OAH Distinguished Lecturer Profile

Barbara Y. Welke

Portrait of Barbara Y. Welke

Barbara Y. Welke is a Distinguished McKnight University Professor, a professor of history, and a professor of law at the University of Minnesota, where she codirects the program in law and history. She is the author of Law and the Borders of Belonging in the Long Nineteenth-Century United States (2010), which considers the history of legal personhood and citizenship, and Recasting American Liberty: Gender, Race, Law, and the Railroad Revolution, 1865–1920 (2001), winner of the American Historical Association’s Littleton-Griswold Prize. Her current research on consumer product injury in the twentieth-century mass consumption economy has appeared in an article, "The Cowboy Suit Tragedy: Spreading Risk, Owning Hazard in the Modern American Economy," in the Journal of American History (June 2014) and a related podcast, as well as a play, "Owning Hazard, A Tragedy," in the UC Irvine Law Review (2011). She is also working on a book that traces the history of the curriculum vitae and its role in constructing the boundaries of knowledge.

Featured Lecture

OAH Lectures

Between 1942 and 1952, an unknown number of children were severely burned when the Gene Autry cowboy suits they were wearing caught fire turning them into “human torches.” A number of the children died, others were crippled for life. The cowboy suit tragedy unfolded at mid-century, in a context in which Americans were increasingly dependent on the consumer marketplace to meet their basic needs, in which consumption had come to be understood as the engine of American economic growth and stability and as critical to capitalism and democracy, and even as the purchasing power of consumers and providing a social safety net had come to be seen as public, governmental obligations. The cowboy suit tragedy offers a powerful, haunting window into risk, insurance, law and the meaning of owning hazard in the modern American consumer economy.
The curriculum vitae lies at the center of our professional lives. It is among the first professional documents a graduate student drafts to present her or himself to the broader academic world. It is foundational to job searches, fellowship competitions, conference proposals, tenure, promotion, and merit reviews, to how we know ourselves and each other professionally. What might we learn by treating the curriculum vitae as an object of history? The Latin phrase “curriculum vitae” means, literally, “the course of a life.” It seems only to have been with the beginning of written dissertations in early modern European universities that a curriculum vitae became a written narrative, a document appended at the end of dissertations, an intellectual biography of sorts, with a defined set of elements. Only in the 20th century that it became a list, broken down by categories. And only in the 1960s that this disciplining document became foundational in academic life, with date of birth and marital and family status appearing just beneath a scholar’s name. Before the 1950s the document that we now take for granted was a rarity in the American academy. I am interested in how the cv came to take the form it has today, how it became foundational to academic life, and with what consequences for how knowledge is defined.
Questions of belonging rest at the heart of the modern liberal democratic state. What does belonging mean? Who belongs? Does belonging depend on there being others who do not belong? What is their relationship to the polity? Does it matter what the basis for belonging is, what the defining characteristics of belonging are? Who decides? What does law have to do with it? The answers to these questions are critical in establishing who can make claims on the polity and who cannot; on relationships among those who live in a policy; and in making a population a people. They highlight what I call the "borders of belonging." Weisenfeld traces the borders of belonging through the long nineteenth century focusing especially on race, gender, and disability.