Jessica Derleth Interview
Major Field: U.S. History
Minor Fields: Race and Ethnicity, Gender and Empire
"I actually started out in Journalism," begins Jessica Derleth. "I did a lot of work in high school and co-edited the newspaper. I was so into it! I went into undergrad for the same major, and loved it for about a year, but was eventually turned off to it." Instead, Derleth found a burgeoning interest in history. "I realized undergraduate history wasn't the same as the history they taught us in high school," Jessica said. "It wasn't just about memorization of dates and names and all of the wars. It welcomed more of a critical bent." The structure of her undergraduate program also helped prepare her for the graduate school experience. "I was in the Honors College, and it required a lot of History and English courses, much more so than the normal undergraduate course load. The English courses helped me improve my writing skills, and that combined well with historical analysis." But Derleth took advantage of other courses in Political Science, which inspired her eventual historical work. "I was really interested in women's history courses. I said 'Yeah! Of course I want to take a course on the History of Marriage! Then I took another History course and realized, 'This is fun!' I decided then and there to double major." Jessica received her B.A. at the University of Oregon, and later earned an M.A. in History at Washington State University.
The History Department at Binghamton is certainly glad that this transition occurred! Entering the graduate program in 2012, Derleth has been hard at work on her dissertation for several years, much of which resulted in her receipt of the Binghamton University Graduate Student Excellence Award for Research. The award was an acknowledgment of her tireless efforts in researching her project at several institutions. In 2015, she received both a Mellon Research Fellowship to conduct research at the Virginia Historical Society, and a Helen L. Bing Fellowship to work at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California. A short year later she won a Carol Gold Graduate Student Conference Paper Prize from the Western Association of Women Historians.
"I think of myself primarily as a women's historian, a gender historian, though that isn't one of my official fields," Jessica said. Her dissertation, entitled "Silence Forever the Slander: Gender as a Political Strategy in the American Women's Suffrage Movement," certainly echoes the themes of women's history and gender analysis, along with her past interests in political science and journalism. "My main interest is looking at gendered arguments used against suffragists by their opponents, how suffragists were portrayed as 'masculine', 'unwomanly', and 'manly' to create a negative image of these women. The common argument was ultimately that 'they are no longer women when they want to vote.' So I focus on the anti-suffrage claims, and how the suffragists strategically responded." What Derleth discovered during her research was that suffragists did not reject, but rather embraced dominant gender norms and expectations and used them to court political favor. "So in order to go against this idea that the suffragists don't want to get married, or that they are masculine, they pretty much said, 'No, we are going with the flow of society and popular expectations. We cook, we clean, we have children, we are beautiful, we are real women.'"
Derleth divides her analysis into several thematic chapters, focusing on what she calls specific "anti-suffrage clusters," and the following suffragist responses. One of her most fascinating approaches is her analysis of suffragists' embrace of domestic cooking. "Whereas anti-suffragists claimed these women wanted to leave the home and shirk their traditional duties, suffragists embraced and radicalized a growing, national home economics movement at the turn of the twentieth century." This movement helped to support suffragists' dual means of argumentation against their opponents. "They used home economics as both a means of establishing their loyalty to tradition, while at the same time using these changes to explain the necessity of the women's vote. In other words, their approach was 'We like to cook and clean and take care of our families, but we are in a new scientific era. We need more rational approaches to domesticity in the home, and the vote allows us to help contribute to food regulation laws, and overall national hygiene.'" Ultimately, Derleth claims that this was a lynchpin in the overall argument for the women's vote; that if domesticity was to be preserved, women had to have a public say in protecting production of the resources they were charged with at home.
From a notary glance at her previous work, it is easy to see why Derleth has been so successful in obtaining these means for research opportunities. An adventurous and prolific scholar, Jessica Derleth has published and plans to publish in several journals on a number of overlapping topics, including The Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, The Historical Journal of Massachusetts, and The Journal of American Culture. In addition to her dissertation and publication works, Derleth has also acted as a managing editor for The Journal of Women's History, currently based here at Binghamton University. We congratulate Jessica Derleth on her achievements so far, and look forward to reading this fascinating analysis in the future!