Rachel Fuchs (1939-2016)

Rachel Ginnis Fuchs, former editor of French Historical Studies and former president of the Society for French Historical Studies (SFHS), died on October 15, 2016, following a very short illness. Rachel had only just retired, after some thirty-two years of teaching at Arizona State University (ASU). But she had no intention of slackening the pace of her professional activities; besides, she missed students. So it was no surprise that she had accepted, with characteristic relish, a visiting appointment in the fall of 2016 as General Mark W. Clark Professor of History at the Citadel in Charleston—treating the cadets to a course on France in World War II, among other duties. Evacuated ahead of Hurricane Matthew in early October, Rachel was soon back at work. But on the 12th she suffered a massive stroke, from which recovery proved impossible. Rachel passed away peacefully, with her family at her bedside, three days later.

Most readers of French Historical Studies will already have some sense of Rachel’s passionate devotion to the profession and to French history in particular. This was perhaps heightened by the fact that she came to our subfield a bit later in life. Born in Staten Island in 1939, Rachel earned a BA and an MA in history at Boston University in 1959 and 1962. But her initial work was in Russian rather than in French history, a choice inspired in part by Belarusian family background. It was only when she returned to doctoral work at Indiana University, after getting her two children launched in life, that Rachel switched to French history, and to the history of the French family in particular. Having made the move (one in which, she often later allowed, gastronomical and viticultural motives might have played a certain role), she made up for lost time with a vengeance. Rachel earned her PhD in 1980, and her dissertation, supervised by the late Bill Cohen, became her first book, Abandoned Children: Foundlings and Child Welfare in Nineteenth-Century France (1984)—to be followed by, among others, Poor and Pregnant in Paris: Strategies for Survival in the Nineteenth Century (1992), Gender and Poverty in Nineteenth-Century Europe (2005), and Contested Paternity: Constructing Families in Modern France (2008). Contested Paternity, in many ways the crowning achievement of Rachel’s oeuvre, won her no fewer than three important awards, including the American Historical Association’s J. Russell Major Prize.

As their readers will all know, these books, together with the many articles and essays that accompanied them, were the work of a proud and passionate feminist and deeply principled egalitarian—a "political animal," as she often described herself—who regarded the recovery of the historical experience of the most exploited and vulnerable members of past societies as a matter of doing them justice, a word Rachel never shrank from using in describing the historian’s tasks. But she was no less proud to characterize herself as a quintessential "archive rat," ever on the lookout for the next unexpected trouvaille or hidden cache. Respect for le temps perdu for its own sake, on its own terms, was a matter of bedrock principle as well. Rachel was far from done with French history. Her premature departure means that at least two more books, for which the research and writing were well under way, will go unfinished. Their working titles suggest how much we have missed: The Angel-Makers of Mission Street: Abortion and Community in Late Nineteenth-Century Paris and Crossing Boundaries: Families in Vichy France.

Only slightly less visible than her scholarship, but felt throughout the profession by her colleagues and students, is Rachel’s extraordinary record of service over the last thirty years. One side of this was a love of teaching and mentoring that was fully the match of her enthusiasm for research—indeed, the two passions were ultimately as one for Rachel, who, like all great educators, loved learning from her students as much as teaching them. Her service to the profession also included saying yes to a mind-boggling quantity of invitations and solicitations. Unlike most of us, Rachel had no fear of the word committee and served on countless numbers of these, of every kind, both at ASU and beyond it—search, promotion and tenure, award, prize, external review, you name it. But she rarely refused grander and weightier propositions as well: hosting the annual meeting of the SFHS in Tempe in 2000, acting as founding director of the Institute for Humanities Research at ASU in 2005–6, stepping in as editor of French Historical Studies itself from 2011 to 2014. All that is on the record. Unrecorded is a different kind of service to others, whose extent will never be fully measured: the strenuous lengths that Rachel could go to on behalf of individuals, both professionally and personally. In the outpouring of grief and tribute that followed news of her death, her family and her colleagues at ASU have been struck by the number of expressions of gratitude they received for so many acts of kindness on Rachel’s part, large and small: helping one person find an apartment, or a job, or a partner; consoling another for illness or heartbreak; or merely treating a colleague’s disabled child with dignity and respect.

It is also striking how many times the word force has come up in these tributes and at the memorial service her family organized a week after her death. Rachel was indeed a force to be reckoned with, a human dynamo if ever there were one. What was the source of this energy, which seemed unstoppable? Rachel herself sometimes hinted at difficult relations with her parents, suggesting that as a young woman she was very different from the person we later came to know—timid, indecisive, lacking in self-esteem. Le croira qui voudra. But if that was so, it might explain something of the intensity of her devotion to the family she created with her husband, Norman, the high-school sweetheart whom she married in 1959—to their children, Mindy and Dan; to her four grandsons; to her sister, Lynn, and her three sons; to her cousins. It might explain in part how Rachel came to the topic that made her one of the great social historians of her time—the French family—to the study of which she brought the combined virtues of the regard lointain and the regard intime. Finally, it might help explain the trait that linked, umbilically, Rachel’s public and private lives: her extraordinary capacity for friendship. As with her multiform acts of generosity and kindness, it is only with Rachel’s passing that one starts to get a sense of how absolutely central friendship was to her life—how easily she made so many different friends, with what loyalty and tenacity she clung to them. Historians of France, on both sides of the Atlantic, will always be able to turn to her books and essays; the impact of her teaching and service will long be felt. And no one lucky enough to have been one of Rachel’s friends will ever stop missing her.

Johnson Kent Wright, Arizona State University
French Historical Studies 40, no. 1 (2017): 1-3.