In the thirty years since marianne hirsch earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in the same year, her scholarship has always remained just ahead of her discipline, often presaging its fascinations. The book published from her Ph.D. dissertation was named the Choice outstanding academic book of 1981, and her Mother/Daughter Plot received the same award in 1989. Early on she studied representations of women in literature, and two of her books remain feminist classics: Mother/Daughter Plot and Conflicts in Feminism, which Hirsch coedited with Evelyn Fox-Keller of UC Berkeley. Both texts are often listed as required reading in women’s studies courses across the United States. Conflicts in Feminism in particular has widened the discussion of women’s issues by bringing together essays by scholars who disagree vehemently on issues of race and feminism and on the biological and social origins of gender.
“I’ve tried to play a kind of mediating role,” says Hirsch. “I’ve always believed it was important to talk.” Being heard, which isn’t always at the top of a scholar’s list of priorities, is also a key: “Marianne never uses incomprehensible jargon,” observes Professor of Comparative Literature Karen Newman, “and she doesn’t take positions that would offend a reasonable person.”
For the past ten years Hirsch has focused on memory. (“She’s become as important in that arena as in feminism,” Newman notes.) In 1997 Harvard University Press published Family Frames: Photography, Narrative and Postmemory, Hirsch’s examination of her own family portraits. The book explores the photographic conventions for constructing family relationships, an extremely difficult topic for someone like Hirsch, whose parents are both Holocaust survivors. “I was born after the war,” Hirsch says, “but I feel like I remember it.” Her latest project, with her husband, Dartmouth historian Leo Spitzer, is a book about the town her family fled and was inspired by a trip there with her parents four years ago.
Hirsch’s influence has been felt well beyond the disciplines of feminist scholarship, photography, literature, semiotics, and even comparative literature, says Arnold Weinstein, the Edna and Richard Salomon Distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature.
“It is one thing to influence people who already agree with you,” says Weinstein, who chaired Hirsch’s doctoral committee. “I think Marianne changes people who are working in a much more traditional way.”