Amherst College mourns the passing of Martha Saxton, Professor of History and Sexuality, Women’s and Gender Studies and Elizabeth W. Bruss Reader, Emerita, on July 18, 2023. 

Provost and Dean of the Faculty Catherine Epstein wrote the following in a July 20 email to the campus community:

Martha, an accomplished historian whose scholarship focused on the relationship between ideology and the interior lives of American women; a beloved teacher; and a generous citizen of the college, was a member of our faculty between 1996 and 2016.  She died at home, surrounded by loved ones, on July 18, at the age of seventy-seven, after a long illness.

Martha’s path to becoming an academic was not a typical one. After earning a B.A. in history from the University of Chicago in 1967, she became a biographer, a career that brought her great success over close to two decades. Martha’s first book, a groundbreaking feminist biography of actress Jayne Mansfield, was published in 1976.  Another acclaimed biography followed a year later, Louisa May: A Modern Biography of Louisa May Alcott. These were among the first feminist biographies of women that challenged pervasive gender stereotypes. Within a few years of Louisa May’s publication, Martha enrolled in the Ph.D. program in history at Columbia, receiving her doctorate in 1989. Her third book, based on her dissertation, titled Being Good: Women’s Moral Values in Early America, was published in 2003.  In this work, Martha explored the question “How did American women think about trying to live a good life?” in three different settings: seventeenth-century Puritan New England, eighteenth-century tidewater Virginia, and nineteenth-century St. Louis. Three more books followed, two co-authored with Amherst colleagues, including Amherst in the World, an important project linked to the college's bicentennial. Martha's most recent, much acclaimed biography, published in 2019, was of Mary Ball Washington, George Washington’s mother. Martha also authored numerous reviews, articles, and interviews on wide-ranging subjects.

As a teacher, Martha left a deep mark on Amherst’s curriculum and on the students she taught over two decades, many of whom described their experiences with her as transformative.  In her courses on women's history and gender, Martha integrated her other interests, which included Colonial North America and the U.S. up to the Civil War, the Old South, and African American and Native American history.  For almost a decade, Martha taught courses that brought together Amherst students and inmates at the Hampshire County Jail and House of Correction.  Beyond her areas of specialization, Martha also taught and co-taught courses on injustice and inequality with Amrita Basu–courses that reflected Martha’s wide ranging interests, passionate political engagement, and deep intellectual curiosity.

A highly respected and engaged member of the college community, Martha served on many important committees, including the Committee of Six (twice) and the Special Committee on Amherst Education.  

A citation by colleagues to mark Martha’s retirement from Amherst in 2016 described her as “worldly, grounded, compassionate, irreverent, modest, witty, soft spoken, outspoken, rebellious, diplomatic, audacious, and wise.” A wonderful colleague to me and many others, Martha Saxton was all this and more. She will be greatly missed.

For more information, see this obituary. As information about a memorial service becomes available, it will be posted on this page.

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