Marli F. Weiner

Richard Judd, Mazie Hough, and Nathan Godfried, April 2010

Scholar of women’s history, Southern history, and African American history

Marli F. Weiner, Adelaide & Alan Bird Professor of History at the University of Maine, died on Monday, March 2, 2009, at the age of 56, after a long battle with cancer. Weiner had been a member of the history department at the University of Maine since 1988.

Weiner was born in Brooklyn, New York, on January 9, 1953. She received her BA in 1974 from Johns Hopkins University and her MA in 1976 from Sarah Lawrence College. At the University of Rochester, where she worked with Eugene Genovese, Weiner earned her PhD in 1986. Weiner published two books, Plantation Women: South Carolina Mistresses and Slaves, 1830–1880 (Univ. of Illinois Press, 1998), a revision of her doctoral dissertation, and “A Heritage of Woe”: The Civil War Diary of Grace Brown Elmore (Univ. of Georgia Press, 1997). She edited Of Place and Gender: Women in Maine History (Univ. of Maine Press, 2005). When she passed away, she was preparing a second volume to this very useful work. Also at the time of her death, Weiner was completing Defining the Body: Race, Sex, and Place in the Antebellum South. The University of Illinois Press plans to publish this monograph posthumously.

Before arriving at the University of Maine, Weiner taught at St. Lawrence University, the University of Vermont, and Grinnell College. Weiner’s academic specialties included 19th-century U.S. history, women’s history, the South, and African American history. She taught a number of courses in these subjects in both the undergraduate and graduate programs at the University of Maine, and was a devoted mentor to many graduate students. She was an early promoter of and scholar in women’s studies. She chaired the university’s Women in the Curriculum and Women’s Studies Program Advisory Committee and was a member of the Women’s Studies Committee for almost 20 years.

Weiner gave unstintingly of her time to the Maine Humanities Council from 1994 to 2004, serving first as a board member, then as vice chair, and finally chair of the council. She was a key participant in the literature and medicine project sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Maine Humanities Council, which became a national model for similar projects uniting doctors, nurses, and administrators in monthly discussions of literature. She also was lead scholar for “American Lives: Teaching History through Biography,” a grant from the U.S. Department of Education to selected Maine middle school and high school social studies and English teachers.

Marli Weiner did a great deal to shape the curriculum, scholarly climate, and accomplishments of the history department at the University of Maine. As a student of southern history, Weiner was intrigued by the complex and contradictory implications of race and gender in slaveholding society, but she was also interested in the quest for a middle ground between white and black women, between slave and slaveholder. In short she was interested in women struggling to define one another as human in a dehumanizing society. What intrigued her about Grace Brown Elmore was the contrast between Elmore’s unwavering belief in racial inferiority on the one hand, and her flashes of understanding and compassion toward slaves on the other.

Weiner’s work helped round out a broad field of scholarship on slavery, race, and the southern idea of domesticity. But she was equally interested in showing how women in this polarized world reached out to one another; in exploring women’s capacity for transcending race through gender relations. Despite slavery’s horrific imprint on southern human relations, Weiner found a spark of humanity—a subtle, non-subversive, perhaps all too gentle critique of slavery in white women’s diaries and private correspondence. She was not naive about slavery’s corrosive powers, but by tracing this illusive thread of sisterhood across these barriers, she raised the possibility of compassion between white and black women. Marli Weiner was at her best in finding the best in all people.

This search for compassion in slave society was a consuming interest. Weiner discovered that her historical actors’ dismay at the brutalities of slavery, although voiced only privately and often in ways that were muted by the psychological demands of the slave institution, said something deeper about women’s consciousness. Laying out this insight required some tricky maneuvering across the ideological minefield of southern race and gender history, but this fresh perspective was Weiner’s gift to the field.

Marli Weiner’s keen sense for compassion and understanding was also her gift to the history department. Colleagues never passed her office door without seeing a student ensconced in the comfortable chair in front of her desk, looking alert and confident and ready to go out and tackle some thorny research problem. Weiner approached students as friends, and they became her friends. And this explained why almost every student that entered the graduate program eventually wanted her on her or his committee. Weiner left a legacy that went far beyond the University of Maine, not only in producing scholarship of national distinction, but also in sending forth confident, productive, and enthusiastic students, ready to make their own marks on the broader academic world.

A memorial fund—the Wiebke Ipsen-Marli Weiner Memorial Scholarship Fund—has been established to provide scholarship assistance for history students at the University of Maine, especially those working in gender or social history, areas that Marli Weiner dedicated her professional life to studying.

—Richard Judd, Mazie Hough, and Nathan Godfried
University of Maine