Susan Porter Benson (1943-2005)
Roy Rosenzweig and Jean-Christophe Agnew, October 2005
Susan Porter Benson died of cancer in Manchester, Connecticut, on June 20, 2005, at age 61. She was a pioneering scholar of women's, labor, cultural, and public history, and a dedicated teacher and mentor of graduate students. She taught at Bristol Community College (1968–86), the University of Missouri-Columbia (1986–93), and the University of Connecticut (1993–2005) and was visiting professor at the University of Warwick in 1984 and Yale University in 1998.
She was "to the counter born," as she wryly observed in her prize-winning study of department store workers, Counter Cultures: Saleswomen, Managers, and Customers in American Department Store. Her parents, Alvin I. and Loraine Siegel Porter, ran a jewelry store in Charleroi, Pennsylvania, where Benson grew up in the 1940s and 1950s. She graduated from Simmons College in 1964 and received a master's degree in American civilization from Brown University in 1971. She had begun teaching at Bristol Community College (BCC) in 1968, and she and her husband Ed had also helped to establish a collective household in Providence, Rhode Island, which became the social and intellectual hub of a number of historians and political activists. Benson was active in the women's liberation movement, the anti-war movement, an early women's history reading and research group, and various groups of radical historians, including the Providence Collective of the Radical History Review.
While teaching at BCC, she returned to graduate school in history at Boston University, where she studied with Sam Bass Warner Jr. Her dissertation (completed in 1983) became the basis of her truly pathbreaking book on department stores, published three years later. Its contributions to the history of labor, women, and consumer culture remain as significant today as they did when first published. No one before her had thought to explore the complex and often contradictory politics of saleswork in the new department stores, notwithstanding the visible presence of the salesgirl figure in popular and canonical literature. Students continue to rely on her readings of the ways in which the imperatives of labor discipline ran athwart the stores' need to promote their "dreamworlds" as spaces of freedom, fantasy, and sophistication. Indeed, Counter Cultures acquired a new intellectual life in the 1990s as sociologists began to explore the "emotional labor" required of contemporary service and salesworkers. The book was news that stayed news.
Benson pursued her interest in consumer culture—and her fresh and innovative scholarship—in a subsequent book project on the working-class family economy in the interwar years (Household Accounts), which was nearing completion at the time of her death and which friends will be editing for publication. The outlines of the project are visible in a series of brilliant articles and conference papers that she produced over the past 15 years. Those who read or heard the work in progress saw immediately that it was moving the focus of studies of consumer culture away from their methodological bias toward affluence and the so-called "supply-side," e.g., advertisers, distributors, and merchandisers. Instead, the project offers a rare historical look at the interior of what could be called inconspicuous consumption: the deeply private yet inescapably social dimension of working-class familial expenditure. Equally important, it will provide a strong qualification on the standard Whiggish narrative of a rising and inclusive tide of 20th-century consumption.
In addition to her pioneering scholarship in social and cultural history, Benson played a key role in the emergence of what has come to be known as "public history." In 1981, she and others published an influential special issue of the Radical History Review on "history and the public." An expanded version of that issue appeared in 1986 as Presenting the Past: Essays on History and the Public, co-edited with Steve Brier and Roy Rosenzweig. Presenting the Past was the foundation of a 38-volume book series with Temple University Press called "Critical Perspectives on the Past." The acknowledgements of many of the books in the series—as well as numerous other historical works—pay tribute to Benson's acuity and generosity as an editor and critic.
Benson defined historical work broadly and took seriously her responsibility to address multiple audiences. She served as the vicechair of the Rhode Island Committee for the Humanities, and taught for two years in the NEH-sponsored "Threads" program designed to bring the humanities to textile workers. She helped to assemble the Fall River Sourcebook in preparation for the establishment of the Fall River Heritage State Park, was the co-organizer of the History Workshop for retired textile workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts, and was one of the co-authors of the American Social History Project's text, Who Built America? This list could be expanded, since Benson has participated as a consultant, speaker, or organizer in dozens of different projects aimed at bringing history to nonacademic audiences.
Benson's willingness to collaborate was astonishing and invariably helpful. She served on the editorial boards of a half-dozen journals (including Labor History, Journal of American History, American Quarterly, Gender and History, and Radical History Review) and took on demanding committee assignments from the Organization of American Historians, Berkshire Conference on the History of Women, the Labor and Working-Class History Association, and other groups. Fellow historian Nancy Hewitt describes Benson as "one of those rare individuals who truly believes in a community of scholars, and who knows that such a community can only be created and sustained by hard work and a generous spirit." Scholar and friend Sharon Hartman Strom adds that "Benson's insistence on combining labor and women's history produced a gendered perspective in U.S. history that will be of enduring importance to future historians."
That generosity of spirit extended particularly to younger scholars whom she nurtured as a teacher, graduate advisor, journal editor, book series editor, or just supportive friend. Evan Roberts, a University of Minnesota graduate student who never met her, notes that after he finished his 150-page undergraduate honors essay at the University of Wellington, he sent an unsolicited copy to Benson: "She replied with two pages of thanks and suggestions, and an invitation to meet her if the occasion presented it."
Sue Benson's early death is a grievous loss to her colleagues, comrades, and family, but her exemplary historical scholarship and the communities she did so much to create and nurture will keep her memory alive.
George Mason University