Monday, January 08, 2007

Elizabeth Fox-Genovese

[posted by Callimachus]

Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, one of the braver souls in modern academe, has died at 65.

A prominent and distinguished scholar, feminist, and historian, like her husband Eugene (whose specialty is the ante-bellum South), she moved personally away from the cushy secular platitudes characteristic of faculty lounges in the ivory tower. But the courage was in then bringing that shifted perspective into the same line of inquiry and studies she had been pursuing.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (she taught at Emory) has the best and fairest obituary I've seen.

As a historian, scholar and self-described complex conservative, Dr. Elizabeth Fox-Genovese took comfortable orthodoxy and turned it inside out, generating vitriolic criticism and devoted followers in the process.

... Through her scholarship, Dr. Fox-Genovese alienated doctrinaire feminists and attracted conservatives, especially on women's issues.

It quotes extensively from Sean Wilentz, one of the more prominent American historians representing the prevailing paradigm (the one that generally has tried to plug its ears when the Genoveses spoke), who is carefully respectful without being enthusiastic: "She had a sharp intelligence and a sharp pen, all the more to raise hackles, and that's good."

But there's no doubt that, to the academic clique, she was a "them," not an "us." As Wilentz says, "Betsey's voice came from inside the academy and updated the ideas of the conservative women's movement. She was one of their most influential intellectual forces."

A dean at Emory gets it right:

"She believed that the purpose of the life of the mind was to question every orthodoxy. She had an appetite for turning everything over and inside out."

Which usually is what you'd say of a liberal/progressive, an I.F. Stone or some such. But where radicalism is orthodoxy, the conservative becomes the progressive, and ... ouch, it makes my head hurt.

For a tour through the controversy a life like hers can engender, see the glowing obituary in the National Review, which focuses on her anti-abortion positions:

Betsey knew that public pro-life advocacy would be regarded by many in the intellectual establishment as intolerable apostasy — especially from one of the founding mothers of “women’s studies.” She could have been forgiven for keeping mum on the issue and carrying on with her professional work on the history of the American south. But keeping mum about fundamental matters of right and wrong was not in her character. And though she valued her standing in the intellectual world, she cared for truth and justice more. And so she spoke out ever more passionately in defense of the unborn.

And the more she thought and wrote about abortion and other life issues, the more persuaded she became that the entire secular liberal project was misguided. Secular liberals were not deviating from their principles in endorsing killing whether by abortion or euthanasia in the name of individual “choice”; they were following them to their logical conclusions. But this revealed a profound contradiction at the heart of secular liberal ideology, for the right of some individuals to kill others undermines any ground of principle on which an idea of individual rights or dignity could be founded.

And compare that with the simplified, muted snark of the New York Times version:

“When we last left Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, at the end of ‘Feminism Without Illusions,’ she was deploring people who ‘find it easy to blame feminism for some of the most disturbing aspects of modern life: divorce, latchkey children, teenage alcoholism, domestic violence, the sexual abuse of children.’ Five years later, it seems she has become one of the people she warned us about.”

Ms. Fox-Genovese, who in her early work supported abortion, though with reservations, would in later years equate it with murder. She would also argue publicly that the women’s movement had been disastrous, and extol the virtues of traditional marriage and family.