A Banner Day

Lois Banner, professor of history and gender studies, celebrates a lifetime of scholarship — including 30 years at USC Dornsife.
ByAndrew Good

As a young professor in the 1960s, Lois Banner was moved by history. She had no idea at the time that she would play such a vital part in it.

With ambitions to push forward the nascent field of women’s history, she quickly bumped up against the prejudices of the era. Even in academia, women were criticized for pursuing careers over the role of dutiful wife. At the time, Banner said, no one dreamed she would achieve as much as she has as a feminist and historian — least of all herself.

On Jan. 17, Banner celebrated a lifetime of scholarship, including 30 years at USC Dornsife. The professor of history and gender studies is retiring from teaching, though she’ll continue to research and write. Her friends and colleagues will gather at the Polymathic Institute in Doheny Memorial Library from 4 to 6 p.m. to discuss the evolution of the field and her contributions to it. The panel discussion will be moderated by USC Gender Studies Chair Alice Echols of USC Dornsife and attended by prominent leaders in the field.

Banner’s body of work is diverse, including the books Women in Modern America: A Brief History and American Beauty (first published 1984, Harcourt College Publishers), a social history of feminine beauty in the United States. She’s also authored numerous, richly detailed biographies of influential women such as Marilyn Monroe, anthropologist Margaret Mead and early women’s rights champion Elizabeth Cady Stanton. She has chaired USC Dornsife’s history and gender studies departments, played a critical role in founding its American studies program, and served as mentor to a legion of graduate and undergraduate students over the years.

Echols called Banner a “founding mother of the field of women’s history, and one of its most prolific and talented practitioners.” Her penchant for deep research led her to analyze some 50,000 letters and documents at the Library of Congress for Intertwined Lives, a book about the relationship between anthropologists Mead and Ruth Benedict. When she finished reading it, historian Leila Rupp said it felt as though Banner had tracked down “everything both women had laid their eyes on.”

USC is known for its history and gender programs in large part because of Banner, said Bill Deverell, current chair of USC Dornsife’s Department of History.

“She’s a cultural historian, a gender historian, a women’s historian — that’s a lot to master,” Deverell said. “The work discipline is pretty amazing.”