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Constance McLaughlin Green

Constance McLaughlin Green

An expert in urban history, Constance McLaughlin Green (1897-1975) won the 1963 Pulitzer Prize for history at a time when there were few published women historians.

Constance McLaughlin Green was born into an academic family August 21, 1897, at Ann Arbor, Michigan. Her father, Andrew Cunningham McLaughlin, was a professor of constitutional history at the University of Michigan and then at the University of Chicago. He won the Pulitzer Prize for history in 1936, an accomplishment his daughter repeated in 1963 for the first volume of her study of Washington, D.C.

Green was a pioneer in the field of urban history, and her work provides an example of the early narrative approach to the subject. She began to write on the subject prior to its becoming popular in America's colleges and universities during the 1960s. Moreover, she was a successful published female historian at a time when the discipline of history did not include many women.

She spent most of her childhood in Chicago in the neighborhood surrounding the University of Chicago where her neighbors included an aggregation of the nation's leading scholars, scientists, and intellectuals. Her mother, who was the daughter of a university president, served as hostess to many of these academic neighbors. The Green home bubbled with stimulating conversation and ideas. Green's mother, however, never attended college herself because the historian's grandmother thought it unsuitable for women. As a consequence, Constance's mother compensated for her own lack of higher education by asserting that no daughter of hers would ever grow up without professional training to ensure the ability to earn her own living.

Green attended the University of Chicago's famous laboratory school for elementary and secondary education and then in the fall of 1917 went east to Smith College, a woman's school in Northampton, Massachusetts. In contrast to the University of Chicago she found Smith intellectually tepid. After graduation she taught briefly at Chicago and then was married in 1921 to Donald Green, a textile executive who took her back to Holyoke, Massachusetts, a New England mill town which she found provincial. Ironically, her first book was a history of that city, Holyoke,Massachusetts: A Case History of the Industrial Revolution in America.

The genesis of the book rests in Green's enrollment in Yale's graduate school at the height of the Great Depression, after having been discouraged from studying at Harvard by two eminent historians; they believed it would be too difficult for a woman to commute from Holyoke to Cambridge. At her Yale interview the historian Ralph Gabriel inquired about what she would like to investigate for her dissertation. When she mentioned a topic in intellectual history for which he considered her ill prepared, he asked, "Well, what kind of a city, what kind of a town, do you live in?" She replied that it was a dreary prefabricated industrial city feeling the impact of immigration and ethnocultural and religious conflict. Gabriel then said, "Good, that sounds like just the thing." As a consequence, a distinguished career of writing urban and local history began, although Green denied credit for being a founding mother of the field. She modestly pointed out that she simply wrote about something that was convenient—the city in which she lived.

Green, by then the mother of three children, received her doctoral degree two months before her 40th birthday. The Holyoke history was published two years later in 1939. While scholars still find the book useful, at the time Holyoke locals resented it. At a next door neighbor's bridge party Green heard a woman saying, "How did she have the gall to think that she could write a history when we know so much better than she does." This highlighted some of the dangers facing a scholar who writes local history.

During World War II she worked as a historian for the Army ordnance department, which led to the publication of a volume on the role of women as production workers in war plants in the Connecticut Valley. Green, acknowledging that contemporary feminists might think her attitude nonsense, admitted enjoying the fact that she was often the only woman working in a male setting with military historians. Green also researched her History of Naugatuck, Connecticut, which was commissioned by the town's Chamber of Commerce because of her Holyoke study, during this period.

In 1946 her husband died, and she moved to Washington, D.C. the following year. Six years later the Rockefeller Foundation requested that she write a pilot study of American urban history. Again, she chose the city in which she resided for her subject—to the good fortune of her readers. Her work, which first appeared in 1963, earned her the coveted Pulitzer Prize, which she thought she had "not a chance" to win. Her two volume history of Washington was followed by a third on race relations in that city. Just before she died on December 5, 1975, she seemed pessimistic about the racial situation in that city and the general urban condition of the nation's capital. This, however, had not dulled her optimism for young historians to study the city. She urged them to maintain their enthusiasm and to continue in their scholarship.

Further Reading

For an oral history interview in which Green talks about her life and work, see Bruce M. Stave, The Making of Urban History (1977). Green's special brand of urban history can be found in her two early works, Holyoke, Massachusetts: A Case History of the Industrial Revolution in America (1939) and History of Naugatuck, Connecticut (1948), and in American Cities in the Growth of the Nation (1957 and 1965), which contains individual chapters devoted to a number of U.S. cities. Her three volumes on Washington, D.C., including the award winning book which covers the city's early development, are: Washington: Village and Capital, 1800-1878 (1962); Washington: Capital City, 1879-1950 (1963); and The Secret City: A History of Race Relations in the Nation's Capital (1967). In The Rise of Urban America (1965) Green attempted a synthesis of U.S. urban history which some critics thought too broad and sweeping. Her interest in industrial development and technology, which was demonstrated in her writing on urban history, appeared more expressly in: The Role of Women as Production Workers in War Plants in the Connecticut Valley (1946); The Ordnance Department: Planning Munitions for War (1955); and Eli Whitney and the Birth of American Technology (1956), which was a volume in a series of biographies on famous Americans. □

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