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

Why am I passionate about this?

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 J. 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.

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The books I picked & why

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

Erica J. Ryan Why did I love 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. 

By Grace Elizabeth Hale,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Making Whiteness as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Making Whiteness is a profoundly important work that explains how and why whiteness came to be such a crucial, embattled--and distorting--component of twentieth-century American identity.  In intricately textured detail and with passionately mastered analysis, Grace Elizabeth Hale shows how, when faced with the active citizenship of their ex-slaves after the Civil War, white southerners re-established their dominance through a cultural system based on violence and physical separation.  And in a bold and transformative analysis of the meaning of segregation for the nation as a whole, she explains how white southerners' creation of modern "whiteness" was, beginning in the 1920s, taken…


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

Erica J. Ryan Why did I love 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.

By Robin D. G. Kelley,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Race Rebels as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Many black strategies of daily resistance have been obscured--until now. Race rebels, argues Kelley, have created strategies of resistance, movements, and entire subcultures. Here, for the first time, everyday race rebels are given the historiographical attention they deserve, from the Jim Crow era to the present.


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

Erica J. Ryan Why did I love 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.

By Gail Bederman,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Manliness and Civilization as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

When former heavyweight champion Jim Jeffries came out of retirement on the fourth of July, 1910 to fight current black heavywight champion Jack Johnson in Reno, Nevada, he boasted that he was doing it "for the sole purpose of proving that a white man is better than a negro". Jeffries, though, was trounced and Whites everywhere rioted. The furor, the author of this work seeks to demonstrate, was part of two fundamental and volatile national obsessions: manhood and racial dominance. In turn-of-the-century America, cultural ideals of manhood changed profoundly, as Victorian notions of self-restrained, moral manliness were challenged by ideals…


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

Erica J. Ryan Why did I love 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.

By Elaine Tyler May,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Homeward Bound as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

When Homeward Bound first appeared in 1988, it forever changed the way we understand Cold War America. Previously, scholars understood the post-World War II era as a time when Americans turned away from politics to enjoy the fruits of peace and prosperity after decades of depression and war, while their leaders remained preoccupied with the Soviet threat and the dangers of the Atomic Age. Homeward Bound challenged the idea of an apolitical private arena, demonstrating that the Atomic Age and the Cold War were not merely the concerns of experts and policy makers, but infused American life on every level,…


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

Erica J. Ryan Why did I love 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. 

By Jefferson R. Cowie,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Stayin' Alive as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Jefferson Cowie's edgy and incisive book makes new sense of the 1970s as a crucial and poorly understood transition from New Deal America, with its large, optimistic middle class, to the widening economic inequalities, poverty and dampened expectations of the 1980s and into the present. Cowie also connects politics to culture, showing how the big screen and the juke box can help understand how the US turned away from the radicalism of the 1960s toward the patriotic promise of Ronald Reagan.


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Grand Old Unraveling: The Republican Party, Donald Trump, and the Rise of Authoritarianism

By John Kenneth White,

Book cover of Grand Old Unraveling: The Republican Party, Donald Trump, and the Rise of Authoritarianism

John Kenneth White Author Of Grand Old Unraveling: The Republican Party, Donald Trump, and the Rise of Authoritarianism

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Reading was a childhood passion of mine. My mother was a librarian and got me interested in reading early in life. When John F. Kennedy was running for president and after his assassination, I became intensely interested in politics. In addition to reading history and political biographies, I consumed newspapers and television news. It is this background that I have drawn upon over the decades that has added value to my research.

John's book list on who we are, how we’ve changed, and what gives us hope

What is my book about?

It didn’t begin with Donald Trump. When the Republican Party lost five straight presidential elections during the 1930s and 1940s, three things happened: (1) Republicans came to believe that presidential elections are rigged; (2) Conspiracy theories arose and were believed; and (3) The presidency was elevated to cult-like status.

Long before Trump, each of these phenomena grew in importance. The John Birch Society and McCarthyism became powerful forces; Dwight D. Eisenhower was the first “personal president” to rise above the party; and the development of what Harry Truman called “the big lie,” where outrageous falsehoods came to be believed. Trump…

Grand Old Unraveling: The Republican Party, Donald Trump, and the Rise of Authoritarianism

By John Kenneth White,

What is this book about?

It didn't begin with Donald Trump. The unraveling of the Grand Old Party has been decades in the making. Since the time of FDR, the Republican Party has been home to conspiracy thinking, including a belief that lost elections were rigged. And when Republicans later won the White House, the party elevated their presidents to heroic status-a predisposition that eventually posed a threat to democracy. Building on his esteemed 2016 book, What Happened to the Republican Party?, John Kenneth White proposes to explain why this happened-not just the election of Trump but the authoritarian shift in the party as a…


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