Completed Dissertations

Brian J. Distelberg, History (2015)

Minority Groups, the Mass Media, and the Politics of Anti-Defamation, 1940s-1990s

My dissertation examines campaigns by African Americans, Jews, Latinos, feminists, and gays and lesbians to combat stereotypes and encourage “positive” representations in film, television, and other media between the 1940s and the 1990s.  Why have these groups taken media images so seriously, where did this interest originate, and how have different groups’ concerns overlapped, differed, and changed over time?  By answering such questions, I aim to offer a new perspective on the connections between the evolution of gay and lesbian activism and other developments in the history of the postwar United States, including the political struggles of racial and ethnic minorities and the growing power of mass culture.  Additionally, my dissertation will offer an historical account of gay and lesbian media activism in its own right that, by considering the qualities activists saw as “stereotypical” and “positive” at different moments, will make legible evolutions in gay and lesbian identities and politicized self-representation.

Emily Johnson (2014)

Activists, Authors, Apostles: Women’s Leadership in the New Christian Right

Issues related to gender and sexuality were at the heart of the religious right’s ascendency in the 1970s and 1980s.  Focusing on the work of nationally-prominent evangelical women, this dissertation asserts that women were not only central objects of religious right rhetoric during this period but that they were also significant agents in shaping the tone and direction of this movement. I focus on the work of Kathryn Kuhlman (a faith-healing preacher), Marabel Morgan (an evangelical author of marital and sexual advice), Anita Bryant (a singer who became better known for her anti-gay-rights campaign), Beverly LaHaye (author and founder of Concerned Women for America), and Tammy Faye Bakker (a televangelist who became an ally for gays and lesbians). Catholic activist Phyllis Schlafly offers insight into limited ecumenism of the movement. Central to this dissertation are the tensions between these women’s public roles and their support for “traditional” gender norms, between an expanding political realm and the realms of religion and family, and – finally – between forceful condemnations of sexual minorities and a developing evangelical openness to sexual exploration within the bounds of heterosexual marriage. This dissertation offers a new perspective on the history of the New Christian Right, as well as the origins of contemporary sex and gender politics in the United States.

David Minto (2014)

Special Relationships: Britain, America, and Transatlantic (Homo)Sexual Politics before AIDS

My project examines the relationship between gay activism in Britain and the United States in the decades following World War II. The Wolfenden Report, gay liberation, and anti-gay “Save our Children” campaigns all had transatlantic lives that signal common patterns in postwar (homo)sexual politics, but their particular manifestations also reveal national differences. Contextualizing within broader transatlantic currents the networks, exchanges, and influences of British and US activists who organized around gay rights and visibility, the project is part of a growing body of work exploring transnational influences in the history of sexuality. It aims to supplement local and national studies of gay politics and activism, while reframing the diplomatic action of traditional “special relationship” history.

Tim Retzloff (2014)

Suburb, City, and the Changing Bounds of Lesbian and Gay Life in Metropolitan Detroit, 1945-1985

My dissertation-in-progress seeks to advance scholarly conversation within U.S. history by bringing the new suburban history together with lesbian and gay history.  I am seeking to craft a narrative of lesbian and gay life in postwar Detroit and its suburbs through an expanded metropolitan lens: first, to explain how the oppositional amalgams of urban gays and straight suburbs came into being; second, to interrogate the accuracy of such characterizations; and third, to examine how the growth of postwar suburbs and the rise of conspicuous postwar lesbian and gay communities did not merely coincide, but how both signify processes that were deeply intertwined.  Specifically, I am seeking to answer what the place of gay men and lesbians was in the new postwar suburbs and what a queer presence in suburbia tells us about the greater metropolis, in particular to what extent the spheres of suburban and urban, of heterosexual and homosexual, were dichotomous or reciprocal.

Anastasia Jones (2013)

“She’s That Way”: Female Same-Sex Intimacy and the Growth of Modern Sexual Categories in the U.S., 1920-1940

My dissertation addresses the various modes of comprehending and depicting sex and desire between women in U.S. interwar popular culture. Drawing on medical and “sexological” literature, novels, personal papers, and popular press (tabloids, magazines, and newspapers), I aim to discover how intimate relationships between women were understood before lesbian identity solidified—and why and when that solidification occurred. I’m particularly interested in addressing the ways in which sexual identities shifted according to class. In exploring the continuities and differences between popular conceptions of hedonism in urban “bawdy” cultures, sexual bohemianism within artistic avant-garde circles, and the quieter intimacy shared by middle-class college girls, professionals, and reformers, I hope to further understand the murky territory between popular pathologization and acceptance of female same-sex desire in the 1920s and 1930s.

Betty Luther Hillman (2011)

America Dresses for the Culture Wars: The Politics of Self-Presentation, 1964-1980

My research explores how self-presentation in hairstyles and dress blurred gender boundaries in popular culture and played a central role in the politics of numerous social movements, including the counterculture, Black Power, the New Left, feminism, and gay liberation.  Self-presentation provided a rich tool for activists to visually display their disagreements with American culture, but opponents of these activists interpreted their self-presentation as a challenge to norms of gender, sexuality, race and class.  My dissertation illustrates how styles of self-fashioning, and concerns of gender and sexuality that they implicated, operated as both causes and symbols of the divides in American culture—-what some have called the “culture wars”—-that have come to define American society and politics in the post-1960s era.