She didn’t expect to stay in the job. In April 2011, when Lizabeth Cohen accepted Harvard University President Drew Faust’s invitation to become interim dean of the Radcliffe Institute, she was being a good citizen, fulfilling what she saw as her responsibility. “I came in wanting to do the best job I could,” she says, “expecting to return to my department and my research and writing.”
But the Radcliffe deanship grew on her. For one thing, she enjoyed the intense collaboration. “That does not generally come with your standard academic job,” Cohen says. “We work very independently, especially in a field like history.” She was also surprised at how much she enjoyed the fundraising. “I found it interesting to talk to smart people who care about ideas, who stay connected with their university because they value it and find it a continual stimulation.”
Still, before she was appointed dean, in March 2012, Cohen agonized about whether she wanted the job. How would she find the time to do her scholarly work? “That will be my challenge,” she says. “I want to find a way to do this job while remaining an active scholar.”
Cohen will not be teaching during the 2012–2013 academic year, but she makes it a priority to continue advising graduate students and to work on her next book, Saving America’s Cities: Ed Logue and the Struggle to Renew Urban America in the Suburban Age, under contract with Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Cohen traces her interest in history back to her mother, a lawyer who led family expeditions to historic houses and museums. “She understood the world in historical terms,” Cohen says. “When I would ask questions about why things were the way they were, she would offer up historical explanations, and that made sense to me.” She asked so many questions, Cohen admits, that her family nickname became “Howcome.”
Several teachers influenced Cohen’s career, including Paula Fass, her advisor in graduate school and the first woman full professor she knew well. But the strongest propeller no doubt came from within. The spirited woman who enrolled at Princeton in 1969—with the first class that included women—charted her own course, discovering through experience what path she would take.
Like many of her fellow Baby Boomers, Cohen was called to activism by the era’s tumultuous events. During the spring of her freshman year, in 1970, after the United States bombed Cambodia, she joined the Princeton Strike movement. It was during this time that she got to know Herrick Chapman, a junior, whom she married in 1977.
In 1972, during her junior year, Cohen decided to work in an accredited field study on Shirley Chisholm’s campaign for the US presidency. She moved to Washington and threw herself into the cause. At the Democratic National Convention in Miami, where Chisholm gave her support to Hubert Humphrey instead of George McGovern, Cohen was disappointed, believing that McGovern shared more of Chisholm’s values than Humphrey did. Cohen decided that a career in politics was not for her.
She graduated with a history degree and certification to teach at the secondary level. Wanting to move to Boston, where Chapman lived and was an administrator at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, Cohen landed a job at a suburban junior high. She also got involved with a project at Old Sturbridge Village, where she worked the following year as an intern in museum studies.
After two years in Massachusetts, the couple moved to California, where Chapman attended graduate school at the University of California at Berkeley. Cohen continued her work in museums before deciding to go to graduate school at UC Berkeley to get credentialed in history. To her amazement, she loved graduate school. “I loved waking up in the morning and reading all day and writing. I never would have appreciated that right out of undergraduate school. It took all of those other experiences to make me realize what I wanted.”
Combining Work and Family
When Cohen earned her PhD, in 1986, she and Chapman both went on the job market and were hired to share a position at Carnegie Mellon—he taught the history of modern France and she taught American history. Their schedule accommodated the births of Julia Cohen Chapman in 1986 and Natalie Cohen Chapman ’11 in 1989.
Chapman was recruited by New York University in the early ’90s. “The Institute for French Studies at NYU was looking for a historian,” Cohen says, “and they knew about Herrick’s work. Then they learned that I was married to him and had just won the Bancroft Prize.” She won the prestigious award for her first book, Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919–1939 (Cambridge University Press, 1990), which became a classic.
The family moved to New York in 1992. Cohen taught at NYU for five years, until Harvard offered her a tenured position in 1997, and Chapman continues to teach there. The family has lived in Belmont, Massachusetts, since Cohen began working at Harvard. “Herrick goes down to New York on Tuesday morning and comes back on Thursday night,” she explains. “We knew we would not be happy if we weren’t both doing work that we loved.”
Cohen first came to the Radcliffe Institute as a fellow in 2001, when she completed her book A Consumers’ Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America (Knopf, 2003), dedicated to Julia and Natalie.
Julia is pursuing a master’s in architecture at Princeton, and Natalie lives in Washington, DC, where she’s training to teach underserved students.
Cohen and Chapman are planning to move into Greenleaf, the dean’s residence across from Radcliffe Yard. “Living so close to campus,” Cohen says, “should help me combine my work as dean with writing and teaching.”