Susan Porter Benson died at home in Manchester, Connecticut,
on June 20, 2005. She had taught at Bristol Community College (1968-1986),
the University of Warwick, United Kingdom (1984), the University
of Missouri-Columbia (1986-1993), Yale University (1998), and the
University of Connecticut (1993-2005). Nancy Hewitt has described
Porter Benson as "one of those rare individuals who truly
believes in a community of scholars, and who knows that such a community
can only be created and sustained by hard work and a generous spirit."
Porter Benson devoted over three decades to the crafting of community,
attracting countless labor advocates, feminists, and history enthusiasts
with her warmth, wit, and wisdom.
The daughter of storekeepers Alvin and Lorraine Porter, Susan Porter
Benson was born in Washington, Pennsylvania, on July 26, 1943. She
graduated from Simmons College in 1964, and earned a Master's
degree from Brown University in 1968. She began teaching at Bristol
Community College that same year. She took leave to do labor education
for the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Worker's Union, funded
by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Porter
Benson earned a PhD in History from Boston University in 1983. She
helped found a cooperative household on Hope Street in Providence,
Rhode Island, a haven for aspiring historians.
Porter Benson contributed a monograph of monumental importance
to the history of labor and women in the United States. Counter
Cultures: Saleswomen, Managers, and Customers in American Department
Stores (1986) pioneered the historical analysis of service
industry labor, and the book remains a model for single-occupation
studies. Demonstrating the value of scholarly sharing, Porter Benson
collaborated with Barbara Melosh to craft "work culture" into an
effective conceptual category for women's labor history. The analytical
tool revised understandings of occupational expertise, allowing
Porter Benson to examine relations in the burgeoning service sector
that Marxist analysis had heretofore limited to encounters between
male craft skill and management strategies on the factory floor.
Her longstanding engagement with consumer culture animates the
forthcoming Household Accounts: Working-Class Family Economies
in the Interwar USA. The book traces the continuity of irregular
and inadequate income that circumscribed working-class spending
in both the 1920s and the 1930s, challenging standard characterizations
of the 1920s as the "Age of Mass Consumption."
As co-editor of a special issue of Radical History Review,
Porter Benson generated interest in the study of public history.
The influential issue led to her co-editing, along with Stephen
Brier and Roy Rosenzweig, of Presenting
the Past: Essays on History and the Public (1986). This
collection, in turn, inspired "Critical
Perspectives on the Past," the popular Temple University Press
book series. "Sue has been an extraordinarily generous mentor to
dozens of scholars in myriad settings—as a journal editor,
as a program committee member, or a book series editor," offered
Rosenzweig. "And, if we could bring these people together, they
would collectively and unanimously attest to Sue's generosity and
what can only be called 'wisdom.'"
Porter Benson had no equal as a mentor to undergraduate and graduate
students. She lived a commitment to a democratized historical community.
She devoted special attention to the professional development of
non-traditional students, whether older students, students of color,
or those from working class backgrounds. Her guidance allowed a
diverse group of students to situate race, sexuality, gender, and
class at the center of the historical experience, transforming our
collective understanding of the past. Her students comprise part
of the large but loving community who mourn her passing. She is
survived by her husband, Edward Benson, her daughter, Katherine
Musler, and her mother, Loraine Porter.
University of Connecticut
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