Nancy F. Cott, who served as president of the OAH in 2016-17, is the Jonathan Trumbull Research Professor of American History at Harvard University. She taught the history of women, sexuality, and gender in the U.S. for twenty-six years at Yale and sixteen years at Harvard, before retiring in 2018. Her pursuits in the history of gender, marriage, feminism, law, political culture, and citizenship resulted in her books The Bonds of Womanhood: "Woman's Sphere" in New England, 1780-1835 (1977), The Grounding of Modern Feminism (1987), and Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation (2001), among other works. Her current interests also include the history of sexuality, social movements, the international turn, and journalism, as is apparent in her new book, Fighting Words: How Bold Young American Journalists Brought the World Home between the Wars (2020). Fighting Words traces four Americans (two men and two women) who went abroad in their youth in the 1920s and became foreign correspondents, alerting fellow Americans to the spreading menace of global threats, especially European fascism. Confronting the era’s big conflicts— democracy versus authoritarianism, international responsibilities versus isolationism, sexual freedom versus traditional morality—they shaped how Americans saw their country’s role between the world wars. Parallels between the tensions they experienced and addressed in their writings, and similar tensions today, are striking.
This lecture reviews the possibilities, paradoxes, and anxieties of the "first sexual revolution" (in the 1920s) with reference to the pressure placed on the institution of marriage by rising divorce, the availability of contraception, and women's growing potential for independence.