Distinguished Lecturers
Victoria Saker Woeste

Victoria Saker Woeste

Victoria Saker Woeste is a research professor at the American Bar Foundation in Chicago, an organization devoted to the interdisciplinary study of law. Her research inquires into the dynamics of legal change in twentieth-century U.S. society, with particular focus on agriculture and capitalism, business and regulation, and constitutionalism and civil rights. In her first book, The Farmer's Benevolent Trust: Law and Agricultural Cooperation in Industrial America (1998), Woeste argues that farmers mobilized law and corporate power to respond actively to industrialization and the nationalization of markets. Their initiative and creativity enabled them to mobilize law to shape market relations rather than be defined by them. In Henry Ford's War on Jews and the Legal Battle against Hate Speech (2012) Woeste offers an explosive retelling of the obscure story of the auto manufacturer's side career as a hate-speech publisher, set in the context of 1920s tribalism and heightened economic instability. Henry Ford's unreflected antisemitism precipitated a federal libel lawsuit against him in 1927 that introduced questions of group libel and published race prejudice to the national legal stage. Though strong evidence existed to support charges of libel, Ford was able to evade responsibility for the damage his printed words had done, and the lack of accountability ensured that Ford's beliefs would become a touchstone for antisemitic groups worldwide. The book ties together the early history of the American legal profession, the roots of modern hate-speech regulations, and the history of civil rights activism. She is currently studying the civil rights law practice of the religious figure Fred W. Phelps Sr. and an assessment of the contributions of the church he founded, the Westboro Baptists, to American constitutional law and legal consciousness. She is also working on a synthetic history of American agriculture and its relationship to the state since 1862, with particular attention to the stories of family farmers, tenants, and seasonal laborers.

OAH Lectures by Victoria Saker Woeste

In 2016 Victoria Woeste was the Democratic nominee for her district's representative in the Indiana House. In this talk, she discusses her candidacy, the issues, the feedback received, the gender and religious issues encountered, and voters' perceptions of her expertise and academic background during the campaign. She also talks about public perceptions of law -- how people believe law does and should work, how they believe law should reflect their norms and values (even when it doesn't), how they articulate that disconnect between the ideal and the actual, and how that disconnect shapes their voting behavior. Finally, the lecture will discuss the extent to which education and academic credentials serve to disqualify candidates in the public view, even in fairly balanced districts.

This lecture uncovers the surprising record of the civil rights litigation practice of Rev. Fred W. Phelps Sr., founder of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church, in eastern Kansas in the early decades after Brown v. Board of Education (1954). A native of Mississippi, Phelps earned his law degree at Topeka's Washburn University in 1964 and founded a family law practice not far from the state capitol. In the early 1970s, he began filing dozens of lawsuits in the federal district courts alleging discrimination against his clients on the basis of race, sex, and religion. Though he developed a reputation as a lawyer who preferred litigation to negotiation, he also proved tenacious once his cases came to trial, particularly when the defendants were corporate employers or, in one notable example, the Topeka Board of Education itself, which, twenty years after Brown, had still failed to address the unequal nature of primary and secondary educational facilities in the city. The lecture will attempt to explain how someone so devoted to civil rights for racial minorities and women could then make himself notorious as a hate speaker in opposition to civil rights for gay and lesbian individuals after 1990.

In Henry Ford's War on Jews and the Legal Battle Against Hate Speech, the dramatic courtroom proceedings against America's beloved tinkerer and Flivver King, Henry Ford, unfold against the backdrop of America's "tribal twenties." Ford's influence on the nation's society and culture rivaled his impact on its economy; when he spoke, the country listened. So when he began publishing a newspaper dedicated to the "Neglected Truth" behind the presence of a nefarious "International Jew" at the highest levels of American government, few challenged his veracity or motives. One who did, an obscure lawyer from California, took Ford all the way to trial in Detroit's federal court--a sublime example of how lawsuits provide a crucible in which, with distractions and half-truths burned away, the historically situated meaning of law, and equality, becomes apparent. In the end, Ford escaped the verdict of law, but his lasting legacy as a purveyor of antisemitic hate speech provides a more realistic frame for understanding his significance.

In this lecture, Woeste examines the contribution of historians and biographers to the gradual burnishment of the many myths that surround Henry Ford (1863-1947). A significant number of anecdotes and even direct quotes continue to pop up in scores of books written by academic historians and popular biographers alike. By tracing anecdotes back to their original sources (or lack thereof), we come to understand just how history has created an image of Henry Ford that parallels the mythology Ford created about himself during his life. The lecture assesses the obligation historians bear to their audiences to sift through evidence carefully in order to discern fact from apocrypha. She concludes with suggestions for why it matters to the historian’s craft that we not shirk this obligation.

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