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.