Nancy F. Cott’s Fighting Words: The Bold American Journalists Who Brought the World Home Between the Wars will be published by Basic Books in March, 2020. Set in the tumultuous era between the two world wars, the book follows four young Americans who left home impulsively and— against the odds— reinvented themselves as international journalists in the 1920s. This book takes a new tack for Nancy Cott. Her previous teaching and writing focused on the intertwining of gender issues, feminism, and marriage with political culture, law, and citizenship in the United States. Her interests have included social movements and American legal institutions and constitutional change, as well as conflicts over social questions involving gender (such as censorship, abortion, sex education, and contraception). She is accustomed to pursuing historical questions in interdisciplinary contexts.
Her interest in the history of international journalism is inspired by her ongoing awareness of the United States as a global player and by the explosive tangles in present-day media. The four main figures in her new book adopted the power of the press as their own at a time when print media reigned supreme and newspapers were legion. Though Dorothy Thompson, John Gunther, Vincent Sheean and Rayna Raphaelson each started out alone, their paths converged. As correspondents based in Paris, Vienna, Berlin, London, Peking and farther afield, they countered the provincialism that dominated the American heartland. Their reportage and commentary served as searchlights sweeping across shadowy foreign politics, alerting Americans at home to faraway political urgencies.
These four became leaders in the corps of intrepid journalists who shaped how Americans saw their country’s international role between the two world wars. Compelled to consider again and again how to situate themselves politically amidst the panoply of politics they observed, they were rethinking relationships between men and women as much as between themselves and the world. All of them navigated sexual frictions, marriages, affairs, and divorces, while they were reporting and analyzing fraught foreign politics. Their experiences traced the development not only of international journalism but also the making of the modern self, in a generation that staked the value of sexual freedom against traditional morality. With a double lens, Fighting Words focuses close in on the subjective lives of its main figures, and zooms out to the churning world they inhabited and wrote about.
Nancy Cott began her career as an assistant professor of U.S. history and American Studies at Yale in 1975, one of the first historians to specialize in women’s history then. She continued at Yale through 2001, departing as a Sterling Professor (Yale’s highest faculty chair). Then she moved to Harvard’s history department as Jonathan Trumbull Professor of American History (2002-2018) and also became the Carl and Lily Pforzheimer Foundation Director of the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America at the Radcliffe Institute (2002-2014). As a teacher of graduate students, she directed more than fifty Ph.D. dissertations and served as a dissertation committee member for dozens more. Since her retirement from teaching in 2018 her title is Jonathan Trumbull Research Professor of American History.
Her books include The Bonds of Womanhood: “Woman's Sphere” in New England, 1780–1835 (1977, still in print), The Grounding of Modern Feminism (1987, still in print), and Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation (Harvard University Press, 2000, still in print). A more complete list of her writings can be found under Books and Articles. Her first book was the pathbreaking anthology Root of Bitterness: Documents of the Social History of American Women (EP Dutton, 1972), which she created while she was a graduate student in History of American Civilization at Brandeis University, where she gained her Ph.D. in 1974; more than twenty years later, she and four scholars whose dissertations she had directed at Yale collaborated in a much revised version of the documents collection, published in 1996 and still in print. Her articles have appeared in American Historical Review, Journal of American History, Feminist Studies, Journal of Social History, William and Mary Quarterly, Yale Review, Signs: A Journal of Women in Culture and Society, American Quarterly, Boston Review, Yale Journal of Law and Feminism. She has also often served as an advisor to the creation of documentary films and reference works.
She has lectured widely at university and college campuses across the United States, as well as in France, England, the Netherlands, Denmark, Japan, and China. She is an elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Society of American Historians, and was president of the Organization of American Historians in 2016-17. (A fuller list appears under Honors and Awards.