Stewart receives NEH grant for second book

Professor of History Catherine Stewart is one of only three Iowa scholars to receive a highly-competitive grant from The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).

The $50,400 Fellowship will allow Stewart to take a full-year sabbatical leave, starting January 2019, to write her second book.

Professor of History Catherine Stewart
Professor of History Catherine Stewart

“The New Maid” will provide a social and cultural history of African-American women who labored as household workers during the Great Depression. Stewart aims to have her book in the hands of readers by the spring of 2021.

Stewart’s award is part of a larger announcement to award $12.8 million to support 253 humanities projects across the nation.

What did you think when you first heard you received the NEH grant?  

I was completely surprised and thrilled. I had been checking the status of my online application every few months just to see if it would give me any indication of where it was in the process of review. It never did, but the last time I checked it, just one week before the NEH announced the winners, my online application had disappeared. I assumed that meant I was no longer a contender.

I have applied for NEH grants before, unsuccessfully, and I wouldn’t have tried again if not for a mentor’s encouragement. It proves the old adage that you should always try again, and that failure is an inevitable part of any journey. It did make a difference that this time around I had already published a book and proved my capability as a scholar.

What does this grant mean to you?

It is tremendously gratifying to have your scholarship recognized and to receive a vote of confidence from other scholars in the humanities for a current project that is still in progress. I have always been a huge fan of NEH, which was created in 1965 as an independent federal agency to help preserve our nation’s rich history and cultural heritage by supporting innovative projects in history, archaeology, philosophy, literature, and other humanities disciplines. Many people are unaware that NEH funding has helped Ken Burns make his award-winning documentaries, or that it has been instrumental in the digitalization of 63.3 million pages of historic U.S. newspapers. The NEH also provides essential funding for educational programming in every state and U.S. territory, supporting 56,000 public lectures, discussions, and exhibitions every year. We need to recognize the tremendous role the NEH plays in expanding our horizons and our connections to each other, our communities, and the larger world, and speak up when it is threatened by proposed budget cuts. This generous award will enable me to devote myself more fully to the completion of my second book and get it published much sooner. There aren’t a lot of funding sources for scholars in the humanities, and I am honored to have my research and writing funded by NEH.

What will you do with the award?

The NEH Fellowship will enable me to take a full year of sabbatical leave. I plan to spend some time in Washington, D.C., conducting further research at the National Archives, and make a couple of other shorter trips to archives in Florida and Georgia.

What is your new book about?

“The New Maid” examines the experiences of African-American women who labored as household workers during the Great Depression. Domestic service was the largest employer of black women in the first half of the twentieth century but there has been very little written about these workers. I hope to expand our understanding of these women’s lives and work experiences, particularly in the South, and examine how the politics of race and the economic depression impacted 1930s debates over black citizenship and household employment. Black women, working as domestic servants, were in the vanguard of the larger struggle for civil rights and social justice that emerged in the post-war era.

How did you decide to focus on this topic?

I discovered a number of the archival materials for “The New Maid” while researching my first book, Long Past Slavery: Representing Race in the Federal Writers’ Project (UNC Press, 2016), which examines African-American encounters with the New Deal through the lens of the ex-slave narratives collected under the auspices of the Works Projects Administration (WPA). The WPA is also a central player in my current project as it created Household Training Projects to instruct and certify women for domestic service during the Great Depression. I’m interested in looking at how these federal projects played out in Southern states, and how the instruction and wages for African-American women differed from those provided for white women.

Why is this book project important to you?

When I’m in the archives I find that certain stories call out to you, if you’re listening carefully, and ask to be told. I think it is important to honor those calls and pay attention. My commitment also stems from the continuing relevance of this long history of race and labor exploitation that stretches back to slavery and is still visible in current problems of low-wage work, unemployment, and mass incarceration.

About The National Endowment for the Humanities:

Created in 1965 as an independent federal agency, the National Endowment for the Humanities supports research and learning in history, literature, philosophy, and other areas of the humanities by funding selected, peer-reviewed proposals from around the nation.