Anne Firor Scott, whose work “helped open the floodgates both for women historians and women’s history,” according to the citation for the National Humanities Medal that President Barack Obama bestowed on her in 2013, died Feb. 5 at her home in Chapel Hill, N.C. She was 97.
The citation continues that Dr. Scott “not only destroyed the myth of the perfect but powerless ‘southern lady,’ but demonstrated how southern women found their own roles in the public square.”
Her daughter, Rebecca J. Scott, confirmed the death but did not cite a cause.
Dr. Scott, herself a daughter of the South and a professor for three decades at Duke University, was best known for her work “The Southern Lady: From Pedestal to Politics, 1830-1930.” The book, published in 1970 amid the surge of second-wave feminism, was widely credited with helping spark a new — and overdue, many scholars later said — avenue of academic inquiry.
In her research, which also explored such topics as the lives of black women and the importance of women’s associations in American history, Dr. Scott pored over diaries, letters and other primary sources that brought her subjects to life. Her findings revealed women far more complex than the porch-sitting plantation belles of popular imagination.
“If talking could make it so, antebellum southern women of the upper class would have been the most perfect examples of womankind yet seen on earth,” Dr. Scott wrote. “If praise could satisfy all of woman’s needs, they would also have been the happiest.”
Dr. Scott’s subsequent volumes included “One Half the People: The Fight for Woman Suffrage” (1975, co-written with her husband, political scientist Andrew MacKay Scott), “Making the Invisible Woman Visible” (1984) and “Natural Allies: Women’s Associations in American History” (1991).
“Women’s clubs? The very term makes one think of silver teapots and sandwiches without crusts,” historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich wrote in a New York Times review of “Natural Allies,” which examined the extent to which women’s civic groups helped transform education, health care, sanitation and welfare even at a time when women had little official power.
“With wry humor and impassioned scholarship,” the review continued, Dr. Scott “teaches us that the more we are able to learn about women — with or without teapots — ‘the more we will understand about the society that has shaped us all.’ ”
Anne Byrd Firor was born in Montezuma, Ga., on April 24, 1921, and grew up in Athens, Ga., where her father was a University of Georgia professor of agricultural economics. Her mother was a homemaker.
The future historian knew two great-grandmothers who had lived through the Civil War — one of whom enrolled her in the Children of the Confederacy — and was raised in what she described as a “massive run-down antebellum house built by slaves.”
“The atmosphere of my early life,” she wrote in an autobiographical essay published in the volume “Shapers of Southern History” (2004), “illustrated Faulkner’s well-known dictum: ‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past.’ ”
By grade school, she recalled, she was reading books enshrining the “general view,” which she and other future historians would dismantle, “of slavery as a beneficent institution, of Yankees as the root of all evil, of southern ladies as the epitome of gracious living.”
Dr. Scott’s first exposure to the North came when she was in eighth grade, when she lived for a year with a cousin in Upstate New York. Her uncle by marriage was a historian.
After receiving a bachelor’s degree in 1940 from the University of Georgia, she won a public policy internship through the Rockefeller Foundation. That brought her to Washington, where she worked in a congressional office and later for the League of Women Voters. She encountered activists who had helped win passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920 guaranteeing women the right to vote.
“She was much impressed with their energy and effectiveness,” her daughter wrote in an email, “an observation that later shaped her historical analysis of women of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.”
Dr. Scott received a master’s degree in political science from Northwestern University in 1944 and a PhD in American civilization from Radcliffe College in 1958. She did her doctoral work while raising three children, and a grant from the American Association of University Women allowed her to pay a nanny to help care for them while she finished the project.
Dr. Scott taught at institutions including the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill before joining Duke University in 1961. She was a former history department chairwoman and retired in 1991.
Her husband died in 2005 after 57 years of marriage. Besides her daughter, a history professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, survivors include two sons, David Scott of Pittsboro, N.C., and Donald Scott of Durango, Colo.; six grandchildren; and a great-grandson.