Welcome Dr Julia Bowes, New Hansen Lecturer in US History

Dr Julia Bowes joined SHAPS as Hansen Lecturer in US History on 1 July 2021 and will be teaching HIST20071 American History: 1945 to Now in Semester 2/2021. Originally from Sydney, Julia completed her PhD at Rutgers University in 2018 and her doctoral thesis, Invading the Home: Children, State Power, and the Gendered Origins of Modern Conservatism, 1865–1933, was awarded the 2019 Lerner Scott Prize for Best Dissertation in US Women’s History by the Organization of American Historians. Julia joins SHAPS from the University of Hong Kong where she was an Assistant Professor. 

Current History PhD candidate Sam Watts spoke with Julia about her research and her experiences teaching American history in the US and Hong Kong.

Welcome, Julia! We are all thrilled to have you here. When did you first become interested in American history?

I first became interested in US history as an undergraduate student at the University of Sydney via my interest in US politics. It was the first time(!) Hillary Clinton was running for president in the Democratic Primary against Barack Obama, which raised a fascinating bunch of issues around race, gender and perceptions of leadership and power in politics.

Having taken a number of US history courses already, I opted to write my honours thesis on Eleanor Roosevelt and how she melded maternalism with her more unusual political activism as a first lady. The rest, as they say, is history. I dropped out of my law degree, which had only ever partially been able to hold my interest, and applied for PhD programs in the US, knowing very little about the process! It was not the most financially savvy decision but I haven’t looked back.

Is there a historian or historical work that, more than others, has influenced your research and your approach to history?

My research is very much influenced by feminist theory as well as history. So, in some senses, I would have to say Carole Pateman’s The Sexual Contract has probably had the most intellectual influence on my project and the field that I work in.

But I much prefer historical works that explain things from the ground up through fascinating and granular historical case studies, rather than works of theory. I read Linda Kerber’s No Constitutional Right to be Ladies very early during my PhD. This book perhaps remains a model for me in terms of how to blend intellectual history, legal history, gender history and political history through compelling historical stories.

Tell us a bit about your experience teaching American history in the US and in Hong Kong. How do students respond to the subject outside of the US?

When I first started in Hong Kong in 2018, things weren’t actually that different – my Hong Kong students worried more about not being familiar enough with the subject matter but, to be honest, my American students didn’t know as much as they assumed they did!

I tried to introduce courses that would link in with the interest of the Hong Kong students. I designed a course on the history of protest and politics in the United States, knowing that the current crop of Hong Kong University students had grown up during the Umbrella Movement protests in 2014. Then, of course, everything changed dramatically. By my second year, in 2019, the campus was overrun by pro-democracy protests and I found myself teaching the same course but with very different resonances.

I think history courses are always useful to help students gain perspective on the present and sometimes it can help if that conversation is also abstracted to be about another place as well as another time. Still, my students were a little shocked to discover how endemic and deeply rooted racial discrimination was in a democracy like the United States and to learn of the history of police brutality there, especially in the context of protest movements. The history of infighting and problems of sexual and racial discrimination within social movements was probably the material they found most relatable!

Ronald Reagan at the United Nations, New York, 1982. Photographer: Bernard Gotfryd. Library of Congress, LC-GB05- 6414 [P&P]
In second semester you will be teaching American History: 1945 to Now. Is there any part of the course that you’re particularly excited to present to the students?

Yes, I’m particularly excited to teach and reflect on the era of Reagan to Trump (1980–2020) as a new way to periodise US history and make sense of the mess of the last few years. As a historian of conservativism, I have often ended my courses with the election of Reagan as the triumph of modern conservatism! And I think that is broadly correct but I’m interested to take that through the Clinton years and the era of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars post 9/11 to get a longer perspective on the transformation of US politics and culture post-Reagan and continue to track some of the antecedents to Trumpism.

Your work has focused on the changing relationship between parents, children and the state in the US. How did you arrive at this topic and what has surprised you the most in your research?

My project was actually shaped quite a lot by growing up in Australia and looking at the US from the outside in. Here in Australia everything is compulsory, from voting to superannuation. In general, I think Australians are inclined towards a high degree of compliance and acceptance of state compulsion. We can see evidence of this also in the acceptance of lockdowns here versus the protests that were seen in much of the US and Europe.

Given the strong emphasis on individual liberty in the US political tradition, I noticed a lot of state-building projects were centred on children. It was easier to compel children to do things – to go to school, to get vaccinated – or to regulate children’s labour. But, at the same time, these projects provoked a fairly fierce resistance from parents, especially fathers.

What has actually surprised me most is how much these conceptions about parental liberty and individual rights course through English politics as well. It is very much the Anglo-American conception of liberty that animates the anti-statist sentiment in both England and the US. By contrast, this is not as pronounced in the British colonies/Australia.

In your research into conservative networks in the early twentieth century, you document the conflict between public health reformers and the early anti-vaccination movement. How have the dynamics of this conflict changed or continued in the COVID-era?

I think we’re really gearing up for this battle in the United States now. It was easy to vaccinate the first 40 per cent of the population who were desperate for a pathway out of a deadly pandemic and probably for the most part Biden voters. The next 20 to 30 per cent of perhaps more vaccine hesitant groups may have been moved by the success of the early vaccination efforts in bringing hospitalisation and death rates down. But I think the remaining 30 to 40 per cent will prove more stubborn. I think we’ll see some big flare-ups of the anti-vaccination sentiment that has already been quite prominent in recent years, especially in the South.

My historical research suggests that anti-vaccination politics tends to be as much anti-compulsion or anti-statist as it is anti-vaccination, and I think that is what will re-emerge in the next six months as well. Corporations and the state will begin tying vaccination requirements to certain services, like air travel or education, as a means to encourage or compel vaccination. Schools were the real battlefield for anti-vaccination politics in the early twentieth century when states used compulsory attendance laws to compel vaccination for children as a condition of entry to schools.

One interesting arena for historical comparisons to the present will be how anti-vaccination sentiment maps on to broader partisan politics. I argue anti-vaccination politics are best understood as a form of anti-statism but that hasn’t historically or even recently always been synonymous with conservatism or right-wing anti-statism. There are prominent left-wing and left libertarian elements of anti-vaccine movements as well – the whooping cough outbreaks in liberal bubbles like San Francisco are testimony to this.

Dr and Mrs Winn [or Wynn], Janet and Marie, a Czech-American family, playing Chinese checkers while their grandmother knits, 1942. Photographer: Marjory Collins. Library of Congress, LC-USW3- 009886-E [P&P] LOT 243
Gender has been a central focus of your work. How has the field of gender history changed or expanded since you started as a historian?

Queer studies and the history of sexuality have not only become a lot more prominent but have really challenged and changed how we understand the sex/gender distinction. This work was well and truly underway when I started my PhD ten years ago but has exploded since then.

There have been a lot of exciting works in US history that have unearthed intimate histories of queer family life, of trans lives before ‘transsexuality’. Some of this work is now being published by my friends from graduate school so it’s exciting to watch the field grow, especially as students are so interested in this area.

What’s one piece of advice you were given early on in your career that has proven valuable?

Find a couple of different supervisors/mentors who do different things for you. Some will be great at broad picture career advice, others better at line editing your work, etc. Students who are a few years ahead of you will often have a better lay of the land than senior scholars. This advice came from my supervisor, who continues to be my first port of call for everything! But she was right that it helps to have different sounding boards for different questions, both intellectually and professionally.

What’s something you wish someone had told you early in your career?

I was told early in my career by my undergraduate supervisor how terrible the academic job market was but it took me many years to fully appreciate what she meant. It’s important to separate your sense of self-worth and your measures of professional success from the systemic problems in higher education that are beyond your control.

What are you most looking forward to doing when you arrive in Melbourne?

I’m looking forward to becoming reacquainted with the city, and to probably being made to try every single pizza place in the neighbourhood by American husband, who felt starved for pizza options in Hong Kong! I’m excited to get to know the undergraduate students as well, especially as everyone returns to campus after too long on Zoom.


The Hansen Lectureship in U.S. History is generously funded by the Hansen Trust