OAH Distinguished Lecturer Profile

Katherine Benton-Cohen

Portrait of Katherine Benton-Cohen
Image Credit: David Burnett

Katherine Benton-Cohen is professor of history at Georgetown University. She has also taught at Louisiana State University and in Cornell University’s Washington DC program. She is a graduate of Tempe High, Princeton University, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. An Arizona native, her interests include the history of the American West, the history of race and immigration and the history of women in the United States. Her most recent book Inventing the Immigration Problem: The Dillingham Commission and Its Legacy (2018), examines the long-lasting policy impact of the largest study of immigrants in American history, from 1907 to 1911. She is also the author of Borderline Americans: Racial Division and Labor War in the Arizona Borderlands (2009), a history of race that was named by Tucson Weekly as one of fifty essential books about Arizona. That book was the basis for her work as historical advisor for the much-acclaimed 2018 documentary feature film, Bisbee ’17 (dir. Robert Greene), which won the American Historical Association’s John O’Connor Prize for Best Documentary Film. She has received grants and fellowships from the Woodrow Wilson Center, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Coordinating Council for Women in History, the National History Center, the New York Public Library, and the Princeton University Libraries. She has given talks to audiences across the country, and she and her work have appeared in media outlets including PBS American Experience, the BBC, Dissent, the New Yorker, Politico.com, the Washington Post, NPR, Soledad O’Brien’s Matter of Fact, and numerous podcasts. She is now working on a global history of the Phelps-Dodge family, whose capitalist and philanthropic links between New York, the US-Mexico Borderlands, and the Middle East profoundly changed each region. She lives in Washington, DC, with her husband and two children, and she enjoys working with teachers and K-12 students.

Featured Lecture

OAH Lectures

This lecture examines the social scientists and government experts who conceptualized immigration as a "problem" in the United States, and the legislative, bureaucratic and cultural legacy of their work in the present day.
With a blend of personal and professional perspectives, this lecture considers current Arizona policy in historical context, with special attention to the relationship between federal and local policy and vigilantism.
In July 1917, in the copper mining town of Bisbee, Arizona, a strike led by the radical union, the Industrial Workers of the World, was stopped by an elaborate vigilante action. Over 1000 local men rounded up the strikers and their sympathizers, and shipped them by company boxcar into the middle of the New Mexico desert. The event created front-page headlines across the country, international controversy, and a federal investigation. This lecture explores the complex origins in the racial, class, and gendered history of this infamous event, and its relationship to the US-Mexico border, World War I, and the course of labor history and race relations in the American Southwest.
This lecture traces the role of Jewish leaders and activists in shaping immigration policy in the formative years of the early twentieth century. Turning from suspicion of new immigrants to a civil-rights approach that opposed the new calls for immigration restriction, men like Jacob Schiff, Simon Wolf, and Julian Mack put aside their significant differences to lobby against federal immigration restriction. Although they were not ultimately successful in stopping the restrictive quotas of the 1920s, Jewish leaders succeeded in creating a place at the policy table for themselves and their successors.
This lecture examines the formative period in the history of immigration policy, the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This talk uses the story of the largest study of immigrants in American history, the U.S. Immigration Commission of 1907 to 1911, to trace the rise of modern immigration policy, social science, and exclusion laws. It focuses on a formidable group of men and women, including anthropologist Franz Boas, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, and Mary Philbrook, the first female attorney in New Jersey--as well as the immigrants they studied. It argues that this period in time and the work of these researches set the frame for today's immigration policies.