Linda K. Kerber Biography

By Alice Kessler-Harris, Columbia University
From the General Meeting Booklet, 2007 AHA Annual Meeting

In one sense, Linda Kaufman Kerber’s intellectual career appears to have a laser-like coherence and a sharp, narrow focus in its dedication to the exploration of the history of an idea. For nearly forty years she has probed the history and development of the democratic mind in America. Reaching back for the moment when the new Republic sought to clarify the terms of popular participation in government, she has been fundamentally concerned with the intersection of ideas and authority. In another sense, however, Linda’s vision has been expansive and illuminatingly inclusive. Her discovery that democratic practice and constitutional change affected men and women differently has raised a diverse array of questions around how participation, inclusion, and exclusion affect the behavior of historical actors, even as they permit scholars to locate and organize the historical narrative. Steeped in the record of the past, Linda’s powerful scholarship has opened up dimensions of knowledge that have set the agenda for a new generation of historians who can now begin their work with a more capacious understanding of the meaning of democracy.

Linda Kaufman was born in 1940 in Brooklyn, New York. Her mother, Dorothy Haber, taught elementary school, and her father, Harry Hagman Kaufman, a lawyer by training, who sold cameras for a living, was both a poet and an avid amateur photographer. The family soon moved to Kew Gardens in Queens where Linda and her younger sister grew up, and where they attended the prestigious Forest Hills High School. In the then legendary New York City public school, she was inspired by the memorable teachers she encountered and the challenges of her smart, energetic, and engaged classmates.

Linda chose Barnard College because it was affordable—she could live at home—and because of its academic reputation. Her four years there were life-changing. Under the leadership of Millicent Mackintosh, Barnard in the 1950s was one of a handful of women’s colleges that promoted high achievement among its female students without ever hinting that career aspirations were incompatible with marriage and family life. She majored in what was then called American civilization, a field that, she later recalled, startled her by revealing that even the notion of America as a civilization “made a polemical claim to authority and distinctiveness.” Among her teachers at Barnard, Annette Kar Baxter—then a young assistant professor—modeled intellectual integrity and originality, while John Koewenhoven’s passion for material culture and his devotion to architecture and the built environment introduced her to the richness of interdisciplinary cultural study.

Linda’s marriage right after college to her high school sweetheart, Richard Kerber, then a medical student, did not dissuade her from pursuing graduate work. With a master’s degree from New York University in hand, she returned to Columbia for the PhD. There she worked with Richard Hofstadter on the doctoral dissertation that became her first book. From Hofstadter, Linda took two lasting lessons: that “ideas matter” and that “historical knowledge can link to political understanding.” Her son, Ross, was born just months before she completed her 1968 degree; Justin came two years later.

Columbia degree in hand, Linda spent several years in temporary jobs before landing, by good fortune and the circumstance of her husband’s decision to move to Iowa City, a position at the University of Iowa. Iowa proved to be a remarkably good fit—nurturing her commitment to teaching, fostering the interdisciplinary exploration that has become her students’ delight and joy, and encouraging close relationships with the Law School. Offered the May Brodbeck Chair in the Liberal Arts and Sciences in 1985, Linda found the time to write as well as to teach. While she has left for a year at a time— to take fellowships at the Philadelphia Center for Early American Studies, the National Humanities Center, and the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, or to teach at the University of Chicago—the University of Iowa has been her home. Having just completed a term as chair of the Department of History at Iowa, Linda is spending 2006–07 as the Harold Vyvyan Harmsworth Professor of American History at Oxford University’s Queen’s College.

While the University of Iowa proved to be a good fit for Linda, the profession itself remained less amenable to women in general. Through the postwar decades of growth and expansion in academia, women had not fared well. Like many of her female peers, Linda found the spirit of the women’s movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s compelling. She had joined the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians (then a tiny group that met annually for largely social reasons) in 1968. In 1969, she began to attend meetings of the newly formed Coordinating Committee for Women in the Historical Profession. A year later, she found herself an eager participant in the 1970 AHA business meeting that received the report of Willie Lee Rose on the status of women in the profession. When the AHA appointed a Committee on Women Historians to provide recommendations as to how to improve the professional positions of women, she was among its first members. A year later, she became its chair.

Since then, Linda has been among the most active and visible proponents of women in the historical profession and in the humanities writ large. Working with and through the American Studies Association, the Organization of American Historians (each of which she served as president), the American Council of Learned Societies, and the AHA, she has spearheaded efforts to open professional opportunity to minorities and women at all levels. Working sometimes on editorial boards, committees, and commissions, at others as a liaison between and among organizations, she has eloquently articulated the need for transparency in all professional contexts. Her leadership has fostered gender balance on scholarly panels, fairer vetting of scholarly articles, positions for women on editorial boards and evaluation committees, and greater legitimacy for the field of women’s history. Linda’s activities in these spheres have been characterized by enormous generosity of spirit. Her willingness to commit time and energy to professional issues, and her thoughtful ability to negotiate workable compromises have been key elements in facilitating the dramatic changes in institutional structures of the past generation.

Linda’s work with Japan provides an important example of these activities. Convinced by her earlier experiences in Italy and then in comparative work around democratic revolutions that scholarly exchange could open new and important scholarly insights, Linda became committed to increasing interchange between Japanese and American scholars of the United States. Working first through the American Studies Association, she sought in the 1980s to broaden and expand a long-standing exchange program with a then very traditional Japanese Association for American Studies. Her efforts led her to become the first woman to address the association in English and in Japan, and to a long and fruitful collaboration that continues to this day. They have materialized in several grants designed to bring younger U.S. scholars to Japan and Japanese scholars to the United States. Not incidentally, they also presaged a warm and supportive relationship among women scholars on both sides of the Pacific, who, inspired by Linda’s scholarly work, have continued to exchange thoughts, scholarship, and visits. Her collaboration with Japanese scholars continued through her presidency of the Organization of American Historians and resulted in a just completed term as a member of the federally appointed Japan-United States Friendship Commission.

Like the projects in which she has been involved, Linda’s intellectual trajectory is deeply rooted in the times in which she has lived. Her first book, Federalists in Dissent: Imagery and Ideology in Jeffersonian America (Cornell University Press, 1970), explored the opposition to Jefferson that emerged among intellectuals who feared that Jeffersonian values would distort American promise. Convinced that the Federalists were motivated as much by a deep commitment to the revolutionary ideals as their Jeffersonian counterparts, she suggested that “articulate Federalists” were defending the cultural understandings and the modes of inquiry on which they imagined the Republic had been built. In their eyes, the good citizen reflected his training in the moral and religious precepts that constituted the core of virtuous behavior. On this basis, Federalists used satire and ridicule to challenge Republicans’ commitments to “the crude, the novel, and the superficial”—values they thought would undermine the stability of a fragile new nation. Linda’s book looked back at the conflicts and tensions of the early Republic. Yet, written at a time— the 1960s—when the United States was involved in new cultural struggles and was confronting a revolution over the civil rights of people of color, the book resonated with and drew inspiration from contemporary events and debates about democracy.

The search for how ideas invaded the political temper continued in Professor Kerber’s second book. Inspired by the continuing legislative and judicial change that rapidly altered women’s positions in the 1970s and stimulated by her own teaching, which now included courses in women’s history, she turned toward the issue of gender. Where Federalists in Dissent had described the conflict in ideas that permeated the political and social order of the new Republic, Linda now perceived that she had neglected the part that gender played. In a series of essays and in the pages of Women of the Republic: Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America (University of North Carolina Press, 1980), she memorably elucidated the uses of social relationships for the political project. Moving methodologically from what she described as “anecdote to meaning,” Linda sought to shape a mass of seemingly incoherent information about women’s activities in the revolutionary period into an articulate narrative that described how women made sense of the new democracy and how they reshaped their lives to sustain it. How, she asked, could a new nation that excluded women from formal politics and public debate sustain itself as a republic where liberty and equality prevailed? Her fully formed notion of “Republican motherhood” captured the responses of early nineteenth-century men and women, who resolved the dilemma by imagining that mothers would use their social roles to rear political and patriotic sons and to nurture patriotism. “Republican motherhood” has become one of our best known historical tropes— a figure of speech that simultaneously captures the contradiction in the political ideas of the young republic and set the stage for women’s search for political rights in nineteenth-century America.

Linda set herself the task of organizing and sorting through what had been achieved by historians of women in the decade and a half since women’s history had emerged as a field. Together with Jane De Hart, she compiled the collection of essays that constituted the first edition of Women’s America: Refocusing the Past (Oxford University Press), which appeared in 1982. These essays not only captured some of the newest work in women’s history but brilliantly illuminated their impact on American history as a whole. After the appearance of the first volume (which has now evolved through six editions), it was no longer possible for historians to claim that women’s history was a peripheral field. Linda’s 1988 Journal of American History essay, “Separate Spheres, Female Worlds, Woman’s Place: The Rhetoric of Women’s History,” proved to be a historiographical turning point in that respect. “Separate Spheres” took a prominent element of the nineteenth-century belief system—that women properly lived in the private sphere, while men accounted for the public—and traced the ways it had been used by historians as an interpretive device. In so doing, historians provided the trope with a life that outlasted its capacity to describe historical experience.

Toward an Intellectual History of Women: Essays by Linda K. Kerber (University of North Carolina Press, 1997), a collection of Linda’s essays, confirmed the growing sense of the power of women’s history to alter the historical paradigm. Here, in a single volume, Linda turned the exploration of gender into one of the central problematics of citizenship. In essays that ranged from the legacy of the Enlightenment for women to the meaning of female patriotism and the concept of Liberty, Linda set the agenda for a generation of scholars to come. Using sources that ranged from traditional diaries and letters to legal documents and judicial decisions, she demonstrated how, by intelligent reading, one could find a political past for women that ranged from ideas about their relationships to politics to the practice of such traditional female pursuits as reading and family life. In this collection we find the felicitous phrases and the nuanced ideas for which Linda has become known. Here she offers to, and does, “unsettle assumptions,” and reminds us that certain ways of thinking that now seem unusual once constituted merely “the common sense of the matter.” Here she reveals the value of “massaging an idea” until it softens and gives up its rigidity to reveal an underlying truth. Here is Linda thinking out loud about limits on authority and citizenship and dissecting a legal moment in order to reveal how it emerged from the past and presaged the future.

The appearance in 1999 of the prize-winning No Constitutional Right to Be Ladies: Women and the Obligations of Citizenship (Hill and Wang), affirmed Linda’s commitment to shaping questions that would nurture critical inquiry into the ideas that ordered political and public participation. Focusing on five moments when women were refused the right to participate in the obligations demanded of citizens, Linda deftly explored their meanings for a democratic society in which full authority is denied to half the population. By querying the requirements of the state that men fulfill a set of obligations (loyalty, work, taxes, service on juries, and military service) from which women were excluded, Linda opened up the practice of citizenship as men and women had performed it differently. She also set the stage for a more general examination of the gendered meaning of citizenship—a project that is now going forward in her new work on statelessness.

We honor this record of achievement in part by imitating it. We admire Linda K. Kerber’s ability to confront the amorphous and difficult questions that arise out of contemporary politics with clear intellectual precision. We note the persistence of her concern with issues of authority and democracy, with the question of citizenship and its meaning for women and African Americans, and more recently for those whose lives and civic identities are reconfigured outside their original homelands. We admire also her insistence on careful and thoughtful examination of sources, her willingness to explore new methodological turns, her invocation of international influences and topics. But most of all we admire her continuing insistence that ideas matter, and that historians are best positioned to uncover and explicate them. Linda reminded us of this in her presidential column in the October 2006 issue of Perspectives where she invoked the importance of our shared adherence to high professional standards. There she cited the centrality of the historian’s task in a world riven with moral uncertainties. “[T]he crucial work of gathering the evidence on which large moral choices can be made,” she wrote, “is at some level the historians’ unified field. We are all historians of human rights.”


Women’s America: Refocusing the Past, with Jane Sherron De Hart and Cornelia H. Dayton. 7th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

No Constitutional Right to Be Ladies: Women and the Obligations of Citizenship . New York: Hill and Wang, 1998.

Toward an Intellectual History of Women. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.

U.S. History as Women’s History: New Feminist Essays. Co-editor with Alice Kessler-Harris and Kathryn Kish Sklar. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995.

Women of the Republic: Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980.

Federalists in Dissent: Imagery and Ideology in Jeffersonian America. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1970.

Presidential Columns

When Things Fall Apart: Citizenship As a Countervailing Force (Perspectives, January 2006)
The Equitable Workplace: Not for Women Only (Perspectives, February 2006)
Depending on the Contingent: The Hidden Costs for History (Perspectives, April 2006)
Two Days in March: Historians and Humanities Advocacy Day (Perspectives, May 2006)
Educating Historians (Perspectives, September 2006)
We Are All Historians of Human Rights (Perspectives, October 2006)
Enabling History (Perspectives, November 2006)
At Home in the World: The International Dimensions of the AHA (Perspectives, December 2006)