Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
April 21, 2024

Like a majority of people at Hopkins, Judith Walkowitz originally wished to study biology; luckily she instead pursued history. She was able to set aside time from her latest project researching London's Soho neighborhood in the interwar period to talk with the News-Letter.

The Johns Hopkins News-Letter (N-L): How did your interest in history begin?Judith Walkowitz (JW): I think I became interested in history because it was the 1960s. The kind of history, the kind of social and culture history that I practice actually emerges out of the left-wing intellectual developments; the notion that history actually can be made by ordinary people, and through their small efforts they can change the world. That kind of commitment to cultural and political populism, I think generated my interest in history. I'm kind of a textbook version of the 1960s. I was involved in the student movement, the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, the women's liberation movement. And I think that kind of support for my, an interest in history that would in some sense enlarge and support my contemporary political interests led me to become a historian.

N-L: When you say that you became interested in the idea that ordinary people could help propagate history, was there in the back of your mind a little thought that you were a part of the history you would study one day?JW: I have to go back to Rutgers, where first I taught many years ago, and talk about the founding of the Institute for Research on Women 30 years ago. Now it's history and I can't remember anything!

N-L: Were you part of the founding of that department there?JW: Yes I was. I got interested in my first book, which was my dissertation, in the historical question of what were the circumstances that led to feminist alliances, cross class alliances ... what were the issues of the 19th century that could bring women of different classes together. It turned out to my great surprise that it wasn't domestic service, it wasn't factory workers. It was prostitution. I undertook a research dissertation project that looked at feminist campaigns against state regulated prostitution and alliances with working class people over issues of policing of prostitutes ... I looked at the feminists, the doctors, the political mobilizations, but I also looked at the world of prostitutes and their families and their neighborhoods ... The question I was asking about cross-class alliances comes out of 1960s politics, but the answer was the historical.

N-L: Did you expect to go so far back in time to find your answer? Or did you think it would be something closer to the 1960s?JW: I was interested in the first wave of feminism; I was part of the second wave of feminism. I wanted to know, what was the first wave? I think I was quite prepared to go back as far as I could. If you think about this project: I asked a general question. It turns out what the concerned feminist in the 19th century was prostitution ... The system with state regulated prostitution was introduced to control the spread of venereal disease among military men. N-L: You began teaching here in 1989. How do you think that Hopkins as both a student body and an institution has changed over that time period?JW: I think that the undergraduates I deal with are a much more engaged and a livelier bunch than when I first started, especially in the humanities. They have a better esprit découer and they are more intellectually engaged. I think the best thing that the institution has done ... is the policy of really trying to encourage students from Baltimore, African-American students from Baltimore, to apply to the University by accepting students, of providing the full four-year scholarship to students who have been accepted from Baltimore City schools. That evidently has improved town-gown relations and it's been a long time coming. I think it's great. I don't have a great sense of the transformation of the University in the time I've been here.

N-L: Were you part of the founding of the Women and Gender Studies program here? Did you form it? Did you meet a lot of criticism or skepticism?JW: I used to run it; I ran it for about six or seven years. I was very well received ... but sustaining a program like the women's studies program involves an investment on the part of the University for recruiting faculty to run it and I don't think they've committed to doing that ... Why isn't there a senior faculty person running the program? Several years ago, we tried to get the University to recruit another senior faculty member, to do a competitive hire - another senior scholar who would also direct the program. But the University wouldn't commit to it.

N-L: What sort of advice would you give to an undergraduate who wanted to do research in the humanities?JW: I believe in subcultures, I believe in building your own group, being ambitious about it, self-organization. And I think that sub-cultural approaches work at Johns Hopkins. I think that they [students] should decide what they think about what kind of programs and courses they would like to see and make some demands on the faculty and the University - I think they can do that. But you have to get organized to do that ... Sometimes I get the sense that students feel they that they are in a science school. But the humanities programs are really the top-rated ones, so they really have an opportunity here and they should pursue them. They should have a higher morale than they do ... Try to think about how their interests combine with a certain kind of politics.


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