Hilda L. Smith (1941–2023)
Historian of Women
Hilda L. Smith died at age 82 on October 24, 2023. Coming from a working-class background, she never ceased to be amazed at where she ended up.
As an undergraduate at Missouri State University, she studied to be a high school teacher, but changed her trajectory to become a university professor. After earning her MA in history at the University of Missouri, she went to the University of Chicago, where she received her PhD in 1975. She marveled that her advisor, legal historian Charles Gray, took a chance on her, a “hillbilly” (her words) from Springfield, Missouri, with no credentials other than her exceptional, defiant mind. After teaching and serving as a humanities administrator at the University of Maryland, College Park, she joined the University of Cincinnati in 1987 as director of women’s studies and a faculty member in the history department.
When her first book, Reason’s Disciples: Seventeenth-Century English Feminists (Univ. of Illinois Press, 1982), came out, the field of women’s history (she preferred “women’s history” over gender history) was in its infancy. Reason’s Disciples was finely researched, contextualized, and keenly argued. It analyzed the prose and poetry of 15 English women writers, all professing rationalist, feminist perspectives well before Mary Wollstonecraft. The fact that these women were all middle or upper class, usually Anglican Tories, did ruffle Hilda a bit, but she understood that feminism did not necessarily have the same roots as socialism.
Her second book, All Men and Both Sexes: Gender, Politics, and the False Universal in England, 1640–1832 (Penn State Univ. Press, 2002), was equally profound and pathbreaking by demonstrating how the “false universal” contributed to the marginalization of women in history. Her study changed the way we understand who is included and who is excluded in the pious tropes we use to talk about political communities. Hilda showed that language like “human,” and “people,” which we assume to be inclusive, in fact excluded women, boys, and nonwhites. This language was everywhere in the early modern world: parliamentary debates, prescriptive literature, political tracts, and broadsheets. If we now ask who “we” means in phrases like “We the People,” it is partly due to Hilda’s work.
With her irreverent, fearless, razor-sharp mind, Hilda upended many long-held positions in the fields of early modern British history and women’s studies. She identified as an intellectual historian, who increasingly explored the social history of ideas. She laid bare the extent to which women participated in trades that rarely had been associated with women. Hilda never tired of emphasizing that, just like men, women were apprentices who worked their way up to becoming master tradeswomen and business owners, across a broad range of jobs from shipbuilders to printers.
Hilda also worked to bring the political thought of early modern women to light and make them more broadly accessible by publishing an annotated bibliography and anthologies of early modern British women’s writings. She had hoped to write a biography of Margaret Cavendish, a woman who had been the recurring focus of her research, but, in the end, Hilda’s rapid decline and death prevented her from fulfilling her dream.
Hilda was funny, loving, shrewd, and challenging. She spoke her mind and was a generous but also unpredictable friend. She honored none of the little polite niceties of the academic (or, as she would say, “bourgeois”) world. With her “hillbilly” upbringing, she was a quintessential outsider, and this was certainly the way she cast herself. She was always interested in the plight of women, but she was also sensitive to how much one’s social class affects the things one does, says, and thinks. Hilda’s fierce advocacy for her graduate students and younger colleagues made her a beloved and strong mentor. Women were drawn to her deep commitment to feminism and benefited from her generosity and kindness, with which she supported them in their careers.
Hilda was an inspiration, a good friend, and a splendid colleague in British studies and women’s history. We miss her, and the world is a little dimmer without her.
University of Cincinnati
Melinda S. Zook
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Attribution must provide author name, article title, Perspectives on History, date of publication, and a link to this page. This license applies only to the article, not to text or images used here by permission.
Please read our commenting and letters policy before submitting.