Miscegenation and Race: A Roundtable on Peggy Pascoe's What Comes Naturally

Article excerpt


The following papers pay tribute to Peggy Pascoe's extraordinary book What Comes Naturally: Miscegenation Law and the Making of Race in America, published in 2009 by Oxford University Press. They originated at a session held at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association (AHA) in January 2010 to explore the implications of Pascoe's work for current histories of race and gender. Sitting in the audience, I enjoyed not only the roundtable but also the deep pleasure evident on Pascoe's face as she listened to the presentations and to the discussion of the influence of her book on our scholarship and our teaching. Peggy Pascoe always makes us think harder, in her gentle and affirming ways. This session gave her a taste of the rewards sown by her latest scholarly achievement. I could sense that day that I shared with others in attendance a sense of pride and vicarious gratification that so treasured a colleague should be recognized in this way.

Both sweeping and detailed, What Comes Naturally constructs the dual histories of the criminalization of interracial marriage and the resistance to that process by individuals and social movements, spanning the century between the 1860s and the 1960s. Since its publication in 2009 the book has been widely honored. It has received both the Hawley Prize and the Levine Award from the Organization of American Historians, both the Dunning and the Kelly Prizes from the American Historical Association, and the Hurst Prize from the Law and Society Association. The range of subjects covered by these awards is telling: economy, politics, or institutions; cultural history; women's history or feminist theory; American history; sociolegal history. In short, this is a book that has already had a profound effect on the profession across its many specializations. It is also a book that will shape the future of scholarship on race, gender, and sexuality for generations.

To those familiar with Peggy Pascoe's earlier career, these accomplishments do not come as a surprise. For one, What Comes Naturally builds on a series of award-winning and paradigm-shifting journal articles in which Pascoe showcased her insightful analyses of court cases and her revisionist interpretation of the history of racial ideology, which she explores so thoroughly and thoughtfully in What Comes Naturally. (1) In addition, the book reflects Pascoe's long-standing scholarly commitment to understanding the intersecting histories of gender, race, and ethnicity. In this introduction to the papers that originated in that roundtable, I want to place her study of interracial marriage within the larger context of these career-long concerns of Peggy Pascoe, for I think that the development of her scholarship tells us much about the trajectory of our profession in the past quarter-century.

To understand Peggy Pascoe as a historian requires a few basic biographical facts. Primary among them, she was born, came of age, and earned her BA in history in the state of Montana. Her Western origins have infused everything she writes, as has her feminism. Drawn to the study of women's history as the new held flourished in the 1970s, Pascoe was one of a handful of pioneering young scholars who insisted on including women in Western history and the West in women's history. Yet she traveled to the East to enroll in what was then the only graduate women's history program, founded by Gerda Lerner at Sarah Lawrence College. Pascoe completed her MA there in 1980. Early in her career she won a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to work on a project on women in the Rocky Mountain West, which culminated in an exhibition of photographs from the period 1860 to 1910. She also began to explore women's politics in the West through the lens of the National Woman's Party, later writing about suffrage strategies in Western states.

In the meantime Pascoe entered the Stanford graduate history program, where I had the great fortune to advise her, as did the other members of her dissertation committee, Carl Degler and Al Camarillo. …