Sam Heavner ’20

“‘One of the Laborers’: Girlhood, Work, and Media in the United States, 1840-1860”

Tell us about your thesis!

My thesis, “‘One of the Laborers’: Girlhood, Work, and Media in the United States 1840-1860,” considers the intersection of idealized girlhood and popular print media in the mid-nineteenth. It draws upon existing scholarship on the history of American childhood by Steven Mintz and Renee Sentilles to consider the common conceptions of idealized childhood that existed within the American imagination during this time. In my first chapter, I explore how idealized notions of girlhood were communicated to children through popular youth periodicals. Then, in my second chapter, I examine idealized working-class girlhood as it operates in The Lamplighter (1854), a best-selling sentimental novel by Maria Cummins. Taken together, the chapters demonstrate a collective investment in normative girlhood as it related to labor and industry in the rapidly changing nineteenth-century American economy. 

How did you choose your topic?

Over the course of my junior year, I became increasingly interested in childhood studies while I was exploring various sources in HL98: Junior Tutorial. I researched the history of American family structures in my junior fall as part of a project about twentieth-century recreation trends and the opening of Walt Disney World in 1971. Then, in my junior spring, I wrote my junior paper on the intersection of law and order rhetoric and media disseminated by the Boy Scouts of America in the 1970s. I knew I wanted to continue to research the role of childhood and children in American culture in my thesis, and decided to pivot my research to focus on the nineteenth century. From there, I started to narrow my project, restricting my topic to focus on girlhood and print media in particular.

What were the biggest challenges?

I found it difficult to establish a consistent work schedule for my thesis, especially when I was first starting out. It was surprising to realize how fast time can slip by when I was focusing on other classwork during the semester. Once I took the time to establish a solid routine for thesis work, the process felt much more manageable. 

What was your favorite thing about your thesis?

My favorite thing about my thesis process is probably the amount of time it allowed me to spend with my primary sources. Never before in my academic career have I sat with a single novel for several months, parsing through the themes and characters in detail before finalizing my thoughts on them. By the end of the process, I felt mastery over The Lamplighter and my other primary materials that was never possible in other courses at Harvard. It was really rewarding to see my arguments, and my articulation of them, develop and pivot over time.

What advice would you give to juniors?

Remember: this is your first thesis! You’ve never done this before! There’s absolutely no reason to expect that you’ll already be good at writing a thesis while you’re charting entirely new territory. Try to be kind yourself and keep in mind how exciting and impressive it is that you’re doing a senior thesis at all. Also, ask for help when you need it and be as honest as possible with your advisor about how the process is going, even if it isn’t going as well as you had hoped.

Kaylee Kim ’20

“‘WE WILL NOT BE BARRED!’: The Feminist Campaign Against Men-Only Bars and Restaurants”

Tell us about your thesis!

I wrote about the feminist campaign against men-only bars and restaurants in the late 60s and early 70s across America. Sex segregation at these establishments was surprisingly common — in 1970, 25% of liquor licenses in Boston belonged to bars that did not serve women. This fight, however, has often been lost in the larger narrative of late 60s feminism, which was all the more motivation for me to pursue it as my thesis topic!

How did you choose your topic?

Because I knew I wanted to write about women in the 60s/70s, I started my search at Schlesinger Library, particularly its extensive archives of the National Organization of Women. I discovered that NOW had pioneered a campaign against men-only bars and restaurants in 1968 that other feminist groups and women joined later on. From reading the ways feminists justified this fight, I then became interested in the ways public space facilitated gender dynamics and relations, and I knew there was so much more to investigate about this topic beyond literal access to restaurants or the ability to order a martini.

Lucy Komisar, VP of NOW, at McSorley’s the day it opened to women on August 10, 1970. Credit: The New York Times

What were the biggest challenges?

I had never embarked on such an extensive academic project, so continuing to write without knowing my exact argument was really challenging. I don’t think I had an overarching thesis statement until the end of January. My thesis advisor was really encouraging throughout and reminded me that this was all part of the process, and my argument eventually came together, even if it was later than I had initially expected.

What was your favorite thing about your thesis?

I was lucky enough to be able to interview Lucy Komisar, one of the vice presidents of NOW who was famously photographed at McSorley’s Old Ale House the day it was forced to open its doors to women in 1970. (In the photographs, you can see men jeering and shouting at her as she tries to order a beer.) Getting to hear her perspective firsthand on how this fight fit into the feminist movement at large was such an incredible experience and a definite highlight of my thesis journey.

What advice would you give to juniors?

When it comes to your topic, think about what has interested you most during your time at college: themes, eras, figures, etc. Start this process as early as your junior spring. You want a topic you are passionate about — otherwise, you’ll get sick of it pretty easily! Also, be prepared to edit your drafts like crazy. This is actually really freeing because you don’t have to feel the pressure of getting it “right” the first time around.

Jamie Halper ’20

“‘Imagination Joggers’: Women’s Fight to Eliminate Sex-Segregated Classified Advertisements from American Newspapers, 1964-1973”

I came to my thesis topic in a slightly unorthodox manner — I was absolutely certain of my subject in May of junior year, and spent the summer reading primary sources to prepare. The day after I submitted my proposal to Hist & Lit, however, I realized I was no longer inspired by any of it and had no sense of direction for pursuing it further. In a desperate attempt to not disappoint my advisors, I spent a Friday evening searching back through all my old papers from sophomore and junior year to find a topic I didn’t hate that I could suggest as an alternative. I came upon a short primary source-based paper from junior fall about a radical feminist protest against The Boston Globe in 1970, and after reading through it was inspired to do a little Googling to see how the whole issue had ended. It turned out that one aspect of the protest — an attack on sex-segregated classified advertisements — had a rich social and legal history culminating in a 1973 Supreme Court case. I was sold.

But, I was also very busy. I spent the rest of the fall squeezing in the occasional primary source reading between classes and extracurriculars. I wrote a chapter for the mandatory November submission that was essentially a stream of close readings with little coherent argument. I consulted exactly one primary source. As a result of an overpacked first semester, when I returned to campus in early January I had virtually nothing written or read, and less than two months to put together a thesis. I spent the next three weeks of wintersession rotating between Cambridge’s Darwins Ltd. locations and dining on coffee and potato chips to fuel my fervent drafting and constant revising. I wouldn’t recommend writing your thesis in two months (and Hist & Lit probably wouldn’t let me), but I also know that many time-consuming extracurriculars can make it hard for many people to do much work during fall semester. You can still make a comeback and write a thesis you’re proud of, but definitely return to campus early for wintersession to give yourself a firm foundation heading into February. Even though my thesis journey started with doubts and do-overs, by the end of the writing process, I had come to love it.

I ended up with a three-chapter thesis studying the social and legal strategies employed to eliminate sex-segregated classified advertisements from American newspapers between 1964 and 1973. My first chapter told a new, extended narrative of this struggle that looked beyond the existing historical accounts and traced the fight to its conclusion in the Supreme Court. My second chapter examined the public-focused strategies employed by Boston-area radical feminists to fight sex-segregated advertisements in The Boston Globe, and made an argument about consciousness raising as a form of activism. My third chapter considered the legal fight against sex-segregated advertisements waged by Pittsburgh members of the National Organization for Women, and tracked the evolution and implementation of Pauli Murray’s strategy to use race-sex parallels when trying to win victories for women before the courts. In the end, I found that it was a combination of these powerful but imperfect strategies that won the elimination of sex-segregated advertisements from newspapers across the country and set the stage for feminist fights to come throughout the 1970s.

Lucy Devine ’20

“Wise Women in the World of ‘Mad Men’: The Forgotten Story of Jean Wade Rindlaub and Early Female Advertising Executives”

Tell us about your thesis!

My thesis is primarily about a woman named Jean Wade Rindlaub who was an important figure in the advertising industry from the thirties through the sixties, but is rarely ever discussed in the literature on the industry or histories of women’s labor. She became a vice president at Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborn (BBDO–one of the biggest ad agencies in New York at the time) in 1945, was the Advertising Woman of the Year in 1951, and joined the board of directors at BBDO in 1954. The reason those dates are important is because they seem way earlier than one would think a woman would have been successful in advertising. After all, Peggy from Mad Men was a secretary until the mid-1960s. Interestingly, cultural portrayals of women in the ad industry differ from what was the reality. My thesis compares the real life successes of Jean Wade Rindlaub and the mostly negative cultural representations of female advertising executives, primarily in two romantic comedies from the time: Take a Letter Darling (1942) and Lover Come Back (1961). 

How did you choose your topic?

I knew from the beginning that I wanted to do original archival research at Schlesinger Library. I had been doing research there since freshman year and I always had the most fun on projects involving materials from Schlesinger. So, when looking for a topic, I immediately went to their website and searched through their Subject Guides. A lot of my previous projects had been about women and work, including a paper on 9 to 5 the movie and the organization that inspired it and another paper dealing with the magazine Working Woman, so I kind of had an idea where I wanted to look. When I stumbled upon the description of Rindlaub’s archives, I knew I had found something cool. I got into the archives soon after and just ran with it!

What were the biggest challenges?

I think one of the biggest challenges was keeping motivation high after finishing the first chapter and deciding what to write next. I was so interested in Rindlaub and her life, but I didn’t want to write a biography (that’s not the assignment), so I had to broaden my scope a bit, but I didn’t know how. Also, there’s a bit of a break after submitting the first draft chapter and it was really tempting to just stop thinking about it for a while. My adviser was amazing about helping me with both of those issues and by the time I was back on campus during winter break, I knew what I was going to write and I was ready to roll. 

Did you encounter any surprises along the way?

Luckily, I didn’t encounter any bad surprises, but there were some happy surprises! I was able to track down the woman who originally archived all of Rindlaub’s papers and meet with her. It was a really insightful meeting because she had seen every paper and advertisement in the archive so could speak to trends she saw and important things I just couldn’t miss. Also, she had been lucky enough to talk to some of Rindlaub’s family members and get a sense for who she was apart from her documents, so it was really cool to hear that. I also was surprised to find out that Lizabeth Cohen, the author of one of my main secondary sources, A Consumers’ Republic teaches on campus so I met with her to run some ideas by her and that was a very special experience. 

What did you find most rewarding about the process?

Hm… That’s a hard question. I think just the overall experience was so rewarding. I was so hesitant to declare Hist & Lit because I was so scared of writing a thesis. At the point of declaration, I think the longest paper I had ever written was 12 pages long, and I never really thought of myself as a “writer.” So, even completing the thesis is an accomplishment. I think it was super rewarding to even see that I could do something I never thought I would be able to do. Also, getting to work with and to know my adviser Lauren Brandt was just honestly a blessing (and I’m not even religious). 

What was your favorite thing about your thesis?

My favorite thing about my thesis is how many different types of primary sources I used to write it. I used Rindlaub’s archival papers, newspaper articles, books (obviously), a TV show, two romantic comedies (I can’t believe I was able to base half of my thesis on romcoms), press kits, motion picture codes, and print advertisements.

What advice would you give to juniors?

I think the biggest piece of advice I would give to juniors is to come back to campus early over winter break to write. I know that’s not super philosophical or inspirational, but coming back early gave me a chance to fully immerse myself into the project with no distractions (other classes, family, social obligations, etc.). That time is when I really fell in love with my thesis and enjoyed writing it most. Also, it meant that by the time classes started up again, I didn’t have that much more to write. Would recommend!

Alexandra Summa ’20

“Corn Nationalism: Exhibiting Mythologies of ‘America’s Crop’ 1887-1918’

As corn became a dominant resource in U.S. industry, the crop was placed on display in festivals and museums across the country. In my thesis, titled “Corn Nationalism: Exhibiting Mythologies of America’s Crop, 1887-1918,” I study how corn exhibits reflect myths and metaphors of land and nation by interrogating Sioux City’s Corn Palace (1887), corn demonstrations at Chicago’s Columbian Exposition (1893), and exhibit “Food Values and Economies” at the American Museum of Natural History (1917). In these case studies, I show how businessmen, authors, architects, cooks, and curators use corn as a metaphor for national prosperity. I argue that white cultural creators of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries contextualized corn by applying visual and rhetorical strategies to replace and erase Indigenous peoples from histories of the resource. This was to advance myths about the origin of American civilization and fashion expedient meanings of the crop in the present day. By rejecting the novelty of King Corn and reading against the grain of his rule, we reveal a strange and understudied history that demonstrates the deep connections between the American West, museums, and colonial history, which further conveys the importance of continued decolonization and increased need for Indigenous cultural rights. 

In this process I was supported by my wonderful advisor, Reed Gochberg. I also met with other members of the Hist & Lit department who guided me as I curated this archive and defined “corn nationalism.” Additionally, I received a grant from the Harvard College Research Program that allowed me to travel to Iowa and research in the archives at the Sioux City Public Museum. 

Sophie Barry ’20

“‘Make America Fit Again!’: Superman #170 and the Rise of Youth Fitness Culture in Cold War America, 1953-1964”

My senior thesis delved into the intersection of two of my favorite passions: fitness and superheroes. How are these two linked? Well, it turns out when President Eisenhower created the President’s Council for Youth Fitness in 1956, it completely changed the way Americans viewed fitness in their daily lives. White male youth, in particular, became subject to numerous advertisements promoting fitness.

My thesis is separated into three chapters, with the first two looking at how Eisenhower and Kennedy approached the politicizing of fitness and how they applied their points of view on generational heroism to fitness programs. The final chapter is a close-analysis of Superman #170, which was commissioned by JFK. This issue follows Superman as he encourages white male youth to abide by the government fitness programs through somewhat strange measures. The main argument I weaved throughout all three chapters is the idea of the double entendre of fitness. By that I mean the idea of fitness as a physicality and the question of “who truly fits the term ‘American?’”

Because my thesis encompassed materials and a time period that excited me, I learned so much about this era and how fitness culture was seeded in the Cold War. I had the lovely support of my advisor, Tim McCarthy, along with many members of the Hist & Lit department. Further, I went to both the JFK Library and the Eisenhower Library to look at materials firsthand.