Phyllis Palmer, Professor Emeritus of American Studies and Women’s Studies, died quietly in her home on April 13, 2014, after a year-long battle with cancer. Phyllis was a valued and committed faculty member at GW from 1977 to 2009. She was deeply interested in issues of race, gender, and social justice, both in her writing and her teaching.
Phyllis authored many articles and two books, Domesticity and Dirt: Housewives and Domestic Servants in the United States, 1920-1945 (1990) and Living as Equals: How Some White Americans Created Interracial Connections during the Civil Rights Era (2008). In addition, she was a pioneering member of the Urban Food Task Force at GW.
Phyllis was also an extraordinary colleague and leader. She directed the Women’s Studies program for more than ten years, from 1977 to 1989, and served as chair of the American Studies department from 1994 to 1999, and again 2002-06. As chair of American Studies, she transformed what had been a small unit of accomplished scholars into a significantly larger program that became one of the most successful American Studies departments in the country.
She also served the university in numerous ways, chairing the steering committee of GW’s Decennial Middle States Accreditation Review in 1995, and acting as interim dean of CCAS in 1995, among other contributions. Most importantly, Phyllis was a mentor and advisor to several generations of students, and a friend and ally to her colleagues. Her energy, generosity of spirit, and commitment to social justice, as well as her honesty and courage in the last year of her life, remain an inspiration to those who knew her.
In 2014, the Department of American Studies named an annual lecture in honor of Phyllis Palmer and her colleague Bernard Mergen. The event brings visiting American Studies scholars to GW to share their expertise with the campus community.
"Professor Palmer taught my Intro to American Studies class during my first semester at GW. I had entered college with every intent of being a Journalism major - but after this class everything changed. Professor Palmer's class was engaging, interesting, and she was so passionate about her teaching. It was Prof. Palmer who inspired me to become an American Studies major. If it wasn't for her, I likely would not be where I am today - my AMST major led me down my chosen career path in marketing. I think about that class every single time I visit an American History museum or exhibit – to this day, she inspired me and changed my life." — Shari Newman Diamond
"Thinking about Phyllis my mind wanders back to 1976 or 77 when I was on the faculty committee charged with interviewing and selecting someone to direct the newly approved program in Women’s Studies. The committee interviewed a number of well-qualified candidates, but Phyllis was the choice of the majority for several reasons. (I remember that she was opposed by one member because she smiled too much.)
"Several years ago Phyllis and I served together on a typically dull university committee. For one of our meetings, we gathered in an empty seminar room in the English department. On the chalkboard, maybe left over from the previous class, was the name of the Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska. The name meant nothing to me, but Phyllis looked up and her face immediately brightened. She began to recite Szymborska’s poem 'Nothing Twice:'
Nothing can ever happen twice.
In consequence, the sorry fact is
that we arrive here improvised
and leave without the chance to practice.
I don’t remember much of anything about that committee meeting, but I have never forgotten those lines. Phyllis lived an improvised life (she knew that there are no other kinds). She was not afraid to get up on stage, whatever the stage, without the chance to practice. The courage, the creativity, and, yes, the occasional zaniness of those improvisations are what I remember most vividly. Nothing can ever happen twice. Phyllis Palmer was a true original, and I’m incredibly grateful to have known her." — Kip Kosek
"What I remember most fondly about Phyllis is her directness. She was outspoken, freely shared her opinion, and told you as it was. She was a great role model for me. We will miss you greatly Phyllis. Rest in peace.” — Dr. Nema Blyden
"Phyllis was a central part of the institution-building efforts that made GW American Studies such a unique and wonderful place to work. I didn't realize until I left GW that many people were traumatized by graduate school and spent half a lifetime recovering. I always joke that I went to grad school with The Walton Family! My dissertation writing group still shares work with one another, and graduate students from my cohort (along with generations before and after mine) still get together for annual reunions at the American Studies Association conference. Phyllis's energy was part of building this vibrant intellectual community, which has been filled with integrity, a commitment to social justice, and mutual respect and support--one that I will always be proud to call home.
"Phyllis was chair of American Studies when I arrived at GW in 1996. I knew immediately that I had landed someplace very special, just from the energy and enthusiasm she emanated. Phyllis’s feminist commitments were obvious in the ways she treated me as the only untenured person, offering advice but also giving me space to do what I thought best. She made it clear that her goal was to support me, to help create an intellectual home for me at GW. I remember telling my friends from graduate school that I had landed in heaven.