Obituaries

Anne Firor Scott, historian who illuminated lives of Southern women, dies at 97

President Barack Obama awarded the 2013 national Humanities Medal to Anne Firor Scott.
Associated Press/File 2014
President Barack Obama awarded the 2013 national Humanities Medal to Anne Firor Scott.

WASHINGTON — Anne Firor Scott, a scholar who excavated forgotten corners of historical archives to illuminate the misunderstood lives of the women of the American South, an endeavor that helped open the broader discipline of women’s history in the 1970s, died Feb. 5 at her home in Chapel Hill, N.C. She was 97.

Her daughter, Rebecca Scott, confirmed the death but did not cite a cause.

Dr. Scott, herself a daughter of the South and a professor for three decades at Duke University, was best known for her work ‘‘The Southern Lady: From Pedestal to Politics, 1830-1930.’’ The book, published in 1970 amid the surge of second-wave feminism, was widely credited with helping spark a new — and overdue, many scholars later said — avenue of academic inquiry.

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With ‘‘The Southern Lady,’’ Dr. Scott ‘‘helped open the floodgates both for women historians and women’s history,’’ read the citation for the National Humanities Medal that President Barack Obama bestowed on her in 2013. She ‘‘not only destroyed the myth of the perfect but powerless ‘southern lady,’ but demonstrated how southern women found their own roles in the public square.’’

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In her research, which also explored such topics as the lives of black women and the importance of women’s associations in American history, Dr. Scott pored over diaries, letters, and other primary sources that brought her subjects to life. Her findings revealed women far more complex than the porch-sitting plantation belles of popular imagination.

‘‘If talking could make it so, antebellum southern women of the upper class would have been the most perfect examples of womankind yet seen on earth,’’ Dr. Scott wrote. ‘‘If praise could satisfy all of woman’s needs, they would also have been the happiest.’’

Dr. Scott’s subsequent volumes included ‘‘One Half the People: The Fight for Woman Suffrage’’ (1975, co-written with her husband, political scientist Andrew MacKay Scott), ‘‘Making the Invisible Woman Visible’’ (1984), and ‘‘Natural Allies: Women’s Associations in American History’’ (1991).

‘‘Women’s clubs? The very term makes one think of silver teapots and sandwiches without crusts,’’ historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich wrote in a New York Times review of ‘‘Natural Allies,’’ which examined the extent to which women’s civic groups helped transform education, health care, sanitation, and welfare even at a time when women had little official power.

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‘‘With wry humor and impassioned scholarship,’’ the review continued, Dr. Scott ‘‘teaches us that the more we are able to learn about women — with or without teapots — ‘the more we will understand about the society that has shaped us all.’ ‘‘

Anne Byrd Firor was born in Montezuma, Ga., on April 24, 1921, and grew up in Athens, Ga., where her father was a University of Georgia professor of agricultural economics. Her mother was a homemaker.

The future historian knew two great-grandmothers who had lived through the Civil War — one of whom enrolled her in the Children of the Confederacy — and was raised in what she described as a ‘‘massive run-down antebellum house built by slaves.’’

‘‘The atmosphere of my early life,’’ she wrote in an autobiographical essay published in the volume ‘‘Shapers of Southern History’’ (2004), ‘‘illustrated Faulkner’s well-known dictum: ‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past.’ ‘‘

After receiving a bachelor’s degree in 1940 from the University of Georgia, she won a public policy internship through the Rockefeller Foundation. That brought her to Washington, where she worked in a congressional office and later for the League of Women Voters. She encountered activists who had helped win passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920 guaranteeing women the right to vote.

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Reflecting on her career, Dr. Scott identified her work with the ‘‘aging suffragists,’’ as she described them, as a seminal influence on her life. ‘‘People see what they are prepared to see,’’ Dr. Scott later wrote. ‘‘These women were teaching me to see things that other historians had overlooked.’’