Great Scott

Demanding and inspiring, a scholar of women’s history and beloved teacher continues to serve as a role model for students of all ages


Picture Duke in the early 1960s: Reynolds Price ’55, a Rhodes Scholar fresh from the University of Oxford, strides across the campus wearing his dashing black cape. Sean Flynn, son of the movie star Errol Flynn, lounges in the women’s dorms before swapping studying for acting and moving to Hollywood. Mary Travers flings her long blonde hair and knocks ’em dead when the trio of Peter, Paul, and Mary performs at Joe College weekend. Freshman “girls,” required to wear white bows in their hair and take classes on East Campus, hear the deans describe them as women and warily register for American history with the department’s newest faculty member, Anne Firor Scott, a recently hired part-time assistant professor with a Ph.D. from Radcliffe College, who has already established a reputation for toughness.

My friends and I debated signing up for her 8 a.m. survey class. We’d heard about her high standards, her piercing questions. We knew she expected that our research papers, preferably about overlooked women in American history, use only primary sources.

The braver among us enrolled, well aware that we dared not be absent and dared not fail to answer. But, over the course of the semester, we learned that we did dare to push ourselves harder than ever before as we grew accustomed to her famous question: “What do you think?”

In 1958, Scott’s husband, Andy Scott, was hired to teach political science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the two left their teaching positions at Haverford College and moved south with their three children. Three years later, Duke’s history department asked Scott, then teaching part-time at UNC, to fill in “until we can find ‘somebody.’” For the next thirty years, Scott proved herself to be that somebody—and so much more: author and co-author of well-received books, award winner selected by students and fellow academics for her teaching and her scholarly accomplishments, and administrative groundbreaker as the first female chair of the history department in 1980.

Former students need little prompting to recall details of their classes with Scott. Ann Kettering Covington ’64, who was the first female chief justice of the Missouri Supreme Court, now retired, remembers that “although reserved and professional,” Scott occasionally mentioned her husband, Andy, “and let us know that she was a mother. She seemed to have accomplished everything and conveyed the unstated message, ‘This is what a woman can be and do.’ ”

John Holland ’80 says he was still a “back-of-the-room kind of guy” in his senior year when he took Scott’s American history survey course, which she called “History in the Microcosm.” He was among her best and brightest, she recalls, an engineering major whose friends told him he was crazy to sign up for her section. She assigned seats, forcing him into the second row, new habits, and regular class participation. Perhaps he was mentioned in her daily post-class journal in which she recorded observations on teaching strategies that worked—or didn’t.

Scott, injecting her own brand of humor into the historian’s objectivity, recalls that one of her students answered the teacher course-evaluation question “Is he accessible?” with “she is accessible but not approachable!” While she prefers being called blunt and honest to the occasional “intimidating,” she bows to critics who have said she liked the bright students best.

She held herself to the same standards she required of her students, recalls Holland, even giving his one late paper “lots of comments and suggestions.” Holland, who now works for Northrop-Grumman Electronic Systems in Baltimore, notes that while many historians then focused on the “big picture”—major battles and biographies of generals and heads of state—Scott assigned letters, diaries, and journals of everyday Americans, to demonstrate that “the little picture is important, too.”

Scott retired in 1991 but continues to serve as a model for all ages. Now eighty-five, she’s an active member of the Southern Association for Women Historians and has been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She continues to deliver lectures to such venerable organizations as the Southern Historical Association. And she still pursues her writing. Last year she published the lengthy correspondence of two remarkable American women in her newest book, Pauli Murray and Caroline Ware: Forty Years of Letters in Black and White (University of North Carolina Press, 2006).

The project began by chance when Scott, exploring documents in the Pauli Murray collection in Radcliffe’s Schlesinger Library, discovered folder after folder of correspondence with Ware. The Reverend Pauli Murray (1910-1985) was a lawyer and civil-rights activist, a founder of the National Organization for Women, and the first African-American female ordained as an Episcopal priest in the U.S. Scott, who had been friends with Caroline Ware, was surprised how often Ware’s name appeared in the documents. Though Scott never met Pauli Murray, she often used in her courses Murray’s memoir, Proud Shoes, a book given to her originally by Ware.

Ware (1899-1990) was a formidable woman in her own right—a social historian, a pioneer in consumer affairs, an editor, and a community-development specialist in Asia and Latin America. Ware and Pauli met in 1942, when Pauli signed up for Ware’s class on constitutional law at Howard University Law School. The correspondence that so inspired Scott began soon after.

In some ways, these two quite different women reflect two sides of Scott herself. She is outwardly more similar to Caroline Ware, the Harvard University Ph.D., and social historian who successfully maintained the dual roles of spouse and scholar. But from her own childhood spent in “genteel” poverty in Athens, Georgia, Scott also had experienced Pauli Murray’s less prosperous, more provincial beginnings. Scott’s father, a faculty member at the University of Georgia, experienced years during the Depression when the state couldn’t meet its payroll.

Scott entered the University of Georgia at age sixteen. She lived at home, and her father paid her tuition (forty dollars a semester) using his World War I bonus. After graduating at age nineteen, Scott saved fifty dollars of the ninety she earned as a secretary for IBM in Atlanta and, in 1942, headed to Northwestern University to begin work on her master’s degree. The following summer, she was selected for an internship with the National Institute of Public Affairs in Washington, and worked in the office of California Congressman Jerry Voorhis.

Designed to interest young people in government, the internship was an illuminating introduction to politics and power, Scott says. Over tea at the White House and, on another occasion, in an after-dinner discussion that went on late into the night, Eleanor Roosevelt talked to Scott and her fellow interns about the postwar landscape and the role the younger generation would be called on to play. Ambassador Edward Wood, Viscount Halifax, hosted a dazzling party for the interns at the British embassy. And Washington Post publisher Eugene Meyer welcomed the interns to his office, where he, as Scott remembers it, “gossiped freely” about various wartime agencies and political leaders.

What do you think?: In the classroom, Scott dared students to push themselves harder than ever before

What do you think?: In the classroom, Scott dared students to push themselves harder than ever before. Duke University Archives

Bitten by the political bug and intrigued by the challenges of grappling with major issues, Scott got a job as a research associate at the national headquarters of the League of Women Voters, where she produced pamphlets and traveled to visit local chapters. During her three years there, she met women who had been active in the Women’s Suffrage Movement and introduced her firsthand to the long history of the struggle for women’s rights. Scott’s sense of her own possibilities grew. “My parents had never suggested that being female should limit my aspirations,” she says, “and the League of Women Voters and all the other women’s associations with which it cooperated reinforced this assumption.”

In the fall of 1947, the newly married Scott moved to Boston, where Andy was in his second year of graduate studies. She entered the Ph.D. program at Radcliffe and in three years’ time had earned her degree and become a mother three times over. While rearing her toddlers—David, Donald, and Rebecca—Scott again worked with the League of Women Voters, serving as a Congressional representative and editor of its National Voter publication from 1951 to 1953. She was awarded a fellowship by the American Association of University Women in 1956 and became a lecturer in history at Haverford in 1958. (Years later, asked which of her accomplishments made her the proudest, she answered, without hesitation, “my children.”)

In the fall of 1962, Scott’s article, “The ‘New Woman’ in the New South,” published in the South Atlantic Quarterly, established her reputation as a ground-breaking historian and undoubtedly helped earn her an invitation from President Lyndon Johnson to serve on his Advisory Council on the Status of Women. Caroline Ware was also a member of the council, and the two became fast friends. Ware completed the triangle by telling Murray about Scott’s 1970 book The Southern Lady: From Pedestal to Politics 1830-1930. (Still in print and referred to as a landmark text, The Southern Lady is now available from the University of Virginia Press in a twenty-fifth anniversary edition with a new afterword by Scott.)

In Pauli Murray and Caroline Ware, Scott is a thorough editor, including, for example, helpful identifications for figures named in the letters (Francis Biddle and Alger Hiss are examples) and providing key historical context. But she goes further, becoming a third voice in the book. She begins with a meaty twenty-two-page introduction and concludes with a fascinating personal postscript in which she acknowledges that many questions about the two women remain unanswered, especially about the very private Ware.

She shares personal anecdotes from the McCarthy era, as well as amusing observations about Ware deftly broiling steaks while carrying on intense conversations. She doesn’t hesitate to address Murray’s belief that she was probably meant to be a man “but had by accident turned up in a woman’s body,” nor her dilemma of living with mixed heritage in “a no man’s land between the whites and blacks.”

Not long after Ware and Murray met, their teacher-student relationship deepened into friendship. Ware even provided financial assistance when her student needed what Ware called “a little lunch money.” Ware also served as Murray’s cheerleader and consoler in her efforts to publish or to run for office, sending detailed letters of constructive criticism or essay-like commentaries on the times, and she joined Murray in her optimism about the candidacy of Adlai Stevenson and the election of John Kennedy.

In her letters and journals, Murray’s voice ranges from passionate to introspective. She tells Ware, “You are my self-appointed godmother” and shares with her the homesickness she feels when teaching in Ghana in 1960 (made possible by a loan from Ware). Whenever faced with the disappointments of an unpublished book and a job rejection at Yale, Murray records in her journal a long list of what she takes to be her weaknesses.

Scott, by contrast, found her strengths recognized in 1980 when she, the only tenured woman in the thirty-two-member history department, was named the first female chair, an appointment that Robert Durden, a professor emeritus, recalls “delighted everyone,” though the Durham Morning Herald reported cryptically that “at least three were strongly opposed to her appointment.” Kenneth Pye, then Duke’s chancellor, may have spoken for others when he said, “She is one of the most pleasant people to disagree with.”

In his own endorsement of Scott, fellow Duke history professor Warren Lerner nominated her for the United Methodist Church’s Scholar-Teacher of the Year Award in 1985. Writing of her as a model to Duke students “of a woman progressing in the profession long before affirmative-action programs facilitated such progress,” Lerner noted her caring qualities and classes “marked by challenge, lucidity, and individualized attention.”

Scott’s indelible imprint on a generation of scholars became apparent to Elizabeth Dunn, a research-services librarian with Duke’s Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, when she was conducting research for a 1988 exhibition, “No Longer Unheard Voices: Women Historians of the American South.” In the text that accompanied the exhibition, Dunn observed: “Check the acknowledgements pages in nearly any scholarly text on women and the American South and you will find an expression of gratitude to Scott. She has read manuscripts, advised, encouraged, and sometimes nagged all in the name of bringing the historical experiences of women to the fore.”

Dunn mentions Suzanne Lebsock, one of Scott’s young scholarly protégées, who noted in the acknowledgements to her book Free Women of Petersburg that when she was working on her doctoral dissertation, she received a postcard from Scott asking simply, “Are you writing? If not, why not?”

The scholar who has been so steadfast in demanding the best of her students has asked no less of herself. Yet, just as she taught them to explore all facets of historical figures, including their imperfections, she is quick to acknowledge her own shortcomings. At a 2001 symposium held by Radcliffe’s Schlesinger Library to honor her eightieth birthday, Scott noted that “people see what they are prepared to see.” Her own preparedness to see the kind of iniquities that came into sharp focus during the civil-rights movement “awakened slowly,” she says. “I became involved, at first hesitantly, and later as a compelling cause.”

In 1948, she attended a meeting of the Southern Historical Association to hear the influential postwar American historian C. Vann Woodward. By strange coincidence, she also ended up hearing an obscure but promising young scholar named John Hope Franklin. “Woodward and a few others had, so to say, smuggled John Hope Franklin in to give a paper and attend the dinner, which had never before included a black scholar.” She read Franklin’s landmark book, From Slavery to Freedom, when it came out the following year, and, of course, they eventually became colleagues.

The encounter with Franklin was, in some respects, a preview of what she would face when she moved south. She came to Duke in the racially tumultuous 1960s, prepared to be the only female in the history department but not expecting the kinds of questions about the American past that the president of the black-students group at Duke brought to her survey class. She responded by reorganizing her syllabus to include reflections on the American past from an African-American perspective.

She says, “I took my cue from my father, who said, ‘It is said that I am a good teacher. If it is true, and I have reason to think it is, it is because I did not know the answers, but sought them in company with my students.’ That was what I tried to do, though not always with success.”

Scott’s students of the ’60s recall her sympathy for their civil-rights activism. In 1963, June Ryan-Rau ’64 found herself in the Orange County jail for participating in a sit-in. Although devoted to Scott’s classes, she missed a few days and was called into Scott’s office to explain her absence. Ryan-Rau, now a psychiatric social worker in Winston-Salem, remembers that Scott’s response was reassuring—“so much so that I was able to face my parents with slightly more confidence.”

Likewise, Charlotte Bunch ’66 received Scott’s forgiveness for missing two weeks of class while she worked with community organization efforts in Selma, Alabama, and Sara Evans ’66 skipped class to participate in antiwar demonstrations and union support work. As undergraduate campus leaders in the YWCA, Bunch and Evans pushed their organization on issues of internationalism, race, and poverty, and at Scott’s suggestion, selected Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique as reading for their fall retreat. (Years later, Scott combined the issues of gender and race in a new course, “Parallel Lives: Black and White Women in American History,” which she taught to a prescribed equal number of black and white students at the University of Mississippi, where she was a visiting professor in 2000.)

Like Pauli Murray and Caroline Ware before her, Scott recorded these and later academic and personal experiences in her ever-present journal—no surprise, given her awareness of the historical value of letters and journals. To the benefit of future historians, she has donated her papers to Duke’s Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library. The collection—8,372 items at last count—spans the years 1932 to 2003 and includes her journals, correspondence, speeches and letters, news clippings, course materials, conference programs, and lecture notes. (Some of the more personal items, including the journals, will remain under seal until twenty years after her death.)

Since graduating in 1963, I have followed Scott’s career through the informal alumni network, occasional newspaper stories, public lectures, and her articles and books. When I saw reviews for the paperback re-issue of The Southern Lady: From Pedestal to Politics in 1995, I invited her to read and speak to students at Durham Technical Community College, where I teach. After her presentation, we chatted in my office about our mutual love of teaching, about the differences between teaching the privileged and teaching the struggling, about the value of high standards and expectations.

Other contacts followed—the formal ceremony to place her papers in the Perkins Rare Book Room, her response to the note I sent after her husband, Andy, died, in April 2005. Finally, an exchange of Christmas cards led to a date for tea at her cottage in Carol Woods Retirement Community in Chapel Hill.

Scott meets me at the door, chipper as ever and dressed in her trademark classic style, with silver necklace and tailored white shirt. She invites me into her book-lined living room, and, over cups of lapsang tea, we launch into a comfortable exchange of book recommendations. “Read Penelope Lively,” she urges, “especially her Moon Tiger, a novel about a dying journalist who intends to write her own history of the world.” Scott was so impressed with the British author’s book that she wrote to Lively at her home in London, and the two now keep up a regular correspondence.

Scott also suggests an annual reread of George Eliot’s Middlemarch, “but,” she advises, “read it slowly.”

On the bookshelf are two framed pictures of her with Andy—one, a black-and-white wedding photograph of bride and groom doing the cake-eating pose; the other, a color photograph taken at their anniversary celebration fifty years later.

“I was there at that wedding,” Scott says, “but I don’t know who that girl was.” Twenty-six and given up by her brothers as an old maid, Scott had met Andy in Washington in 1947. Attracted to her independence and competence, he asked her to marry him on their first date, and they soon left for Harvard together. Like Lively’s protagonist in Moon Tiger, Scott can express “wonder that nothing is ever lost, that everything can be retrieved, that a lifetime is not linear but instant.”

Hampered by macular degeneration and some hearing loss, Scott has acquiesced to her son David’s insistence that he accompany her to the doctor, but, feisty as ever, she pursues experimental treatments when conventional ones have been exhausted. She still mourns her husband and, like many widows (Joan Didion talks about it in her recent book, The Year of Magical Thinking), has conversations with him in absentia on politics, debating the merits of David Brooks’ or Thomas Friedman’s latest New York Times column. She speaks with pride of her son Donald’s twins and of her daughter Rebecca’s book, Degrees of Freedom, the winner of the 2006 Frederick Douglass Book Prize, awarded by Yale University for the best book on slavery or abolition, then pauses to share a recent photo of herself paddling in a kayak with her grandson. “There’s a lot of life left in the old girl yet,” she says.

Later, recording the visit in my journal, I think how appropriate it is that Anne Scott teaches me once again. As she prepares a lecture for alumni in April or evaluates new historical fiction in her role of contest judge for the James Fenimore Cooper Prize for historical fiction or ponders her latest writing project, she personifies the life of the mind. As she swims her thirty laps to ease the pain of arthritis, she models the efficacy of exercise. Now entering her eighty-sixth year, Anne Firor Scott embodies the kind of Southern “lady,” to use her word, I’ve learned to appreciate: One who can adapt, can speak and write her truth, and who, in Edith Wharton’s words, “can remain alive long past the usual date of disintegration … unafraid of change, insatiable in intellectual curiosity, interested in big things, and happy in small ways.”

Stone ’63, A.M ’67 is a freelance writer based in Raleigh. She teaches journal-writing workshops at Meredith College and literature in North Carolina State University’s continuing-education program.

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