OAH Distinguished Lecturer Profile

Jean Baker

Portrait of Jean Baker

Jean Baker is the Bennett-Harwood Professor of History at Goucher College, where she earned her undergraduate degree prior to completing graduate studies at Johns Hopkins University with David Herbert Donald. She has taught primarily at Goucher, with visiting professorships at various institutions including Harvard College. Most recently she taught in Goucher's prison education program in Jessup, Maryland. Her early publications focused on the intersection of politics and the Civil War, including Affairs of Party: The Political Culture of Northern Democrats in the Mid-Nineteenth Century (1998), an effort to study politics as more than simply elections. She also coauthored a textbook on the Civil War and Reconstruction and wrote a popular biography of Mary Todd Lincoln. In recent years her research and writing have focused on women's history, including Sisters: The Lives of America's Suffragists (2005) and Margaret Sanger: A Life of Passion (2011). Currently she is writing a biography of the architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe.

Featured Lecture

OAH Lectures

Mary Lincoln is our most controversial First Lady. Yet most of her contributions in that role have been overshadowed by the historical focus on her incarceration in a mental asylum. In this lecture Jean Baker uses a biographical approach to argue that the early stages of Mary Lincoln's life make her a typical middle-class woman.That includes her heartbreaking family losses of three sons and a husband. What was exceptional was her celebrity status during the Civil War, her interest in politics and her resilience in the face of an unnecessary institutionalization orchestrated by her only remaining son. This lecture seeks to provide a more balanced view of her life.
Historians are properly suspicious of assigning to individuals the success of a social movement. And yet there are some activists who are identified with such transformations--for example, Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement. In this lecture Jean Baker argues that Margaret Sanger deserves such a starring role in the effort to separate sex from reproduction by providing birth control for women. Sanger was an unlikely but effective activist in the process of overturning the restrictive Comstock Act. Her command of the ways in which opposition to birth control could be transformed included acts of civil disobedience, education through her writing and establishing an organization devoted to popularizing birth control. Along the way she sought the support of male eugenicists and this has made her the unfortunate target of modern Catholics and evangelists.