Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, 65; feminist turned conservative

Times Staff Writer

Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, a noted historian and intellectual whose turn toward conservatism made her a controversial figure in her field of women’s studies, died Jan. 2 in Atlanta after a long illness. She was 65.

The cause was complications after surgery in October, according to an announcement by Emory University, where she had taught since 1986.

Fox-Genovese earned distinction early in her career as an authority on 18th century France, and in the late 1970s co-founded the journal Marxist Perspectives with her husband, historian Eugene Genovese.


She and her husband became known as “radicalism’s royal couple” whose specialty was the history of the American South. She focused on the history of women in the antebellum South in works such as “Within the Plantation Household: Black and White Women of the Old South” (1988), a highly regarded social history of slave and slave-holding women.

At Emory, she founded the Institute for Women’s Studies, which under her leadership became the first in the nation to offer a doctoral program in the field. She served as its director until 1991.

Her evolution from left-leaning feminist to a conservative public intellectual became evident in the 1990s, when she began to voice reservations about such issues as abortion and women in the workplace.

The titles of two of her books from that decade more than hint at the change in her thinking: “Feminism Without Illusions: A Critique of Individualism” (1991) and “Feminism Is Not the Story of My Life” (1996), an anecdotal account based on interviews with 40 women alienated by the contemporary feminist movement.

In the first book, Fox-Genovese argued that feminism and the American belief in individualism had proved “at best a mixed blessing for women who, freed from community domination, face society with inadequate protection.”

She urged greater consideration of women’s “special roles as bearers and rearers of children,” a theme she continued to develop in the second book, which proposed such solutions as more part-time work with benefits and special individual retirement accounts to pay for extended maternity leaves that a woman could contribute to as soon as she entered the workforce.

Some reviewers favorably compared the author to Betty Friedan, the late feminist leader who in later years became more conservative in her calls for family-friendly feminism. Fox-Genovese “has brought balance, careful academic intelligence to a public debate that has been too often characterized by cheap polemics,” Katie Roiphe wrote in the Washington Post.

Other critics viewed her as a reactionary who wrongly blamed feminists for the continuing struggles of women.

Wrote Susan Faludi in a 1996 review for Nation magazine: “She accuses feminists of pursuing public policies that serve only upper-class women.... But she conveniently ignores the well-documented fact that feminists have fought desperately and exhaustively for paid leave and comprehensive coverage; it is business interests and their conservative ‘family values’ compadres in Congress who have cheated working mothers of decent maternity leaves and benefits.”

Fox-Genovese’s rejection of mainstream feminist beliefs coincided with her conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1995.

She described her religious awakening as a gradual process, not a “radical rupture” from the past, that grew out of grappling with the morality of euthanasia and abortion. Yet the day she decided to become Catholic she went to church alone, afraid to tell her husband, who was not a believer. He later underwent his own conversion, and they were remarried by a Catholic priest.

Fox-Genovese, who had no children, is survived by her husband, a brother and a sister.

She joined the boards of conservative organizations such as the Washington, D.C.-based Women’s Freedom Network and began to express in public her criticisms of the feminism she had embraced earlier in her life.

“Like countless other women who cherish improvement in the situation of women in the United States and throughout the world, I was initially quick to embrace feminism as the best way to secure our ‘rights’ and our dignity as persons. Like countless others, I was seriously misled,” she wrote in a 2004 article for Women for Faith & Family, a Catholic women’s support group based in St. Louis.

Fox-Genovese was born in Boston on May 28, 1941. The daughter of historian Edward Whiting Fox, she was educated at Bryn Mawr, where she received a bachelor’s degree in history in 1963, and Harvard University, where she earned a master’s in 1966 and a doctorate in 1974.

She taught at the University of Rochester and the State University of New York at Binghamton before joining Emory’s faculty in 1986.

Two years later she was appointed the Eleanore Raoul professor of humanities.

She resigned as director of the Institute for Women’s Studies in 1991 after a subordinate accused her of sexual harassment and discrimination. Virginia Gould, the institute’s associate director, alleged that Fox-Genovese was verbally abusive, then asked for hugs, and demanded that she hold parties and perform other personal services.

Fox-Genovese denied the charges. The lawsuit was settled in 1996 when Emory agreed to pay an undisclosed amount to Gould.

In 1998, Fox-Genovese and her husband helped launch the Historical Society, an organization of historians dismayed by what they perceived as a rising tide of political correctness in their profession.

In 2003, President Bush awarded her the National Humanities Medal, which recognized her as a “defender of reason and servant of faith.”