Faculty Spotlight: Kelly Ryan

29th October 2015


Kelly Ryan
School of Social Sciences
Associate Professor of History


Kelly Ryan is associate professor of the department of history at IU Southeast, and teaches classes in early American history, gender and sexuality. Her research focuses on the revolutionary and early national periods of U.S. history. Her book, Regulating Passion: Sexuality and Patriarchal Rule in Massachusetts, 1700-1830 (Oxford University Press, 2014) used records of crimes in lower and upper courts, print literature and other documentary sources to underscore the ways in which sexual mores were essential to differentiating between the virtue of citizens and contesting power structures in the transitions from the colonial to early national period. Among her many distinctions, Prof. Ryan was awarded a New Frontiers in the Arts and Humanities grant from Indiana University in 2015 for her new research project, and has received the Trustees Teaching Award four times. She spoke with academic information officer, Steven Krolak.

Regulating Passion has been praised for illuminating the ways in which gender, race and class intersected to maintain structures of privilege in Massachusetts after the Revolution. Why is this integrated approach necessary in understanding mechanisms of dominance?

I grew up as child of a naval officer and we moved very frequently – every one to two years from the time I was in sixth grade. I was continuously confronted with new places and people and realized that no individual lives in isolation from the powerful categories of race, class, gender, and sexual orientation, among other issues.  These often shifting “identities” are essential to the ways individuals present themselves, seek out privilege, or experience oppression. When I learned about “intersectionalism” (as scholars call it) as a lens of study, I liked that it allowed me to study an entire society and see the ways hierarchies interact and grow off of each other.  I have found it to be a vital approach to understanding the past and present, even as it often reveals our contradictions in logic, goals, and behavior.

What kinds of sources are you currently working in, and why are they so illuminating?

As a scholar of early North American history, it is often difficult to find voices representing a broad spectrum of people because literacy and wealth result in large gaps in preservation. In my first book project, I started researching legal records in Massachusetts because it is a site where the voices of the poor, women, African Americans, and Indians speak back to or become agents of the powerful.  My newest book project has moved into New York as well, and legal records in New York have been wildly detailed about the gritty and dangerous world that early Americans inhabited.  In both cases, the conversations between the government and people reveal insights into daily life that are not available from others sources like newspapers, diaries, and letters, which were often created for mass consumption rather than private reading in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

What have you found that might challenge preconceived notions of life in early America?

Early Americans were not the peaceful, prudish, principle-driven individuals we often consider them to be. My first book examined sexual regulation in early America, and showed that sexual mores were no more fixed than they are today with individuals engaged in ribald sexual affairs as often as not. The newest book project is about violence involving slaves, free blacks, women, and servants, as well as the way violence was handled in the early courts and affected the daily lives of all early Americans. In many of the documents I examined, I have been horrified by the human capacity to cause violent harm to others with little self-examination or regret.

What questions with relevance for the present emerge from your study of the early Republic?

Any historian will tell you the same thing – our past structures the present.  The iniquities of the early republic have not entirely disappeared, but our ancestors have provided us a path that shows how we can walk to a better future. I recently had an article published on wife abuse, which showed women increasingly reporting abuse during the early republic and how doing so affected the way the judicial system handled cases. As individuals and in groups, we have the ability to make positive changes in our world. We would not want to deify our ancestors (even those who did good), as they had all the human frailties we do, but we would be smart to recognize the myriad patterns and voices in history in order to have a more accurate understanding of ourselves and others.

Have you ever been told to “shush” in an archive?

Anyone who has met me will tell you that I am loud, and particularly my laugh, but I have surprisingly never been shushed.  I believe it’s the solemnity of the archives that keeps me in line.

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