OAH Distinguished Lecturer Profile

OAH Distinguished Lectureship program 40 years 1981-2021

Christina Simmons

Portrait of Christina Simmons

Christina Simmons became a historian of U.S. women and sexuality under the influence of the women's movement of the 1970s. Her research has centered on how the changing roles and activism of American women have affected marriage and sexuality for both whites and African Americans. She taught at the University of Cincinnati and the University of Windsor (Ontario), retiring from the latter in January 2015 as a professor of history and women's and gender studies. She is a coeditor, with Kathy Peiss, of Passion and Power: Sexuality in History (1989) and the author of Making Marriage Modern: Women's Sexuality from the Progressive Era to World War II (2009). She is currently researching sex and marriage education among African Americans, examining how their unique position in American society affected their views and experiences of marriage and sexuality in the 1940s and 1950s. She is also editing "A Cultural History of Marriage: The Modern Age," a global history of marriage in the twentieth century.

Featured Lecture

OAH Lectures

In the twentieth century marriage in the U.S. was transformed from a powerful and patriarchal social and legal institution to a much more fragile and somewhat more egalitarian one. These shifts, especially in the roles and rights of women, have generated sharp social and political controversy. While macro socioeconomic forces like women's increasing labor force participation and cultural developments such as intensified individualism have contributed to these changes, women's concerted efforts to modify marital norms and practices are equally important. This lecture examines how white and African-American women criticized, reconceived, and attempted to reform marriage in the twentieth-century U.S.
American marriage in the early twentieth century has been increasingly built around the autonomy of youth, romantic heterosexual love and intimacy, and contraceptive practice, while the power of the patriarchal family over children’s marriage has weakened. This modern form of marriage began earlier in the U.S. and other industrialized nations, but over the century it emerged in many parts of the world, influenced by consumer capitalism, urbanization, mass media, and women’s employment and political mobilization. Ideals of emotional and sexual intimacy in marriage became very powerful, but they have often clashed with the realities of class and gendered power differences in people’s lives. This lecture examines how Americans and others have experienced and sought to re-think the inner dynamics of modern marriage in the mid- to late-twentieth century.
Since at least the 1920s advice columns such as that of the popular (white) Dorothy Dix have formed staple fare in newspapers. They were also featured in African-American newspapers, which were a critical social and political institution for black communities through the twentieth century. This lecture looks at the long-running “Naomi’s Advice” column in the Norfolk, Virginia, African-American weekly, the Journal and Guide, one of the largest-circulation black newspapers of the mid-twentieth century. “Naomi” and her majority-female correspondents offer insights into both middle-class African-American norms for marriage and the gendered experiences and complaints of ordinary readers in Virginia and North Carolina. The columnist’s tone and perspective differed from that of similar white advice writers, and her divergent advice to single and married women points to imperatives for African-American women’s survival, as well as the cultural power of marriage.