Introduction to 'Unbought Grace—Reading Elizabeth Fox-Genovese'

Robert L. Paquette

Editor's note: This introduction by Robert Paquette appears in the final book of the five-volume collection of essays by and about the scholar Elizabeth Fox-Genovese (1941-2007), History and Women, Culture and Faith: Selected Writings of Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Volume 5, Unbought Grace: An Elizabeth Fox-Genovese Reader. We print it here in advance of its publication in June 2012 with the permission of the author. Robert L. Paquette is cofounder of the Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization in Clinton, New York, the author of Sugar Is Made with Blood (winner of the Elsa Goveia Prize for the best book in Caribbean history), and coeditor of The Oxford Handbook of Slavery in the Americas.

But the age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists, and calculators has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever. Never, never more shall we behold that generous loyalty to rank and sex, that proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of the heart which kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of an exalted freedom. The unbought grace of life, the cheap defense of nations, the nurse of manly sentiment and heroic enterprise, is gone!

Edmund Burke, Reflections on the

Revolution in France (1790)

Persons imply relations; relations precept obligations.  In the age of the aggrandized self, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese (1941-2007), a prizewinning scholar and conspicuous public intellectual, never forgot her personhood.  In the last days of her life, lying supine, gaunt, and emaciated in a railed metal bed at Emory University Hospital, Betsey, as she was known to her friends, insisted on putting the finishing glosses to a chapter of a dissertation under construction by one of her many graduate students.  Complications from a long-running battle with multiple sclerosis and several other diseases cut short a brilliant and controversial career that produced works of lasting value on an impressive array of subjects.

This reader represents the fifth and final volume of History and Women, Culture, and Faith: Selected Writings of Elizabeth Fox-Genovese.  It consists of two sections.  The first contains sixteen essays that best represent the quality and range of Betsey’s scholarship as chosen by the editors of this volume in consultation with David Moltke-Hansen, the general editor, and with the editors of the previous four volumes.  Part 2 features ten remembrances of Betsey by colleagues and former students. Each remembrance speaks in its own way to Betsey’s impact on the mind and spirit of others as friend and educator.  Both sections rely on chronology as the organizing principle, which for the first section can be justified by her much-discussed “evolution” or “intellectual odyssey” from Marxist feminist at the start of her professorial career in 1973 to her conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1995.   A careful reading of these essays suggests, however, that her itinerary reflected far more continuity than change.  As Betsey herself acknowledged in explaining her conversion, “It was a natural stage in the journey rather than a new departure.” [1] 

Trained as a multilingual historian with a Ph.D. from Harvard, Betsey traveled comfortably with dual passports in such fields as sociology, economics, psychology, political theory, religion, and literature.  From her mother, Elizabeth Simon Fox, the well-educated daughter of a real estate magnate, she acquired a love of literature; from her father, Edward Whiting Fox, a Cornell University professor, she acquired a love of history. She confessed early on to liking the taste of intellectual history, and indeed her first book, The Origins of Physiocracy (1976), explored a school of political economists in eighteenth-century France who, in grappling with the capitalist transformation of estates into classes, helped usher in modern economic theory.

Her marriage in 1969 to Eugene D. Genovese, one of the most influential historians of his generation, entailed responsibilities that shifted her scholarly focus, and she eventually moved into southern history and women’s studies. After more than a decade of teaching at the University of Rochester and the State University of New York at Binghamton (now Binghamton University), she accepted an offer from Emory University in 1986 to create a program in women’s studies. Under her auspices it became in 1990 the first doctoral program in women’s studies in the United States. Conservative women as well as liberal women entered its ideologically open doors.  Publication the following year of Betsey’s Feminism without Illusions, a powerful, multifaceted critique of the predominant individualist gestalt that informs modern feminism, coincided, however, with a movement at Emory by activist faculty to wrench the program leftward by toppling Betsey from the directorship. In the unlit, arcane corridors of the multistoried postmodern campus, cloak-and-daggery has found warm surroundings, and Betsey possessed the kind of presence that elicited pettiness and jealousy from some as well as respect and admiration from others.  She resigned the position in 1991.  

Throughout her career Betsey interrogated issues of ideology and power, particularly as they related to the cultural consequences of capitalist development on various strata of society. The editors of each volume in this series identify, in chorus, Betsey’s critique of radical or possessive individualism, the ideology enshrined in the rise of capitalism, as a central thread that bound together the corpus of her work.  In the foreword to volume 1, Women Past and Present, Peter N. Stearns notes in Betsey’s scholarship a sharpened sensitivity, which belied her privileged upbringing, to the needs of the laboring poor and of different groups and classes of women. However sophisticated her class analysis as a Marxist, she always recognized the limitations of Marxist theory for understanding certain kinds of human experience.  In her introduction to volume 1, Deborah Symonds remarks on how Betsey applied her characteristically nuanced thinking to the historical origin and evolution of radical individualism as an ideology that affected “in all of its material and cultural manifestations” men and women of different classes at different times in different ways.[2] Middle-class women, for example, reaped disproportionate benefits from their liberation by modern feminism as individuals with equal rights.  But implementation of the theory of radical individualism throughout modern culture also weakened community life, thereby leaving many lower-class women stripped of customary familial and communal protections.

Human societies have divided themselves by gender from time immemorial.  The application of gender as a category of analysis opened the past to necessary and insightful reconstructions. But Betsey worried about gross distortions from abuse of the tool. Not all women are alike; persons have multiple identities; the rank order of those personalities in any individual changes with time and is revealed by behavior at moments of crisis.   Political sisterhood, like political antislavery, emerged in the West within a historically specific set of social and economic conditions.  If radical feminists speak today as if with one voice to insist on which identity should always speak loudest, Betsey in her historical scholarship looked beyond sisterhood to demonstrate forcefully how race and class typically trumped gender in the interpersonal dynamics that constitute the quotidian reality of social life. Betsey would have agreed with Flannery O’Connor, whom she much admired, that wisdom on the subject of identity lies beyond the mean and below the surface, often deeply repressed in concealed places. Identity “is not made from what passes,” O’Connor observed, “but from those qualities that endure, regardless of what passes, because they are related to truth.”[3]  Betsey believed in truth, that it was accessible by the human mind, and she relentlessly directed her scholarly prowess to distinguish it from cliché and slogan.

Mark Bauerlein, in the foreword to volume 2, Ghosts and Memories: White and Black Southern Women’s Lives and Writings, sees Betsey not only as a perceptive literary critic, but also as a potent literary theorist, defending the Western canon and the Great Tradition from the onslaught of radical individualism. The very concept of a Western canon, she explained, “took shape in tandem with a monumental attempt to reclaim nature and human society as the legitimate province of the human mind.”[4]

The humanism embodied in this noble endeavor by the most self-critical culture in history posited an ideal of public citizenship and, with it, the embodiment of a collective judgment that asserted, contra the individual, a meaningful standard of excellence and hierarchical value.  As the self underwent reconstitution by radical individualism, personal valuation—the validation of one’s own experiences and stories—became, as Bauerlein writes, “a method of undoing.”[5]  As, say, I, Rigoberta Menchu replaces Hamlet in English 101, radical personalization of the canon precedes disintegration through trivialization. Whatever the weaknesses of the canon, it served as a vital context and standard by which to judge the claims of those seeking entry to it.   Destroying the canon by exploding the collective tradition on which it rests must inevitably discount the worth of individual stories offered up in the classroom as substitute readings.

Once radical feminists and other activists reached critical mass on the faculty, they could enlist democratic process to subvert traditional hierarchical structure and authority within higher learning.  Established criteria for the determination of excellence and quality came under attack, as being arbitrary and discriminatory, from those who would substitute an ideologically ladened, totemic diversity that actually endorsed new forms of privilege.  Craven or sympathetic administrators, lacking any liberal arts conviction, allowed the demolition. The core curriculum, which paid homage to a collective culture and a collective good, capitulated to the open or near-open curriculum based on consumer preference. Grades inflated and academic standards declined as a result.  In the postmodern classroom, well-directed sentiment in the service of a feminized social justice could earn students more stripes from a professor in a humanities course than the configuring of evidence by argument into a meaningful pattern with explanatory power.  Instead of foundational courses rooted in traditional disciplines that taught undergraduates how to think by exposing them to different approaches to the acquisition of knowledge, the postmodern campus was increasingly serving, cafeteria-style, an abundance of specialized dishes concocted to teach students what to think by first titillating their appetite. Professors were exhorting their students in, for example, black history and women’s history to act on a consciousness of oppression without an honest or adequate understanding of the historical conditions that produced it.  History as a discipline, Betsey warned, was losing its privileged position in the liberal arts curriculum, with frightful consequences for the capacity of the current generation to achieve a critical distance on its own culture. 

While acknowledging the slipperiness and mysteries of textual representation, Betsey rejected the nihilistic implications of much that passes for postmodern literary theory, instead calling for a higher responsibility of managed interpretation through “sound principles of reading appropriate to the genre,” as Bauerlein puts it.[6] As a historian who understood literary criticism and as a literary critic who practiced history, she spoke unfashionable truths. The tension between difference and sameness, between the permanent things that hold persons together in society and the impermanency of individual lives, produced the tragic sense to which Betsey was so attuned in her finest flourishes.  Introducing Betsey’s writings on white and black women in volume 2, Kibibi Mack-Shelton and Christina Bieber Lake laud Betsey’s investigation of both the “special problems of self-representation for all women” and “the unique problems of self-representation for African American women writers.”[7]  Betsey showed her respect for women as writers and historical actors by not caricaturing them. No person can ever escape ties of dependency of some sort, and Betsey, as a learned historian with broad reach, knew that for most of human history the very notion of humanity itself was inextricably intertwined with the idea of social belonging rooted in the family. Peoples of the past had not lifestyles, but lives, and they spent a good deal of those lives in corporatist dependency on the wills of others, attempting to bridge differences to carry out common purposes. In an imperfect world of flawed beings, she insisted, “the experience of oppression does not inevitably transform fallible men and women into saints, any more than the exercise of domination inevitably transforms decent men and women into monsters.”[8]

Betsey’s eclectic mind had a pronounced and consistent communitarian sensibility. Thomas L. Pangle, in the foreword to volume 3, Intersections: History, Culture, Ideology, detects Betsey’s “distinguishing insistence on the political structure of all history.”[9] As if to underscore the point, she repeated one of her favorite quotes, “The order of history emerges from the history of order,” from the exordium in the first volume of Eric Voegelin’s multivolume magnum opus, Order and History.

The human condition expresses endlessly the antagonism between the claims of the individual and the claims of society.   No viable order can exist without an ethical dimension.  Morality is inherently authoritarian. Radical individualism was not only dissolving prescriptive moral standards, but undermining within communities the very possibility of reaching moral consensus outside of some sort of market determination.  Betsey never confused efficiency with virtue. 

Both David Moltke-Hansen, in the introduction to volume 3, and Pangle speak to Betsey’s sophisticated understanding of ideology. Modern ideologies imply a theory of liberation. They do not triumph by brute force as mere expressions of the needs and interests of a particular group or class in power. Ideologies, to be successful, must appeal to the masses by simultaneously looking backward and forward.  Inhabitants of all civilizations have established patterns of behavior articulated by language and written deep into their psyche like hidden transcripts to educe accepted ways of emoting, thinking, and seeing. Negotiation and dialogue between society’s constituent elements pattern ideology. 

With growing concern Betsey warned that the ideological “self” that was being realized under the statist, managerial, consumer-driven capitalism of a postmodern Western world, increasingly inhabited by “decentered subjects,” was undermining the very possibility of establishing a firm moral basis for social order and citizenship.   “Sexual liberation and narrowly personal selfhood,” she declared, “may not be the freedom of the people, but their new opiate.”[10]

Self-indulgence was replacing self-sacrifice as the lodestar of being.  Betsey sought to forward the quest of the dispossessed for justice by bridging difference rather than positing the politics of a family-eroding, socially sapping androgyny. The measured repression necessary for civil freedom and any meaningful social life could not easily withstand the radical leveling of those who claimed the existence of no standard outside of themselves, who claimed that “the world consists in nothing but a system of discourses or patterns of naming that are driven by a ubiquitous will to power.”[11]

In history wage-labor, not slavery, qualified as the peculiar institution in the sense of being uncommon.  Capitalist social relations had triumphed by abstracting the economic from the human condition and elevating it from subservience to predominance in the remaking of society.  Betsey never discounted the value of the material abundance generated by capitalism, nor of the “bourgeois” freedom that attended it.  Capitalism, whatever its ups and downs, had delivered human societies from the clutches of Malthusian cycles into self-sustained economic growth. Technological innovation advanced political feminism by lessening the value of male physical strength in a competitive labor market and by freeing women’s sexuality from reproductive duties. Like Marx, Betsey discerned in capitalism the most revolutionary force humanity had unleashed on the world; like Joseph Schumpeter she marveled at the solvent power of capitalism’s “creative destructionism” on tradition; like the economist Hernando de Soto, she understood capitalism as a worldview that translated human assets into commodities by first fixing them with a particular kind of representational validity; like Allen Tate she lamented in that representation the loss of aesthetic and ethical values as the capitalist mind carried out its reductionist abstract valuations, converting the whole horse into horsepower, man into a better-dressed, better-equipped scarecrow.

Liberal capitalism in rising to global sway in the nineteenth century had glorified a rigid, defining line between public and private; postmodern states were eviscerating the line in carrying out the logic of “the personal is political.” “If the personal is political,” Betsey noted, “then, by an implacable logic, the private must be public.”[12]

As the state empowered individuals with bundles of rights, it simultaneously disempowered them by empowering itself.  The middle levels of society, which once boasted a rich, private associational life, suffered, leaving individuals in lonely crowds ever more vulnerable against the state. Because of her taste for intellectual history acquired by engagement with the great books, Betsey could trace the lineage of the problem to the social contract theorists, especially Hobbes and Locke, who rooted their new systems of politics in an ahistorical state of nature. If straying from ancient wisdom by positing self-preservation as the highest law of nature, then how could society sustain a meaningful ethics of obligation?  Bertrand de Jouvenel, in the capstone book of his trilogy on political philosophy, spoke of the “intellectual delusions” perpetrated by “the views of childless men who must have forgotten their own childhood.”[13]  Betsey would have seconded the remark.

In her maturity, Betsey grew ever more discomfited by the rampant hubris among the campus clerisy.  For her, as for the antebellum southern novelist Augusta Jane Evans Wilson, whose work Betsey carefully dissected, reason alone could not unlock all the mysteries of the universe.  Faith filled the void for Betsey. She credited her mother for directing her at an early age to read the Bible.  Pangle suspects that Betsey’s increasing frustration and dissatisfaction with the “intellectual vacuum on the left”[14] moved her toward Catholicism, and he discerns in her first book a noteworthy “foreshadowing”[15] of her conversion when she explores François Quesnay’s metaphysics, which operated under the premise that a divinely inspired “natural law determines the proper rules of life.”[16] Mark A. Noll, in the foreword to volume 4, Explorations and Commitments: Religion, Faith, and Culture, adds to Pangle’s discussion. He sees Betsey as a consistent moralist, grappling throughout her career with, as she herself described it, “the appropriate relations between civil and moral law.”[17]

In the process of reconciliation, Betsey took a memorably costly and courageous stand against abortion and the radical individualist premises, serviceably encapsulated in the slogan “My body, my right,”  that were justifying the freedom—the “right”— of a mother to kill her unborn child.  The very “success of the capitalist West in securing unprecedented freedom for the bourgeois individual” had for Betsey, as Noll writes, “created a moral monster.”[18] Abortion, she argued, confronted women with fundamental questions about their essence, their personhood as mothers, the “ought” of their existence.  What more nightmarish expression of the transformation of a market economy into a market society than the relegation of an unborn child to the status of inconvenience or obstacle to a woman’s freedom to pursue some undefined happiness instantiated as transitory pleasure?  Since Betsey regarded human beings as quintessentially social beings who build communities that must have claims on individuals, neither men nor women had any absolute or presocial right to their bodies. 

One would be hard pressed to find a more fundamental concern of society than how it reproduces itself. Abortion raised nothing less than the question of the meaning of life itself and who gets to define it.  Making abortion a matter of an individual woman’s lifestyle choice had demeaned motherhood and, along with it, the attendant joys and responsibilities of childrearing. Women’s sexual liberation had also conveniently liberated men from the duties and responsibilities of fatherhood consequent on their own sexual activities.  Ann Hartle and Sheila O’Connor-Ambrose, in their introduction to volume 4, reference Betsey’s exposition of the resulting contradiction:  modern feminism, in asserting the principle of the personal as political, was draining with remarkable alacrity the moat that separated public from private.  Yet the predominant defense of a woman’s right to choose rests on the claim of a right to privacy so extreme as to make it almost hermetically sealed from public purview.  To such “liberation,” Betsey counterposed a corporatist understanding of freedom that stood outside the “freedom from” (negative liberty) and “freedom to” (positive liberty) dichotomy most famously posited by Isaiah Berlin. For Betsey, it seems, the Marxist understanding of freedom, strangely enough, had helped prepare the way for her acceptance of Saint Paul’s Christian freedom, and in the peroration of “Feminism Is Not the Story of My Life” (1996), she called for the recognition of “that rare and precious freedom that too few women enjoy,” the “freedom for” service to others, “without which there is no freedom at all.”[19]

The contents of this reader and the preceding four volumes make clear Betsey’s intellectual and moral commitments. They led her to compose a remarkably broad and deep corpus of work.  Betsey remained a person who displayed in her scholarly projects and in her everyday life the recognition that only in relations with other persons—and with God—do we realize the fullness of our personhood.   On her journey to faith, she acquired a sense of humility about the limits of the intellectual endeavor and about the dangers of intellectual pride.  In turn humility provided her with an interior peace, freeing her to appreciate and deepen her bonds with others. Betsey the academic seemed to the manner born.  Betsey the person found fulfillment in her marriage, comfort in her friendships, reward in her students, and certainty in her faith.  In dedicating her first book to her beloved husband, Gene Genovese, Betsey cited Ecclesiastes 4:9: “Two are better than one; because they have a good reward for their labor.”  An appropriate epigraph for Betsey’s life and work might be Ecclesiastes 4:10:  “For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow: but woe to him that is alone when he falleth; for he hath not another to help him up.”  May the essays in this volume express adequately the unbought grace of her well-lived life.


[1] Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, “A Conversion Story,” in History & Women, Culture & Faith Selected Writings of Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, gen. ed. David Moltke-Hansen, vol. 4, Explorations and Commitments: Religion, Faith, and Culture, ed. Ann Hartle and Sheila O’Connor-Ambrose (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2012), 217.

[2] Mark Bauerlein, “Foreword: A Literary Theorist of the Positive Kind,” in History & Women, Culture & Faith: Selected Writings of Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, gen. ed. David Moltke-Hansen, vol. 2, Ghosts and Memories: White and Black Southern Women’s Lives and Writings, ed. Kibibi Mack-Shelton and Christina Bieber Lake (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2011), xxii.

[3] Flannery O’Connor, “The Regional Writer,” in Mystery and Manners:  Occasional Prose (New York:  Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1969), 58.

[4] Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, “The Feminist Challenge to the Canon,” in History & Women, Culture & Faith, 4:102.

[5] Bauerlein, “Foreword: A Literary Theorist of the Positive Kind,” in History & Women, Culture & Faith, 2:xiv.

[6] Ibid., 2:xiii.

[7] Kibibi Mack-Shelton and Christina Bieber Lake, “Introduction: A Vision and a Voice—Women Who Wrote the South,” in History & Women, Culture & Faith, 2:xix, xxii.

[8] Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, “Slavery, Race, and the Figure of the Tragic Mulatta, or, The Ghost of Southern History in the Writing of African-American Women,” in History & Women, Culture & Faith, 2:250.

[9] Thomas L. Pangle, “Foreword: Marxist Social and Political Theory, Americanized,” in History & Women, Culture & Faith: Selected Writings of Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, gen. ed. David Moltke-Hansen, vol. 3, Intersections: History, Culture, Ideology, ed. David Moltke-Hansen (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2011-12), ix.

[10] Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, “The Crisis of Our Culture and the Teaching of History,” History & Women, Culture & Faith, 3:73.

[11] Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, “From Separate Spheres to Dangerous Streets:  Postmodernist Feminism and the Problem of Order,” Social Research 60 (Summer 1993): 244.

[12] Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Feminism without Illusions: A Critique of Individualism (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992), 99.

[13] Bertrand de Jouvenel, The Pure Theory of Politics, (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1963), 45.

[14] Pangle, “Foreword:  Marxist Social and Political Theory Americanized,” in History & Women, Culture & Faith, 3:xvi.

[15] Ibid., 3:xvii.

[16] Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, The Origins of Physiocracy (Ithaca, N.Y.:  Cornell University Press, 1976), 47.

[17] Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, “Abortion and Morality Revisited,” in History &Women, Culture and Faith, 4:146.

[18] Mark A. Noll, “Foreword:  From Marx to Jesus,” in History & Women, Culture & Faith. 4:xiv.

[19] Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, “Feminism Is Not the Story of My Life”:  How Today’s Feminist Elite Has Lost Touch with the Real Concerns of Women (New York:  Nan A. Talese, 1996).

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