The best books that show why sex matters to US history

The Books I Picked & Why

Polygamy: An Early American History

By Sarah M. S. Pearsall

Polygamy: An Early American History

Why this book?

Pearsall’s book is the sort that leaves a reader entertained, deeply informed, and unable to see the past the same way again. Polygamy, she shows, was at the center of the social and political systems of many Indigenous nations. As European soldiers and settlers attempted to trade with—or dominate—the people of these nations, they provoked violent reprisals. Opposition to monogamy drove Indigenous resistance movements. Europeans increasingly argued that their monogamous practices made them racially and religiously superior to the people they subordinated. The centrality of metaphors about monogamy and polygamy to American revolutionary political ideas is one of the book’s most enlightening—and entertaining—contributions in a book rich with surprises.


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Finding Charity's Folk: Enslaved and Free Black Women in Maryland

By Jessica Millward

Finding Charity's Folk: Enslaved and Free Black Women in Maryland

Why this book?

What does it mean to be free—and how can you prove that you are? Millward’s utterly engrossing book demonstrates how significant Black women’s reproductive sexuality was to their pursuit of freedom. Following the formal end of US participation in the international slave trade in 1808, white enslavers placed unprecedented demands on enslaved Black women to bear more children. Because the laws defined the child according to the mother’s free or unfree status, enslaved women literally birthed the property of white enslavers. But what if a currently enslaved person proved that the womb from which they entered the world belonged to a free person? Millward shows how Black women and their descendants paved their own pathways to freedom.


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The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America

By Margot Canaday

The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America

Why this book?

This brilliant book lays to rest any doubt that might exist about whether sex and sexuality factor in US policymaking. With extraordinary originality, Margot Canaday shows how sexual ideas and fears shaped policies concerning welfare, immigration, and the military. By the 1940s and 1950s, the federal government both privileged heterosexuals and overtly marginalized and excluded queer people. Whether an individual sought public assistance, access to legal immigration, or the ability to serve in the military, sex shaped the very meaning of US citizenship.


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Discriminating Sex: White Leisure and the Making of the American Oriental

By Amy Sueyoshi

Discriminating Sex: White Leisure and the Making of the American Oriental

Why this book?

You will never look at (or wear) a kimono the same way after reading Amy Sueyoshi’s ingenious investigation into the making of an American leisure culture awash in stereotypes of Japanese and Chinese sexuality. With a focus on San Francisco, Sueyoshi’s book reveals how Anglo-European Americans appropriated “Oriental” dress and design aesthetics, even as the white press and legal system displayed overt hostility toward people of Asian descent. This book is one of my very favorites among a growing body of work that centers on the making of racial identities within histories of sexuality. Sueyoshi is a superb writer, and in this book, she excels at honoring the humanity of Asian-descended people within a white leisure culture that insisted on their inferiority.


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Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America

By Matthew Avery Sutton

Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America

Why this book?

Aimee Semple McPherson lived a trailblazing life as the founder of the Four-Square Gospel Pentecostal church in Los Angeles, the first woman to own a US radio station, and a captivating, theatrical preacher. The beauty of Sutton’s book is the way he shows how McPherson’s sexual charisma—as well as her nearly career-ending sexual scandals—enabled her to define herself as the embodiment of Christian virtue. Wearing white and preaching with props and scenery worthy of a Hollywood set, McPherson used a show business savvy to portray conservative Christianity as the bedrock of Americanism.


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