Norma Basch, 81, professor emerita of American history who taught at Rutgers University–Newark, and who authored groundbreaking works of feminist legal history, passed away on September 29, 2015, on Cape Cod.
A private graveside service for the family is planned, with a public memorial service on October 25 at the Village Temple, Manhattan.
Basch was professor of American history at Rutgers–Newark from 1979 until her retirement in 2004. She was the author of two groundbreaking works of feminist legal history: Framing American Divorce: From the Revolutionary Generation to the Victorians, and In the Eyes of the Law: Women, Marriage and Property in Nineteenth-Century New York, a landmark book that vaulted her to the forefront of the emerging field of women’s legal history, a position she continued to occupy throughout her career.
Several months before her passing, she signed onto the amicus brief filed by Historians of Marriage and the Family and the American Historical Association and cited in the majority opinion in Obergefell v. Hodges, the Supreme Court case that validated marriage equality.
Both In the Eyes of the Law and Framing American Divorce, are listed in the bibliography to the amicus brief and cited in its first footnote, a testament to the abiding impact of her work.
A native of Worcester, MA, Basch moved to New York to attend Barnard College, from which she received her B.A. in 1956. Discouraged as a woman from pursuing graduate studies at that point, she instead devoted herself to her children, not entering graduate school until they were in school, by which time the feminist movement had made advanced studies for women less anomalous. She received her doctorate from New York University in 1979, with her dissertation winning the university’s Bayrd Still Prize for the best dissertation in history that year.
Basch remained a feminist, both personally and professionally, throughout her life, inspiring students, colleagues, and other scholars with the acuity of her insights and analysis and the passion of her commitment. She wrote with unusual clarity and panache, illuminating complex issues in the history of the law with compelling stories of women and men who shaped legal practices and pushed at the law’s constraints to accommodate their needs and interests and the intricacies of their remarkable lives.
Basch held a number of leadership positions in the American Society for Legal History, serving as well on the editorial boards of the Journal of American History and the Journal of the Early Republic. Her work was supported by fellowships from the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Council of Learned Societies, and the American Antiquarian Society.
Three of her articles were awarded prizes, one each from the Organization of American Historians, the Berkshire Conference of Women’s Historians, and the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic.
Framing American Divorce won the Scribes Book Award, given annually by the American Society of Writers on Legal Subjects. Basch also served a term as chair of the Department of History at Rutgers–Newark, providing outstanding leadership during a period of growth.
Basch is survived by her husband, Sheldon; daughter, Rachel, a novelist; a son Fred, an architect, and his wife, Susan; and grandchildren Nathaniel, Hannah, and Emma.