Katherine Benton-Cohen ’94
Associate Professor of History, Georgetown University
Twenty years ago, during freshman orientation, a new friend told me that we could register for a 300-level class on U.S. women’s history. I had gone to a big, conservative public high school in Arizona, where my AP U.S. History class was not exactly cutting-edge. My AP U.S. History exam featured an essay question on the debates about black activism between W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington in the early 20th century. We had never learned about those at my school. I knew I’d missed something.
I worked up the nerve to take the women’s history class, which was a revelation—here was all this history, this activism, this striving, and I’d never heard about it. I was hooked. I applied for a freshman seminar on the civil rights movement with Dean Nancy Malkiel. I can honestly say those two classes changed my life. I became a history major, with a certificate in American studies, and I began to burrow into the work of reading primary sources, and thinking about how we piece together narratives about the past. I labored over my writing, unsure but excited. But I didn’t know anything about Arizona or Western history—I didn’t think that this fascinating enterprise of history could be applied to things I thought I knew about in the present. In the summer before my senior year, I resolved to see if there was anything to know about Arizona history. A young assistant professor, Stephen Aron, who taught history of the American West, convinced me to work with him. I got grants from American studies and history, spent weeks in Arizona archives and hundreds of hours at Firestone Library, and wrote a thesis on “Anglo Women in the Arizona Territory.” After I handed it in, Professor Aron sat me down to tell me why I should go to graduate school in history. This was news to me! I thought I wanted to go into politics. I never thought about being a professor. That was for really smart people, people from the East Coast, people with beards, or pearls, or tweed clothes.
But I went to the meeting. He told me I had the passion, I had the skills, I had the ability to sit alone for long periods of time, I could have a career where I always chose what I studied, I could control my own time, and so on. Actually I don’t remember everything he said—all I remember is that I walked out of the meeting completely convinced he was right, and I never wavered from that decision. I took a year off (which I now recommend to all my own students considering graduate school) while I worked for a gubernatorial candidate in Arizona and then worked for my mother’s business, applied to graduate school, and joined the graduate program in history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison a year later.
History studies shape future
My interests evolved into questions about race, gender, and power. Two thousand miles from home, the Princeton history department had given me the tools to think analytically about Arizona. I got a job at Louisiana State University, worked there for four years, and in 2007, I came to Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. I wrote a book, based on my Ph.D. dissertation, called Borderline Americans: Racial Division and Labor War in the Arizona Borderlands (Harvard University Press, 2009). I’m now working on a project about the history of immigration restriction in the early 20th century.
The irony is that I thought I had wanted to work in policy and politics, and then, through the accidents of fate, the history of the Arizona border and immigration became hot policy issues. Since I live in Washington, D.C., I have had the opportunity to offer historical context and reflection on things ranging from immigration reform to Arizona immigration law to border policy to the tragic shootings in Tucson, Arizona.
I guess I am the rare example of someone whose choice of major did lead exactly to what they’re doing now. But that isn’t how I planned it. I thought history would be background to some other career—but I fell in love with it and I learned it could help me do the things I wanted to do.
One more thing: That women’s history class my first semester shaped my life in another important way beyond helping decide my major. It made me think about how I could choose a profession in which I could have a family—and a partner who would value his family responsibilities and my career as well as his own. I teach a version of that very same course to undergraduates now, and I remind them that our own choices are shaped by the past, but they can change the future.