She Looked Beyond Kings and Bishops to Understand History

Photographer: Scotti McCarthy, 29 August 2014

Photographer: Scotti McCarthy, 29 August 2014

If you are not a wealthy or powerful white cis male, looking back at European history can stir up a range of emotions. Not only is it rare to find someone who looks like you or who shares a comparable status, but white men crafted most of the texts revealing the past for their contemporaries and future generations. There have always been others who were interested in history, but their path to academic or scholarly success is tricky to walk. It takes someone with passion, drive, and luck to pave the way for the rest of us, and Nellie Neilson did so in the field of medieval European history.

Nellie Neilson was born on April 5, 1873, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Her father, William G. Neilson, was a metallurgical engineer who helped run several leading steel companies in the late 19thand early 20th centuries. Neilson’s two brothers followed in their father’s business footsteps, but she went to Bryn Mawr College, originally to study English.  There she met distinguished American historian Charles McLean Andrews, whom she credits with encouraging her to switch to the study of history. 


Neilson turned from Literature and Language to Medieval History but kept her focus on England. She earned three degrees from Bryn Mawr, an A.B. in 1893, an A.M. in 1894, and a Ph.D. in 1899. Her dissertation looked all of the buildings of Ramsey Abbey, presenting the entire estate instead of examining individual structures, as was the common scholarly approach. Her idea to see the whole instead of the pieces was quite new in the field, as was her later idea of studying how customs influenced legal codes. Just by examining the influence of custom upon law and how entire estates functioned, Neilson was looking deeper into the medieval English world, where those who didn’t hold titles or own large tracts of land did not exercise absolute authority.

New approaches or not, it was difficult for any woman to teach at the college or university level. While finishing her dissertation, Neilson taught at the Agnes Irwin School, a day college preparatory all-girls institution from 1897 to 1900. Also in 1897, Neilson became the first woman to have an article published by the American Historical Review, though she used only her first initial, a common way that women have overcome immediate sex bias in any area of publishing. However, the journal was new, and her essay appeared in the second volume, so that might have given her some advantage in terms of not needing to overcome decades of ignoring non-white and non-cis male historians. 

From 1900-1902, she became a lecturer back at Bryn Mawr. Finally, Neilson was hired as a professor at Mount Holyoke College in the Department of History and Political Science. By 1905 she had achieved the rank of full professor as well as chair of the department; that is fast even by today’s standards. She remained as a professor until 1939, but as with most historians she continued to publish and be involved in various professional organizations.

In 1926, Neilson became the first woman ever elected to the Medieval Academy of America, an organizationr founded just the year before. Again her ability to become the first must indeed be a sign of her standing in the field but also the newness of the organization. That year, the organization admitted 33 new members, and yes, Neilson was the only woman until 1939. From 1945 until her death on May 26, 1947, Neilson was the President of the MAA, the first but not the last woman to lead the organization.

As most history professors and lecturers did, Neilson joined the American Historical Association, a group organized by and for the promotion of historical education in the United States and the protection of the rights of such scholars. AHA had been around for decades, and by the time Neilson was a full professor, women made up 15-20% of their ranks but were not holding board positions. A new president was elected every year, and Neilson was first nominated in 1932, though she only achieved that post in 1943. It is unclear why Neilson was finally selected after repeated nominations, but the work of the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians,who advocated on her behalf every year starting in 1938, may have played a role. While nothing horrible happened during her tenure, another woman would not hold that same position until 1987, though after that date nearly halfof the AHA presidents have been women.

Neilson saw connections between the past and the present while continuing to look at the whole and not just individual cases, events, or locations. In her 1943 Presidential lecture to the AHA, she demonstrated her ability to navigate the tricky political waters that led to her election and addressed previous concerns about such public speeches. While looking at the issue of common law in England, she discussed how it changed and made reference to the challenges facing the Allies during WWII without making explicit comparisons or suggesting specific legal and social actions. Demonstrating how history can be used to help with a current problem fit perfectly with the AHA goals of promoting history throughout American education.

When Nellie Neilson died in 1947, WWII had only ended less than two year before. Not many women or men were earning a bachelor’s degree, let alone going on to earn a doctorate or teach at a college as a full professor. Even if she was the only woman for decades, just by being seen, recognized, and followed, she showed later generations of scholars that they might be able to advance in any field of scholarship. Today the field of medieval history is more inclusive, but it still has a way to go, as do all areas of history. Thank you, Professor Neilson, for being a role model for us all.


Cambridge University Press

Cambridge University Press