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Women historians celebrate publication of five new books

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Five MIT historians published new books in 1997, and four of them celebrated at a festive gathering at the Faculty Club last week.

The five were Pauline R. Maier, the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of History; Anne E.C. McCants, the Class of 1957 Career Development Professor of History; Assistant Professor Heather Cox Richardson; Harriet C. Ritvo, the Arthur J. Conner Professor of History; and Associate Professor Elizabeth A. Wood.

Professor Peter C. Perdue, the history section head, declared, "It was a banner year for our historians' production, and it was a pleasure to read every single one of these books."

Professor Maier's book, American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence (Knopf), details, through narrative and analysis, how and by whom the Declaration was framed. Reviewed in the New York Times Book Review, the volume was selected as one of the year's Editor's Choice books by the Times and is a finalist for the National Book Critics' Award.

Professor Maier has recently begun work on the Sloan Project, a general history of the United States. She is concentrating on the 17th and 18th centuries, including a new "science and technology strand," which Professor Maier likens to "adding another character to the story."

Professor McCants's new book, Civic Charity in a Golden Age: Orphan Care in Early Modern Amsterdam (University of Illinois Press), describes how orphanages at that time were "not charity. Just as Social Security now ameliorates risk in old age for solid citizens who worked, orphanages then ameliorated risk for solid citizens whose parents died, not Oliver Twist.

"It worked. It was an incredible cultural achievement. But it didn't save money. Orphanages in the Dutch Golden Age spent three times per year per kid what an artisanal family would have," she noted, adding that this goal of allocating resources to parentless children so they could "matriculate into the middle class" was hardly what Newt Gingrich had in mind during his period of interest in the topic.

Professor McCants's next projects include studying other Dutch cities' orphanages and researching consumer culture and the distribution of wealth.

In The Platypus and the Mermaid, and Other Figments of the Classifying Imagination (Harvard University Press), Professor Ritvo explores the cultural significance of animal classification, broadly interpreted to include a range of scientific and vernacular activities, in 18th- and 19th-century Britain.

"Classification was a constant undertone then," she said. "One of the points of the book is that even when the scientific case is closed -- as, for example, when chimpanzees and humans are shown to be closely related -- people cling to 'vernacular' beliefs about the differences between them. Classification is a living issue still: you can see its effects in current thinking about race, ethnicity and gender."

The Platypus and the Mermaid includes numerous, sometimes very funny illustrations depicting Victorian attempts to place mermaids, Siamese twins and other creatures within scientific taxonomy. Professor Ritvo's work now focuses on environmental history.

The most exciting phase of Professor Wood's research for The Baba and the Comrade: Gender Politics in Revolutionary Russia (Indiana University Press) occurred in 1992, when she went to Moscow to open the archives for the Women's Section of the Communist Party, which had been closed for over 70 years.

The Baba -- a Russian word meaning backward, superstitious old woman -- symbolized the "woman question" for the Bolsheviks.

"The Bolsheviks saw women as an opportunity to create the new Soviet citizen. They were cast as a moral force, as the sharp eyes of the Revolution. They were to be mothers, but in a public way -- the caretakers of Soviet soldiers. But the Bolsheviks never rehabilitated being 'female,'" said Professor Wood.

Professor Wood's next book on Russian history will trace the mock trials of the 1920s, which served as teaching and debating devices, as they gave way to the infamous show trials of the 1930s.

Professor Richardson's new book is The Greatest Nation of the Earth: Republican Economic Policies During the Civil War (Harvard University Press). It argues that Lincoln's party systematically passed legislation that opened the door to the excesses of the Gilded Age. Her next research focuses on Northern white attitudes towards Southern African-Americans following the Civil War.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on March 18, 1998.

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