Cynthia Russett, longtime Yale historian, dies

More than half a century after arriving at Yale, history professor Cynthia Eagle Russett GRD ’64 died Thursday morning. She was 76.

Russett, whose scholarship focused on the history of American women and the intellectual history of 19th and 20th century America, succumbed to cancer at a nearby hospice on Thursday morning. In an email to the Saybrook community, where Russett was a longtime fellow, Saybrook Master Paul Hudak said Russett died comfortably and peacefully among family.

“Cynthia Russett had her office in Saybrook for as long as I can remember, and so she spent a great deal of time with Saybrook students as adviser, as colleague and a keen presence in the college,” said Yale College dean and former Saybrook master Mary Miller.

Miller said Russett, who had a wry and gentle sense of humor, helped reclaim “a feminist history” with her scholarly work.

Born Cynthia Eagle in Pittsburgh, Russett grew up in Washington D.C. and Maryland before attending Trinity College in Washinton, D.C. in 1958. She went on to earn a master’s and doctorate at Yale in 1959 and 1964, respectively. Her dissertation won the George Washington Eggleston Prize, the highest honor for a dissertation in American history at Yale.

At a panel hosted by the Yale Women’s Center in 2004, Russett recalled her experience as a female graduate student at a primarily male University.

In 1958, a dean told her, “You girls are not here to interrupt the studies of our men,” she said.

Shortly thereafter, Russett joined the Yale faculty in 1967, publishing her first book, “The Concept of Equilibrium in American Social Thought,” one year later.

Yale historian Gaddis Smith ’54 GRD ’61 recalled Russett starting in the history department not long after him, describing her as a “very, very active” member of the department.

Throughout her career, Russett authored several books, including “The Extraordinary Mrs. R: A Friend Remembers Eleanor Roosevelt” in 1999, which Russett wrote with William Turner Levy, a close friend of Roosevelt’s.

According to Russett’s biography on the History Department website, Russett took a particular interest in the effect of science on non-scientific culture. Her 1989 book on the topic, “Sexual Science: The Victorian Construction of Womanhood,” which examined how Victorian-era scientists attempted to prove women inferior to men, won the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians Annual Book Award.

Russett was promoted to a full professorship in 1990, eventually becoming the Larned Professor of History. From 1992 through 1995, she was also a fellow of the Whitney Humanities Center.

Beyond the classroom, Russell chaired the Yale College Executive Committee and served as director of undergraduate studies of the History Department during her time at Yale. She also was a member of the executive committees of the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute and the Human Relations Area Files.

Russett stopped teaching in 2012 but remained an active member of the St. Thomas More Catholic Chapel at Yale, where she served on the Board of Trustees. This October, she gave a talk to the campus Catholic community entitled “Life as a Scholar and Believer.”

In a Thursday email to Saybrook College, Hudak said plans are underway for a January memorial service.

Russett is survived by her husband, political science professor Bruce Russett GRD ’61, four adult children and three grandchildren.

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