Elisabeth Israels Perry (1939–2018)
Historian of Women and Politics; AHA Member
Elisabeth Israels Perry, a feminist political historian widely admired for her formidable research and vivid prose, and for restoring women’s activism to the broad currents of progressive politics in the first half of the 20th century, died on November 11, 2018. Her final book, After the Vote: Feminist Politics in La Guardia’s New York, completed while she struggled with several forms of cancer, was just published by Oxford University Press.
Elisabeth was born in New York City on March 29, 1939, the daughter of Carlos Israels and Irma Commanday. Although she lived in many places over her long life, intellectually she never fully left the great metropolis in which she was born. She began her career as a historian of the French reformation; as an undergraduate, she studied at Bard College, Brandeis University, and the University of California, Los Angeles, receiving her BA in 1960. She pursued graduate studies in history at UCLA; a Fulbright award sent her to Paris. She received her PhD in 1967, publishing her doctoral research as From Theology to History: French Religious Controversy and the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes (1973).
In the 1980s, she shifted to US history, embracing the challenge of exploring the life and political circumstances of her grandmother, a titanic figure in New York City politics whose career had been overshadowed by the famous men with whom she collaborated. Belle Moskowitz: Feminine Politics and the Exercise of Power in the Age of Alfred E. Smith (1987) restored Moskowitz to her rightful position as one of the builders of modern New York and a trailblazer for women and political life in the 20th century.
Reviewers noted Perry’s “indefatigable and extensive research,” her “thoughtful and critical historical analysis,” her sensitivity to the interaction of the personal and the political, and her construction of “an elegant narrative framework.” These descriptions are also characteristic of After the Vote, which charts the political triumphs and challenges of New York women like her grandmother and those who followed her as they fought for suffrage, then moved into the political life of the city and state, fighting patriarchal obstacles all the way.
Elisabeth began her professorial career at the University of Colorado Boulder in 1967. The next year, she was one of two faculty members who publicly refused to sign a loyalty oath there and later resigned her professorship, returning to California after two years. There she met Lewis Perry, a recently divorced professor of American history at SUNY Buffalo, who had flown across the country to spend time with his son, Curtis. There, two friends set them up on a blind date. They would be married 48 years.
In the decades that followed, Elisabeth and Lewis would have two children, Susanna and David, while often struggling to overcome the professional challenges of a dual-career academic marriage and the sexist realities of the culture of higher education. Still, she and Lewis persevered. They moved to Bloomington, Indiana, in 1979, when Lewis became editor of the Journal of American History and a professor at Indiana University. Elisabeth took visiting positions at the University of Cincinnati, the University of Iowa, and Brooklyn College.
Elisabeth Perry was a notable teacher. She directed seven National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminars in women’s history for schoolteachers. At St. Louis University, where she held a joint appointment with Lewis Perry as the John Francis Bannon Professor of History, she served as interim chair of women’s studies and as faculty adviser for a student production of The Vagina Monologues.
Elisabeth Perry served as president of the Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era in 1998–2000. Her career included four years as director of the MA Program in Women’s History at Sarah Lawrence College and seven years as director of the Humanities Program at the State University of New York at Buffalo.
She is survived by her husband and three children, her four brothers, and her loving dogs, Heidi and Rusty. Her papers will be archived at the Sophia Smith Collection of Women’s History at Smith College. Her family welcomes memorial donations in her name to the League of Women Voters of New York City or to any organization dedicated to advancing the cause of feminist politics.
University of Minnesota
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