Martha S. Jones is a Johns Hopkins University legal and cultural historian whose interests include the study of race, law, citizenship, slavery, and the rights of women. She is the author of All Bound Up Together: The Woman Question in African American Public Culture 1830-1900 and Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum America. After taking part in a Zócalo/Daniel K. Inouye Institute event titled “How Can Americans Defend the 14th Amendment When the Government Won’t?” she spoke with us by phone about why summer is her favorite season, why she reads historical romances, and the famous Hollywood epic that she teaches to her students—even though it’s not one of her favorites.
Was there a teacher or professor who really influenced you?
Eric Foner. I had been a practicing lawyer, and was taking a sabbatical year to study and rethink my career, and came to Columbia University. And Eric very generously took me into his research seminar and let me begin to do some historical research and writing. And I got hooked and never went back to lawyering.
What made him so effective as a teacher?
I think the most important thing was that he had respect for what I had done before I became a historian. And I later learned that one of the characteristics of his students was that many of us had had prior lives. There were labor organizers and librarians and teachers, all of whom were among the students that he trained. I was the type of person that was coming to history after [acquiring] some life experience who—as Eric does—wanted to think about history as a component of any movement for social change. And that continues to be a strong influence on my work.
What are you reading for pleasure?
I just finished last night a wonderful romance novel called The Prince, by an author whose pen name is Katharine Ashe. She is also known as Katharine Dubois; she is a historian teaching at Duke University. But she writes romance novels that are set usually in the U.K., in the Tudor period. The Prince is about a woman in 19th-century Edinburgh who aspires to be a physician, a surgeon, but of course cannot be formally trained, and so disguises herself as a young man and proves herself to be among the best of a very precocious cohort of young medical students in Edinburgh. I’m very interested in historians who write in other genres, and I myself do some creative nonfiction writing. There’s a really interesting cohort of women historians who also write historical romance, and are very serious about it as a genre. I really think that it’s an important genre because it reaches so many women. And certainly in the case of Katharine Ashe, when you read her acknowledgements at the end, you appreciate the amount of research that she’s done, the amount of consultation that she’s done with other historians, and it shows in the work. So I finished it last night and I was very moved by it. I totally recommend it.
If you could time-travel, where would you go?
I think I would go to the 1860s, the period just after the Civil War, and I would sit in on what were some very fraught conventions and debates among what had been an old coalition of women’s rights activists and abolitionist activists. So figures like Frederick Douglass, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Wendell Phillips—black and white men and women who had worked together before the war and are trying to figure out whether they can continue to work in alliance and collaboratively after the war. And the question of where women’s rights will fit into the political agenda of the post-war period is a fraught one, and really strained that coalition.
Is there a film that you periodically revisit?
The film I’m going to mention is not one of my favorites, but it’s an important one: Gone with the Wind. This is a film that is, sadly, so responsible for having popularized and perpetuated a whole series of myths about slavery, about the Civil War, and about Reconstruction. It’s a film that I teach most often by talking about it. It comes up as part of the discussion, but we don’t watch it much anymore in my classroom. So it’s this film that looms large; many of the students know it. But it existed in my mind largely as a film as a footnote. We spent this past Christmas in France: I was with my husband, who is French, and his mother, who is in her 90s, and we all had the flu, so we watched a lot of movies. And it turns out that Gone with the Wind is a Christmas-season movie in France [on television]. And there I was, watching Gone with the Wind in France, but with no footnotes, no commentary, no context, and trying to narrate for my French family what they need to know to watch this film responsibly. Because I know they will be caught up in the melodrama of it all, and the cinematography of it all—that’s the art and the power of Gone with the Wind. And what do I need to tell my 93-year-old mother-in-law so that we can watch it critically? I’m glad I watched it again, because it’s really a reminder about the power of cinema to seduce a viewer into its own logic as a film, and then to indoctrinate a viewer in ideas about history and race and slavery and the nation.
Do you have a favorite season?
As a teacher and a writer, it has to be summer. Because life gets quiet. I’m talking to you today from my summer house, which is on the east end of Long Island, in what was once a small fishing village called Greenport. [It’s] a house that once belonged to my mother and now belongs to me. So summer is undoubtedly the time when, in my version of the busy life, there’s time for friends and there’s time for meals, but there’s [also] time for writing, thinking, reflecting. So the last two nights here it’s been cold; we had to take out a quilt at bedtime, and I have on a sweater today, which is a sign that summer is over. Which means I have to migrate back to Baltimore and to work. But I’m usually ready to go by the end of the summer, and I’m kind of ready to go now, and the weather is sort of nudging me along.