Letter From the Director

As the director of the 2017 NEH summer seminar, “What Did Independence Mean to Women? 1776-1876,” I invite you to apply to join me and fifteen other participants at the Library Company of Philadelphia from July 2 to July 21, 2017.  I am thrilled to have the opportunity to direct this seminar and hope that you’ll share my enthusiasm.

This seminar will address the complex and contradictory theme of independence in the lived experience of American women through readings, discussion, field trips, and individual projects. I look forward to working with a diverse and enthusiastic group of teachers to enhance their knowledge of women’s history, to explore ways to access and interpret historical documents, and to encourage a sophisticated understanding of the contradictions in American thought.  By the seminar’s end summer scholars will have acquired knowledge, skills, and tools that will help them shape their particular classroom practice.

During this three-week seminar I will guide participants through the major topics and themes that link women’s history to the idea of independence, with readings from current historical scholarship and a rich array of primary documents: Week 1) the Founding of the Republic (1876-1830) will focus on the rhetoric of independence in light of white and black women’s experience of marriage, slavery, and changing ideas about female education; Week 2) Reform and Rights (1833-1861), will examine the “woman question” among Quakers, abolitionists, and woman’s rights activists; and Week 3) War and Reconstruction (1861-1876) will explore changing meanings of independence for women as the nation was torn apart and re-united at the end of its first century.  (Preliminary reading lists are on this website.)  Together, we will explore the tensions between reform and reaction, optimism and the limitations of the nation’s stated ideals.

Allow me to introduce myself as well.  I have been a scholar and teacher in the Departments of History and Women’s Studies at Penn State for three decades.   In addition to teaching a wide range of undergraduate and graduate courses, I am the author of several books and numerous articles including, most recently, Elizabeth Cady Stanton: An American Life.  For the most part, my scholarly works focus on the ways that ideologies about gender obscure the material and ideological realities of class, how women of different groups express political identities, and the ways that commonsense notions of American life shape, contain, and control radical ideas.  My c.v. is available on the biography portion of this website if you are interested in learning more about my professional career.

I have long been committed to making my work accessible and relevant to various publics.  In particular, my biography of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, which participants in this NEH summer seminar will read, critically explores Stanton’s positions on woman’s rights, racial justice, and class difference, and thus explicitly addresses many of the questions that will be raised in this seminar.  Writing this book offered me numerous opportunities to speak to diverse groups of humanities scholars, K-12 teachers, high school students, and a general public about U.S. women’s history – I’ve been on C-SPAN’s “Book TV” and National Public Radio, and am a frequent resource for students from eighth to eleventh grade who are doing National History Day projects on women’s history, U.S. reform, and antislavery movements.  Although I’m always happy to answer their emails or chat with them on Skype, I do  look forward to working with, and learning from, teachers who teach at different grade levels and in very different kinds of schools on those projects as well.

On a personal level, although I teach at Penn State, I live in Philadelphia, where my two children (now college graduates) attended public school.  A native New Yorker, I find Philadelphia a fascinating place to think about the ways that history influences contemporary life and struggles and I hope you’ll join me in this endeavor.



Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this program do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.