Elizabeth Fox-Genovese died yesterday, slipping away at age sixty-five after a long illness.
A professor at Emory University and a member of the First Things editorial board, she was a well-regarded scholar and a successful author, at home in both the academic world and the public sphere. But she was something more, as well, for she had a kind of solid common sense about ideas and where they lead.
We forget how rare such common sense seemed in American intellectual life during her lifetimeand how much courage was needed to assert it. The reaction to her 1995 book, Feminism Is Not the Story of My Life, was dramatic and vicious. "Backlash!" screamed her critics, and at Emory, where she was the founding director of the Institute for Women's Studies, she was accused of misusing her academic position. (Mary Ann Glendon, reviewing the volume in First Things, had a more positive take: "This timely and well-documented book addresses the puzzle of why nearly two-thirds of American women embrace many of the goals of the feminist movement, yet say that they do not consider themselves feminists.")
Married to the once-Marxist historian Eugene Genovese, whose writings on American slavery won him a wide audience, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese expanded her historical interests from feminism to include the antebellum South, and many of her works were studies, often co-written with her husband, of the lives of slaves and slaveholders. But, really, she could write about anything: abortion, literature, sociology, and even mystery novels.
Her turn to Catholicism may have been the most interesting development in her thought. It was born, in part, from admiration of John Paul II, and, in part, from a growing horror at abortion and euthanasia. Butas she recounted in her conversion storythe key was something more: "A decisive moment in my journey in faith came when, one day, seemingly out of nowhere, the thought pierced me that Jesus had died for my sins. And, immediately on its heels, came the devastating recognition that I am not worth his sacrifice. Only gradually have I come truly to understand that the determination of worth belongs not to me but to him. God's love for us forever exceeds our control and challenges our understanding. Like faith, it is His gift, and our task is to do our best to receive it."
Nor did she shy away from the consequences of this understanding: "The knowledge, even when partial and imperfect, that He loves us also opens us to new responsibilities and obligations. For if He loves us all, He also loves each of us. And recognition of that love imposes on us the obligation to love one another, asking no other reason than God's injunction to do so. As fallen human creatures, we are nonetheless likely to continue to search for human reasons that justify our loving service to those in whom we find little or no obvious redeeming value. And the best human reason may be found in the faith that God has freely given us: our nonjudgmental love of the other remains the condition of God's love for us. For, knowing how little we merit His love, our best opening to the faith that He does lies not in the hope of being better than others, but in the security that His love encompasses even the least deserving among us."
I last saw Betsey Fox-Genovese at a board meeting in May. Crippled by her disease, she nonetheless flew up to New York to talk with us about the magazine, the American situation, and the role of faith in public discourse. Watching her hobble in on her awkward crutches, I thought how sad she must be to suffer so. But the sadness was mine, not hers. She seemed, somehow, to have grown wiser and braver as her illness advanced. Grander, happier, greater. We are lessened by her absence.