Cissie Fairchilds (1944–2017)
Historian of France
After a distinguished career, Cissie Fairchilds, professor of history emerita at Syracuse University, died of lymphoma on September 25, 2017, at age 73. A graduate of Bryn Mawr College in 1966, she earned a master’s degree in history from the University of Chicago in 1968. She then studied early modern French history at the Johns Hopkins University under the direction of Robert Forster. After completing a PhD in 1972, she began teaching, first at Macalester College, then at the University of California, San Diego. In 1977, she moved to Syracuse, where she taught until retirement in 2004.
During her long career, Fairchilds produced a number of consequential works. Her first book, Poverty and Charity in Aix-en-Provence, 1640–1789 (1976), analyzed the interaction between classes through charitable assistance. At first, private organizations provided charity with some assistance from the state. Donors and officials scrutinized the indigent, who responded with ingenuity and agency. But by 1760, the state assumed responsibility for direct assistance to the poor with greater financial aid and fewer moral judgments. Whereas some scholars had argued that the state provided too little aid, an action that encouraged the poor to embrace revolution, Fairchilds countered that new governmental control was inevitable and actually responded better to deteriorating conditions in the countryside.
This study marked Fairchilds’s place among social historians who sought to uncover the history of ordinary people. From it sprang Fairchilds’s highly influential 1978 article “Female Sexual Attitudes and the Rise of Illegitimacy: A Case Study,” published in the Journal of Interdisciplinary History. Having noticed rising illegitimacy in Aix, she expanded her inquiry over a broader geographic and statistical sample. Instead of locating the phenomenon in economic status, as others had, Fairchilds emphasized emotional states and the internalization of masculine privilege. Her reading of a cache of women’s pregnancy declarations allowed women’s voices to be heard.
Already a force in social history, Fairchilds continued into women’s history. Domestic Enemies: Servants and Their Masters in Old Regime France (1984) drew on the few depositories with substantial documents on the subject, but also relied on literature and memoirs, cookbooks, domestic manuals, and other sources. Influenced especially by psychological theory, she plumbed emotions, sexual behaviors, and domestic squabbles, illustrating the complex texture of household arrangements. The book highlighted the transition of the household from a place of display or production to the family nest during the 18th century.
Fairchilds’s last book, Women in Early Modern Europe, 1500–1700 (2007), surveyed a vast literature. Although written as a textbook, it presented in clear, pithy, and accessible prose the state of the literature on a number of topics: women and the family, women and religion, women and work, and women and the state (including women rulers and women in overseas empires). Unlike scholars who emphasized the lack of opportunity for women during the 16th and 17th centuries, Fairchilds found signs of progress. Once again, she contributed to reframing a field, partly by emphasizing women’s agency.
In her teaching, Cissie Fairchilds displayed a playful imagination, compatible with a traditional view of the historical profession and a desire for personal attachment with the past. As she saw it, faculty should not shy away from teaching responsibilities within their area of expertise. For many years, she taught the first half of the European history survey course because she believed in its importance. She brought history to her students in a deeply committed way. Colleagues who asked students which courses had really mattered to them often heard Cissie’s name. She knew how to make history exciting and important in the classroom.
Doing what needed to be done, whether professionally or privately, was very Cissie. On search committees, her judgment was almost always correct. As a colleague, she quietly but firmly took positions and did so on the basis of what she thought was right and ethical.
A consummate professional, Cissie Fairchilds was also a wonderful friend and host. With her mother, who long resided with her, she greeted her friends and their children with warmth and grace. She is much missed by friends and colleagues.
Jack R. Censer, Linda L. Clark, Michael B. Miller
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