Thinking Reed: Centennial Essays

The Rest is History

How Reed shaped my career as a historian.

By Susan Strasser ’69
Thinking Reed

For Reed’s centennial, Professors Roger Porter [English] and Robert Reynolds [physics] edited Thinking Reed, a volume of essays by Reed alumni from each of the college’s academic departments who have distinguished themselves in their chosen field, be it history, medicine, journalism, or barbeque. The 33 authors reflect on the creative and often unpredictable ways that Reed inspired them, engaged them, and challenged them, and how they discovered in themselves the taproot of their achievements. This essay is adapted from Thinking Reed. You can purchase the entire book for a mere $19.95.

Susan Strasser ’69

Susan Strasser ’69 (pictured above in her student days) has been praised by the New Yorker for “retrieving what history discards: the taken-for-granted minutiae of everyday life.” Her books detail the creation of an American consumer culture. She did graduate work at SUNY Stony Book, and has taught at Evergreen State College, Princeton, George Washington, the Bard Graduate Center, and the University of Delaware, where she is Richards Professor of American History. Susan will speak to the Boston alumni chapter on March 28, 2012.

Judy Strasser ’66

Her older sister, the late Judy Strasser ’66

I first heard of Reed from my older sister Judy. Judith Strasser ’66, history major, Phi Beta Kappa, was the  author of a thesis about the history of Reed, and, later in her life, author of two published books of personal prose and two of poetry. I was a freshman when she was a senior, and she was a force. “From my (freshman) point of view,” a friend wrote me after Judy’s death in 2009, “she was a Reed icon, standing for all that was good and noble about the place.” I wish I had Judy to talk to about this essay: she thought about first-person writing more, and more seriously, than I. Not that it would have been easy to start the conversation: she would have been envious that I was chosen to contribute to this collection. But we were starting to do pretty well with our rivalries, and I like to think we would have weathered the hard parts so I could have had the benefit of her response.

My high school self would have been incredulous to hear that I would become a historian. I liked history classes, but was not drawn to their kind of history, about rulers and governments, politics, war, and diplomacy. More interested in social and cultural questions, I expected to major in sociology in college. At the beginning of my junior year, I gambled on a new course about a new topic from a new professor. American social history was taught by David Allmendinger [1967–70], who would leave Reed after two years and spend most of his career at the University of Delaware, where in 1999 I became his colleague. During fall 1967 and spring 1968, David introduced me to the idea that history could be written about people other than presidents and kings, and he encouraged my interest in housewives. He was fresh out of graduate school in a leading history department, and he knew what was happening in the field; when I asked whether it might be possible to do history about women, he let me know it was an up-and-coming thing. Emphasizing primary sources in his teaching, he helped me to understand history as something I could do, not simply read about.

Other teachers did plenty to make me who I am. David sent me to SUNY Stony Brook to study with his professor from Wisconsin, Bill Taylor, whose original ideas about doing history and teaching it still frame my historical imagination and my pedagogical style. By then, numerous Reed faculty members had already made their marks on me. They included people on both sides of the political struggles of the time, which had cost the jobs of many young faculty, whose firings continue to embitter me and other alumni of my day. Kirk Thompson’s [political science 1964–71] extensive comments on my papers still inspire my teaching. Richard Jones’s [1941–86] course, structured to get us discussing history and not just history books, is a model for one of my graduate seminars. Lloyd Reynolds [English & art 1929–69] let me into his calligraphy class as a freshman and taught me how to look at letters and thus at everything; his influence still shows in my handwriting, my preferred fonts, and my attempts to bring beauty into everyday life. Dick Ehelebe ’49, and his wife, Helen [Ferguson] Ehelebe ’49, ran the extraordinary bookstore and opened their home to its student employees, showing me the pleasures of adult lives enmeshed in work, family, and community. Many Reed students also served as teachers, beginning with Judy and continuing with those who became lifelong friends and with the two Reedies who have become “my” graduate students. Still, it was David Allmendinger who ended my career as an indifferent student. 

My interest in women’s history stemmed directly from my interest in contemporary feminism, an outgrowth of some years of progressive politics. In the seventh grade I had started hanging out with young Quakers and Unitarians doing ban-the-bomb and civil rights politics when Judy became friendly with them and let me tag along. I started college in the fall of 1965, five months after attending the first Washington protest against the war in Vietnam and two months after Bob Dylan went electric at the Newport Folk Festival. I graduated in 1969, five months after the Paris peace talks opened and two months before Woodstock. At Reed I was active in the movement against the war, and in what I believe to have been Reed’s first food co-op and first consciousness-raising group. And I was witness to and participant in Reed’s struggles over educational policy, over which those young faculty were fired.

Forty years later, I am grateful for the opportunities my generation had to believe in a relationship between serious critique and meaningful change, to make noise in favor of freedom and love, to grapple with exciting and fluid ideas about history, politics, art, food, music, and everything else that mattered.

I am especially fortunate to be among that generational sliver of women who encountered feminism during our college years, when there were not yet women on the radio or driving buses, nor more than a handful of women on the Reed faculty. We yearned for models and mentors but thrived on inventing ourselves, making it up as we went along. By the time I was 30, teaching college with a new PhD, I had succeeded professionally beyond any expectation I could reasonably have had as a child. In important ways, the rest has been gravy. I have sensed a glass ceiling, and my topics and ideas and the attention they have received still sometimes cause discomfort and earn derision among older colleagues. But I have also received many honors and enjoyed many privileges, including the most secure job possible in a tanking economy, as a tenured professor on a unionized campus. And some part of me, remembering when there simply weren’t many women in the room, can settle into being a threat with a wry sense of the familiar.

My intellectual output follows a chain that began in college. In a series of long footnotes, describing what historians had then written about stoves, refrigerators, and other household technologies, my Reed thesis, “Flour Power: Domestic Feminism in Advice to American Women, 1830–1865,” contains the germ of my dissertation, which in 1982 was published as Never Done: A History of American Housework. Much of Never Done concerns the introduction of new consumer products, and the final chapters of that book lay out many of the questions I explored in the next one, Satisfaction Guaranteed: The Making of the American Mass Market, published in 1989, which describes the new relationships and new habits that went along with the new goods and markets of mass production. Its final pages suggest that we would do well to think about the environmental consequences of product creation, an awareness I came to during the years I was working on the book, thanks to the 1984 chemical spill in Bhopal, the 1986 accident at Chernobyl, and the garbage barge that roamed American waterways in 1987 looking for a place to dump its cargo. My next book, Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash, describes the highly developed recycling system that was part of 19th-century industry, the demise of the habits and skills of reuse that went along with hand production, and the seismic shift in people’s relationships to the material world as a consumer culture developed. And while the end of that book does not presage the one I am working on now—a study of the commerce and culture of medicinal herbs—I come to this topic with the toolbox of concepts and knowledge I started assembling at Reed.