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Remembering American Historian and Civic Activist Joyce Appleby

She stood ramrod straight with curled gray hair, tasteful clothes and a dignified demeanor. Her look, combined with a sharp mind and renown as an American historian, could be intimidating. But Joyce Appleby, who died December 23 at the age of 87, was “always kind, always respectful” her former student and colleague Rebecca Mead told Capital & Main.

Appleby’s scholarship challenged an accepted interpretation of America’s founders that relied on “civic virtue, where leaders put the common good above their own interests” as the only bulwark against the potential decay of democratic governance, according to a January 6 obituary in the New York Times. But she modeled such civic engagement through her work for economic equality with the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE) following her retirement from the University of California, Los Angeles in 2001. She wrote op-eds about LAANE’s work, served as a founding member of the group’s advisory board, brought friends and colleagues into the LAANE orbit and demonstrated for the Santa Monica Living Wage law.

Professor Appleby kick-started her career when she was married with three children, completing her Ph.D in history at Claremont Graduate School at 36, “something every young woman needs to know is possible,” according to LAANE’s development director, Stella Maloyan. She went on to a professorship at UCLA and to head such prestigious organizations as the American Historical Association and the Organization of American Historians, among others. In addition she wrote numerous books including a 2003 biography of Thomas Jefferson. Joyce was “a person of enormous energy,” said colleague Ruth Sabean. “How did she get so much done?”

Fellow UCLA Professor Ellen Dubois told Capital & Main that Appleby identified with the women’s movement and was “happy in the company of women.” Her “posture and carriage were formal and restrained. But she was not like that in her thinking,” said Dubois, adding, “she had a wonderful heart.”

When the use of low-paid adjunct professors became more routine at UC campuses in the 1990s (and continues to this day), Appleby pressed for legislation to address the problem. In a meeting with then-state legislator Sheila Kuehl, reported Rebecca Mead, Appleby “started pounding on the table saying ‘you don’t understand. These people are exploited,”’ to get across the depth of her concern, breaking with “her patrician image and decorum.”

Joyce Appleby’s hunger for justice can be summed up in a comment that is remembered to this day by fellow LAANE advisory board members. When asked in a meeting “ice-breaker” what and where on her body she would get a tattoo, Appleby responded, it would be “on my knees and read WON’T KNEEL.’”


For more perspectives on Joyce Appleby, see the History News Network

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  • “Patrician,” that she was. I wish I hadn’t been so shy around her.

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