President Barack Obama on Monday draped the National Humanities Award around the shoulders of 93-year-old historian Anne Firor Scott of Chapel Hill. It was her second trip to the White House, 71 years after the first.
Scott, a longtime professor at Duke University, joined 20 other recipients of the 2013 National Medal of Arts or the National Humanities Medal in the East Room of the White House. The medals were offered by the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, independent agencies established by Congress in 1965.
“The arts and the humanities aren’t just there to be consumed and enjoyed whenever we have a free moment in our lives,” Obama said at the ceremony. “We rely on them constantly. We need them. Like medicine, they help us live.”
Scott was awarded the medal “for pioneering the study of women in the American south,” her citation read. “Dr. Scott’s exploration of the previously unexamined lives of southern women of different races, classes, and political ideologies has established women’s history as vital to our conception of southern history.”
Scott paved the way for the field of Southern women’s history with her book “The Southern Lady: From Pedestal to Politics, 1830–1930,” which was published in 1970 and has never gone out of print.
Scott was born in Montezuma, Ga., in 1921, nine months after the Constitution was amended to give women the right to vote.
Fame, fortune, husband
She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Georgia in 1941 and was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa. In her 1984 autobiographical essay “A Historian’s Odyssey,” she wrote, “I went out in 1940 in search of fame, fortune, and a husband, in no particular order.”
In 1943, at the age of 22, she had her first visit to the White House. She was working as an intern for the National Institute for Public Affairs, and her group was invited to have tea with Eleanor Roosevelt.
A year later, she received a master’s degree in political science from Northwestern University in Illinois. After a stint with the National League of Women Voters, she married Andrew MacKay Scott, with whom she had three children.
In 1955, Scott applied for a fellowship from the American Association of University Women. In an afterword to her book, she wrote, “In a somewhat now-or-never mood I asked for money to pay a nanny, so that I could finish my dissertation. To my astonishment, it was provided, and I finally finished.”
She earned her Ph.D. from Radcliffe College in 1958. That year, the family moved to Chapel Hill. She found a temporary teaching job at UNC, becoming the first woman to join the history department.
A short time later, she received a letter from Duke University asking her to fill a part-time instructor position with the implication that Duke would be rid of her when they found a full-time male professor. She started in 1961. By 1980, she had become the first female chair of Duke’s history department.
“She was considered a really inspiring classroom teacher in her 30 years at Duke,” said her son, David Scott. “She still gets letters fairly frequently from students who write her and tell her that her class had such an impact that they want to reach out to her 30 or 40 years later.”
Scott also served as chairwoman of the N.C. Commission on the Status of Women and was appointed to President Lyndon Johnson’s Citizens’ Advisory Council on the Status of Women in 1965. She is the William K. Boyd Professor Emeritus of History at Duke University.
“Women’s history as a field barely existed,” her son said. “She became a mentor to a whole generation of historians who studied women, not just Southern women, but women’s history.”
That sentiment was expressed to David Scott by Darlene Clark Hine, a fellow National Humanities Award recipient for her work in African-American women’s history.
“She said, ‘Your mom supported me from so far back I can’t even remember,’” he said.
In a National Endowment for the Humanities profile, University of Mississippi history professor Elizabeth Anne Payne describes Scott as “the mother of looking at women in a different way, not in relation to their fathers, husbands, and children, but in the community.”