Around the Quads
5 Minutes with ... Martha Howell
Martha Howell ’74 GSAS, ’79 GSAS is the Miriam Champion Professor of History. Her research focuses on social, legal, economic and women’s history in northern Europe. She is the author of numerous papers and books, including, most recently, Commerce Before Capitalism: European Market Culture, 1300–1600. Howell earned a B.A. from Georgetown and an M.A. and Ph.D. from Columbia.
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
Something that was not visible. I grew up in the ’50s and ’60s in a very conventional suburb of Washington, D.C., in which the only careers imaginable for a woman, other than being a mother with an Irish Setter, a station wagon and two kids, were to be a teacher, a nurse or a secretary. I didn’t want to be any of those. I didn’t know what I wanted to be. It wasn’t until later that I started to imagine other careers, really not until I was almost in college.
How did you become a historian?
When I started college, I thought I would probably be a professor and go to graduate school, but it wasn’t clear to me what that would lead to, maybe a job at a women’s college. Once I got into college, I had much grander ideas. I wanted to be a journalist and work in Europe. I went to Europe after college and lived there for a year. I came back fluent in German but was stunned to find out that The New York Times didn’t want to hire me as its correspondent in Bonn (then West Germany’s capital city). All they wanted to know was, could I type? And I couldn’t type. But I had done quite a lot of economics as an undergraduate, and I got a job doing financial research just at the moment when banks and Wall Street decided that they could hire women. Someone hired me even though I didn’t have an M.B.A., and I worked there for a few years, but I realized that wasn’t really what I wanted to do, so I decided to go to graduate school.
How did you end up at Columbia?
I graduated from here in 1979, got my first teaching job at Rutgers and commuted from New York. Ten years later, Columbia was searching for someone who could teach and help organize gender studies, and I had done a lot of work on gender. My first book was on gender. Columbia invited me to apply. I was already living on the Upper West Side, so the transition was easy.
What are you working on?
I recently published a book called Commerce Before Capitalism: European Market Culture, 1300–1600. Although it has tons about gender and other things I’ve become associated with, it is much more a return to economic history. But it is a socio-cultural history of the economy rather than a straight history as economists would tell it. I’m also gearing up for a new project, which is going to be about the culture of the economy in the early modern period. I think I am going to focus on merchant culture: how merchants see the world and their profession in a time when the pursuit of wealth was still suspect morally. We did not yet live in a world where the market economy could stand as the logic of the good society. It was exactly the opposite.
What are you teaching this semester?
In addition to one graduate course and, in the spring, an undergraduate course, I’m teaching the year-long senior thesis seminar where the history majors who chose to do so can do independent research and have an opportunity to earn honors.
What’s your favorite food?
Probably either ice cream or salad.
Do you have any pets?
I have had cats most of my adult life, and the two that I had most recently died a couple of years ago. I’m very sad about that, but I’m doing a lot of traveling, so it’s hard to have a pet right now.
Are you married? Do you have kids?
I am married and have twin boys who are 30.
What’s something your students would never guess about you?
I am a rabid Yankees fan, and I know a lot about them.
Growing up in Northern Virginia, how did you become a Yankees fan?
Our team was the Washington Senators, and they were terrible, so I never developed a passion for them. But one of my sons, as a little boy, became fascinated with all sports. His father was uninterested in baseball. My son needed a partner, and he taught me about baseball. For years, for my birthday, he would take me to a Yankees game.
What is your favorite spot in New York City?
I have many, but one of my favorites is Central Park in May.
How do you recharge?
I go to the country. I ride bicycles. I hike. I ski. We spend summers at a farm on the Canadian border in Vermont.
If you could be anywhere in the world right now, where would you be?
I might be in Barton, Vt., or I might be in Berlin.
What are you reading for pleasure?
I’m on an Alice Munro kick.
What on your resume are you most proud of?
I was given an honorary degree in 2007 from the University of Ghent, which is the center for medieval studies in Belgium. It’s a part of the world that I study, so to be given an honorary degree by that part of the world, where they know a lot about their history, I guess that’s the best thing.
Interview and photo: Ethan Rouen ’04J