Lizabeth Cohen is the current Howard Mumford Jones Professor of American Studies at Harvard University, as well as the Dean of Harvard's Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. Currently, she teaches courses in 20th-century America, material and popular culture, and gender, urban, and working-class history. She has also served as the Chair of the History Department at Harvard and director of the undergraduate program in history.
Life and academic career
Cohen grew up in Paramus, in Bergen County, New Jersey. She earned her A.B. degree from Princeton University, and both her M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley, where she worked with labor historian David Brody and cultural historians Lawrence Levine and Paula S. Fass, among others.
Cohen worked as a secondary school teacher and in history and art museums. She rose from the position of assistant to associate professor at Carnegie Mellon University between 1986 and 1992 and served as associate professor and full professor at New York University between 1992 and 1997, before joining the faculty at Harvard. She was appointed the Harmsworth Professor of American History at Oxford University for the 2007-08 academic year, and is an honorary fellow of Oxford's Rothermere American Institute.
She is best known for Making a New Deal, a book that pioneered the social history of 20th-century American politics. In that book, a case study of Chicago, Cohen argues that working-class urban residents found a common identity as Americans and as New Dealers as the result of their incorporation into a burgeoning mass culture and especially as the result of the devastating effects of the Depression on urban ethnic stores, businesses, and institutions. Cohen also offers a provocative argument about the rise of the Congress of Industrial Organizations during the 1930s. She contends that a working-class "culture of unity" broke down ethnic divisions and animosities and made possible widescale industrial unionization.
Cohen's analysis of working-class popular culture (shopping, movie-going, and radio) during the 1920s was a pioneering effort in the study of vernacular consumerism, a theme that she developed with more of a political focus in her most recent book, A Consumers' Republic. Through a deeply documented history of urban and suburban New Jersey, embedded in a larger analysis about the transformation of post-New Deal liberalism, Cohen explores the ways that people's identities as consumers shaped their politics after World War II. Building on her interests on architecture, planning, and the built environment, the book is particularly noteworthy for its engagement with earlier work on the politics of suburbanization by scholars like Kenneth T. Jackson. Cohen explores such topics as the rise of shopping malls, the emergence of a consumers' rights movement, and the relationship of consumerism to civil rights activism in the mid-twentieth century. A Consumer's Republic begins with her recollections of growing up in suburban New Jersey and draws from extensive research in archives in the Garden State.
Awards and memberships
Cohen has been a Guggenheim Fellow, an American Council of Learned Societies Fellow, a Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study and is a Fellow of the Rothermere American Institute, University of Oxford. She has also served as President of the Urban History Association.
Her 1990 article, "Encountering Mass Culture at the Grassroots: The Experience of Chicago Workers in the 1920s," won the American Studies Association's Constance Rourke Prize for the best article published in the journal American Quarterly.
Her 1990 book, Making a New Deal, won the Bancroft Prize in 1991 for the best book published in American history and the Philip Taft Labor History Book Award, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
- A Consumers' Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America. New York: Vintage Books, 2003. ISBN 0-375-70737-9
- Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919-1939. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990. ISBN 0-521-38134-7
- "Encountering Mass Culture at the Grassroots: The Experience of Chicago Workers in the 1920s." American Quarterly. 41:1 (March 1989).
- "From Town Center to Shopping Center: The Reconfiguration of Community Marketplaces in Postwar America." American Historical Review. 101 (October 1996).