Writer, historian, and lecturer, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese is a pioneer in the field of women's studies, having shaped Emory University's Institution of Women's Studies as its first director from 1986 to 1991. She began her career in the field almost by accident.
"I started teaching at Rochester in 1973, just when women's studies was breaking into the world," says Fox-Genovese, who after receiving her bachelor's from Bryn Mawr, received a master's and PhD from Harvard. "I was one of only three women in the history department and because I had a strong background in literature, it was a logical choice to design a program there."
In 1980 she moved to the State University of New York at Binghamton, which had the first graduate program in women's studies in the country. By then she was a full professor in American studies and women's history. The interdisciplinary field of women's studies was still coming into its own. "Women's studies meetings were a bit disorganized," she says. "Frequently, there were no budgets or agendas." When Emory asked her to start a new program there she accepted, and became founding director of the Institute for Women's Studies.
"I arrived at my office at Emory with nothing in it but boxes of my own books and a telephone I didn't know how to use," she says. Within a short time she had under way an undergraduate women's studies program in which students could minor. Within three or four years the program had a graduate program with stipends, a distinguished lecture series, and the Rosalyn Carter Fellows program.
"Women's studies can unearth a good deal of information about women that would not emerge from a general course," she says. "My goal was to develop a program that was intellectually rigorous and ideologically open."
Since giving up the directorship, Fox-Genovese has continued to teach at Emory as the Eleonore Raoul Professor of the Humanities and professor of history. She also serves as the editor of The Journal of the Historical Society. Fox-Genovese and her husband, historian Eugene Genovese, formed The Historical Society, based at Boston University.
Fox-Genovese is the author of Women and the Future of the Family (2000); "Feminism Is Not the Story of My Life": How the Feminist Elite Has Lost Touch With the Real Concerns of Women (1996); Feminism Without Illusions: A Critique of Individualism (1991); and Within the Plantation Household: Black and White Women in the Old South (1988), which received the C. Hugh Holman Prize for the Society for Southern Literature and the Julia Cherry Spruill Prize of the Southern Association for Women Historians.
Fox-Genovese's interest in the history of the South, and Southern women in particular, stems from her interest in the history of women. "It became clear to me that Southern women were the most interesting," she says. "They went through a tragedy and had close relations with black women." While researching Within the Plantation Household: Black and White Women of the Old South, she explored the relationship between Southern women and slavery in the antebellum era.
"It's studying people who were good people yet terribly wrong on one subject," she says. "There had been slavery throughout history and they were living at the dawn of a new era. What changes and what remains the same? What can you hold on to?
"Slaveholding women and slaves knew each other more intimately than anyone else," she says. "It was an incredible jumble of relations, and it brings to light the ease with which you could abuse your power."
Fox-Genovese continues to write widely on women's issues, religion, contemporary culture, and social issues. Her next book, co-authored with her husband and due out in 2004, is The Mind of the Master Class: History and Faith in the Southern Slaveholders' Worldview.