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Sally Cherniavsky Fox

Preserver of the Visual History of Women
1929 – 2006

Sally Fox's passion was to gather and share the history of women through visual images. Sometimes this meant finding images of women doing conventional work, but often it meant seeking images of women doing the unexpected-whether it was ice sailing or mountaineering in full Victorian dress. Her goal was to challenge conventional notions of how women lived their lives in the past. As she told the Boston Globe in 1990, "I am driven to try to document what women are really doing, so they won't be taken for granted." She donated hundreds of the images from her collection to the Radcliffe Institute's Schlesinger Library in 2005, thus offering access to the world revealed in these images to future generations.

Fox began her career as a photo researcher soon after her graduation from Queens College in 1950. She worked for four years at the Museum of Modern Art in New York as an assistant to the publicity director and librarian, then moved on to posts at the Archive of American Art and Houghton Mifflin Co., where she later became coordinator of picture research and picture editor. Her work in the field of publishing set a standard for other picture researchers and art editors.

In the meantime, on travels around the world, Fox devoted herself to gathering historical pictures of women, particularly late 19th and early 20th century images of women engaged in sports and at work. In 1985, she began to share her passion for unexpected representations of women's lives with a broader public through the publication of The Medieval Woman: An Illuminated Book of Days (Little Brown & Co.), a collection of illuminations and wood cuts from Medieval Europe. This first book sold more than 300,000 copies and was translated into eight languages. She followed this effort with The Victorian Woman: a Book of Days (1987) and The Sporting Woman: A Book of Days (1989). In reference to the latter book, Fox told the Boston Globe, "The idea is to show women have participated in sports throughout history … You don't read about it. History is written by men. So I concluded it can be documented only by pictures." Sally Fox died on February 26, 2006.

Excerpt from eulogy delivered at Sally Fox's funeral, February 28, 2006

by Rose Corbett Gordon, Art Editor

I last saw Sally three weeks ago today. It was a crisp, clear day, like today. I had traveled up from Connecticut with a heavy heart because I knew she was in the last stages of a terminal illness. But I found Sally looking so good, feeling so good; she was spirited and still completely engaged with the world. In fact, we even went on line together and for an hour or so researched images connected to a recent controversy. But mainly we talked. She took me on a tour of the art she and Maury had collected over the years. She was filled with stories about how each piece had come to them, what good times they had had putting the collection together and how much pleasure it brought her now.

As we visited, she took a half dozen phone calls, making arrangements to meet people, dispensing advice and opinion. In their wonderful, sunny apartment, with Maury and Michael coming and going to take care of things, the two of us talked the afternoon away just like old times. As always, her easy laughter punctuated the conversation. As always, she cheered my mood. She was Sally Fox.

The name, Sally Fox, is so right for her. It is a plucky name, to-the-point, lilting, up-beat—just like the Sally we knew and we loved.

I met Sally in 1970 when she came to Houghton Mifflin to do freelance picture research. That was the first I saw of her marvelous work. For all of us in publishing, it goes without saying that Sally was simply the best at what she did; she was without peer. She had an unfailing eye for quality. She could read the meaning of a work of art and see its multiple connections. Her gift was comparable to perfect pitch in the music world. Never a wrong note.

And she brought a professionalism to the undertaking that over the years has lifted all of us who have taken careers as art editors or picture researchers. She set the standard.

But at the same time that she was entirely professional, she was also entirely human, deeply humane. It seemed that everyone who worked with Sally also became her friend. Sally had a sort of familiar companionship with the world at large.

And, of course, she was entirely generous with her expertise. She brought many people into the field and shepherded their careers. And she was equally open and generous with those whom she might have seen as competitors. She was earnestly and joyously engaged in her work, and she wanted us all to come along and join in. She had a big heart and an unbounded sense of possibilities that made life seem rich and good. That was her spirit.

More Memories from Jacalyn Blume

I knew Sally Fox only in the last couple of years of her life, as a neighbor, but mostly in connection with her placing her image collection at the Schlesinger Library, about which she felt very strongly. I met her at a get-together in our building. As soon as she learned that I worked at Schlesinger, a library and archives specializing in women's history at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard, where she had done research and which she had contacted about her collection of late 19th and early 20th century images of women at work and at play, Sally sat me down on the sofa and told me all about herself and her pictures. She was clearly passionate about this project, which she had built and researched and nurtured over three decades, a very personal extension of her professional work as a picture researcher.

This collection is not just a static group of pictures that Sally collected. She really saw herself as a teacher and a preserver and promoter of women's history. She wanted a home for her images where they would be understood for what they were, and where they would be accessible to scholars who could use them within the context of women's history. In spite of the ephemeral sources of the images she amassed, those in her personal collection, as well as those that she published in her books on "The Medieval Woman," "The Victorian Woman," and "The Sporting Woman" were not just pretty pictures or mere illustrations to be glanced over, but historical documents in their own rights, illuminating otherwise often un-documented aspects of women's lives.

Many of the images are posters, advertisements, magazine illustrations, or cigar box designs, but all of them show active women, engaged in real-life situations. The pictures show women participating in sports and working at jobs that fall both within the traditional pursuits of women, and well outside the realm of activities usually considered acceptable. Some images explicitly convey the notion of women advancing out of traditional spheres, such as a set of French postcards, ca. 1900, depicting a woman lawyer in the courtroom, caring for her child while arguing for a mother's right to work. Others are unexpected, such as the magazine feature showing women ice boating or photographs of women mountaineers, weighed down in Victorian dress but undaunted, and challenge our notions of what was appropriate for women merely by the fact of their unremarkable existence.

It is a terrific gift that her collection at the Schlesinger Library will preserve her passion and commitment to teaching with pictures and documenting women's lives.

Sally Fox
Full image
Artist and photograph editor Sally Fox.

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Sally Cherniavsky Fox, 1929 - 2006." (Viewed on March 22, 2019) <https://jwa.org/weremember/fox-sally>.

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