The best history books on culture’s role in shaping race, class, and gender in modern America

Erica Ryan Author Of When the World Broke in Two: The Roaring Twenties and the Dawn of America's Culture Wars
By Erica Ryan

Who am I?

How do ideas about gender, sexuality, and race show up in our political culture? And how do people’s political needs play a role in constructions of race, sex, and gender? I’ve been researching the intersections between ideas about gender, sexuality, and political culture in the modern United States for almost twenty years. And I think history can show us the ways ideas about sex, gender, and race suffuse political culture, revealing hierarchies of power that often discriminate, alienate, and silence. By reading books like the ones on this list we can understand how this power works, we can recognize it more clearly in the present, and we can find ways to dismantle it.


I wrote...

When the World Broke in Two: The Roaring Twenties and the Dawn of America's Culture Wars

By Erica Ryan,

Book cover of When the World Broke in Two: The Roaring Twenties and the Dawn of America's Culture Wars

What is my book about?

This is a history of America in the 1920s, one that connects the decade’s controversies to today’s culture wars. We can see growing tension between cities and towns in the 1920s in our battles between red states and blue states. Nativism and the rise of the second Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s reverberate in today’s bitter debates over immigration and racism. In Prohibition, an effort intended in part to keep immigrants in line, we see precursors to the war on drugs and mass incarceration. The fight over women’s role in politics, work, and the home raged in the 1920s, and still does so today. And the Protestant fundamentalism that frames the Religious Right emerged as a powerful force for the first time in the 1920s Scopes Trial. So, while many historians point to the 1960s as the starting point for the battle over American values and ideals, this history traces these conflicts to the newly modern 1920s.

The books I picked & why

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Making Whiteness: The Culture of Segregation in the South, 1890-1940

By Grace Elizabeth Hale,

Book cover of Making Whiteness: The Culture of Segregation in the South, 1890-1940

Why this book?

This book, while pitched to an academic audience, blew me away when I first read it because Hale demonstrates with intricate precision that whiteness is not natural, but rather it is constructed. Southern Whites used culture to construct whiteness as a racial ideology after Reconstruction, framing the way they saw themselves and undergirding Jim Crow and the oppression of Blacks in America for decades to come. Examining the emergence of a multilayered national consumer market, and Black pushback against a modernizing version of white supremacy, Hale shows how racial identity is quite literally “made,” inviting modern readers to envision ways to unmake it. 


Race Rebels : Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class

By Robin D. G. Kelley,

Book cover of Race Rebels : Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class

Why this book?

This book is a brilliant collection of essays highlighting “race rebels,” where Kelley looks outside of traditional politics and organized movements to find Black resistance to forces such as white supremacy, labor exploitation, and war. Kelley focuses in on the everyday lives of working-class Black men and women, highlighting a “hidden transcript” of expression and resistance in things like music, language, dance, and choice of dress.  He elevates the political potential found in these cultural elements, urging historians to see these “style politics” in the social and economic contexts which give rise to them, for they are powerful and worthy of our attention.


Manliness and Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880-1917

By Gail Bederman,

Book cover of Manliness and Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880-1917

Why this book?

Gail Bederman expertly weaves together an analysis of the discourses of manliness and civilization at the turn of the century, highlighting the way ideas about gender and power are constructed with and through ideas about race. Her case study approach really shows how this discourse functioned in multiple ways at the same time, covering Theodore Roosevelt’s hugely impactful connections between race and manliness right alongside Ida B. Wells’ campaign to use civilization discourse against white southerners in a bid to end lynching.  These, along with chapters on G Stanley Hall and Charlotte Perkins Gilman, ably demonstrate the way discourses can be constructed, used, and resisted.  Readers come away understanding how widely accepted notions of progress and national strength hinge on exploitative and damaging ideas about race and gender in American culture.


Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era

By Elaine Tyler May,

Book cover of Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era

Why this book?

I am recommending this book because Elaine Tyler May offered one of the earliest analyses of gender and sex tied directly to the dictates and needs of political culture. She insightfully delineates “domestic containment,” a component of Cold War culture which paralleled the foreign policy initiative to contain communism and nuclear arms throughout the world. But in this case the sphere of influence was the home. By excavating Cold War culture (for example, Life Magazine’s coverage of a couple honeymooning in a bomb shelter) and some fascinating longitudinal data May demonstrates the way domestic containment sought to keep women and men in their proscribed domestic roles, and she reveals the difficulty many families had living up to the ideal.  Her history illuminates our long-lasting nostalgia for the “traditional” family and remains so relevant today.


Stayin' Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class

By Jefferson R. Cowie,

Book cover of Stayin' Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class

Why this book?

I chose this book for two reasons. First, Cowie masterfully documents the hugely significant political and social shift that took place in the 1970s, as America transitioned from the liberalism of the New Deal era to the conservatism of the Reagan revolution. And second, he assumes that culture is just as important as economics in the constructions of and understandings of social class.  Cowie engages the reader in a fascinating look at popular culture to reveal the ways in which a coherent white, working-class male identity fell apart, a process that contributed to the overall decline in organized labor’s power in this crucial decade.  As a bonus, the book is beautifully written. 


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