Laura McEnaney

Laura McEnaney is Vice President for Research and Education at the Newberry Library. Prior to this, she was a professor of history at Whittier College, where she taught U.S. history, specializing in the post-1945 era. Her research interests focus on questions of war and society. She is especially interested in a war's "post," the period in which a society transitions from war to peace. She is the author of Civil Defense Begins at Home: Militarization Meets Everyday Life in the Fifties (2000), and she has published numerous scholarly articles in journals and edited collections. Her book, Postwar: Waging Peace in Chicago (2018), explores the social and urban history of America's demobilization from World War II and the whole notion of "postwar" in the twentieth century. Her first article from that project, "Nightmares on Elm Street: Demobilizing in Chicago, 1945–1953," published in the Journal of American History (March 2006), won the OAH Binkley-Stephenson Award. McEnaney has received a grant from National Endowment for the Humanities, a fellowship from Brown University's George A. and Eliza Gardner Howard Foundation, and an Arnold L. and Lois S. Graves Award in the Humanities from the American Council of Learned Societies. McEnaney received Whittier College's Harry W. Nerhood Teaching Excellence Award in 2007 and its Presidential Award for Outstanding Advising of First-Year Students in 2017.

OAH Lectures by Laura McEnaney

The phrase “the problem of caring” comes from Dillon Meyer, head of the War Relocation Authority, the government agency that incarcerated Japanese Americans during WW2. He understood internment not so much as a national security issue but as a welfare challenge, as he saw once productive workers now dependent on the state for support. This lecture reframes the history of Japanese American internment as a welfare history, examining how thousands of Japanese Americans resettled and rebuilt in Chicago after they left the camps.

This talk will examine peace as its own historical process. It will focus on how working-class people transitioned from war to peace after World War II, but it will look at a variety of postwar eras in American history to interrogate what we mean when we think about "postwar." War’s totality deserves our careful scrutiny—whatever our subfield—for war reaches deeply into civil society, scrambling some things and strengthening others, long after the fighting stops. Historical reflection on the years following a war can illuminate what people thought they were fighting for, what they gained and lost, and what they expected in return for the sacrifice. For these and other reasons, we should dissect our postwar epochs as carefully as we have our wars.

Working-class women’s struggle to assemble the ingredients of the postwar “good life” challenges a still-powerful narrative about American women after World War II: that they married, moved to the suburbs, had children, and grew quiet. Although decades of scholarly research has complicated this story, the notion that the wartime Rosie the Riveter became television’s archetypal housewife “June Cleaver” persists. In fact, we still know too little about what happened to urban working-class women between VJ-Day and their much touted middle class suburban entrenchment, a gap that stems not only from the difficulties of tracking war’s timelines for women, but also from a wider scholarly silence on the history of World War II's demobilization. This lecture will examine white ethnic, African American and Japanese American working-class women in Chicago as they endured the transition from war to peace in the forties and fifties.

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