Sara M. Evans

Biography

(at time of award presentation, 2004)

Sara Evans graduated from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, in 1976 and joined the faculty at the University of Minnesota the same year. In 1991, she was recognized as Scholar of the College of Liberal Arts, and in 1997, she was selected as a Distinguished McKnight University Professor. She is described as one of the foremost scholars of feminist studies in the United States, and is attributed with creating the field of women's history. Her scholarly contributions extend across the College of Liberal Arts and include the areas of Women's Studies and American Studies. Through her efforts, she has helped to establish the University of Minnesota as a major center for women's history and women's studies. She is recognized as a leader in feminist scholarship, and has contributed to this area as a Director of the Center for Advanced Feminist Studies, as consultant and member of the Board of Editors for Feminist Studies, and as co-author of the book Wage Justice. She has authored altogether seven books, one of which, Born for Liberty, has been published in nine languages. Her first book, Personal Politics, is still considered a classic in the field after 25 years.

In addition to her outstanding scholarly accomplishments, Dr. Evans is an active teacher and mentor. She teaches courses at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, and has advised 29 Ph.D. students, many of whom now have appointments at major research institutions. In 2003, her efforts with regard to graduate education were recognized with the University of Minnesota Award for Outstanding Contributions to Graduate-Professional Education. Her service contributions to the University of Minnesota, to the profession, and to the community have been remarkable. Her leadership to the University of Minnesota has been described as continuous, energetic and visionary. The evidence of the quality of her leadership and judgment is clear in her numerous key committee and Task Force appointments at the department, college and university level. In 1999, she received recognition for these efforts with the University of Minnesota President's Outstanding Service Award.

Driven to Discover

Dr. Sara Evans is driven to discover how women's lives - both ordinary and exceptional - have changed the course of history and shaped the world we inherit

Sara Evans remembers being a fourth-grader on the school playground and arguing with her playmates about which side should have won the Civil War. It was the 1950s in South Carolina, and Evans recalled, "I was the only kid who thought it should have been the North," she says.

Over the course of a long career, Professor Sara Evans has often been an 'only.' On this day, she has just come from walking her dog on a grim winter morning, and she settles into her office amidst the walls of books and a worn, bright kilim rug. Evans was the only historian of women in the department of history when she arrived at the University of Minnesota in 1976, and neither women's history nor women's studies even existed as fields when she entered graduate school.

"There are so many ideas of history," she says, and people tend to think of history taking place in terms of wars and politics. "Women aren't even on that stage - and we had to redefine the stage," she says. Even now, when she tells people what she does, people wonder what there could possibly be to write about. "Reactions aren't necessarily hostile, but it has met with guffaws."

Evans grew up in the segregated South, first in South Carolina and then attending high school in Dallas. She knew that the playground debate was really about Brown vs. The Board of Education, the Supreme Court decision outlawing segregation in public schools. "The civil rights movement gave me a chance to act on the values I had, but I saw were being violated all around me." Evans majored in history at Duke University, and considered further studies in African history.

Rather, she pursued political science, and ended up in Chicago, a masters degree in hand. "I assumed someone would want to use my wonderful skills in research and writing, among other things," she laughs. Not so. "The only thing any employer was interested in was my typing speed." And thus, Evans worked as a secretary at the campus ministry at the University of Chicago - which happened to be housed in the same building as the students' radical press. They discovered that Evans had been active in civil rights and war protest movements and told her about a women's group that had just begun to meet. It was one of the first women's consciousness-raising groups in the country, she says, "And I just landed there!"

Participation in a movement for social change led Evans back to graduate school, driven by the belief that people who want to make history need to know their own story. But there was no such thing as women's history as a field of study, so she attended the University of North Carolina in American History. And in every course she took, she wrote about women. "I wanted to know - where are the women and what are they doing?" For Evans, women's history is not necessarily about discovering the "great" women; by definition those women were exceptions in their time. "I wanted to understand the daily life of ordinary women, and their historical agency," she says. She points to the Richmond Bread Riot during the Civil War, in which many women raided bakeries and other shops to protest of the lack of food, due to, among other things, the refusal of Confederate farmers' to grow food on their cotton plantations.

Evans' son was just 4 1/2 months old when she began her graduate studies. True to her activist spirit, she organized a child care cooperative with two other women in the women's group, with six parents taking care of three babies among them. "I have never worked so efficiently in my life, between graduate school and family!" she declares.

The same year she received her PhD, she landed at the University of Minnesota in one of the first jobs in the country advertised specifically for "women's history." On arrival she joined others who were working to build a Women's studies Program, creating a new, interdisciplinary field." "We had to make it up", Evans says of the emerging field, "But there was this feeling that we were indeed doing something new under the sun." Today, the university of Minnesota has one of the top five programs in women's history in the country. Evans catches herself as she starts to list her colleagues and their achievements. "I could take all day to tell you about the brilliance of my colleagues", she laughs. Evans herself has authored several books and her first, Personal Politics, is still considered a classic in the field 25 years after its publication, and Born For Liberty has been published in nine languages. In 1997, she was named a Distinguished McKnight University Professor.

Then there was the call from President Bruininks telling her she'd been named a Regents Professor. It was 2003 and Evans was at her parents' home in North Carolina, where she was caring for them in their failing health. She pauses to recall it: "It meant so much to me to be able to walk in the door and tell them about the award."

Evans is quick to add, "It's a recognition of a lot more than just me - it's a recognition of how we understand history."

President Bruininks says, "Dr. Evans' work in women's studies has been key to defining it as an exciting, vibrant field of study, and we are lucky and proud to count her among our eminent faculty."

Though she may be set technically to "retire" from the University, it is only a formality. She will be well occupied with kayaking, hiking and traveling, her favorite pastimes. Her children are grown now, 25 and 37. ("Two 'only' children", she says about the gap in ages.) Evans is contemplating other writing projects, and she is actively involved in bringing women's history curricula to elementary and high schools. When it all comes down to it, "My current project is to figure out what my work will be in the next phase of my life," she says.

Evans rocks back a little in her office chair, the campus sprawled beyond in the window behind her, and considers how far we've come - or haven't - over the years. She observes the difficulty her graduate students have in finding daycare, working jobs and pursuing their studies. "The world doesn't make it easy and our culture doesn't give the message, 'you could do this.'" But she wants her students to know the difference between training for a career and lifelong learning. "You need to learn the joy of asking a good question and finding out ways to the answer - that will lead you to your life's work."

—M.J. Pehl