Reviewed: A Girl Stands at the Door

By Andrea Spencer (@andreaspencer__)

Devlin, Rachel. A Girl Stands at the Door: The Generation of Young Women Who Desegregated America’s Schools. New York: Basic Books, 2018.

Gender historian Rachel Devlin’s new book, A Girl Stands at the Door: The Generation of Young Women Who Desegregated America’s Schools highlights the first African American girls and young women who desegregated American schools, particularly in the Deep South. Drawing on an extensive cache of oral interviews, Devlin crafts a wide-ranging narrative that brings to life the experiences of those who stood at the forefront of school desegregation. Devlin’s goal is largely historiographical; she aims to shift “the lens from the legal arguments against segregation and the lawyers who made them” to a focus on “the largely young, feminine work that brought school desegregation into the courts, that helped make school desegregation central to the American political imagination of the postwar period, and, with less success but equal meaning, that made integrated schools possible” (Devlin, xi).

Though Devlin is trying to make a historiographical argument by shifting the focus from legal analysis and top-down examinations of the movement’s leaders to the on-the-ground experiences of desegregation’s “firsts,” she never refers to the historians she is responding to by name. The only specific scholar she mentions is critical race theorist, lawyer, and civil rights activist Derrick Bell, and his work Silent Covenants: Brown v. Board of Education and the Unfulfilled Hopes for Racial Reform to argue against his claim that “Brown was too optimistic about disassembling intransigent racism and that it has obscured racial hatred since it was passed” (268). Despite this lack of historiographical specificity, her overarching argument is quite clear. She disagrees with the “tidy conceptualization” of Brown, and school desegregation in general, as being driven by the NAACP. Devlin argues that

Brown v. Board was the end result of an onslaught of unsolicited cases, initiated by parents and students, which came as a surprise to the national office and ultimately convinced NAACP lawyers to litigate on the grade school level. The road to Brown was a grassroots movement spearheaded by the girls and young women whose words, actions, and public commitment brought school desegregation to the fore in the postwar era (xii).

Devlin’s aim is to establish black girls and young women and their parents as the leaders and foot soldiers of grade school desegregation, with the NAACP following in their footsteps in the 1950s.

Devlin’s work is largely focused on biographies of the plaintiffs and is not restrained by geography, though she does focus primarily on cases in the Deep South. However, she begins in the midwest with Lucille Bluford, who attempted to desegregate the Missouri School of Journalism, and Ada Lois Sipuel, who desegregated law schools in southwestern Oklahoma and Texas. Devlin argues that these cases inspired grade school desegregation efforts between 1947 and 1949. She highlights Thurgood Marshall’s reticence to become involved in these cases, and contends that the NAACP only took on such cases because “if an outside lawyer won the case, the NAACP would forfeit its status as the premier civil rights organization of its time” (70).  Devlin spends a chapter arguing that Esther Brown and her role in Webb vs School District No. 90 were a direct lead-in to Brown. The second half of the book chronicles the desegregation cases right before, including, and after Brown. The book concludes with a focus on the emotional and social experiences of “firsts,” underscoring their conviction that what they did was politically, socially, and historically important.

Devlin primarily relies on oral interviews she and others conducted with plaintiffs, their friends, their family, and those otherwise involved with the cases. In her acknowledgment, Devlin writes that she cherished the “privilege” to be “educated by some of the most courageous leaders then and now alive about what it meant to be on the front lines of the war that was school desegregation” through conducting these interviews (277). These interviews are an incredibly rich source that can tell historians much more about the desegregation fight. They also stoutly support Devlin’s argument that these black girls and young women, and their parents, were the driving force behind the grassroots movement that led to Brown. At times, the interviews and Devlin’s biographical digressions can distract from the work’s argument and organization. However, the valuable research Devlin has conducted will surely be of great use to historians and future scholarship. Like her colleague and interviewee, Deborah G. White’s, book Ar’n’t I A Woman laid the groundwork for future scholarship about enslaved women, A Girl Stands at The Door may be the catalyst for significant scholarship on female desegregation plaintiffs.

Devlin is a scholar of gender, and not race, which could possibly explain the glaring omission of significant racial analysis in this book. However, it is confounding that there is not more gender analysis in the book. It could be better described as (young) women’s history, rather than gender history. Devlin will mention, for instance, “understandings of the appropriate roles and social obligations of girls” and “the normal order of gender relations in an early 1960s American high school” but fails to interrogate—or even establish—these gendered mores (92, 236). The book is published by Basic Books, a popular press, which may serve to partially explain this aversion to gender theory. However, without such analysis the book turns into a collection of un-interrogated and decontextualized biographies and personal recollections. It could have been a much more nuanced and powerful historical work if there was a greater focus on racial and gendered norms and factors surrounding these cases. As it is, A Girl Stands at The Door accomplishes its goal—to reinsert black girls and young women into the grassroots movement of desegregation—but not much more. Due to its general lack of analysis, this book is better suited to undergraduate students or members of the general public interested in such topics than to graduate students of history. But, as previously mentioned, the book leaves much more work to be done, which could be an excellent project for a scholar of race and gender in this time period. Perhaps this book will serve as a guidepost for future scholarship, as it is certainly not the final word on this subject.

To Tell the Truth Freely: The Life of Ida B. Wells

To Tell The Truth Freely: The Life of Ida B. Wells. Mia Bay. New York: Hill and Wang, 2009.

Reviewed by Andrea L. Spencer (@andreaspencer__)

Ida B. Wells was a civil rights activist, journalist, teacher, and mother who was instrumental in agitating for anti-lynching reform in Jim Crow America. In To Tell The Truth Freely: The Life of Ida B. Wells, Dr. Mia Bay tells Wells’s story, which has too often been neglected by historians. A detailed and well-written biography, To Tell The Truth Freely shows how “Wells’s life provides invaluable historical testimony to the often contradictory impact of being black and female at the turn of the nineteenth century—a time when the lives of most black women went unrecorded…her life preserves a history of black activism and female leadership that historians are just now beginning to recover” (Bay, 13). Bay traces Wells’s life from childhood in Reconstruction America to her tireless activism for black civil rights during the turn of the nineteenth century. Bay uses the social, political, and economic contexts that Wells fought in, as well as her experiences of racism and sexism, to show the racial, gendered, and classed complexities of life in Jim Crow America for African Americans.

In To Tell The Truth Freely, Bay frequently engages with a wide-ranging historiography, touching on race, gender, and nineteenth century America. For example, Bay agrees with Patricia Shechter that Wells’s work connected “‘the ‘private’ crime of rape to the ‘public’ crime of lynching’” in a way that rejects historical ideas of gendered separate spheres (127).[1] She also agrees with Blair Kelley that, contrary to popular scholarly thought, the end of the nineteenth century was not an age of accommodation for African Americans. Rather, Bay posits that “the uphill battles against lynching and Jim Crow waged by Wells and other black activists during this period should caution us against thinking about African American accommodation as a reality” (127). Wells’s tireless activism to end lynching and state-approved violence against African Americans shows that Booker T. Washington’s accommodationist views were not pervasive throughout the black community. However, Bay does acknowledge a shift toward elite, educated black leaders like Washington and Du Bois and away from people like Frederick Douglass and Ida B. Wells. Bay argues that Wells’s fleeting national influence reflected how during “the early twentieth century…the possibilities for black leadership were increasingly limited to a more conventional range of individuals…educated men” (272). Bay also argues against existing characterization of the older Wells (then Wells-Barnett) as an isolated activist (278). Rather, Bay argues that Wells turned to community-based politics and activism, inspired by her time spent as a mother. Most distinctly, Bay’s work implicitly argues that Ida B. Wells is a person worthy of historical study, whose work deeply impacted African American civil rights despite the fact that she never became a race leader.

The book begins with Wells’s birth to enslaved parents and her childhood during Radical Reconstruction, which Bay argues inspired Wells to fight for black political participation and civil rights later in life. Bay then chronicles Wells’s journey from an orphaned rural school teacher to an accomplished journalist and world-famous activist. Using events and people in Wells’s life, Bay makes larger historical arguments, particularly about the intersection of racism and sexism in African American women’s lives. For example, Wells constantly dealt with “the sexual slander that she and other black women could so easily become subject to in the racially and sexually polarized world” of Jim Crow America (32). Bay characterizes Wells as an outspoken, fiery-tempered woman who often strained against gendered norms that expected women—especially black women—to be genteel and subservient. Bay argues that this double oppression of being black and a woman was why Wells constantly had to fight so hard to be heard, yet never became a national race leader on par with Booker T. Washington or W.E.B. Du Bois.

To Tell The Truth Freely is the perfect combination of biography and historical context. Using Wells’s papers and autobiography, letters to, from, and about Wells and her contemporaries, as well as many newspaper sources by and about Wells, Bay constructs an expertly weaved tapestry of Jim Crow America. Focusing primarily on the complexities of gender and race (and often class), Bay uses Wells’s well-recorded life to chart the nineteenth century African American experience. A journalist, diarist, and author of her autobiography, Wells left many records of her life for historians to make use of. Bay also explains the intricacies of intra-racial politics, mostly between the black male activists of Wells’s day like Washington, Du Bois, and Frederick Douglass. However, Bay rarely mentions female activists (black or white) other than to describe disagreements between these women and Wells.

Hill and Wang is a popular press, so To Tell The Truth Freely was intended for a general audience, but is useful to a scholarly reader as well. It is engaging and has enough historical context to capture a general reader’s attention but also is deeply researched and makes important historiographical arguments that also make it suited for scholarly readings. To Tell The Truth Freely is perfect for everyone from the lay-reader to undergraduate and graduate students of American history. Ida B. Wells may have never achieved long-lasting contemporary national recognition, but, as Mia Bay’s book shows well, she is certainly deserving of historical attention.

[1] For more on the historiography of separate spheres, see Linda Kerber’s “Separate Spheres, Female Worlds, Woman’s Place: The Rhetoric of Women’s History” in The Journal of American History (June 1968).

The World Split Open: How the Modern Women’s Movement Changed America By Ruth Rosen

by Andrea Spencer (@___aerdna__)

According to gender theorist Chandra Mohanty, there is a “necessary and integral connection between feminist scholarship and feminist political practice and organizing…feminist scholarly practices…are inscribed in relations of power—relations which they counter, resist, or even perhaps implicitly support. There can, of course, be no apolitical scholarship.”[1] Ruth Rosen’s The World Split Open: How the Modern Women’s Movement Changed America is a striking support to Mohanty’s claim that feminist scholarship is deeply political. Rosen—a journalist, photographer, feminist activist, and historian—has written a detailed, analytic, and engaging account of the American women’s movement since the 1950s. Chronicling both the hegemonic culture and the radical activist groups that would teach future feminists how to organize, Rosen tells a story from inside the feminist movement. She argues that “the movement arose from two generations of women who recognized, with considerable anguish and anger, that neither traditional liberalism nor the politics of the New Left was addressing what equality could mean for modern working women.”[2] Then, Rosen traces the different strands and fragments of feminism and finishes her history with backlash against the movement in the 1980s. This is a history of what, chronologically, could be called second wave feminism. However, Rosen does not only address white middle class women’s problems—far from it. She examines lesbian feminism, black feminism, Chicana feminism and Catholic feminism, among others. The World Split Open is a comprehensive, evenhanded look at the American women’s movement from the 50s to the 80s that seeks to counter the issue many (feminists included) faced during the movement—the woeful ignorance of women’s history.

Rosen begins her work with the same old chestnut that kicks off most stories of 20th century feminist: Betty Friedan’s The Feminist Mystique. Describing the cultural zeitgeist of what she calls “the Dawn of Discontent,” Rosen explains Cold War American culture and gender relations, the Old Left, and the frustration that housewives and activist women shared. Young women did not want to be like their mothers who seemed trapped in domestic drudgery, but they did not have a clear view of what the future held. Rosen then declares the 1960s—and the passage of Title VII, in particular—as the rebirth of feminism. Female activists like Casey Hayden abandoned the sexist organizations of the New Left and created their own organizations and consciousness-raising efforts. From here, Rosen explores the “Hidden Injuries of Sex:” the subtle, small things that women felt constrained by and forced to do by hegemonic sexist expectations like faking orgasms and compulsory heterosexuality. Reacting against this, feminists created their own culture of female celebration in music, poetry, and art. However, Rosen does not simply craft a rosy image of artistic, bare-chested women reveling in their femininity; she also explores the sometimes acerbic and paranoid culture of feminist groups that trusted no one and divided themselves incrementally by identity politics. Rosen concludes her work with the proliferation of feminism, the birth of the superwoman, and eventual backlash against the movement. Ultimately, Rosen concludes that “each generation of women activists leaves an unfinished agenda for the next generation…The struggle for women’s human rights has just begun. As each generation shares its secrets, women learn to see the world through their own eyes, and discover, much to their surprised, that they are not the first and they are not alone…A revolution is under way, and there is no end in sight.”[3]

            To support her argument and craft her narrative, Rosen uses personal letters of prominent activists and “lay-feminists”[4] alike along with organizations’ important manifestos, official state and FBI documents, and interviews she conducted personally. These interviews and letters from lay-feminists as well as her focus on non-white, privileged feminists makes Rosen’s work stand out amongst other histories of the movement. Rather than off-handedly mentioning the fact that there were black, Chicana or gay feminists, Rosen devotes a significant amount of her energy to explaining these groups’ platforms, the structure of their organizations, and their impact on the movement at large. For example, she looks at events like the First Lesbian Feminist Conference and the fact that the lesbian-Feminist movement engendered an idealizing of lesbian relationships and, at times, demonized heterosexuality. In the even-handed manner characteristic of most of her analysis, Rosen acknowledges both that lesbian feminists could be militant in their insistence on homosexuality as a prerequisite for joining the movement and the fact that “lesbians encouraged women to explore their own passion rather than to act out male-authored sexual scripts. By legitimizing sexual intimacy between women, they challenged the male sexual revolution and its simplistic vision of heterosexual promiscuity and offered an ideal of same-sex love among women.”[5] This fairness in handling divisions and issues within the feminist movement is what makes Rosen’s work so important and groundbreaking. Most feminist histories I have read tend to be more partisan and biased, not to mention far less likely to even mention divisions and factions in such depth. However, Rosen frequently delves into what she calls the “[paradoxes] of feminism,” either factionally within the movement or between activists and the general public.[6] She does not shy away from the contradictions and complications of feminism; she explores them in a balanced way. Of course, Rosen is a feminist and activist, so she clearly supports the movement as a whole. What makes her work different is that she can see its flaws and recognizes that just because it had and has “bad” or complicated parts does not detract from its worth as a whole.

At times, however, Rosen’s bias does show through a bit strongly; in particular, her bias toward Gloria Steinem and against Betty Friedan is the most prominent in the book. Rosen describes the “generation gap” between feminists like Friedan who sought more political, concrete rights for women and those like Steinem who understood the importance of cultural freedoms like the right not to fake an orgasm. Rosen frequently praises Steinem as beautiful and glamorous but refers to Friedan as testy, bitter and obsessed with Steinem because “she undoubtedly felt upstaged” by the younger, more famous feminist.[7] Of course, many feminist scholars hold no reverence for Friedan because she symbolizes the tendency of second-wave feminism to hold up white, middle class housewives’ problems as the focus of 1960s feminism. However, Rosen’s defense of Steinem was a bit rosy compared to the largely unbiased way she handled other figures of the movement.

In The World Split Open, Rosen does not provide a traditional, clear thesis. Instead, she seeks to chronicle the movement in a way no one has done yet: comprehensively, diving into factions within the movement, and with split attention paid to lay-feminists and leaders alike. Of course, more attention could be paid to working-women, political policy, or small groups like anti-gay feminists. No book can include every aspect of such a wide reaching, diverse movement. However, Rosen makes significant strides in the scholarship towards a more inclusive story of the American women’s movement.

[1] Chandra Talpade Mohanty, “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses,” Feminist Review no. 30 (Autumn, 1988): 62.

[2] Ruth Rosen, The World Split Open: How the Modern Women’s Movement Changed America (New York: Viking, 2000): xiv-xv.

[3] Rosen, The World Split Open, 344.

[4] I’m going to use this to describe “everyday” women who weren’t necessarily devoted full time to the movement, but experienced its effects in some way in their daily lives.

[5] Rosen, The World Split Open, 175.

[6] Rosen, The World Split Open, 274.

[7] Rosen, The World Split Open, 238.


The Second Annual History Career Day

by Andrea L. Spencer (@__aerdna___)

On Friday, February 8th, 2019, the Lepage Center for History in the Public Interest sponsored its second annual History Career Day.

The day began with a presentation by Emily Swafford, Director of Academic and Professional Affairs at the American Historical Association. Swafford acknowledged that it can be hard to explain what you learn in a history degree and articulate the skills you learned that can help you get a job. Swafford assuaged fears of not getting a job or not making money with statistics that the AHA collects. Swafford also focused on how to articulate the “soft skills” historians have into words and phrases employers want to hear. For example, history majors learn how change happens, how to find, process, and communicate information that is new to them, and how to make judgements and evaluations on complex issues.

After Dr. Swafford’s presentation, the Lepage Center provided lunch and an hour for attendees to informally network and she their experiences as history students–both undergraduate and graduate.

After lunch was a panel made up of 3 Villanova history alumni–Mark Kehres, Kathryn Szumanski, and Alain Duroseau–and moderated by Dr. Paul Steege. Each panelist described their career paths after Villanova and how their history degree helped them get where they are today.An audience member asked the panelists how their skills as a historian translate to their day-to-day job responsibilities. Duroseau replied that being a historian teaches you to be able to make an argument and support it convincingly, which is important in any job. Szumanski said that the most valuable skill she learned was how to put everything in context, which means learning from and understanding the past and how that informs present and future projects. Kehres believed that the most important skill he learned was clear and concise communication.

When asked specifically about applying to jobs, the panelists offered three main pieces of advice:

  1. Apply to any job within your interests. Many employers are interested in having all majors apply. They want diversity and creative thinking.
  2. Focus your job search by industry and then see how your skills apply.
  3. Know that, as a history major, you learn how to think about the world, how to problems solve, and how to communicate solutions.

The final session of the day was a workshop by Jhaakira Jacobs, the Assistant Director of Career Development at Villanova’s Career Center. Jacobs primary focused on how to write a great cover letter. Her advice was:

  • Begin with an intro paragraph about how you heard about the position. This is a good place for name-dropping any connections you have to the company.
    • Tell the reader why this organization appeals to you. Do your research, and decide if the company aligns with your values and interests.
  • In the second paragraph, pull from the transferable skills you learned in the classroom, from your research paper, and your presentations.
    • Here, you should mention 2-3 qualifications/experiences, what you took away from them, and how that is applicable to this organization.
  • In the third paragraph, you want to reiterate your interests and tell them you will follow up soon.

Jacobs also said to follow up on a job posting 2 weeks after the close date. If you are struggling to describe yourself in your cover letter, get feedback from supervisors and professors about your strengths and talents. When writing your letter, a good way to start is to pick out the key words in the post and brainstorm how you are qualified for them.

All in all, it was a successful and informative day that left attendees feeling positive about their position as job candidates after graduation. The Lepage Center always welcomes feedback on all its events, so please drop by SAC 410 or email with your comments!



If you want to learn more about getting a job as a history major, here are some sites to check out:


Frances Thompson, Survivor of the Memphis Massacre

(Wikimedia Commons)

by Andrea Spencer (@__aerdna___)

            On May 1, 1866, post-Civil War racial tensions erupted into a riot in Memphis, Tennessee. Forty-six African Americans and two white people were killed, 75 people were injured, and at least five black women were raped. One of those women was the formerly enslaved woman Frances Thompson. Thompson testified to a congressional investigating committee headed by Elihu Washburne about her sexual assault in late May.

            If her story stopped here, it would already be a remarkable one. Before the end of the slavery, enslaved people could not testify in a court of law—especially not against a white person. Moreover, before the war, there was no law against raping an enslaved woman. Thought of as chattel, as human property, enslaved people were not thought to be able to give or withhold consent. Enslavers could use their property however they wanted, including raping their enslaved females. Stereotypes of the black woman as a sexually insatiable Jezebel reinforced racist white beliefs that enslaved women could not be raped because they always desired sex. So, testifying in a court of law about her assault and rape already makes Thompson a remarkable woman in American history.

            But Thomspon’s story does not end with her 1866 testimony. A decade later, in July of 1876, based on vague “suspicions,” Thompson was arrested and fined $50 for being a man dressed as a woman, with her biological sex being confirmed as male by four physicians.[1] Thompson could not pay the fine, so the judge assigned her to the city’s chain-gang and kept imprisoned for 100 days. Newspapers across the country published articles on the scandal, ranging from moderately neutral recitations of fact to outraged editorials decrying Thompson’s “utter depravity” and loss of credibility as a witness to the Memphis riots.[2] The newspapers who wrote about Thompson saw her as being doubly guilty—of being black, and of transgressing gender norms.

            After the Civil War, racist whites accused African Americans of failing to adhere to American gender norms. They claimed that black women were hypersexual in a time when women were meant to be chaste. These gendered accusations were inherently racial, as you can see when you look closer at the press’s treatment of Thompson. In all of the articles about Thompson, her race is a prominent detail. The St. Louis Daily Globe-Democrat immediately identifies Thompson as “Francis Thompson (colored)” and describes her using racist terms like “the thick-lipped, foul-mouthed scamp,” “black brute” and “negro scoundrel.”[3] Two articles in the Chicago Tribune refer to Thompson as a “notorious negro,” the St. Louis Daily Globe-Democrat refers to Thompson as “dusky,” and the Galveston Daily News groups Thompson in with “depraved negroes” who lie about Southern racial violence.[4] These articles ostensibly about Thompson’s cross-dressing highlight Thompson’s race so distinctly because it supported conservative white claims that African Americans did not adhere to normal gender expectations. The supposed gender divergence of freed people like Thompson supported white arguments that they did not deserve political and social rights that African Americans claimed in Reconstruction America, reflecting the closing of Reconstruction freedoms for black people.

            It is clear that Thompson’s race was the primary factor determining her harsh treatment in the press because white women who similarly transgressed gender norms were treated more positively. For example, in 1873, a white Missouri woman named Mollie Sherwood left her non-paying job at a hotel, dressed like a man, stole a horse, and took a job as a mail-carrier.[5] Eventually, her co-workers began to suspect that she was not really a man, calling her “an hermaphrodite, and similar names.” She was arrested, and at the time of the article’s writing, was awaiting trial for horse theft. However, unlike reporters who covered Thompson, the article’s author did not use words like “notorious,” “brute,” or “scoundrel” to describe Sherwood. Instead, the author noted her beauty, describing her as the “pretty blonde of the White river valley.” Sherwood’s morality was never in question; instead, she was lauded as a beacon of integrity by those who knew her. The writer described Sherwood’s cross-dressing as evidence of her sense of adventure and social progressiveness. He commented on “the advanced ideas of our young heroine” and how she had “more or less of dash and romance about her.”

            While the black Thompson was called morally depraved, untrustworthy, hideous and hated as a result of her gendered divergence, the white Sherwood was lauded as an exciting, beautiful, romantic heroine. Partially because of her whiteness, Sherwood’s transgressions were exciting and light-hearted. Thompson’s threatened the social and racial order of America, and so she was vilified in the press.

            In the wake of the Civil War, testifying about sexual assault was how Thompson and other black women asserted their new citizenship and right to bodily protection. These women challenged racist white beliefs that black women were always sexually available, and took advantage of the burgeoning freedoms that Reconstruction offered. However, only a few years after the war’s end, these opportunities and freedoms were deteriorated by racist white violence against African Americans throughout the South. Refusing to allow African Americans to step outside of racial and gendered norms, whites strictly dictated how African Americans could live their lives in public and private. When freed people, like Thompson, did not adhere to these norms, whites used violence—sometimes through the Ku Klux Klan, sometimes through prison labor—to punish them for their aberrations. By arresting, imprisoning, and essentially murdering Thompson, white Memphians showed that, to them, Reconstruction was over. Freed people would no longer be allowed to define their lives. They must follow racial and gendered dictums or be punished.

[1] “Thompson’s Joke,” Chicago Tribune, July 12 1876.

[2] “Under False Colors,” St. Louis Daily Globe-Democrat, July 15, 1876.

[3] “‘The Bloody Shirt,’” Galveston Daily News, July 27, 1876.

[4] “Grist From the Outrage Mill,” Harrisburg Patriot, August 17, 1876, “Telegraphic Notes” Chicago Tribune, November 4, 1876, “Under False Colors” St. Louis Daily Globe-Democrat, July 15, 1876, “‘The Bloody Shirt,’” Galveston Daily News, July 27, 1876.

[5] The Boy Girl,” Morning Republican, June 25, 1873.

Book Review: Garrett Epps, Democracy Reborn

by Andrea Spencer (@__aerdna___)

In Democracy Reborn, Garrett Epps crafts a picture of post-Civil War American politics and the struggle to conceive of, write, pass, and ratify the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. Epps details the battles in the House and Senate through biographical portraits of the political “great men” who shaped the amendment. Epps declares that “those who gathered in Washington after Appomattox knew that victory depended on taming the Slave Power, on making sure it did not survive the death of slavery itself. A few small adjustments would not save the nation. What was needed was a renovation of the Framers’ house” (Epps, 11). That renovation would be the Fourteenth Amendment. According to Epps, “it has, over time, changed almost every detail of our national life…it did produce…‘a more perfect union’ than the old one” (11). Democracy Reborn tells the story of how revolutionary the Fourteenth Amendment was and how it completely changed America for the better.

With Democracy Reborn, Epps does not enter into a very prolific historiographical conversation. Few significant scholarly works have been written about the Fourteenth Amendment, and even fewer have been published in the last few decades. In this limited scholarship, Epps joins the debate over incorporation theory. According to Cornell Law School, incorporation theory or doctrine is “a constitutional doctrine through which the first ten amendments of the United States Constitution (known as the Bill of Rights) are made applicable to the states through the Due Process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.” Some scholars, such as James E. Bond in his 1997 work No Easy Walk to Freedom: Reconstruction and the Ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment and Raoul Berger in his 1989 book, The Fourteenth Amendment and the Bill of Rights, deny incorporation theory, arguing that the amendment’s writers believed the states would retain their ability to guarantee and define the scope of their citizen’s rights. However, scholars such as Michael Kent Curtis in his 1986 work, No State Shall Abridge: The Fourteenth Amendment and the Bill of Rights by Michael Kent Curtis, claim that the amendment framers did intend for states to be bound by the Bill of Rights. Epps agrees with Curtis, arguing that the amendment “was designed to push Congress’s power over the states even further” (173).

Epps organizes his book largely chronologically. However, some chapters are thematic discursions. For example, Chapter 9, “The Prospect of a Good Long Life” gives an overview of the relationship between the suffrage movement and abolitionist movement; oddly, Epps does not connect this chapter to the rest of the book or his argument. The majority of the work is dedicated to chronicling changing Americans politics immediately after the war and biographical exposition of the men who led this change. The book itself is driven by these biographies of men both prominent in the making of the Fourteenth Amendment, such as Thaddeus Stevens, Andrew Johnson, and Jonathan Bingham, as well as men who were more tangentially related, such as Carl Schurz and Walt Whitman. Beginning with the Constitutional framers in the prologue, Epps argues that the inclusion of slavery and the overwhelming dominance of the Slave Power (what he calls the uneven political representation of slave states’ interest in the federal government, thanks to the three-fifths clause) were the primary flaws in the original Constitution. He then fast-forwards to 1865 and continues his narrative. Epps sets up the major players in his story, including Andrew Johnson as the fatally stubborn drunk, Thaddeus Stevens as the thundering anti-slavery Republican, and John Bingham as the under-recognized framer of the Fourteenth Amendment. Epps looks primarily at bills and political debates that shaped what would eventually be the Fourteenth Amendment, tracing the intellectual evolution of civil rights legislation. Most of the book is spent in exposition, and Epps spends only the last few chapters on the actual passage and ratification of the amendment. Epps’ afterword admits that Southern racists found ways to prevent black civil rights and that America has struggled with living up to the idea that all men are created equal. However, he concludes that America is one of the most free nations in the world and in “seasonable time” the country will follow the path of equality that the “second founders” of the Fourteenth Amendment began more than 150 years ago.

Garret Epps is a constitutional scholar, not a trained historian. However, he does use extensive secondary source material, including books by prominent Reconstruction scholars like Eric Foner and Ira Berlin. However, he most frequently references biographies of his main subjects. For his primary sources, he uses the official report of congressional debates, the Congressional Globe and newspapers like Harper’s Weekly and New York Weekly. The sources themselves and his use of them are not groundbreaking; what makes Epps’ work unique is his conception of Reconstruction as a sort of ‘second Revolution’ in America. Guided by his legal and Constitutional background, Epps argues that the Fourteenth Amendment fundamentally changed the Constitution.

Democracy Reborn is not a typical historical monograph. Epps is a dramatic, at times flowery, writer, and he often gets lost in biographical discursions. This can distract the reader and prevent them from following Epps’ argument about the Fourteenth Amendment. However, the thing that most prevents one from following this argument is Epps’ own lack of attention to it. Most of the chapters do not mention the Fourteenth Amendment and are instead devoted to contextual detail and biography. This creates a very vivid picture in the reader’s mind of the political and social issues of Reconstruction America. However, Epps never really makes an clear argument as to why the Fourteenth Amendment was so revolutionary (until, perhaps, his afterword). One learns more about the political complexities of Reconstruction America and the passage of the amendment than about the effects of it. However, Epps does clearly show how federal Reconstruction politics were a distinct break from Antebellum government. Another distinct issue with his work is the lack of diversity of his historical subjects. With Democracy Reborn, Epps contributes to great man history; his subjects are almost exclusively rich white men. Though he does discuss Fredrick Douglass (and inexplicably adds Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony), Epps largely focuses on the same people who have been studied in this context over and over again. Finally, Epps needs to check his details more closely; at one point he refers to Edward S. McPherson as Edward J. McPherson (60).

With Democracy Reborn, Epps adds to the scant historical work done on the Fourteenth Amendment. With his illustrative prose and in-depth characterization of great men, he conjures a vivid image in his readers mind about the political and legal atmosphere of Reconstruction. He tells this story more effectively than he proves his point about the revolutionary nature of the Fourteenth Amendment. Despite this, Democracy Reborn would be a valuable read for Advanced Placement high-schoolers or undergraduate students as an introduction to the topic.

Climbing the Ivory Tower Part 2: Applying

This is arguably the worst part. This is when you have to find some non-existent time in your busy schedule as a grad student, GA, TA, employee, and regular human to perfect your written application.

Most of the written portion of PhD applications can be broken into 3 parts: the Statement of Purpose (SOP) or your Personal Statement (PS), your Writing Sample (WS) and CV or resume. An additional part is the letter of recommendation, but you (obviously) don’t write that for yourself.

Disclaimer: Every school wants something different for each of these parts (of course they do, because nothing is ever simple). Make sure to check your school’s website to see exactly what they want. To make things simple, I’m going to use guidelines from schools I’m applying to.

What’s the Sweet Spot for Numbers?

So you’ve done the research and have your nifty spreadsheet with all the info you need about programs. But how many should you actually apply to? 2 or 12? The answer is somewhere in between.

The average advice I’ve gotten is somewhere between 5 and 7.

“Don’t waste your time applying to schools that only accept or fund 2 or 3 people. Apply for some places that the school’s name recognition is fantastic, then apply to some where it’s about the person you’d be working with.” Dr. Giesberg

Statement of Purpose/Personal Statement

A SOP and PS seem fairly interchangeable.

For me, this is the part I’m dreading the most. For some reason, writing about myself is much harder than writing about people who have been dead for over a century.

To make matters worse, most schools give barely any guidelines for what they want from a PS. The most robust one I’ve come across is from Harvard:


  • Personal statement that makes clear why the applicant wants to study history in graduate school, and why the applicant wants to study at Harvard. This statement often illustrates the applicant’s research interests and notes potential advisors


According to Duke, a Statement of Purpose should be about 1-2 pages that includes

  • your purposes and objectives in pursuing graduate study;
  • your special interests and plans;
  • your strengths and weaknesses in your chosen field;
  • any research projects or any independent research in which you have actively participated and how they have influenced your career choice and desire to pursue graduate studies; and
  • any particular reasons you may have for applying to Duke (e.g. you would like to work with a specific faculty member).

The point is, every school wants something slightly different, but your program should tell you exactly what they want. Your PS or SOP should be succinct and punchy. This part is going to show if you really know what you want to do in grad school. It should be tailored to the school you’re sending it to, including what faculty you want to work with and what other resources they have available to you.

Here’s some sage advice from Villanova’s wise faculty:

“Draft it and send it to people who know what a good PS looks like, because as a grad student you probably don’t. Don’t start with how you had a passion for history as a child because you went to a museum. It’s been done. A more compelling way to start is to talk about a moment in college when you got really excited about a reading or something you found in an archive, etc. Start with passion, but also intellect and curiosity.” Dr. Whitney Martinko

“One of the key things is to think of the three main pieces of your application–the Personal Statement, the Statement of Purpose, and the writing sample–not as three independent pieces, but as three things that need to work together. The personal statement, as much as it is trying to give a sense of who you are as a person, it should be very much embedded in the intellectual trajectory that you’re trying to map out. So you want to explain how your personal perspective inform the way in which you look at the historical subjects you want to engage. So part of it I guess it to think about drafting these in tandem. What are the things I really want to say about me and my personal perspective on history? Which of these belong in the personal statement? Which belong in the statement of purpose? And so on. It’s important to say I understand how this intellectual work fits into the complications of doing archival work and publishing, etc. I read this, and I published this, etc. These things I’ve done that make it possible for you to understand my experience and awareness of how this works.” Dr. Paul Steege

“I used undergrad faculty to help me with my personal statement. But I don’t know today if I’ve ever written one that I liked. I think no matter how hard you try they sound terrible, trite. I’ve read some good ones. I’m very happy to read other people’s and critique them, but I can honestly say I’ve never written one I liked. The advice I got was to imagine yourself there, in the program, and see how you see yourself working with the faculty. For me, I had already taught in public schools so in my application I incorporated that experience as something I could bring to the table. In fact, I started teaching right away because there was an emergency.” Dr. Judith Giesberg

“It’s about how everything you have done so far sets you up to be the most awesome graduate student ever. Craft it so that all your choices led you to where you are today. It’s your talking CV: ‘This is what I would contribute to the program and the community.’ If there’s something about you that’s really very interesting, even if it’s not academic, it could help you succeed in the program.” Dr. Rebecca Winer

Writing Sample

Your writing sample is the star of your application. That’s why you have to absolutely nail it.

While you may be tempted to submit your undergrad or MA thesis. Sure, it’s proof that you can plan a research agenda, execute it, and write about it in an extended way. However, most theses far exceed most WS page limits. And because of their extended length, it’s harder to perfect every aspect of a thesis. It’s better to submit a shorter paper you’ve had time to revise and polish.

“Submit a shorter, clearer writing sample rather that your undergrad thesis, because it’s a good experience but doesn’t always produce a great piece of writing. You need a really good, short writing sample that’s coherent and showcases what’s going to make you stand out.” Dr. Martinko

“Follow the length rules.When you’re getting lots of applications you have to make a choice about you to discard and you shouldn’t give them an excuse to dismiss you…Don’t underestimate the importance of the opening paragraphs. You need to have it clear and upfront about why this is important and why I should care about it. But that’s why it’s important to have the link between the statement of purpose and the writing sample. It (SOP) is a guideline of what they should look for in the writing sample.” Dr. Steege

“Use all the resources at your disposal. Use the professional staff at the Writing Center, use your advisor, faculty, work in a group of other people who are applying to circulate your writing.” Dr. Giesberg

“If you’re in a field with languages, use something that shows off your skills. Send your best paper–one that won a prize, was published, etc. If it’s on your topic, even better.” Dr. Winer


A CV (Curriculum Vitae, aka “the course of one’s life” in Latin) is basically an academic resume. It’s telling the reader what you have contribute to the field. As grad students, it’s pretty difficult to craft a good one because you probably haven’t done that much!

Like resumes, there is no one perfect way to make a CV. I’ve gotten a lot of different advice from people, but some things you should include on your CV are:

  • Your undergrad and grad education
  • If you wrote an undergrad thesis (and your thesis director)
  • Any publications (including historical blog posts!)
  • Grants and awards
  • Work experience related to academia (i.e. being a TA)
  • Conferences you’ve presented at

“Less is more on a CV when you’re applying to a PhD program. Things in high school should not be on your CV. Your extracurriculars don’t matter unless that had to do with history. Blog articles, maybe being a columnist for the student newspaper, maybe including one line about BA coursework concentrations. This is about communicating what you’ve contributed to the field and as someone applying to be a grad student, the answer is probably not much. But you want to include things like conferences you’ve presented at, related blog posts you’ve written, if you have published in an undergrad or graduate journal, if you’ve done service related to history, if you’ve won any awards (even if it’s in a different concentration). Coursework should go more in your personal statement than your CV.” Dr. Martinko

“For PhD programs, I’m not sure how much a CV matters. I’m guessing your SOP, PS, and WS matter more.” Dr. Giesberg

Letters of Recommendation

This is kind of the easy part, because you don’t have to write these! You do, however, have to ask for them. Most schools require 2-3, and you should ask professors you’ve worked with or had multiple classes with throughout your program. As an MA student, you can ask your undergrad professors but it’s probably better to have someone who’s worked with you in a graduate level.

“Letters of Recommendation need to be developed over a period of time. The first time you have a real conversation with a professor should not be when you’re asking for your letter or rec. You want them to feel invested and committed to you work. So once you have a relationship with your profs now, you can have them vouch for you to those potential advisors.” Dr. Steege

“Letters of Recommendation should be another argument on your behalf. If you can give your letter writer a pretty polished PS, SOP, and WS, then they know what you’re saying and how they can supplement that argument and show the reader why it matters.” Dr. Steege

“I have a file of how to ask for a Letter of Recommendation from Dr. Winer. It’s too important to mess it up! Give it to me 3 weeks in advance. Give them a list of where you’re applying, due dates, method of submission, CV, Writing Sample and Statement of Purpose. Ideally we should meet so I can find out everything I need to know to write you a great letter. Waive your right to access–schools put more weight on a confidential letter.” Dr. Winer


Submit a shorter, more polished paper for your writing sample, and make sure your PS or SOP is an academic elevator pitch that works in tandem with your other application materials. Ask your letter-writers far in advance and give them all the materials they need to write you the best possible letter. Apply to 5-7 schools.

Next Up! Deciding

It doesn’t seem like it, but eventually this will be over and we get to decide which program we got into is right for us. In the meantime, what other advice are you looking for?