October 1, 2023
By Anne McCants
Our colleague, Winnifred Barr Rothenberg, passed away on October 1, 2023. We would be sorely remiss if we failed to take proper notice of a life that was lived so extraordinarily well. So on this somber occasion I would like to reflect on my own quarter-century friendship with Winnie, a friendship born in economic history.
This tale begins on a Friday afternoon in early September 1991, completely unbeknownst to Winnie herself. I was newly arrived at MIT as an Assistant Professor at a time when there were not yet such things as the EHA graduate student initiatives that have done so much to facilitate the acquisition of professional contacts and norms of conduct even before graduation. So my first foray to the Harvard Economic History Workshop felt intimidating in all the ways one would expect of any new situation where the rules of the game are only revealed through experience and the reassuring passage of time. Should one sit at the table, or in the extra row of chairs? Who may interrupt the speaker and how soon into the talk? Did it matter if one were an economist or an historian, or from Harvard or from elsewhere? Indeed, who were all these people and where did they fall in all of the hierarchies I imagined in my mind, hierarchies of age, gender, seniority, institution or field? I was not even certain what one should wear to a Friday afternoon seminar.
I was hopelessly early that day and had to sweat out the long wait for the seminar to begin. Then just on the edge of being late (as so many of us are who come in from other campuses), in walks a woman with elegant white hair and an old-fashioned demeanor (being preternaturally old-fashioned myself I feel I can get away with this characterization). She seated herself effortlessly at the table, near the front, with all the confidence I so desperately wanted to convey myself. And no sooner had the speaker set himself into motion than she had her hand up, barely, and her question out on the table. It was a thoughtful question that moved the conversation forward, but also, and I remember this most clearly, a question that moved the conversation back into a literature, all the while revealing her expert command of a whole array of earlier conversations that illuminated the problem at hand.
I made two important decisions that day. First, I realized that I needed a mentor, or at the very least a role model, someone I could imitate as I learned how to be not just an economic historian, but a practitioner of the profession I had entered into with so little experience of anything but the research enterprise itself. Second, I decided that this woman, notwithstanding her still unknown identity, would be an excellent candidate. It did not yet occur to me that we might become such good friends, for imitation is easily practiced as a solo art and that was enough for getting started. So on day one of my unilateral apprenticeship I (re)learned that you cannot judge a book by its cover; it is the content that matters. Content is shaped in this case by some first-rate thinking backed up by lots of homework.
It took me another week or two to actually figure out Winnie’s name, and then to track down her publications, and to read as much of them as I could. It took somewhat longer to work up an excuse to start our first conversation, but all these years later I continue to be inspired by that conversation. I admired her infectious enthusiasm for her dual callings as teacher and scholar; her deep commitment to nurture the work of others, both students and colleagues; the meticulous care with which she prepared for every class and every presentation, even discussant comments for papers that arrived to her late; her ability to call up exactly the right book or article to speak to any issue at hand; the grace with which she offered all critiques; and the fact that she was still at it, long after many of her peers had retired to their armchairs.
All this would be more than enough to have rewarded my admittedly hasty and uninformed choice of role model. But Winnie had other lessons to teach me, ones that I have come to realize she considered of even greater importance. Her life had seasons to it, more pronounced than anything a professional woman of my generation can really imagine. Her scholarly career was an unconventional one, but also an unusually tenacious one. Nearly four decades elapsed between the granting of her undergraduate degree in economics from Barnard College and her PhD in history from Brandeis University. In between she raised three children, found her way into teaching (history at Newton South High School), and always kept reading (or so I infer from the scope of the library in her mind). By the 1970s scholarly pursuits were increasingly open to women, yielding an opportunity that might have been deemed too late by a less confident soul. Then when doctoral programs in economics proved closed to her after all on account of her age she turned to history – an irony that I am sure would not have been lost on the medieval ecclesiastical historian at Barnard whom she had once tried to persuade (no surprise unsuccessfully) to let her fulfill her undergraduate history requirement with an economics course.
It was with the completion of the doctorate that most of the members of this association entered into her story. For we mostly know Winnie the economic historian. It has been my true fortune that I came to know Winnie the mother, wife, teacher, and friend as well. Now whenever I’m tempted to think it is too late for me to try one thing or another I have Winnie in my mind’s eye. She reminds me that it isn’t too late. When I’m tempted to worry about what other people will think of me if my path is not the standard one, there is Winnie to remind me that respect does not follow from conformity but from excellence. When I feel frantic to do everything important in my life at once, I have Winnie again to remind me that there can be a season for this, another season for that, and each need not foreclose the possibility of the other. These are the milestone lessons that I appreciate the most. from a colleague, mentor, and friend. She will be missed, but her wisdom and kindness lives on in all of us who were fortunate to know her.