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March 20, 2012

In Memoriam: Lynn Gordon, professor emerita of history

Lynn GordonLynn Gordon, professor emerita of history and a scholar of gender, education, ethnicity, and diplomacy, died Feb. 9 after a long struggle with cancer. She was 65.

A respected teacher, mentor, and an intellectual with unusually wide-ranging interests, Gordon was known for her pioneering study of women in higher education at the turn of the century. She was a valued member of both the Warner School, where she served as associate dean and director of graduate studies, and the Department of History, where she taught a wide range of courses on the United States, Europe, and the Middle East.

“Lynn had tremendous intellectual curiosity and not in a superficial way,” says Celia Applegate, professor of history, who was her friend and colleague for decades. “She read every page of everything, from fiction to in-depth studies. She was a constant inspiration for rethinking of my teaching and research. It was her love of knowledge, her enthusiasm for knowledge, that she was all about.

“She had tremendous dignity and presence as a teacher and brought a kind of seriousness without pretentiousness to the classroom,” adds Applegate, who team-taught three seminars with Gordon. “I loved teaching with her.” She also possessed an unusual ability to explain complicated issues with straightforward simplicity, says Applegate, a talent Gordon applied both to the classroom and to her scholarly writing.

She was a teacher who “put you through your paces,” says Tara McCarthy, assistant professor of history at Central Michigan University who completed her doctoral studies with Gordon in 2005. “She was a woman who had accomplished so much but managed to stay so accessible.”

Gordon advised doctoral candidates in both history of education and American history, most of whom have gone on to successful careers as scholars, teachers, and published authors. Her book, Gender and Higher Education in the Progressive Era (Yale University Press, 1990), explores women’s influence in American education in general and higher education in particular.

“Lynn’s book was the first to take a close look at the second generation of American college women,” says Stewart Weaver, professor of history and department chair. “Rather than focus on conventional issues of access and attendance, it situates women’s higher education in a broad social context and thus makes a distinctive and important contribution to the larger history of the Progressive Era.”

At her death, Gordon was nearing completion of the definitive biography of the American journalist Dorothy Thompson, whom Time magazine recognized in 1939 as the second most influential woman in America after Eleanor Roosevelt. Her work on Thompson fueled a growing interest in American foreign policy, in Nazism and the Holocaust, and in the history of the Middle East, interests that evolved into new history courses at Rochester.

A founding member of the Susan B. Anthony Center for Women’s Studies and director of the University’s Gender and Society Group (1994–2000), Gordon was active in a variety of professional organizations, including the History of Education Society, the Spencer Foundation, the Berkshire Conference, the American Educational Research Association, the American Studies Association, and the Organization of American Historians.

A graduate of Barnard College, Gordon earned her master’s and doctorate in history from the University of Chicago. She taught at Bowdoin College, Northern Illinois University, and Princeton University before joining the faculty of the Warner School in 1983, where her husband, Harold Wechsler, in later years also had an appointment. Six years later, while still on the Warner faculty, Gordon began teaching in the history department, where she became a full-time faculty member in 2007. After 27 years at the University, she retired in June 2011 and was appointed professor emerita of history.

Gordon is survived by her husband, Harold, daughter, Abigail (Chris) Bock, and son, Samuel Wechsler. The University flag was flown at half-staff in her honor on Feb. 23. The history department is planning a scholarly colloquium in her honor next fall.

In lieu of flowers, donations can be sent to Friends of Karen, 21 Perry St., Port Jefferson, NY 11777 or Mt. Sinai Center for Jewish Genetic Diseases, Mt. Sinai Medical Center, 5th Ave. at 100th St., New York, NY 10029 or Planned Parenthood Federation of America Inc.

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