Remembering Susan Groag Bell

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Remembering Susan Groag Bell

by Barbara Gelpi on Wednesday, August 12, 2015 - 4:43pm

Susan Groag Bell, historian, author, scholar and longtime friend of the Clayman Institute, died at her Palo Alto home on June 24, 2015. She leaves behind a legacy of groundbreaking research and scholarly publications that enrich our understanding of women’s lives throughout history.

Susan Groag Bell

January 25, 1926 – June 24, 2015

Susan Groag Bell

Susan Bell, whose work as a scholar broke new ground not once but several times, and whose gift for friendship means that many hundreds mourn her both in the United States and abroad, died at her Palo Alto residence on June 24. Her 1991 memoir, Between Worlds, begins with a description of her childhood years in the town of Troppau, in the Sudetenland near the northern border of Czechoslovakia, where her father practiced law. Her parents, both of Jewish descent, numbered among the many Austrian German speakers in this area, which had been sheared off from the Austro-Hungarian Empire after World War I, and Susan’s happy and sheltered childhood took place in a cultural milieu that stemmed from Vienna rather than Prague. 

Hitler’s annexation of the Sudetenland on October 1, 1938 brought fear and uncertainty into the Groags’ life. Susan was informed that she could no longer attend school, and even being seen on the street became dangerous. England offered asylum to Jews, on the condition that adults be willing to perform domestic labor. Susan’s mother felt that she could accept those terms, while her father, who was much older and spoke no English, decided to ensure the safety of his wife and daughter but to remain himself in Czechoslovakia, with the hope that he might follow them in time. They never saw him again after he brought them to the Prague train station in January 1939. He was among the more than 33,000 who died in Theresienstadt concentration camp.

In England Susan’s mother suffered both the emotional pain of separation from her husband and homeland and the physical stress of her work as a servant. Susan herself fared better in that she received both care and understanding from the headmistress, staff, and students of a girls’ boarding school in Haywards Heath.

Then in 1943 she accepted an invitation from the Czechoslovakian government-in-exile to join other young Czechs at a high school in Wales, where they were given the knowledge and skills needed to rebuild their shattered country once the war was over. As at the Haywards Heath school, Susan’s gift for friendship and her academic prowess made for happy years in Wales, and in 1945 she returned, as planned, with her schoolmates to her homeland. But to her distress, she found herself a stranger there, not only because England now seemed like home to her but because, as she explains in her memoir, the Czechs, having suffered German domination for years, tended to view a German-speaker as an oppressor, forgetting that she was one among the most oppressed.

Through her mother’s efforts, Susan after a year made her way back to England. There her mother surprised her on arrival by bringing her to a charming flat in a building on Chelsea Manor Street called Meriden Court. It was to be her mother’s comfortable home for the forty years until she died, and when Susan inherited it, #18 Meriden Court was a London base not only for her but also for the many friends and tenants who had the joy of staying there. 

A further severe trial awaited her, however: soon after her return, Susan was diagnosed as having osseous tuberculosis in her foot. She was put on total bed rest in a hospital for a year, followed by a prolonged period of convalescence, and fully regained her health only in 1950. A marriage shortly thereafter ended a few years later in divorce, and in 1959 she married the physicist Ronald Bell, who worked at Varian and whose home was in Woodside.

Proximity to Stanford made possible the fulfillment of her long-held desire for university education. Although now in her mid-thirties and so a generation older than her classmates, she immersed herself joyfully in her studies, became a history major, and attained her A.B. in 1964. Then came a setback: when she applied to the History Department’s Ph.D. program in 1965, she was informed that entrance into the program after the age of 35 was not allowed under any circumstances. Although the term “consciousness raising” had not yet been coined, Susan as a consequence was in the vanguard of those becoming actively aware of the difficulties endured by older students and particularly by older women students. She joined a group of faculty wives led by Yvette Gurley and Jing Lyman who were seeking to liberalize Stanford’s policies; when Santa Clara University accepted her into its M.A. program, she chose as her topic four women who had made major contributions to learning and letters despite their late start and without the benefit of academic institutions: Caroline Herschel, Mary Somerville, Frances Trollope, and Elizabeth Gaskell.

Susan steadily extended the range and increased the depth of her knowledge in the field of women’s history that she was helping to create. She became a sought after lecturer in the Bay Area and in 1971 gave a course at Cañada College. Since there were no textbooks on women’s history, Susan put together a reader for the course; revised and enlarged, it was published in 1973 (re-published in 1980) under the title Women, from the Greeks to the French Revolution and was a milestone in the growing feminist movement.

Meanwhile Karen Offen, a recent history Ph.D. from Stanford, invited her to present the findings of her research to the Western Association of Women Historians and suggested also that the two of them, along with Stanford’s early modern historian, Carolyn Lougee, present a panel at the 1973 American Historical Association. Susan’s topic, Christine de Pizan’s ideas on education, was to engage her for decades to come. Thus when Marilyn Yalom, as Associate Director of Stanford’s newly established Center for Research on Women, created a program within the Center for independent women scholars, Susan became one of the first to be appointed as an affiliated scholar, and in recognition of her signal contributions she would in time become a permanently appointed Senior Scholar.

Important among those contributions was the two-volume Women, the Family, and Freedom: The Debate in the Documents: 1750-1950, co-edited with Karen Offen and published in 1983. This monumental work presented, explicated, and in many cases translated documents related to the debate on “the Woman Question” that engaged and often enraged participants in Europe, England, and the United States. It was a tour de force of scholarship that created a major textbook for the flourishing new field of feminist studies. On the strength of it, she and Karen received two NEH grants in the early 1980s to co-direct Summer Seminars for College Teachers at Stanford. Also in 1986 Susan and Barbara Gelpi team-taught a summer program at Stanford-in-Oxford created and led by Diane Middlebrook: three related courses, each from a different academic field, on the topic of “Gender in Britain.”

Following the 1986 conference on "Autobiography and Biography" sponsored by the Institute for Research on Women and Gender (since renamed the Clayman Institute for Gender Research), Susan and Marilyn Yalom edited a collection of essays published in 1990 under the title Revealing Lives: Autobiography, Biography, and Gender.  Essays by Stanford faculty members (Barbara Babcock, John Felstiner, Regenia Gagnier, Diane Middlebrook) and affiliated Institute scholars (Susan Bell, Mary Felstiner, Marilyn Yalom), as well as other academics from a variety of disciplines, considered nineteenth and twentieth century life-writing from Europe, Britain, and America through the lens of gender.  In the 1990's, Susan and Marilyn also taught courses together on autobiography under theauspices of Stanford's Continuing Studies program.

Related to Susan’s interest in all that could be learned about women’s lives through history was her fascination with the many forgotten or nearly forgotten autobiographies by nineteenth-century women writers in England and the United States. Aware that insights drawn from them could be useful to scholars from many disciplines, Susan, along with the historian Penny Kanner, discovered hundreds of titles and then engaged a whole cohort of Susan’s many friends and acquaintances in the United States and abroad in reading them.  Her readers so differed in their assessment of events and personalities in these works that their answers could not be transferred into an objective database, but long before there were any on-line courses, the process itself engaged its many wide-flung participants in a “chat room” created by Susan’s imaginative scholarship. 

Along with all these projects, Susan never ceased to work personally on the one closest to her heart, one that turned upon her early and ongoing work on Christine de Pizan’s Book of the City of Ladies. In an inventory of Elizabeth I’s possessions, Susan found a set of tapestries described, and on the hunch that each one in the series was drawn from a different scene in the City of Ladies, she began a scholarly sleuthing that took her to libraries and museums in the United Kingdom, France, Belgium, and areas once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. She needed all her fluency in four languages, all her knowledge of scholarly method, and all her wide-ranging knowledge of history, particularly women’s history, to produce in 2004 The Lost Tapestries of the City of Ladies. The book itself is as elegant, intricate, and finely spun as any product from the looms of Aubusson. Susan’s biographical roots, her scholarly career and interests, and her joyful appreciation of the fine arts are all enshrined in it.

Susan is survived by her stepson and stepdaughter-in-law, Robert and Yvonne Bell; their sons, Matthew and Michael; her stepdaughter, Clare Bell; and her close friend, Peter Stansky. A program to celebrate her life and work will be presented at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research on what would have been her ninetieth birthday: January 25, 2016.

Barbara Gelpi
Professor Emerita, Department of English

Barbara Charlesworth Gelpi is a Victorianist by training. Her first area of interest was the 1890's, and her first book was Dark Passages: The Decadent Consciousness in Victorian Literature (1965). Her growing interest in feminist theory and feminist literary criticism led to the editing, with Albert Gelpi, of Adrienne Rich's Poetry in 1975; expanded and revised as Adrienne Rich's Poetry and Prose in 1993. She worked...