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OAH President Elaine Tyler May's Fascination with Domesticity

Elaine Tyler May is Regents Professor of American Studies and History at the University of Minnesota. She received her B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. from UCLA. 2010 President of the Organization of American Historians, her work focuses on issues in twentieth century American history that are normally considered part of private life - such as consumerism and leisure pursits - and how these issues influence American political, cultural, and social values. Her books include Barren in the Promised Land: Childless Americans and the Pursuit of Happiness (Harvard, 1996), Created Equal: A Social and Political History of the United States (Longman, 2002), and Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era (Basic, 2008).

Why did you decide to become a professional historian? What were the obstacles that you faced in pursuing your degree?

I don’t think I ever actually decided to be a professional historian.  I spent my junior year in Japan in 1968, a very tumultuous year in the U.S. and around the world.  Being in Asia in 1968 forced me to confront what it meant to be American, something I had never really thought about.  It also forced me to confront the role of the United States in the world.  So I returned home and dove into the study of U.S. history in my senior year.  As graduation approached, the field was just beginning to open up to me, and I knew I had much more to learn.  So I just kept going, and I’m still at it.  The obstacles I faced as a graduate student were similar to other those encountered by other women pursuing Ph.D.s in the early 1970s.  I wanted to study women’s history but there was nobody in that field at UCLA when I was in graduate school.  But I had the advantage of reading women’s history that was being published in those years, and I also had very supportive mentors at UCLA who were pioneers in the “new social history.”  It was a very exciting time to be studying history, and I had a great experience in grad school.

You received your PhD from UCLA in 1975, right in the middle of the so-called “Lost Decade” of the 1970s, when the PhD job market was abysmal. In light of today’s current job market, do you have any advice for graduate students and recent PhDs?

There is no question that it is difficult.  My only advice is to be persistent, try everything, think broadly about the types of jobs available to historians, and try not to be discouraged.  Like many others then and now, my first job was in a non-tenure track position.  Hopefully the economy will improve and jobs will open up.

You teach in the Department of American Studies at the University of Minnesota. How does American Studies, as an interdisciplinary approach, differ from that of the Department of History?

For historians, the fields are not very different any more.  At one time American Studies offered an interdisciplinary environment for historians whose work was considered marginal in the discipline of history.  Today in most universities that is no longer true, because history has become a very interdisciplinary field.

One of the major focuses of your research has been the impact of the Cold War on the domestic front – it has been the subject of Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era and your current research on national and personal security.  How did you become interested in the topic?

I stumbled upon the Cold War.  My first book, based on my dissertation, was a study of marriage and divorce during the Progressive Era.  When I began Homeward Bound, I was interested in figuring out what caused the baby boom after World war II.  It started as a family history project.  But as I began the research, I kept running into the Cold War.  At first I pushed it away, because I thought of myself as a social historian who “didn’t do politics.”  Then one day I woke up and realized that my sources were screaming at me to pay attention.  I learned that I could never understand social and cultural history without understanding political history too – they were all deeply connected. 

The Cold War is obviously over, but how has the legacy of the Cold War affected contemporary domestic/family life?

The research I’m doing now suggests that the obsession with security in the United States today emerged long before September 11, 2001.  I am finding its roots in the ideology and politics of the early years of the Cold War.

One of the recurring themes of your work has been intersection of private life – i.e. consumption, leisure, consumerism, sexuality – and political life. How has the private intersected with the political in twentieth century America? Can we even make a distinction between the two?

It’s difficult to make a distinction between the two because people live their lives in both the public and private arenas.  If we try to understand one in isolation from the other, we don’t get the full picture.  If we look at the 20th century, it is easy to see that issues such as marriage, family, sexuality and reproduction are profoundly political. 

What can you tell me about your forthcoming book, America and the Pill: A History of Promise, Peril and Liberation ?

The book will be coming out in May 2010, for the 50th anniversary of the pill’s approval by the Food and Drug Administration.It’s an examination of the pill’s first half century.  I looked back at the high expectations that the pill’s advocates had at the time of its approval, and the fears expressed by its detractors.  But the pill neither solved all the problems of the world, as its proponents hoped, nor did it unleash sexual chaos, as its opponents predicted.  Oddly, with the exception of Margaret Sanger and Katharine McCormick, the two elderly feminists responsible for the early development and funding of research on the oral contraceptive, almost nobody saw  the promise of the pill in terms of the emancipation of women.  Feminism made it possible for women to use the pill to take control over their lives and to take advantage of new opportunities.  If it hadn’t been for feminism, the pill would have been just another contraceptive,  more convenient and effective than earlier methods, but not revolutionary.  I also looked at men’s relationship to the pill, and the ongoing but still unsuccessful quest for a male pill.  The book ends with a chapter on the pill today, and how young women use it and think about it.

How has the dismal economy affected state funding at the University of Minnesota? Has your department felt the budget crunch?

The economic collapse has harmed all aspects of public education across the country, and the University of Minnesota is no exception.  It has definitely affected my university and my departments.  The situation is very grim.

What have been some of the rewards and some of the challenges of teaching at a major public university?

The rewards are many.  I feel very lucky to be at an institution with wonderful students from a wide range of backgrounds, many of whom are first generation college students or children of immigrants.  The main challenges are political and economic constraints.  The opportunities for our students, and the quality of education we can offer them, are determined largely by the political climate in the state, which with our current governor is very dismal.  Increasing tuition makes it difficult for students with limited means to attend the University, and draconian budget cuts have weakened our academic programs.  After 32 years at the University of Minnesota, all of this makes me very sad.

You are the president of the Organization of American Historians. What sort(s) of responsibilities does such a position entail?

Like most learned societies, the OAH in recent years has faced economic challenges that have required that we think about what we do in new ways.  In addition to the financial realities, we also need to broaden our membership and find creative ways to include historians from a wide range of professional fields.  The OAH is moving in new directions, and it is a privilege to work with dedicated citizens of the profession to move our organization forward.