For 21 years, historian Jennifer Mittelstadt ’92 has immersed herself in dusty bound indexes and volumes, micro-film readers, and intransigent online databases hunting for government documents.
“Such documents offer neither ease of access nor instant gratification, and few yield pleasures or eureka moments,” said Mittelstadt, professor of history at Rutgers University and a scholar of the state and politics in the 20th-century United States. “I’ve learned that satisfaction comes only from layering them in unexpected ways and moving outside the government archive entirely, forcing the documents to speak in ways their authors did not intend, and drawing into the conversation other voices who tried to influence those records and who lived through their consequences.”
As a newly-awarded Guggenheim Fellow, Mittelstadt will delve into a new research project that traces the relationships between citizens and the state into the realm of foreign policy. She and Maaza Mengiste, professor of English, are among 175 individuals nationwide to receive the 2022 grant, which is supported by the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. Fellows are given blocks of time in which they can work with as much creative freedom as possible.
The project, tentatively titled Sovereignty and Subversion: The Global Agenda of the Grassroots Right will bring together the histories of grassroots conservative activism and U.S. foreign policy, asking how individuals relate to the state in the execution of foreign affairs.
For this project, Mittelstadt will scour dozens of papers from little-known individuals and organizations from the 1910s through the 1990s to reconstruct a network of right-wing Americans who attempted to educate fellow citizens about foreign affairs and mobilize them to produce policy change.
These groups would co-author their own right-wing publications and host their own lectures and conferences. They organized and executed successive actions against the Bolshevik Revolution and the new USSR; ratification of the League of Nations Treaty; the United States’ entrance into World War II; decolonization and African rights in Rhodesia and South Africa; immigration to the U.S.; the return of the Panama Canal; and communism in Nicaragua.
“Though many undertook education and public diplomacy or fundraising and boycotts, others provided high-level support for the agendas of elected officials or donated funds and material assistance for weapons and mercenary activity, ” she explained.
Mittelstadt, who majored in history at Wesleyan, credits her professors for not only kindling her interest in history, but “for modeling the kind of commitment and integrity, both in research and teaching,” that she’s tried to emulate in her career since.
“Ronald Schatz (professor of history) and Claire Potter (former professor of history and American studies), each allowed me the opportunity to undertake original research under their respective guidance, and I was hooked,” Mittelstadt recalls. “They seemed like giants to me—I sometimes still can’t believe I am one of their ‘peers’ — it hardly seems possible!”
As an expert on the state and politics, she’s constantly questioning how status, citizenship, and rights have been defined by different people by incorporating the experiences of people of varied gender, racial and economic identities.
“I examine relationships between state and society: what levers control state structures from the top? What forces generate them from the bottom? What are the relationships between individuals and the state? How do social structures and identities shape such relationships? I combine often unconnected literatures, creatively synthesizing a range of theory and methods, particularly national and international literature on politics, power, and the state; the military and militarization; women and gender; and race and intersectionality,” she said. “I find great joys in bridging subfields to seek new opportunities for inspiration and insight about the state and politics.”
Mittelstadt and Mengiste are among several Wesleyan alumni and faculty to receive the prestigious fellowship. Past recipients include David Rabban ’71; Roxanne Euban ’88; Lyle Ashton Harris ’88; Rick Barot ’92; Adam Berinsky ’92; Jonas Carpignano ’06; Michael Lucey ’82; Shalini Shankar ’94; Benjamin Day ’58; Jeffrey Schiff, professor of art; Richard Grossman, professor of economics; Jeremy Zwelling, associate professor of religion, emeritus; and former Wesleyan faculty Magda Teter and Elizabeth Willis.