Also contributor to History Today, William and Mary Quarterly, Signs, and many other journals.
SIDELIGHTS: Historian Mary Beth Norton might well be called a "founding mother" of women historians in the United States and around the world. Norton was the first woman to be employed in Cornell University's history department; she has seen the annual Berkshire Conference of Women Historians (the "Little Berks") grow from a small group in the 1970s, to a group of up to sixty that meets every spring. In 1973, she attended the first Berkshire Conference on the History of Women, with three hundred other participants and has attended the three-year event ever since, watching it grow to more than three thousand participants from around the world. As a consequence of cochairing the program committee at the sixth conference in 1984, she and her cochair published seventeen of what they considered the best papers presented at the conference in the book "To Toil the Livelong Day:" American Women at Work, 1780-1980. Norton was also a founding member of the International Federation for Research in Women's History, established in 1985 and that now has affiliates in more than twenty countries.
Norton believes one of the reasons she became a scholar is that her parents were academics and encouraged her to pursue a Ph.D. The family moved in 1948 from Ann Arbor, where Norton was born, to Green-castle, Indiana, where her father taught political science and her mother taught Latin at DePauw University. "My childhood and adolescence revolved around DePauw," Norton told Roger Adelson during an interview for the Historian, noting that her family's routine was tied to the academic year. "The best thing about summers for me was that my father always taught summer school . . . after which he spent his summer earnings taking the family on vacations around the United States." They toured all forty-eight contiguous states and their capitals, many universities, Civil War battlefields, and the homes of presidents.
The young Norton was an avid reader and, after reading every book in the children's section of the Green-castle public library, she began "sneaking" into the adult section. Her first job was with the DePauw library making sure the books were in their correct positions. She chose the University of Michigan for her undergraduate work because both her parents went there. "The world opened up for me there in two ways. . . . First, I no longer felt as if I were a misfit, the way I had in high school where nobody else seemed to read as many books and nobody else thought history was interesting. As a member of the honors college, I met other people who were fascinated by what interested me. . . . The second . . . was through my involvement in national and campus politics." She campaigned with the Young Democrats for John Kennedy in 1960 and said: "As a 'Kennedy girl' I met him when he came to the Michigan Union in October and first proposed the Peace Corps. The positive student response in Ann Arbor helped him decide to make the Peace Corps a major part of his presidential campaign."
Norton won a seat on the Michigan Student Government Council, became a delegate to several congresses of the National Student Association (NSA) and actively protested nuclear testing and supported civil rights. "However, I was frustrated by male NSAers who refused to let women take leadership roles. . . . Chairing meetings of the women's dorm . . . I wanted to chair some large NSA sessions, but was not allowed to by those in charge. This was one of my first experiences with sex discrimination," she told Adelson.
When it came time to apply to graduate school, the professor at Michigan in charge of Woodrow Wilson fellowship applications warned her that "girls" seldom won that fellowship. Distressed at coming up against her second real experience with sex discrimination, she applied for the fellowship anyway, and for the Fulbright—the only two national fellowships open to women. She won the Wilson and was offered a four-year fellowship at Harvard. Norton described researching a seminar paper on the Massachusetts' reactions to the Stamp Act. "One day . . . while reading a minor pamphlet by James Otis entitled: 'A Letter to a Noble Lord,' I had what I have since come to describe as a conversion experience. Otis seemed to reach out across the centuries, touch me on the shoulder, and say, 'Here's the eighteenth century and it's infinitely interesting.' I remember sitting there and wondering why I had never before thought of doing colonial history." Her Ph.D. dissertation, much of which was researched in England, won the Allan Nevins prize for the best-written dissertation in 1970, and was published in 1972 as The British-Americans: The Loyalist Exiles in England, 1774-1789.
She accepted a teaching position at the University of Connecticut, and began a long and illustrious career. During her two years there, she met Tom Paterson, who would later ask her to coauthor a new textbook on U.S. history. The publication of her dissertation caught the attention of a teacher at Cornell University, whom she had already met at an American Historical Association meeting. He offered her a position at Cornell teaching about the American Revolution. "I knew that Cornell had never had a woman in the history department," she told Adelson, "and doubted if I'd get the job." She did, and she has remained at Cornell ever since. Apart from her academic responsibilities and writings, she's served almost continuously on the faculty senate and was elected twice to the Board of Trustees.
It was not until she began her tenure at Cornell that she became interested in women's history. The university had a "female studies" program run primarily by graduate students. "During my first year at Cornell, along with everything else I was doing, I helped develop what has become one of the most successful women's studies programs in the country," she told Adelson. At the same time, she began reading U.S. women's history. She eventually returned to England to "reexamine Loyalist claims with the question of gender in mind. The information I had previously missed now leaped out at me," she told Adelson. The research culminated in her first women's history article, which was published in the William and Mary Quarterly in 1976 and inspired her first book, Liberty's Daughters: The Revolutionary Experience of American Women, 1750-1800.
Lawrence Stone in the New York Times Book Review said the book is a "remarkably thorough investigation," and that Norton's "exhaustive and fascinating documentation" supports her assessment of women's early steps toward equality. Gerda Lerner wrote in Washington Post Book World that "Norton's thoroughly researched evidence does not convincingly prove her thesis," yet admits that the book "makes a valuable addition to our knowledge of the lives, thoughts and activities of women in the revolutionary era." Marion Dearman of the Los Angeles Times, who also mentioned the author's "carefully documented" sources, concluded: "I strongly recommend this book. It is well and very interestingly written and full of quotable quotes, simultaneously painful and delightful to read."
Founding Mothers & Fathers: Gendered Power and the Forming of American Society was a finalist for the Pulitzer prize in history in 1997. The first in a proposed two-volume series, this volume analyzes fundamental changes that occurred between the early seventeenth and mid-eighteenth centuries in New England and the Chesapeake in relation to gender and power.
At this time, the prevailing worldview of family and state was patriarchal and, as Patricia Hassler explained in Booklist, "The head of the family held power parallel to that held by the head of state." Norton argues, however, that women also played crucial leadership roles, highlighting in particular religious dissenter Anne Hutchinson, ultimately excommunicated from Boston's church for preaching God's free gift of salvation, and Anne Eaton, wife of Connecticut's governor, whose regular religious meetings brought about her excommunication as a heretic. Kenneth A. Lockridge commented in the Journal of Social History that while Norton's argument "seems plausible . . . it really doesn't work." A critic for Publishers Weekly wrote: "This erudite study is full of intriguing lore on colonial neighbours, sexual gossip and men's political squabbles," and Patricia Hassler in Booklist called it "a scholarly, provocative read."
Before writing In the Devil's Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692, Norton evaluated historical threads other scholars writing about the event had not. She analyzed cultural, social, and political events of the era, arguing, as a reviewer for Kirkus Reviews stated, that "massacres of colonists by the fearsome Wabanakis tribe during the Second Indian War and the colonial government's failure to effectively counter such killings were the main precipitators of the witchcraft trials." Michael Kenney wrote in the Boston Globe, "As Norton unequivocally puts it, 'The dramatic events of 1692 can only be fully understood by viewing them as intricately related to concurrent political and military affairs in northern New England.' The participants in these events, both the accusers and the accused, were living 'near the front lines of an armed conflict' which they knew as the Second Indian War (the first being King Philip's War of 1676). These wars, happening in quick succession, 'dramatically changed their circumstances for the worse. Flourishing communities were wiped out, and people and their property holdings destroyed.'" Norton discovers that ten accusers and confessors, and twenty-three accused, had personal ties to the war-torn frontier.
"Norton builds her case with the precision of a criminal prosecutor," wrote Kenney. "Her conclusion is forceful: 'Had the Second Indian War on the northeastern frontier somehow been avoided, the Essex County witchcraft crisis of 1692 would not have occurred. This is not to say the war caused the witchcraft crisis, but rather that the conflict created the conditions that caused the crisis to develop as rapidly and extensively as it did.'" Margaret Flanagan wrote in Booklist: "This meticulously researched narrative sheds new light on an old and ever-fascinating subject," while the critic for Kirkus Reviews commented: "[Norton's] fascinating new take on the crisis has particular relevance in our own era, when rumors of war and resurgent religious fervor again create a volatile cultural mix."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Atlantic Monthly, November, 2002, Benjamin Schwarz, review of In the Devil's Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692, p. 109.
Booklist, April 15, 1996, Patricia Hassler, review of Founding Mothers & Fathers: Gendered Power and the Forming of American Society, p. 1400; August 2002, Margaret Flanagan, review of In the Devil's Snare, p. 1890.
Books & Culture, March-April, 2003, Thomas S. Kidd, "What Happened in Salem?," p. 35.
Christian Century, April 19, 2003, Kenneth P. Minkema, review of In the Devil's Snare, p. 37.
Historian, fall 1997, Roger Adelson, "Interview with Mary Beth Norton," p. 1
Journal of Social History, spring 1997, Kenneth A. Lockridge, review of Founding Mothers & Fathers, p. 783.
Kirkus Reviews, July 1, 2002, review of In the Devil's Snare, p. 938.
Los Angeles Times, July 31, 1980.
Newsweek, October 28, 2002, David Gates, review of In the Devil's Snare, p. 56.
New York Times Book Review, April 20, 1980; November 3, 2002, Jill Lepore, review of In the Devil's Snare, p. 12.
Publishers Weekly, February 5, 1996, review of Founding Mothers & Fathers, p. 73; July 1, 2002, review of In the Devil's Snare, p. 63.
Washington Post Book World, January 4, 1981.
Women's Review of Books, November, 2002, Sandra F. Van Burkleo, review of In the Devil's Snare, p. 14.
Borzoi Reader Online Web site,http://www.randomhouse.com/ (October 8, 2002) "From the Desk of Mary Beth Norton: Mary Beth Norton Tells the Story behind In The Devil's Snare."
Boston Globe Web site,http://www.boston.com/ (October 1, 2002), Michael Kennedy, "Salem Caught in Devil's Snare."