In search of Marion Facinger

Marion Facinger - image provided by Jane Freidson

Marion Facinger - image provided by Jane Freidson

A pioneering historian of medieval queenship only published one article on the subject. What became of her?

By Michael Evans

A few years ago, I was working on a book about the image of Eleanor of Aquitaine. As part of my research, I read the pioneering article written by Marion Facinger in 1968, “A Study of Medieval Queenship: Capetian France, 987-1237.” No academics really did queenship before the 1960s: the assumption that queens were merely passive consorts, valued only as wives and mothers, meant that the concept of queenship as an institution, involving female political agency, was largely discounted. Even today, MS Word flags “queenship” as a typo, emphatically underscored with a wavy red line. Facinger was one of the first scholars to take medieval queens seriously: historian Nina Verbanaz writes that she “first introduced a systematic study of queenship as an office.”

But who was Marion Facinger? Her article changed the study of medieval queens, yet she seemed never to have published again. The editors of a collection of essays on Eleanor of Aquitaine (John Carmi Parsons and Bonnie Wheeler) credited Facinger’s work, and a biography of Eleanor by Marion Meade, to the same author, one “Marion (Facinger) Meade.” Yet I found it hard to believe that Facinger’s scholarly article, and the romanticizing and slightly speculative biography by Meade, were from the same pen. Had Facinger changed direction to write a mass-market biography of Eleanor? It is one thing for a writer to change their style to write for a popular audience, quite another to reverse their entire interpretive approach. And Facinger’s married name was Freidson – maybe Meade was a nom-de-plume? To confuse matters further, Marion Facinger Freidson had also published on nineteenth-century Italian literature.

So I took to email; one of the editors of the Eleanor of Aquitaine volume assured me that yes, Marion Meade and Marion Facinger were the same person. However, Marion Meade told me that no, she was not Marion Facinger. And so the matter was resolved and became a footnote in my book.

I thought little more about it, but I must have mentioned the Mystery of the Missing Medievalist in the medieval graduate colloquium that I taught at CMU a few years ago. One of my graduate students sent me a link to the website of Marion Meade’s daughter, Jane Freidson, who is a ceramics artist in New York. Freidson has produced a series in honor of her mother called the “Ladies’ Room Project.” I had, patronizingly, thought of Facinger as a lost talent because she had not pursued a career in academia, but Freidson’s website reveals that her mother lived a full and active life before and after graduate school:

She served as an army nurse in North Africa and Italy, reaching the rank of Lieutenant. After the war, she entered the University of Chicago on the GI bill and achieved an M.A. and a Ph.D. in medieval history. Her doctoral thesis on French queens in the middle ages is still cited as an early feminist work. She married and became a housewife, raising two children, one of whom had special needs. After a divorce in the mid-1960's, she returned to nursing and worked for decades at Englewood Hospital in Englewood, NJ. She was elected to several terms on the Leonia (NJ) town council where she advocated for environmental issues and against nuclear armaments and war. She loved her family, nature, and intellectual conversation. She was an avid reader, a writer of letters, a gardener, seamstress, baker, birdwatcher, and much beloved by her friends and colleagues.

Like many talented women in the 1950s, Facinger saw her career take second place to that of her husband, the sociologist Eliot Freidson. Jane Freidson told me that after her mother’s time at Chicago they moved frequently, “finally to N.J. in 1957. All these moves were for my dad's career. So everything Marion did on her dissertation was long after she left Chicago - she must have been working from afar.” Facinger’s return to nursing “must have offered a higher salary without all the politics of the ivory tower.” Plus ça change…

In learning about Marion Facinger, I discovered the rich life of someone I had known previously only as the name attached to an article. She may not have made academia her career, but she demonstrates that the work of graduate students can change an entire field – or even create a new one.

I would like to thank the following people for their assistance: Jane Freidson, for giving me permission to use pictures from her website, and providing additional information about Marion Facinger’s life; John Carmi Parsons and Marion Meade for responding to my emails; Derrick English for informing me about Jane Freidson’s work.


Michael Evans is an instructor in History at Delta College, and a former lecturer in CMU’s History Department. He is also the author of several works on medieval queenship including: Michael Evans, Inventing Eleanor: The Medieval and Post-Medieval Image of Eleanor of Aquitaine (London: Bloomsbury, 2014). For more information or to contact him visit the Delta Faculty page.

Fragments of Women’s Lives

Catherine Flanagan of Connecticut Delivers Her State’s Suffrage Ratification to the State Department. 1920.  Library of Congress .

Catherine Flanagan of Connecticut Delivers Her State’s Suffrage Ratification to the State Department. 1920. Library of Congress.

By Tara McCarthy

I tell myself that my next project will have plenty of sources available—that I will choose something I know has sources—manuscript collections, but in the end, I doubt this is the case because I find myself drawn to study women who didn’t leave much behind. I am convinced that I will be able to find something anyway. We will see. But this women’s history month, I would like to reflect on the risks and rewards of studying obscure women. There is indeed something very rewarding about uncovering the everyday, the rank and file, and the forgotten.

I have just completed a book manuscript. I spent many years on it, but I still found it hard to let go of the research without being able to answer all my questions. I have to accept that many aspects of these women’s lives will never be known. In fact, even though I have created file folders for each of them, sometimes I can’t even find them in the census; sometimes, I can’t tell you very much at all. These limitations are true for many historical topics, but women are hard to trace, and working class or immigrant women left very little behind. Still, I confess that I enjoy the digging, and digitized newspaper databases have really opened up possibilities to find new leads—as long as women made news. Few did, but since I am looking for activists, I am occasionally lucky enough to find organizations, meetings, and speeches. Of course there are limitations to using newspapers too, but some of the women in my forthcoming book only came to life when I stumbled across them in the press. They left no other sources.

For example, Mary Donnelly worked for the socialite and suffragist Alva Belmont. She ran a suffrage lunchroom for Belmont in New York City where working women came for an affordable meal. She had previously been a matron at the Queens County jail where she was fired (I don’t know why), but later she accused the jail of abusing female prisoners. There is a lot more to this outspoken woman’s story, but I doubt I will ever find it. Another Catholic suffragist, Sara McPike, led the St. Catherine’s Welfare Society and became an active supporter of the Democratic Party. She believed that the votes of Catholic women could help protect against radicalism, revolution, and changing gender roles. Frances Perkins (who served as Secretary of Labor under FDR—the first woman to hold a cabinet position) described McPike as a “troublemaker” who accused those she disagreed with of being communists, but she also acknowledged the importance of Catholic women’s support for the suffrage movement. Kate Hogan was a lawyer and a teacher, who led a New York’s teacher organization in the fight for an equal pay law in the early 20th century, but she died of pneumonia in her first year. I hope to return to her story, but fear that I will not find much.

These are just a few of the activists that I have been trying to trace. They were all Irish American; they appear rarely (or not at all) in current scholarship, and their stories are incomplete. They could never be the subject of a biography or even an article, but collectively their stories do show a rich history of political organization and participation by women who were asking for equal rights and equal pay. They made significant contributions to women’s history, at least on the local and state level. I began this project to show that Irish American women sought to shape their communities through political activism, and I found more women than I expected, even if what remains of some of their lives is only fragments.


Tara McCarthy is an Associate Professor of History at Central Michigan University and the author of Respectability and Reform: Irish American Women’s Activism, 1880-1920, which is coming out this month from Syracuse University Press.