Feminist Historian Recollects Expansion of Women's Studies

U. of Southern California

Lois W. Banner
March 03, 2014

"It felt to me as though a wave crashed over me," says the historian and women’s studies scholar Lois W. Banner, of her discovery of feminism. It was the late 1960s when some academic feminists urged her to read about the history of women. Her passion for the subject later propelled her to help found one of the nation’s first women’s studies programs, at Douglass College, the women’s college of Rutgers University.

And so began an accomplished career in academe for Ms. Banner, an influential scholar of women’s and gender history who retired in December from the University of Southern California.

"Feminism made me think that I could do grand things in life," Ms. Banner says. "That I could dream great visions."

She went on to teach history and gender studies at University of Southern California for 30 years. She wrote or co-edited 10 books, including American Beauty, on the evolution of the beauty and fashion industries in the United States, and Intertwined Lives, a biography of the anthropologists Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict. She was also one of the founders of the Berkshire Conference on the History of Women, whose 2014 meeting, in May, will be the 16th since it began in 1973. The conference of several hundred historians will take place in Toronto this year.

"Lois is just inexhaustible," says Alice Echols, director of the Center for Feminist Research at Southern California.

"I’ve never met somebody who is so full of energy and enthusiasm."

It was Ms. Banner’s dynamism that carried her through the challenges she faced at the start of her academic career, in the late 1960s. For instance, when she applied for jobs or fellowships, Ms. Banner says, she was told she was "only going to get married."

But in 1983, Ms. Banner became a full professor at the University of Southern California.

"They liked my work," she says. "I published myself to the top, is what I did."

Ms. Echols says Ms. Banner’s influence on students was "enormous." Students sometimes opted to major or minor in gender studies after taking Ms. Banner’s courses.

Ms. Banner says her student evaluations soared when she started teaching her books in class. For instance, she taught three courses on Marilyn Monroe based on her book Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox, published in 2012. "I opened myself up completely in classes to my students, and it was amazing," Ms. Banner says. "I was always being fueled by that" interaction.

Writing Marilyn, to Ms. Banner’s surprise, put her "right in the middle" of queer theory. She argues that Ms. Monroe had lesbian relationships, and considered herself, sometimes, to be more lesbian than heterosexual

Queer theory, already a major strain in gender studies, will continue to play a large role in the future of the field, she says.

"Gay people and transgender people are very militant, and that’s always the way a field first starts," she says. "Because they feel they have no position or place, so they become very powerful, they write a lot, they group together."

Ms. Echols says Ms. Banner recognized early on the importance of broadening women’s studies to include the study of other gender issues. That expansion "helped to lead the way nationally toward a reframing of the field," Ms. Echols says.

Because it is interdisciplinary, gender studies "crosses the map in all directions," Ms. Banner says. Over the years, she had to become well-versed—if not an expert—in a variety of subjects, including queer theory and postmodernism, to further understand gender studies’ many realms. Now that she is a history professor emerita, her fire and ambition have not subsided. She is rewriting American Beauty.

"I am opening up the whole field of beauty again," she says. "It’s a complicated book, but everything I write is complicated. It’s just the way I am."