Politics & Policy

An Enemy of the People

Remembering Elizabeth Fox-Genovese's grace under pressure.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is an excerpt from Miss Betsey: A Memoir of Marriage.

Betsey was much beloved by people across the country and in all walks of life. If her admirers could be assessed quantitatively, they would outweigh many times over the number of feminists and others on the radical Left who hated her. The sheer cruelty attendant upon their hatred outdid anything I have seen in academic politics — and I lived through the McCarthy era as a young Communist. Let me add that any number of fine women, including some of Betsey’s colleagues and students, continue to cling to radical feminism — albeit fewer and fewer — in hopes of seeing it transformed into a healthy force. With admiration for their efforts to civilize a barbarous movement, I wish them luck.

Betsey and I married in 1969, and for the next 37 years, neither of us had the slightest doubt that we would spend the rest of our lives together. But what did we know? According to the radical feminists, I married Betsey for her money. Well, of course I did. Why else would anyone have married Betsey Fox? I regret to report that Betsey had no money of consequence. Her mother remarked to me shortly after our marriage, “If my family had not lost its money in bad investments, you would be a rich man today.” I sighed with relief. Marrying a rich woman had never been on my agenda and would not have gone down well with my family. In later years the story changed. It seems that unnamed Texas billionaires had staked us to an antebellum mansion in Atlanta, staffed with servants. You might have thought that her assailants knew that General Sherman burned Atlanta and that antebellum mansions are hard to find. For the record, we lived in a middle-class home built in the 1980s. As for a staff of servants: I wish.

To my everlasting regret, Betsey and I never knew any Texas (or other) billionaires, much less any who were willing to support us. Too bad. As we used to say in Brooklyn: “Rich or poor, it’s nice to have money.” We lived on our earnings. Shortly before Betsey died, the academic Left’s flavor-of-the-week announced that Republican officeholders had been showering Betsey and me with patronage. He did not name the officeholders (who do not exist), much less the nature and the extent of the patronage. For myself, I do not recall knowing any Republican officeholders, and I certainly never received patronage of any kind. As for Betsey, if he meant President Bush, then how to explain the liberal Democrats in the Georgia State Senate? The feminists’ “did-you-know” and “everyone knows” went on and on. Betsey and I could not stand each other. We fought like cats and dogs. And oh, Betsey made Gene so unhappy that he became an alcoholic. It may be asked: How can people expect to get away with such transparent mendacity? Rudyard Kipling bared the essentials in The Jungle Book, along with the essentials of “participatory democracy.” The Bandar-Log (monkey-people) of central India gathered in a convention at which they chanted: “We are great. We are free. We are wonderful. We are the most wonderful people in all the jungle. We all say so, and so it must be true.”

Occasionally, friends asked Betsey if she planned to reply to these and other slanders. “Good grief, no. I have work to do and don’t have time to play in their sandbox.” At confession, I asked Father Lopez if Jesus would forgive me if I killed the people who were pouring filth over her. He knew I was kidding, and we laughed. (Yes, even at confession, Catholic priests and communicants are allowed to wisecrack.) He reminded me of the prayer that Jesus taught us — the prayer I recite every night: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Father Lopez offered a thought: “Gene, a man of your experience should know that people who tell such stories expose the desolation in their own marriages and love lives. Surely, such unhappy people need every prayer we can offer. For your penance, pray for them.” For good measure, Betsey’s response shamed me. She forgave her assailants at the moment she entered the Church — if not earlier. She, too, urged me to forgive, as I prayed to God to forgive my own sins. In this matter, as in others, she worried, above all, about my salvation. I am afraid that she had a lot to worry about.

As the campaign to destroy Betsey’s career picked up momentum, our concern for each other mounted. We did not worry about lawsuits or threats to her academic position. We knew that no evidence existed to support her assailants’ wild accusations of “gender discrimination” — in fact, the whole staff was female and loyal to Betsey. We knew she would prevail without difficulty. But I worried that Betsey, notwithstanding her notable strength, might get worn down, exacerbating the effects of her MS. She worried that I might act rashly, refusing her entreaties to remain silent and stay out of the fray. “It is my fight. Let me wage it according to my own lights.” I gave her my word. We pledged that no matter how vicious the attacks on her, we would under no circumstances let them embitter us or corrode our life together. We refused to let events distract us from the work we had to do separately and in concert. Sicilians and the Georgians of the Caucasus say, “Revenge is a dish best eaten cold.” In this respect Jews are smarter than Sicilians and Georgians: “The best revenge is to live well.” We had each other, and we lived well. Still, every once in awhile Betsey found it necessary to remind her hot-tempered husband, “Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord.”

Betsey believed in genuine “diversity.” At the end of the 1980s, when she founded and directed the Women’s Studies Program at Emory University, she wanted a variety of views — from left to right — represented in the program. She wanted students exposed to a wide range of views and to learn to defend their views firmly but to respect the views of others. I still recall the good feeling I had when Betsey hosted her first party at our home for the students and professors in the program. Feminists and antifeminists, radicals and conservatives, men and women, gays and straights mixed together easily, bantering, challenging, and teasing each other in a spirit of mutual respect and friendship. Betsey invited leading feminist scholars to Emory to see the program and exchange views. Hosts and guests showed each other courtesy and respect, and the students enjoyed a valuable experience.

There is a curious footnote to Betsey’s insistence on an ideologically open women’s studies program. Before Betsey’s health deteriorated drastically, she lectured and participated in academic activities in Jamaica, Mexico, Ireland, France, Britain, and other countries. In 1990, speaking in French, Madame X (I no longer recall her name) of Ethiopia’s national university invited her to Addis Ababa to offer advice on the introduction of women’s studies. Betsey was puzzled. After all, the Ethiopians could have gone anywhere in the world for counsel. Betsey immediately accepted. I reminded her that a civil war was raging in Ethiopia, that the government’s position had become precarious, and that she could find herself in mortal danger. She elected to go. She did not live recklessly, but neither did she live fearfully. I was worried about something else. A military coup d’état had brought a Marxist government to power, led by Mengistu Haile Mariam, a hard man even by Communist standards. Did the Ethiopians understand that Betsey was in bad odor with the American Left and that the radical feminists hated her? Did they understand that Betsey, although a Marxist, was firmly committed to intellectual freedom and ideological diversity? She received assurances that the Ethiopians knew precisely who she was. Why, then, did a Communist government choose her? We did not have the slightest idea but hoped to find out when we got there. We never got there. The regime fell and Mengistu went into exile. To my great relief, Betsey had to stay home.

In the 1990s, as Betsey’s influence spread and the pro-life campaign waxed, the nastier radicals singled her out for all-out attack. The administration at Emory University fired a white low-level administrator in the Women’s Studies Program who had been hired on a trial basis and found unsatisfactory. She filed suit. As every relevant administrator testified, Betsey had no authority in the matter and could not have fired her even if she had wanted to. The Emory administration made a technical error in the dating of her firing, so it settled with her before the matter went to trial. The complainant singled Betsey out for abuse with a string of unsubstantiated and absurd charges. Feminists and other radical leftists joined the attacks on Betsey without claiming to have evidence. They suggested that Betsey had been named in the final settlement. Not true. They suggested that Betsey had to pay part of the settlement. She did not — not a dime. She did not figure in the settlement at all. This is no “he said/she said” matter. Everything at issue can be verified by independent research — something honest historians do.

When it looked as if the charges against Betsey would be heard in court, the African-Americans in Atlanta rallied to her en masse. She had the support of the women who worked for her in the women’s studies office, the janitorial staff, her faculty colleagues, and business and trade-union women from the Atlanta community. Not one African-American in Atlanta — not one — offered to testify against her; a number volunteered to testify against those who were slandering her. The white radical feminists had to import an African-American from the Northeast to attack her. At that, the import did not publicly endorse any of the charges hurled at Betsey. Rather, she gave the radicals’ game away by demanding to know how a liberal university like Emory could tolerate the author of Feminism Is Not the Story of My Life on its faculty.

Matters did not end there. The Journal of American History published an interview with a left-wing historian who declared that Betsey and I had joined the extreme Right and even become leaders. The interviewer and the editor of the JAH published that and other accusations without pretense of having sought evidence or checked the purported facts. Betsey spoke and wrote for the Right-to-Life Movement and lent her name to a few Republican Party functions. That was the extent of her political activity. Apart from other considerations, her physical disabilities would have prevented her doing more, even if she had wanted to. For myself, apart from offering political opinions in an occasional essay or book review, I had refrained from political activity for some 20 years. I have no idea what movement I was supposed to have joined or supported, much less led. And I know of no movement that has counted me among its number. Neither the author, nor his interviewer, nor the JAH’s editor made an effort to support the allegations or gave any indication that he had bothered to check the facts. The well-known historians who constituted the JAH’s editorial board did not comment on, much less protest, the gross violation of professional ethics and common decency.

No matter how vicious the slander or flagrant the libel, Betsey had no recourse at law. As a “public personality,” she was fair game and could not sue. Probably she would not have sued even if she could have. A strong advocate of tort reform, she had an aversion to litigation. And she detested public brawls.

The increasingly obscene attacks reached their low point in Betsey’s last years. As her health was collapsing, one of the radical Left’s less talented propagandists set a new low. Protesting a cover-up, he wrote that the charges against Betsey had never been properly investigated. When President Bush appointed Betsey to the NEH Governing Council, she underwent an exhaustive three-month investigation by the FBI. Nothing unusual there: All appointees face the same grueling review. The FBI gave her a clean bill of health. It is no secret that Democratic as well as Republican senators review NEH appointments carefully and that the leading authority for the Democrats is Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts. Betsey sailed through. Several of the radical Left’s academic stars endorsed the attacks on Betsey in full knowledge that the accusation of a cover-up was false. One of the more despicable had been appointed to the NEH Governing Council by President Clinton and knew the drill from personal experience.

Betsey treated these gambits with contempt, but she had a harder time with the betrayals of old friends. The behavior of leading figures in the Ivy League and elsewhere stung her. The feminists’ attacks mounted as MS disabled her. Celebrated scholars, long on record for praising her scholarship and moral fiber, quietly severed relations with her. Well before the last decade of her life they systematically excluded her from the academic programs and conferences they sponsored in her subjects of expertise. In effect, they lent tacit support to the radicals’ effort to turn her into a nonperson or to destroy her career altogether. Simultaneously, they publicly associated with some of the worst of her assailants without even pretending to believe their charges against Betsey. I seethed. Betsey winced. These were people she had every reason to believe would stand by her or at least do nothing to hurt her. She swallowed hard, refusing to let hurt feelings poison her. Her entrance into the Church strengthened but did not create her forbearance and willingness to forgive. She could be hurt badly but had no capacity for vengeance or hatred. Her friends knew as much. After her death, one of her colleagues wrote me, speaking for others: “I was always struck by the fact that she did not hate her enemies.” I doubt that Betsey ever hated anyone, and in all our years together I never saw her willfully hurt another human being. She stood on James 1:20: “The wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God.” When her husband’s anger at the viciousness of her detractors welled up, she told him to hush up and pray for the salvation of their immortal souls.


– Eugene Genovese is a prominent American historian and winner of the Bancroft Prize for
Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made.

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