Martha Saxton, Historian Who Explored Women’s Lives, Dies at 77

Martha Saxton, a historian whose penetrating examinations of women’s lives led her to new insights into figures ranging from the author Louisa May Alcott to the 1950s actress and sex symbol Jayne Mansfield to Mary Washington, the mother of the first president of the United States, died on Tuesday at her home in Norwalk, Conn. She was 77.

Her daughter, Josephine Saxton Ferorelli, said the cause was lung cancer.

First as a freelance writer and later as an assistant professor of history and women’s studies at Amherst College, Professor Saxton excavated women’s lives from under the morass of male privilege set down both at her subjects’ time and by historians over the intervening years.

“I have spent my life studying and writing North American women’s history to try to retrieve some of what has been lost, to try to replace incomprehension or criticism with historical context, and to substitute evidence for stereotypes and sentiment,” she wrote in “The Widow Washington: The Life of Mary Washington.”

That book, published in 2019, put front and center a woman whom generations of historians — almost all men — had dismissed as a cruel slave owner who mistreated her famous son. Without valorizing her, Ms. Saxton showed that Mary Washington was very much a person of her time, and that her life was a window into the experiences of women in 18th-century Virginia.

Professor Saxton brought the same perspective to her first book, “Jayne Mansfield and the American Fifties” (1976), which was also the first serious assessment of an actress better known for her physical endowments than her dramatic skills.

It is a work of feminist history at the dawn of the field. Its first sentence reads, “Women’s history, unlike men's history, is also the history of sex” — and if that statement seems less true in 2023 than it did in 1976, it is in part because of the work of scholars like Professor Saxton.

Jayne Mansfield, Professor Saxton argued, was both a victim and an agent, a sexualized woman who used her image as a mindless centerfold to get ahead in a male-dominated society.

“Only the 1950s could have produced her,” she wrote. “Like most women, she wasn’t allowed to lead, but for a moment, she was a uniquely gifted and canny follower.”

She followed “Jayne Mansfield” a year later with a biography of a very different figure. “Louisa May Alcott: A Modern Biography” presents a complicated picture of a woman caught under the thumb of an eccentric, domineering father and a patriarchal New England society. But it is also a deep examination of Alcott’s most famous book, “Little Women.”

Among other things, “Louisa May Alcott” captures one of Professor Saxton’s abiding intellectual themes: that notions of ethics and morality are often gendered, so that what makes a “good” woman might make a “bad” man, and vice versa.

“Little Women,” she wrote, “became a handbook for girls desiring wisdom about becoming good women.”

Martha Porter Saxton was born on Sept. 3, 1945, in Manhattan and grew up in Newton, Mass. Her father, Mark Saxton, and her mother, Josephine (Stocking) Saxton, both worked in the publishing industry.

After graduating from the University of Chicago in 1967 with a degree in history, she briefly considered a legal career but instead worked in publishing in New York for several years while doing freelance writing on the side, including for The New Yorker.

She married the photographer Enrico Ferorelli in 1977. He died in 2014. Along with her daughter, she is survived by her son, Francesco Saxton Ferorelli; her brother, Russell Saxton; and a grandson.

It was only after she had established herself as a published author that Professor Saxton decided to pursue a Ph.D. in history at Columbia.

She received her doctorate in 1989 and published her dissertation in 2003 as a book, “Being Good: Women’s Moral Values in Early America.” After holding a number of short-term academic positions, she joined the Amherst faculty in 1997. She received emerita status in 2015.

As an academic, Professor Saxton expanded her scope of historical inquiry, looking beyond middle-class white women to examine the lives of women of color, enslaved women and incarcerated women.

With an Amherst colleague, Prof. Amrita Basu, she developed courses on human rights activism and gender and the environment. She also taught, with various collaborators, a course called “Inside/Out,” which brought Amherst undergraduates together with incarcerated students at the Hampshire County Jail in nearby Northampton.

At her death Ms. Saxton was nearing completion of her final book, a biography of the 18th-century English historian Edward Gibbon; all that she lacked was a final chapter. The author Judith Thurman, a close friend, and Professor Basu said they would finish the draft.

Clay Risen is an obituaries reporter for The Times. Previously, he was a senior editor on the Politics desk and a deputy op-ed editor on the Opinion desk. He is the author, most recently, of “American Rye: A Guide to the Nation’s Original Spirit.” More about Clay Risen

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