Lisa Forman Cody, 43
Associate Professor, Department of History,
and Associate Dean of the Faculty (as of July 1), Claremont McKenna College
When asked as a girl what I would someday be, I never said a historian. Instead, I first said Frank Lloyd Wright, then around third grade, a suffragette, and then as a teenager, either Mary Cassatt or Elizabeth Blackwell. Given my particular talents, I knew I should want to be a doctor or an illustrator, but I did not yet realize that I could only envision myself in those occupations in the context of another age-the world of Beatrice Potter or Florence Nightingale.
I grew up in Fort Collins, Colorado in the 1970s, but refused to admit that basic fact. My absence was reaffirmed each Sunday at 9 p.m., Mountain Standard Time. My parents were huge Masterpiece Theatre buffs, and so I, the dutiful oldest daughter, watched alongside them imagining myself into the past. In second grade, my friend Margaret and I had feuding crushes on Tom Brown and his nemesis Flashman. After school, we pretended that even though we were girls, we went to Rugby too and rescued poor Tom Brown and Cuthbertson from their miserable School Days.
It should have been obvious where things here were inevitably headed, as I lived through Upstairs, Downstairs, Shoulder to Shoulder, and countless other BBC dramas. But when I went off to Harvard, I made a list of what I would absolutely not major in: physics, engineering, and of course history. I thus decided to kill my core requirement in history immediately with"London and Paris in the Nineteenth Century." That I sat in the front row eagerly (a.k.a. nerdily) laughing and clapping at the divine Patrice Higgonet and (the late) divine John Clive should have tipped me off right from the first seven minutes. Instead it took two weeks. When Professor Clive read Thomas Gray's Elegy in a Country Churchyard, I responded as many eighteenth- and nineteenth-century readers had: I wept. (Melodramatic? Yes. Surprising? No. Consider this: in first grade, my best friend Margaret and I had an ongoing debate about what would make either one of us the luckiest girl in the world. Having recently watched The Six Wives of Henry VIII, the answer was obvious: to have Henry VIII's casketed, dead body in my living room. Sure, this was macabre, but at the time, it seemed hard to imagine that a trip to Disneyland or a pony could top this as the best birthday present ever. I never got the pony either-stuffed or otherwise.)
Gray's Elegy transported me to mid-eighteenth-century England, which ultimately is where I have lived imaginarily for two decades as I dig through archives at the nearby Huntington Library and when in Britain, and as I now think about the next research project while shuttling my children to school and the dinosaur museum and the grocery store. Yet Gray's poem also made me appreciate how being a historian can verge on the uncanny act of channeling the dead-which perhaps is what I had been trying to do all along. Clearly, with my childhood desire to keep Tudor corpses in the living room and my adolescent penchant (I confess) for obsessive Ouija board sessions, I had been trying to do so mostly in the dubious spirit of Madame Blavatsky. Thankfully, though, I soon tripped upon the archives instead, which has allowed me to raise the dead in ways that are considered slightly more acceptable, if not as remunerative as reading palms or transfiguring the departed.
I trained at Berkeley with Tom Laqueur and other marvelous scholars at an exciting time in the late 1980s and 1990s when theory was big and invariably had an impact on the nature of my scholarship. Yet despite that training, a perhaps slightly old-fashioned search for spirits haunts much of my research. And no spirit more so than an eighteenth-century midwife, Elizabeth Nihell, who has enjoyed an iconic status among feminists for her exuberant attack on male obstetricians in the 1760s.
Capturing ghosts is notoriously elusive. A summer research trip to Paris, for instance, revealed nothing of Nihell's life at all, even after plowing through thousands of pages at the Archives de l'Assistance Publique-Hôpitaux de Paris in hope of finding her at the Hôtel Dieu where she had had trained as a midwife. I could not find her that summer, but she led me through a rich summer of French research that illuminated unexpected connections between nationalism, religion, and reproduction-insights that fundamentally transformed my book manuscript, Birthing the Nation. A huge analytical payoff, certainly, but I still felt crushed that Nihell herself had no surviving records-and, worst of all, there had been records until the cataclysms of the nineteenth century. I discovered that in 1869, Monsieur Brièle, head of the Hôtel Dieu archives, fastidiously recorded each scrap in his collection, including liasse 1395, a massive file containing every midwife-pupil's testimonials and birth and marriage certificates for the previous two centuries. Earlier nineteenth-century sources indicated that Nihell was included in this file. In 1870, however, Brièle was forced to choose the saved versus sacrificed as the city fell. He rescued many documents about topics which have since made other historians' careers-say, on the subject of sewage-but he let liasse 1395 and scores of midwives burn.
In spite of the nineteenth-century flames which licked up her maiden name and much more, I did find a small piece of Mrs. Nihell in the London archives. Another summer, on a hunch, I refused to believe the eighteenth-century parish indices and decided to read through hundreds of files myself, just to double check, just in case. Every weeknight, after the British Library and other archives closed, I crossed Trafalgar Square and walked down Whitehall towards the Westminster City Archives, which stayed open late. It took a summer, pregnant with my first son (i.e. one of my last"real" research trip now that I have three of them), to find my midwife-ghost who had been, it turns out, misfiled for over two centuries. I found her in, of all places, the (poorly alphabetized) affidavits for the St. Martin's workhouse as a ward of the parish. Her detailed pauper affidavit revealed that she was a Catholic married in Paris in 1740 to an Irish Catholic surgeon around age eighteen who abandoned her in 1775. She never left the workhouse. In May of 1776, she died there and was buried for 2 shillings, 6 pence.
Elizabeth Nihell, a learned, published, proud author, and inspiration to Mary Daly and other modern feminists, was buried in a parish pauper pit. This grave would have been roughly under what is now a Trafalgar Square traffic island with a statue dedicated to a feminist nurse and national martyr of World War One: Edith Cavell. A fittingly ironic monument, to be sure, but a tragic plot for another feminist health practitioner whose 1760 treatise sold for twice the price of her burial. I felt disconcerted as the documents fell together and realized that my historical muse had once been placed six feet under an intersection that I have crossed hundreds of times since the age of eleven when my Masterpiece Theatre obsessed family took a sabbatical to London. I was already fully immersed in the past as I pretended to be a Pankhurst toppling the staid Edwardian world in sixth grade, but I of course had no idea that such an ordinary spot on Charing Cross Road would someday become my imaginary touchstone.
As jubilant as I was to find Nihell, I was also saddened by this enterprise, where so much of what we find hinges on little more than"the short and simple annals of the Poor." As a historian attracted to theory, analysis, and arguments, Nihell's ghost reminds me that I nevertheless became a historian thanks to Thomas Gray's sentimental words and a recognition that I had long felt compelled to channel the dead so as to convey"Their homely joys, and destiny obscure." Corny, melodramatic, perhaps unsophisticated, but listening to the dead is a precious aspect of our profession, and one that exists in few others.
By Lisa Forman Cody
Male experts transformed what had once been the private, feminine domain of birth and midwifery into topics of public importance and universal interest.... This is the first book to place the eighteenth-century shift... in a larger cultural and political context. It illuminates how eighteenth-century Britons understood and symbolized political, national, and religious affiliation through the experiences of the body, sex, and birth.... Political arguments of the age were not always made on disembodied, rational terms, but instead referenced deep cultural beliefs about gender, reproduction, and the family....
Through reproductive signs and stories, Britons could describe themselves and others, as individuals, as types, as members of different corporate bodies, including nations, and these comparisons helped to establish the seemingly natural facts of community and otherness." -- Lisa Forman Cody in"Birthing the Nation: Sex, Science, and the Conception of the Eighteenth-Century Britons"
About Lisa Forman Cody
Lisa Cody is much more than I could hope for in a professor - she is a friend who shares her interests until her overwhelming enthusiasm makes them your interests. She has contributed so much to my college years; the lessons I have learned from her will stay with me always. She sets high standards for her students and a coach there every step of the way encouraging and aiding their success.
I am pleased to see that she has been given this award and confident that no one deserves it more. She should be recognized everyday for her accomplishments both as an academic and as a mother. -- Annastacia Jimenez, Claremont McKenna College
Although I was a literature major, Lisa came highly recommended to me by several students and thus I enrolled in her"Women, Family and Social Change" class. The texts were difficult, the discussions challenging. I was grateful for Lisa's constant enthusiasm for the topic at hand and most importantly, her commitment to engage her students in the learning process. I was always excited to attend her class because I was eager to hear her thoughts about the text we had read. She had the ability to turn a book, perhaps one that I did not particularly enjoy, into one that seemed brilliant because of her insightful comments and perspective. Lisa was available for questions both in and out of the classroom. Responses to emails arrived very quickly and it was easy to set up a time outside of office hours to meet. Her accessibility as a professor showed me that my education was just as important to her as other research and administrative duties for which she was responsible.
After being more than satisfied with her class, the following semester I enrolled in her"19th Century London and Paris" class. This class ultimately became one of my favorite classes at CMC. Lisa always chose the best texts to read for her classes and discussions about the relationship between sewers, prostitution, and the rise of industrial London in the 19th Century remains a vivid memory even though two years has passed since the class. Lisa always encouraged student feedback about the texts she assigned and promoted student-led discussions. The opportunity to pose analytical questions and learn from my peers proved to be invaluable to my development as a successful student. I learned through Lisa's history classes how literature (among many subjects) and history intersect constantly. It was clear that though she was a history professor, her knowledge about other subjects (literature, science, art, areas of history outside her primary interest) only enhanced her knowledge about history.
I had the pleasure of working with Lisa on my senior thesis that focused on Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary. It was clear that Lisa's passion for history was contagious; I had wanted to study a novel that would allow me to learn more about literature while having the opportunity to research one of my favorite historical time periods: 19th Century France. (I also wanted an excuse to work with Lisa so I figured I should choose a book with which she could be of help).
What excited me the most about Lisa's classes and working with her on my thesis is that she helped me realize that in order to understand our lives today, it is important to learn history. Lisa taught me that contemporary understandings of topics such as gender, war, and changes in technology are based on historical events that had the power to change nations and social ideas. She taught me the usefulness of knowing, questioning, and learning history, which all led me to think differently about the world we create and live in today.
I could rave on about Lisa for pages! I envy all the students and faculty that will be able to continue working with her in the future. Her generosity to her students and commitment to teaching are unparalleled. I continue to recommend her classes to students, convincing them that they, too, will think about life differently after every class. I am thrilled that she will be acknowledged as a Top Young Historian. The honor is well deserved. -- Bouree Kim
Professor Cody was able to keep class interesting by varying her method of instruction considerably. Class was always a refreshing blend of lecture, discussion, small group work, and individual presentations. Additionally, the assigned readings were a nice mix of primary sources, secondary scholarship, and salient works of fiction. As a result of this variety, class was never dull and I really felt engaged with the subject matter.
While Professor Cody's classes were always enjoyable, I think what really set her apart from other professors was her accessibility outside of classes. She was always so sincerely interested in helping you, that I felt comfortable asking for her advice on a wide range of issues. For example, she provided great support not only for matters relating to class and as my thesis reader, but she also provided great consul as I went through the law school application process. I considered Lisa not only my professor, but also a mentor and a friend.
I'm so happy that she is being recognized for being the great historian that she is." -- Ryan Fant, Stanford Law School, Class of 2010
comments powered by Disqus
- Ken Burns argues that Vietnam is to blame for much of our current alienation and polarization
- Ilan Pappe says Israel Is Not a Democracy
- Drew Gilpin Faust discusses free speech in Harvard commencement address (video)
- Military Journalist Calls on General McMaster to Step Down—And Let Trump Be Trump
- Historian David Kaiser says the most exciting day of his life was JFK’s election