Leonore Davidoff, 1932-2014

A historian who pioneered new approaches to gender, women’s and social history has died

November 13, 2014

Leonore Davidoff was born in New York City on 31 January 1932 and studied for her first degree at Oberlin College, Ohio, switching from music to sociology, followed by an MA at the London School of Economics (1956). She began her career as a research assistant in the University of Birmingham’s department of social sciences (1956-57), served as an extra-mural lecturer at the University of London (1959-64) and then transferred to the University of Cambridge as a supervisor in sociology (1965-68).

In 1972, however, Professor Davidoff moved to the University of Essex’s department of sociology as a research officer (1972-75). She was to remain there for the rest of her life, promoted to lecturer in social history (1975-89), senior lecturer (1989-90) and finally research professor in 1990, becoming emeritus shortly before her death.

Even while doing her MA, Professor Davidoff boldly set off into uncharted territory with a long dissertation on “The Employment of Married Women”, a topic then not only ignored but considered not worth studying. Once at Essex, she focused on domestic service and household management in the 19th and 20th centuries, publishing The Best Circles: Society, Etiquette and the Seasons (1973) and articles later collected together in Worlds Between: Historical Perspectives on Gender and Class (1995). Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class 1780-1850 (with Catherine Hall, 1987) soon established itself as a classic, while Thicker than Water: Siblings and their Relations, 1780-1920 (2012), published just before she turned 80, was another major contribution to a largely neglected field.

Alongside such scholarly activities, Professor Davidoff was highly active in the London Feminist History Group and acted as founding editor of the highly influential journal, Gender and History (1987-94).

“I’d read her work as a graduate student,” recalled Pamela Cox, professor of sociology at Essex, “and was so excited to be able to join the university as a young lecturer. [Professor Davidoff] was coming up to retirement then, but she never really retired. I loved the way her historical research pushed the boundaries and made us all rethink concepts of class, gender, work, family and much else.

“One of my best memories is discussing scripts, angles and arguments for my recent television history documentaries. Servants [2012] just wouldn’t have been made without her pioneering research on domestic work back in the 1970s and 1980s.”

Professor Davidoff died of Hodgkin’s lymphoma on 19 October and is survived by her three sons.


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