Historian Sarah Duff Receives Mellon Foundation’s New Directions Fellowship

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With the grant, she’ll pursue a master’s degree and launch a book project on the history of menopause

Assistant Professor of History Sarah Duff
By Kardelen Koldas ’15
March 21, 2022

Assistant Professor of History Sarah Duff has been awarded a prestigious New Directions Fellowship by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Colby’s first faculty member to receive this three-year grant, Duff will spend a year obtaining a master’s degree in women’s health and then embark on a research project exploring how the menopausal transition of aging was perceived among women and authorities in colonies in the 19th century British Empire before it was medicalized. Her research, which will culminate with a book, will focus on womanhood, colonialism, and racism in her native South Africa, as well as Nigeria, Kenya, India, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada.

“Maybe as I’ve aged, I have become increasingly interested in how we understand menopause historically,” Duff said. “Sometimes people call menopause ‘the change of life.’ How did they understand this change of life before it was medicalized? Because now, when women enter menopause, they go to the doctor, and the doctor usually helps them to navigate it.”

Provost and Dean of Faculty Margaret McFadden emphasized the uniqueness of Duff’s research and fellowship. “The Mellon New Directions Fellowship provides an extraordinary opportunity for a scholar to learn an entirely new field in-depth, and thus to do interdisciplinary work at a whole new level of complexity and sophistication,” McFadden said. “These fellowships are extremely competitive, and Sarah’s project is exactly the kind of imaginative, boundary-breaking work that the fellowship is designed to foster. And given the excellence of Sarah’s work this far, I am confident that this new project, combining history and biology, will bring us many important new insights about women’s lives.”

“This fellowship not only allows me to go back and be a student for a year, which I think is going to be very exciting, but it also gives me two summers’ worth of research funding so I can go to archives to write a book.”

Assistant Professor of History Sarah Duff

Duff’s prior work has focused on colonialism in the 19th and 20th centuries, specifically how adolescents of different racial identities were treated by authorities. “In the British Empire, which I’m interested in, colonial officials were very anxious about how Black girls were perceived as posing this sexual threat to the colonial social order, but at the same time, they were anxious about protecting white girls, who represented the future stability of the colony,” she explained.

Instead of the racialization of young girls in the British Empire during colonial times, her new research will focus on middle-aged women.

The first attempts to describe menopause by medical doctors happened in the early 19th century and gained popularity toward the end of that century, Duff explained. Few humanities studies exist on menopause; most studies focus on its medical history. There’s also a lack of historical research on women’s perceptions of and experiences with menopause.

“This would be the first study to open this up,” Duff said. “This is also the first historical study that will address questions of race and menopause.”

Duff will connect her research to Mayflower Hill, as well. She will develop new courses and collaborate with the new Public Humanistic Inquiry Lab (PHIL), which serves as a medical humanities lab on campus.

“It will be a significant benefit to the PHIL, and the College more broadly, to have its faculty receive advanced training in the social and biological conditions of women’s health as it intersects with questions of race and empire,” said Tanya Sheehan, the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Art, who is the principal investigator of the inaugural PHIL, “Critical Medical Humanities: Perspectives on the Intersection of Race and Medicine.”

“There will be numerous opportunities for Professor Duff’s Mellon-funded research to connect with the Colby community, whether it be through the PHIL’s recently established Medical Humanities Colloquium, expanded course offerings in the critical medical humanities, or workshops concerning medicine and race that the PHIL hopes to organize for pre-health students and members of the Maine medical community.”

By looking at how menopause was understood before the medical community began studying it, Duff hopes to alter its present perception.

“Often in popular discourse now, menopause is seen as this crisis in terms of what it means to be a woman, but also what is possible and what is no longer possible to them. Was it always so?” she asked. “I think this research helps us to defamiliarize the present. So it then means that we don’t necessarily assume that it was always like this. It means that it could be different. We can change it.”