Hilda Smith died at the age of 82 on 24 October 2023. Coming from a poor, working-class background, she never ceased to be amazed at where she ended up. As an undergraduate at Missouri State University, she studied to be a high school teacher, but changed her trajectory to become a university professor. After her MA in History at the University of Missouri, she went to the University of Chicago, where she received her PhD in 1975. She marveled that legal historian Charles Gray took a chance on her, a “hillbilly” (her words) from Springfield, Missouri with no credentials other than her exceptional, defiant mind.
After teaching and serving as a humanities administrator at the University of Maryland, College Park, she joined the University to Cincinnati in 1987 as Director of Women’s Studies and faculty member in the History Department, who specialized in Early Modern England and Women’s History.
When her first book, Reason’s Disciplines, came out (1983), the state of women’s history (she preferred “women’s history” over gender history) was in its infancy. And so much of it was not great – women worthies, mothers of feminism, and the horrid way women were tacked on to the male narrative. Reason’s Disciplines was different, finely researched, contextualized, and keenly argued. It analyzed the prose and poetry of fifteen English women writers, all professing rationalist, feminist perspectives well before Mary Wollstonecraft. The fact that these women were all middle or upper class, usually Anglican Tories, did ruffle Hilda a bit, but she understood that feminism did not necessarily have the same roots as socialism.
Her second book, All Men and Both Sexes: Gender, Politics, and the False Universal in England, 1640-1832 (2002) was equally profound and pathbreaking by demonstrating how the “false universal” contributed to the marginalization of women in history. Her study changed the way we understand who is included and who is excluded in the pious tropes we use to talk about political communities. Hilda showed that language like “human,” and “people,” which we assume to be inclusive, in fact excluded women, boys, and non-whites. This language was everywhere in the early modern world: parliamentary debates, prescriptive literature, political tracts, and broadsheets. If we now ask who “we” means (We the People, etc.), it is partly due to Hilda’s work.
Hilda was an inspiration, a good friend, and a splendid colleague in British Studies and women's history.
With her irreverent, fearless, razor-sharp mind, Hilda upended many long-held positions in the field of Early Modern British History and Women’s Studies. She considered herself an intellectual historian, who increasingly explored the social history of ideas. She laid bare the extent to which women participated in trades that had hardly ever been associated with women. Hilda never tired of emphasizing that, just like men, women were apprentices, worked their way up, and entered a broad range of jobs – including ship builders and printers – or were master tradeswomen and business owners.
Hilda also worked to bring the political thought of early modern women to light and make them more broadly accessible by publishing an annotated bibliography and anthologies of early modern British women’s writings.
Hilda had hoped to write a biography of Margaret Cavendish, a woman who had been the recurring focus of her research, but, in the end, Hilda’s rapid decline and death prevented her from fulfilling her dream.
Hilda’s fierce advocacy for her graduate students and younger colleagues made her a beloved and strong mentor. Women were drawn to her deep commitment to feminism and benefitted from her generosity and kindness, with which she supported them in their careers.
Hilda was funny, loving, shrewd, and challenging. She spoke her mind and was a generous but also unpredictable friend. She honored none of the little polite niceties of the academic (or as she would say “bourgeois”) world. With her “hillbilly” upbringing, she was the ultimate outsider, and this is certainly the way she cast herself. She was always interested in the plight of women, but she was also sensitive to how much one's social class affects the things one does, says, and thinks.
Hilda was an inspiration, a good friend, and a splendid colleague in British Studies and women's history. We miss her, and the world is a little dimmer without her.
Melinda S. Zook