Women in Modern America: A Brief History, 1974
Elizabeth Cady Stanton: A Radical for Woman’s Rights, 1980
American Beauty, 1983
In Full Flower: Aging Women, Power, and Sexuality, a History, 1992
Finding Fran: History and Memory in the Lives of Two Women, 1998
Clio’s Consciousness Raised, 1974 (with Mary S. Hartman)
Lois W. Banner is one of the most famous and talented historians of modern American women and their place in the society and culture of the United States. She grew up in Los Angeles, the daughter of Harry J. Wendland, a writer on medical subjects, and Melba Parkes Wendland, a teacher. Lois Wendland graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1960, and then moved East to do her graduate work at Columbia University in New York City. She received her M.A. in 1962 and her Ph.D. in 1970. In 1962, she married a fellow historian, James M. Banner. They had one daughter, Olivia Parkes Banner, before the marriage ended in divorce. For her historical research, Lois Banner devoted herself to the history of American women at a time when that subject had not yet become fashionable within the academic community.
The teaching career that Banner followed took her to many different educational institutions. She worked at Rosemary Hall, a prestigious girls’ school in Greenwich, Connecticut, from 1962 to 1966, and was an instructor and assistant professor at Douglass College of Rutgers University from 1966 to 1977. She then taught at Princeton University, the University of Scranton, and the University of Southern California (USC). She served as professor of history and chair of the History Department at USC in 1995.
Banner’s books have had a significant impact on the field of women’s history, beginning with her first, Women in Modern America: A Brief History, published in 1974. As a text aimed at an undergraduate audience, the volume summarized the existing historical literature on the role of women in the United States in a clear and thoughtful manner. It also contained the fruits of Banner’s research into such issues as women’s participation in nineteenth century reform movements, the impact of prostitution on women, and the ways in which women’s history could be made an integral part of the college curriculum. One of the first books of its kind, Women in Modern America achieved a large audience and affected many younger scholars in its field. It remains a basic and widely read text in women’s history.
Banner turned next to her interest in nineteenth century women to write a brief biography of pioneer woman suffrage advocate Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Since a full modern treatment of Stanton had not yet been written, Banner’s book filled an important gap in the literature of American women, and it was praised in the American Historical Review as “the best introduction” to Stanton’s important life and career.
Three years later, Banner published her next major work, American Beauty, a volume that surveyed the ways society in the United States defined and valued physical beauty in women. She touched on such varied manifestations of American interest in female appearance as the rise of the beauty contest, the economic institutions associated with the promotion of beauty, and the changing standards by which attractiveness in women was established and admired. Banner approached the subject from a strongly feminist perspective that found society’s emphasis on beauty a detriment to women’s ability to realize their full potential as individuals. The critical reception of the book was generally positive. Reviewers praised the wide-ranging research and the perceptiveness with which Banner addressed the historical implications of beauty for generations of American women.
In Full Flower grew out of her own personal history. At the age of forty-eight, she became romantically involved with a man of thirty. Her experience in her own life with what she called “a cross-age” relationship led her to examine the general subject of women and aging and to decide that “there is a history for aging women to discover and reclaim.” She surveyed the phenomenon of older women and their sexuality across the history of Western civilization and came to positive conclusions about the flowering of older women.
With a controversial thesis, the book attracted a mixed response from critics. In History Today, J. A. Sharpe called it “a pastiche of anecdotes,” while the reviewer for Library Journal said that it was “a complex, difficult book that should nonetheless be of great interest to scholars of women’s studies.” As in her previous work, Banner took a neglected issue and showed how fresh insights could enhance an appreciation of the role of women in history.
In Finding Fran, which is both biography and autobiography, Banner compares her own life with the different path taken by Fran Huneke, her best friend in high school with whom she lost touch for many years. Fran married, experimented with different forms of spirituality, and eventually moved to the Lama Foundation, a spiritual commune near Taos, New Mexico. She became a devout Muslim and changed her name to Noura. The book provides an insightful look at women’s lives and the ways in which the personal is political.