Laura McEnaney on making history and headlines

Autumn Dixon


Whittier College’s own Professor of History Laura McEnaney has been circulating national news in her role as a scholar, both with becoming the Vice President of the Teaching Division of the American Historical Association (AHA) and being consulted for an article in the New York Times.

McEnaney was consulted by a reporter to give context to photos taken in the ‘50s. “The photographs were about civil defense drills, which were nuclear preparedness drills that occurred in the United States throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s to ‘prepare’ for a nuclear bomb to be dropped on the United States,” she said. McEnaney published a book in 2000 titled Civil Defense Begins at Home: Militarization Meets Everyday Life in the Fifties. “It was fun for me to go back to earlier material.” While McEnaney states the experience was wonderful, she contributes much of the success to the reporter’s education. 

“This reporter had been a History major, and I also knew his advisor. His questions were smart, they were complex, he knew how to ask a good question, and ask a good follow-up question. He knew this because he had a terrific liberal arts education,” said McEnaney. “He knew how to do that because he had a broader sense of American history and how it connected to the moment we’re in now, so I thoroughly enjoyed it.”

McEnaney was named Vice President of the AHA in the Teaching Division earlier this year. “I’m really excited about this because it enables me to learn a lot about the teaching dimension of my job as a faculty member . . . We are trained to be scholars, we are not trained to be teachers. So we need support, and we need encouragement to do this,” said McEnaney. “One of the roles of the AHA, and particularly the Teaching Division, is to support the teaching missions of a professor and offer them the encouragement, the training and development, and the support to get better as teachers.” In order to do so, McEnaney suggests, “We have to be very thoughtful about the way we’re teaching, and think less about our teaching and more about how our students are learning.”

Postsecondary life began for McEnaney when she was a first-generation, returning student at University of Wisconsin, Madison. While she is currently a devote historian, McEnaney first majored in English and minored in Women’s Studies. “I realized in the middle of my [third] year of college as an English major, I’m more interested in the context than I am in this text,” said McEnaney. “I kept taking history courses, but I finished with an English degree.”

These history courses were challenging for McEnaney, as they were vastly different from what she took in high school. “At first I felt like my professors were taking things away from me . . . they were undermining all the mythology I had learned in K-12, so my first experience of history was discomfort because everything I thought was true turned out not to be true,” said McEnaney. “Then history helped me see connections and helped me think with more depth about the life I was living, about the community in which I was living, and that was exhilarating. To understand your world in different ways is important and necessary, but also exhilarating.” 

McEnaney also got her PhD at University of Wisconsin, Madison in Women and Gender History. “It was the first PhD program in Women’s History in the country, and it was created by Gerda Lerner,” said McEnaney. There, she mentored under Lerner and Linda Gordon, two of the most prominent women’s historians in the country.

“As we think about how history unfolds, it’s always through collaboration, so let it be noted: I’m against the profile,” said McEnaney after our interview. Through her relationships and collaborating with others on campus, McEnaney has left an impact on students at the College. “Professor McEnaney really made an effort to reach out to me and all my classmates in my INTD class my [first year],” said third-year Jazmyn Sudbrook. “She will always be known for her infectious laugh, kind heart, and dedication to the well being of her students.” 

Third-year Haily McCord had McEnaney as her first-year advisor. “Dr. McEnaney was more than just a first year advisor to me, she was a mentor and a friend,” said McCord. “I still carry the confidence that she instilled us with to this day.”