OAH Distinguished Lecturer Profile

OAH Distinguished Lectureship program 40 years 1981-2021

Lisa Tetrault

Portrait of Lisa Tetrault

Lisa Tetrault is an associate professor at Carnegie Mellon University. She is the author of The Myth of Seneca Falls: Memory and the Women's Suffrage Movement, 1848–1898 (2014), which won the OAH Mary Jurich Nickliss Book Prize. She is the recipient of long-term fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Newberry Library, the Smithsonian Institution, and the Library of Congress. She also spent a year in residence at Harvard University's Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History. Tetrault specializes in memory, social movements (particularly feminism), Reconstruction, political economy, and women's health. She is currently at work on two new book projects: a new narrative about post–Civil War women's rights activism and a history of intimate partner violence from the founding of the nation to the present.

Featured Lecture

OAH Lectures

The story of the 1848 women's rights meeting in Seneca Falls, New York, as the origin of U.S. feminism is a cherished American myth. But where did this origins myth come from? Who invented it? And why? Tetrault offers the first history of this long-standing mythology, which was invented some thirty to forty years after the fact, with deliberateness and significant consequences for the movement, helping to change its shape and direction. More broadly, this lecture underscores how activists use invented histories as weapons in social justice movements, producing consequences both positive and negative.
The 1860s and 1870s were arguably witness to the most explosive, broad-reaching, and sophisticated women's rights agitation the North had ever seen. This goes largely unrecognized in the scholarship. This outpouring of activism, however, is too often eclipsed by the story of women's suffrage. That standard scholarly story is, in turn, woefully inadequate for capturing the complex constellation that was post-war women's suffrage. If we ask a few key suffragists to step aside, we discover a world where women's rights, broadly construed, were at the forefront of efforts to remake the nation.
Susan B. Anthony is one of America's most well-known women and one of its most poorly understood. The reasons are many, but they began with Anthony herself. Anthony very carefully crafted the written record about herself: authoring multi-volume history of the movement and commissioning her official multi-volume (auto)biography. Then, at the end of her life, she burned large portions of the massive archive housed in her attic. This was clearly an effort to control her image & legacy. Following her death, suffragists fought with one another and held up Anthony as a weapon in those battles, creating yet another layer of misinformation around Anthony. This has continued to this day. Despite her fame, we have no present-day historical biographies of Anthony, in part because she has proven so difficult to recover, being shrouded in myths begun long ago. This lecture teases apart that tangled skein and asks: Who was the "real" Susan B. Anthony? And why does it matter?
A remarkable thing has happened to Susan B. Anthony: she has been resurrected as an anti-abortion fanatic. As this argument goes: Anthony's opposition to abortion proves that pro-choice activists have perverted feminism, by deviating from its original intent. Therefore, "real" feminists today should understand, as Anthony did, that abortion exploits women. Anthony has become a political football in the abortion wars, even though Anthony herself took no stance on the issue. The evidence used to support Anthony's supposed anti-abortion stance is invented, historians claim. But the claims persist, and women in the conservative Right use her as their poster child. Their vehicle to raise money to fund Republican women's campaigns for elective office is named "The Susan B. Anthony List." And conservative, anti-choice women purchased Anthony's birthplace, in North Adams, Massachusetts, to create a museum showcasing Anthony's supposed pro-life credentials and rivaling the much-older Anthony house museum in Rochester, New York, where Anthony spent her adulthood, and which makes no such claims about Anthony's supposed anti-abortion stands. How do we make sense of a world where history is being used--and as some would argue, misused--to wage present-day political wars? Using the Anthony controversy, this lecture explores that question, asking about uses and abuses of the past.