Rebecca L. Davis

Rebecca L. Davis is the Miller Family Endowed Early Career Professor of History at the University of Delaware, with a joint appointment in the Department of Women and Gender Studies. She is the author of More Perfect Unions: The American Search for Marital Bliss (2010), a history of how marriage counseling shaped twentieth-century American religion, social science, and gender politics; Public Confessions: The Religious Conversions that Changed American Politics (2021), which considers how the controversial religious conversions of Clare Boothe Luce, Whittaker Chambers, Sammy Davis Jr., Muhammad Ali, and Chuck Colson, among others, shaped ideas about authenticity and democracy; and the co-editor with Michele Mitchell of Heterosexual Histories (2021). Her latest book is the the first single-volume history of sexuality in American in over three decades, titled Fierce Desires: A New History of Sex and Sexuality in America (2024). Davis serves as a producer and the story editor for the Sexing History podcast. A former postdoctoral fellow at the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton University, she was a visiting fellow there during the 2016–2017 academic year.

OAH Lectures by Rebecca L. Davis

In this talk based on her book, the first single-volume history of sexuality in American in over three decades, Davis explores how debates over the meaning and importance of sexuality have shaped American life from the 1600s to the present. It spans four hundred years of history, from two-spirit people among the Pueblo Indians in the seventeenth century to the gay rights activist Kiyoshi Kuromiya in the twentieth. At every step is the existence of gender nonconformity, queer love, and abortion--facts of sexual life deemed by the Right to be very recent inventions. At the same time, Davis argues that Americans shifted from understanding sexual behaviors as meaningful but secondary reflections of otherwise nonsexual personal qualities to understanding sexuality as a fundamental aspect of the human condition, essential to what makes a person who they are.

When Muhammad Ali announced that he had joined the Nation of Islam in 1964, his father told reporters that his son had been "brainwashed" by Elijah Muhammad. This idea--that the physically powerful boxer had a weak mind--persisted throughout his career, often cited to discredit his activism against the war in Vietnam and to mock his chosen religion. But it also resonates in today's debates over the presence of African Americans (especially Black men) in national conversations about faith, power, and authentic self-definition.

When the Supreme Court announced its decision in the Obergefell decision in 2015, it seemed that the United States would put its debates over marriage equality behind it, moving all 50 states toward a legal definition of marriage that included same-sex couples. Yet almost immediately, the religious defenders of "traditional marriage" challenged the implementation of the decision, and the current administration has looked for ways to undermine it. Why has marriage become the focus of religious activism in the United States? This lecture explores the history of the American investment in marriage and offers suggestions about why marriage remains a rallying cry for the Christian right.

By 1946 Clare Boothe Luce was already serving her second term in Congress (R-CT) and was the author of several well regarded plays, most famously, The Women. Her husband, Henry Luce, stood atop an ever-growing publishing empire. Clare Luce surprised everyone, however, when she converted to Roman Catholicism in 1946 under the tutelage of Monsignor (later Bishop) Fulton Sheen. She seized the attention her conversion generated to promote Catholicism as the solution to global communism. This talk explores the ironies and unintended consequences of Luce's celebration of Catholic conversion in the late 1940s, arguing for her place among the most influential religious anti-Communists of the mid-20th century.

When the versatile entertainer Sammy Davis Jr. converted to Judaism in 1960, his religious choice was widely mocked by fellow entertainers and derided by Christian African Americans who felt that Davis had abandoned his race. Yet Davis was never anything but adamant that his racial and religious identities were not only compatible but logical. This lecture explores how Davis came to identify with Judaism, why his decision elicited such controversy, and what we can learn about the racial and religious politics of the mid-20th-century United States from his story.


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