In memoriam: Cynthia Russett, pioneer in women’s history

Yale professor and alumna Cynthia Russett, a noted historian and pioneer in women’s history at Yale, died Dec. 5 in New Haven following a long struggle with multiple myeloma. She was 76 years old.

The Larnard Professor of History since 2002, Russett joined the Yale faculty as a lecturer in 1967 and was promoted to a full professorship in 1990. Her research and teaching focused on American intellectual life in the 20th century, the history of American women, and the intellectual history of the Gilded Age.

“Cynthia was a wonderful colleague,” said Jay Gitlin, lecturer in history and associate director of the Howard R. Lamar Center for the Study of Frontiers & Borders. “I always found her to have a happy combination of critical judgment and friendly enthusiasm. I heard so many compliments about Cynthia’s teaching and advising from students. She will truly be missed.”

While at Yale, Russett was a champion of women’s history and women in higher education. She is featured in the documentary, “Boola!  Boola!  Yale Goes Co-Ed,” (available in the Yale Film Study Center).

“Cynthia was an absolutely stalwart member of the women's studies program as it evolved into women's and gender studies and then to WGSS [the Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies Program],” said Margaret Homans, professor of English and women’s gender and sexuality studies. “I will always be grateful to her for her astuteness and hard work in the program, as well as for her key teaching of courses on women's history.”

Since 1972, Russett was an active fellow of Saybrook College, where she had her office and advised students. “She was a great friend and colleague,” said Paul Hudak, master of Saybrook College. “She attended many fellows' meetings and pursued her academic work — which she loved more than anything — till the very end.  We will miss her.”

Born in Pittsburgh in 1937 to Jacob and Julia (O’Brien) Eagle, Russett grew up in Washington, D.C., and Maryland. She graduated from Trinity College in D.C., in 1958 and went on to earn her M.A. and Ph.D. from Yale in 1959 and 1964, respectively. She was one of only six women to graduate in a class of 27 that year, and won the George Washington Eggleston Prize for best dissertation in American history.

“My son and I came across a copy of her first book, her dissertation, at Whitlock's Book Barn in Bethany,” said Gitlin. “It is a fabulous book. A memorable line from the last page reads: ‘Social theorists now profess to see that while the glory of science is in ordering human foibles, the glory of humanism is in savoring them.’"

A particular interest for Russett was the effect of science on non-scientific culture. Her 1989 book, “Sexual Science: The Victorian Construction of Womanhood,” which examined the ways in which male scientists and thinkers of the Victorian era attempted to prove that women were inferior to men, won the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians Annual Book Award that year. Throughout her career, Russett’s work received attention from social and biological scientists, as well as from fellow historians.

Russett was the author of numerous publications, including Darwin in America: The Intellectual Response, 1865-1912” and “The Extraordinary Mrs. R.: A Friend Remembers Mrs. Roosevelt” (with William Levy). Her articles have appeared in Journal of Conflict Resolution, the American Historical Review, and the New England Quarterly. She was recently engaged in a study of women intellectuals and the conditions of intellectual life for American women in the post-World War II era.

During her time at Yale, Russett was a fellow of the Whitney Humanities Center (1992–1995) and a visiting scholar at the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study in Social Science and Humanities (1984). She was a member of the American Historical Association, the Organization of American Historians, and the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians, and served on the executive committees of the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute and the Human Relations Area Files. She also chaired the Yale College Executive Committee and served as director of undergraduate studies in the History Department.

According to colleague and friend, Paul Kennedy, the J. Richardson Dilworth Professor of History and director of the International Security Studies Program, there were many dimensions to Russett outside her formal teaching.  

“She was one of the six or seven founders of the Thomas More Soup Kitchen, which started 30 years ago and still runs strong, alas. It was typical of Cynthia's modesty and practicality that she came in early on Wednesday mornings to set up, a tedious and unrecognized job. My fondest memory of Cynthia is of her putting on her coat to leave the kitchen just as some of us were coming in to open the doors. In other words, we were the public face of the soup kitchen's activities, Cynthia the hidden and vital enabler.”

While Russett left teaching in 2012, she stayed active in her church, St. Thomas More Catholic Chapel at Yale, where she sang in the choir and served on the board of trustees. According to her family and friends, she loved life in all its forms.

Russett is survived by her husband of 53 years, Bruce ’61 Ph.D., the Dean Acheson Professor of International Relations in the Department of Political Science and professor of international and area studies in the MacMillan Center; their four children, Margaret (spouse, Zafer), Mark (Kristen), Lucia (John), and Daniel (Krista); and three grandchildren, Thea, Jacob, and Zoe.

A memorial service for Russett will be held at 11 am on December 19 at St. Thomas More Chapel at Yale. In lieu of flowers, contributions can be sent to St. Thomas More Catholic Chapel or to the World Wildlife Fund.