Born in Brooklyn, Ann Lane completed all of her schooling in New York City. She earned a BA from Brooklyn College in English in 1952, an MA in sociology from New York University in 1958, and a PhD in American History from Columbia University in 1968.
She began her academic career at what was then the women’s college of Rutgers University. In 1971 she moved to John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York, where she served for 12 years as Professor of History and Chair of the American Studies Program.
Lane’s interest in advancing women’s careers and scholarship about them earned her appointments as Director of Women’s Studies and Professor of History at two formerly all-male institutions: Colgate University (1984 to 1990) and the University of Virginia (1990 – 2009). When Lane told students in her first class at Virginia that coming to Charlottesville was her first time in the South, "The white students said, 'This isn't the South. That's Alabama. That's Mississippi,' but the black students said, 'You're in the South.'"
Lane followed these directives with passion and commitment, as she worked to advance feminist scholarship and to champion the concerns of women at the University of Virginia and beyond. An outspoken advocate when circumstances required, Lane was also known for her warmth and for her vital interest in the people around her.
Like many young women academics of her generation, Lane was an active participant in the women’s movement and its academic arm, women’s studies. She had quickly emerged as an activist and a pioneer in women’s history and played a pivotal role in the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians throughout the 1970s. Her trenchant critique of a prominent sociobiologist who highlighted women’s biological limitations at the organization’s first national conference in 1973 electrified the audience and is still the stuff of legend.
Her most notable scholarly contributions were to the study of feminist theory and women’s biography. In The Mary Ritter Beard Reader, first published in 1977, she made a compelling case for the significance of Beard’s historical and theoretical work in reconstructing women as significant historical agents, insights that anticipated those of a later generation of scholars.
But it is her work on Charlotte Perkins Gilman that constitutes Lane’s most significant scholarly legacy. Her rediscovery of Gilman’s 1915 feminist utopian novel, Herland, (reprinted in 1979) followed by The Charlotte Perkins Gilman Reader the next year, helped direct the attention of literary scholars as well as historians to this neglected feminist writer and theorist. Lane’s extensive work on Gilman and feminist theory culminated in her innovative 1990 biography, To ‘Herland’ and Beyond: The Life and Work of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Drawing on one of the fundamental insights of second wave feminism—that the personal was political—this accessible and innovative biography was organized around Gilman’s relationships and their contributions to her feminist theory. A reviewer for the Journal of American History called it a “masterful biography...which explores the complex connections between Gilman’s private world and the public sphere.... Lane has superbly reconstructed the life and thought of one of our feminist foremothers.”
In the last years of her life, Lane was working on a book about the cultural history of consensual sexual relationships between professors and their students, titled Sex and the Professors.