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Leigh Ann Wheeler


Ph.D., University of Minnesota (1998)

  • Specialties: Twentieth-Century United States, especially Women, Gender, Sexuality, Law, Civil Rights, Social Movements, and Biography
  • Distinguished Lecturer, Organization of American Historians
  • Senior Editor, Oxford Research Encyclopedia in American     History- Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History
  • Editorial Board, Journal of American History
  • Co-editor: Journal of Women's History ('10-'15)

Office: LT 814
Phone: (607) 777-3417


What I love most about writing and teaching history is the people—the people whose lives I research and the people who take my classes. So the history I write is always, first and foremost, about people, and it is also deeply inspired by the people who are my students.

My current book project is a biography of Anne Moody. It comes from more than twenty years of teaching her powerful memoir, Coming of Age in Mississippi (1968). This gripping account stands alone in its ability to convey—through the voice and memories of one plain-spoken and sharp-eyed girl—something of how black Mississippians experienced racial violence, rural poverty, discrimination, and segregation in the postwar South and developed the strength to challenge oppression and demand their rights.

Born to tenant farmers on a Mississippi plantation in 1940, Anne Moody rarely escaped poverty for long. She began working as a domestic servant at the tender age of nine, cleaning white people's houses and caring for their children. The tragic 1955 murder of Emmett Till—a black boy Moody's age who died at the hands of Mississippi white men for allegedly whistling at a white woman—kicked off a wave of escalating violence against black citizens in Moody's hometown of Woodville, Mississippi. It also marked the beginning of her radicalization and resistance.

Moody entered the Civil Rights Movement on the front lines. In 1963, she participated in the most violent sit-in at Woolworth's in Jackson, Mississippi; attended the March on Washington, and organized for the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE). In 1964 and 1965, she registered voters during Mississippi Freedom Summer, desegregated white churches in Jackson, and raised tens of thousands of dollars for the Congress of Federated Organizations (COFO). During her years as an activist, Moody endured hunger, threats on her life, beatings, shootings, and countless arrests. Nonetheless, her memoir speaks to feelings of empowerment that came with collective action, protest against injustice, and spirited singing. Still, by the book's end, even a rousing rendition of "We shall overcome" no longer rallies Moody, and her story stops there, on a downbeat, in Mississippi, when she was only twenty-four years old. "I WONDER," Moody concludes. "I really WONDER."

Moody's readers also wonder. After spending nearly 400 pages with her, readers are loathe to leave her there. They want to know more. Did Moody stay in the Movement, they wonder. Was she ever able to return home to her family? Did she publish other books? Did she marry? Have children? Climb out of poverty? What did she do? Was she happy?

My next book, "Before and Beyond Coming of Age" will, finally, answer these questions and more. It will trace Moody's family back to the days of slavery, investigate and expand upon events in Coming of Age, and tell the many stories of Anne Moody's later life. This is a labor of love that has already connected me with Moody's family, blessed me with new friends here and abroad, and expanded my network of colleagues and collaborators. This project also brings me full-circle, connecting my work with the civil rights scholarship of my Ph.D. adviser, Sara Evans, and my husband, Don Nieman.


Against Obscenity and How Sex Became a Civil Liberty

My earlier work revolved around a key problem that continues to intrigue me—understanding the gendered and changing nature of sexual culture in the twentieth-century United States. How Sex Became a Civil Liberty, my most recent book, shows how the American Civil Liberties Union profoundly changed the ways Americans think about, legislate, and adjudicate sexuality. The ACLU did so by developing and promoting new constitutional rights, including the consumer's right to speech and privacy. This book foregrounds people—especially the founders, leaders, clients, members, and critics of the ACLU.  It relates private lives to public activism to explain ACLU leaders' internal debates, evolving policies, changing strategies, and relationships with individuals and institutions outside the organization. Sexual issues considered by the book include: birth control, nudism, obscenity & pornography, abortion, sterilization, gay rights, rape, and sexual harassment.

Purchase HOW SEX BECAME A CIVIL LIBERTY from Oxford University Press

Online Reviews of How Sex Became a Civil Liberty
Review of HSBCL by New York Journal of Books
Review of HSBCL by
Review of HSBCL by Civil Liberties Review Forum

Media Coverage of How Sex Became a Civil Liberty

Podcast Interview with Lilian Calles Barger, New Books Network

The Daily Beast: "The Big Idea: How Sex Became a Civil Liberty" Interview

Radio Interview, Culture Shocks with Rev. Barry Lynn

Radio Interview, Pacifica Radio, Letters & Politics with Mitch Jeserich

Firedoglake Book Salon led by author, Nancy L. Cohen

Binghamton Magazine Article

Pipe Dream Interview

Also, see reviews in:
American Historical Review
First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life
Harvard Law Review, Indiana Journal of Law and Social Equality, Law and History Review
Library Journal
Journal of American History
Journal of American Studies
Journal of Women's History
Oral History Review
Social Forces
Reviews in American History
Tulsa Law Review
Western Legal History
Women and Social Movements in the United States


Against Obscenity: Reform and the Politics of Womanhood in America, 1873-1935, my first book, shows how women reshaped the ways Americans thought about and adjudicated obscenity. They did this by refocusing debates about the harm of obscenity around children and presenting explicit sex education as an antidote. Against Obscenity also shows how the right to vote—not having it and then getting it—affected women's reform in unexpected ways. Readers will be surprised to see how movie moguls and burlesque theater owners in the early twentieth-century bowed to but also strategized around women's demands.


Online Reviews of Against Obscenity
H-Net Review of AO
Choice Review of AO

See also reviews in the American Historical Review, Women and Social Movements Website, Journal of American History, Journal of Popular Culture, American Quarterly, Journal of American Studies, and Journal of Social History

Leigh Ann's Op-Eds and TedX Talk

"Could the ERA Pass in the #Metoo Era?", November 2017

Firedoglake Book Salon on Crow After Roe: How "Separate But Equal" Has Become the New Standard in Women's Health and How We Can Change That, led by Leigh Ann Wheeler, April 28, 2013

"Choices and Rights, Children and Murder," Oxford University Press Blog, January 2013

"I Hope Obama Wins, But I'm Still Mad at Him," History News Network, November 2012

"One Affair, Two Standards," Albany Times-Union, November 2012

TedX Talk, April 2012

"Why Women's History Matters," TedX Talk, March 2012

Journal of Women's History

With my colleague, Jean Quataert,  I co-edited the Journal of Women's History for one term between 2010 and 2015. With Elisa Camiscioli (book review editor) and Benita Roth (associate editor),we worked to raise the Journal's visibility and enhance its presence on the internet while further developing the Journal's contributions to the ongoing project of internationalizing women's history.

Journal of Women's History Website

Graduate Students

Graduate students who work with me pursue a wide range of research interests in the modern U.S.  My students win national grants and fellowships, present at national conferences, publish in peer-reviewed journals and first-rate university presses, and obtain tenure-track positions. Their projects include the following topics:

Completed Dissertations:

  • "'We Didn't Know We Were Making History': The United Automobile Workers Women's Auxiliaries in Great Depression and World War II Detroit," (2017), Tiffany Baugh-Helton, Oakland University, Rochester, Michigan
  • "Making Connections in Viet Nam: Transnational U.S. Women Activists and the Meanings of Race, Gender, and Revolution, 1965-1975," (2013), Jessie Frazier, University of Rhode Island 

Book: Women's Anti-War Diplomacy During the Vietnam War (University of North Carolina Press, 2017)

  • "Embryonic Policies: Reproductive Technology and Federal Policy," (2012), Erin McKenna Mignin, St. Louis Community College
  • "Second-Wave Feminism and Pornography: Playgirl and Porn for Heterosexual Women, 1973-2006," (2011), Chadwick Roberts, University of North Carolina, Wilmington
  • "Expertise at War: The National Committee on Education by Radio, the National Association of Broadcasters, the Federal Radio Commission and the Battle for American Radio," (2006), David Haus, Husson University

Other Dissertations in Progress:

  • American and Russian Women's International Activism During the Progressive Era
  • Movie Censorship
  • Celebrity Activism and Anti-Vietnam War Protest
  • Gender as Political Strategy in the American Woman Suffrage Movement
  • Sex Education, Public Schools, and Eugenics

Undergraduate Courses:

  • Modern America
  • Women in the Modern U.S.
  • Social Movements in the Twentieth-Century U. S.
  • History of Sexuality in the Twentieth-Century U.S.
  • Sexual Revolutions in the Modern U.S.
  • Sex and Law in the Modern U.S.

Graduate Seminars:

  • Women in the Modern U.S.
  • Civil Liberties in the Twentieth-Century U.S.
  • History of Sexuality in the Modern U.S.
  • History of Media Censorship in the U.S.
  • Readings in the Twentieth-Century U.S.
  • Social Movements in the Twentieth-Century U.S.

Selected Scholarly Articles and Book Chapters:

  • “Inventing Sexuality: Ideologies, Identities, and Practices in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era,” in Christopher McKnight Nichols and Nancy C. Unger, eds., A Companion to the Gilded Age and Progressive Era (Wiley-Blackwell, 2017), 102-115.

  • "'Handmaiden of the Pornographers,' Champion of Free Speech: The American Civil Liberties Union and Sexual Expression, 1970-1985," in Carolyn Bronstein and Whitney Strub, eds., Porno Chic to the Sex Wars: American Sexual Representations in the 1970s (University of Massachusetts Press, December 2016), 229-48.
  • "Publicizing Sex: How the American Civil Liberties Union Liberated Media, 1965-1973," in Eric Schaefer, ed., Sex Scene: Media and the Sexual Revolution (Duke University Press, 2014), 351-82.
  • "Where Else But Greenwich Village?: Love, Lust, and the Emergence of the American Civil Liberties Union's Sexual Rights Agenda, 1920-1931" Journal of the History of Sexuality 21, 1 (January 2012), 60-92.
  • "Rescuing Sex from Prudery and Prurience: American Women's Use of Sex Education as an Antidote to Obscenity, 1925-1932," Journal of Women's History, 12 (Fall 2000), 173-195.
  • "Battling Over Burlesque: Conflicts Between Maternalism, Paternalism, and Organized Labor, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 1920-1932," Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, 20 (Special Issue: Motherhood and Maternalism, Fall 1999), 148-174.
  • "From Reading Shakespeare to Reforming Burlesque: The Minneapolis Woman's Club and the Women's Welfare League, 1907-1920," Michigan Historical Review, 25 (Spring 1999), 44-75.
Against Obscenity
              How Sex Became a Civil Liberty

Last Updated: 2/20/18