Jean Baker, a wealth of historical stories

March 19, 1998|By Laurie Kaplan

FOR years, many of the stories of important women in U.S. history went unheralded. But, in recent years, that's been less true as more books about such women have filled bookstore shelves.

During Women's History Month, one such historian who deserves recognition is Jean Baker, a longtime history professor at Goucher College and author of a critically acclaimed biography of Mary Todd Lincoln.

A landmark work

Mrs. Baker had written two books on Maryland history before her major work, "Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography," was published in 1989. In 1996, her book on the political Stevenson family of Illinois was well received by critics, too.

The Lincoln work vividly recounts details of one of the most unusual first ladies, her sense of abandonment and desperation at the death of a child, and the widow's paralyzing grief and anger.

Mary Todd Lincoln embarrassed the nation: "She cried too long and too hard," Mrs. Baker said. "She disobeyed every rule of anonymity expected of ladies, especially first ladies."

Mrs. Baker says Mary Todd Lincoln had been victimized by the press and male historians. She had a reputation in need of repair.

"I responded to her mistreatment, to her sense of rivalry with everyone," Mrs. Baker said.

Jean Harvey Baker is a third-generation Marylander and a graduate of Goucher who received her doctorate in history from the Johns Hopkins University. She is married to Dr. R. Robinson Baker, a professor of surgery at Johns Hopkins, and they have four children.

In the classroom, Mrs. Baker, who teaches courses on women and families, challenges her students to reconstruct their own family histories.

These days, Mrs. Baker is focusing on the split in the women's suffrage movement, which she sees as a long struggle for democracy.

As for her own legacy, Mrs. Baker sees the generations of students she has taught as her key contribution to society.

Women's stories

She says the women's movement made her see that the crux of history didn't have to be kings and male prime ministers, that women and minorities have important stories to tell.

It's just that Mrs. Baker tells stories so convincingly that the reader can feel the texture of those family rivalries as well as the weight and restrictions of those dresses that Mary Lincoln so cherished. The telling is Jean Baker's triumph.

Laurie Kaplan is an associate professor of English at Goucher College.

Pub Date: 3/19/98

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