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Susan Porter Benson

From the Organization of American Historians Newsletter 33 (August 2005).

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.

Charles McGraw
University of Connecticut

Copyright © Organization of American Historians. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.


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