Macmillan Learning Author Spotlight: Dr. Brenda Stevenson

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Dr. Brenda Stevenson (2).pngDr. Brenda Stevenson is a busy woman. “I sort of have three jobs at the moment,” she said. When she’s not fulfilling her teaching duties as the Nickoll Family Endowed Chair in the Department of History and Professor of African American Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), or as the inaugural Hillary Rodham Clinton Chair in Women’s History at St. John’s College, Oxford University, she’s serving on a Civil Rights committee for President Joe Biden.

As a woman with such distinguished roles as those, Macmillan Learning is proud to have Dr. Stevenson as part of the author team for the sixth edition of Through Women’s Eyes. It’s because of authors like Dr. Stevenson that our textbooks and courseware are successful, helping to achieve Macmillan Learning’s mission to inspire what’s possible in every learner. Dr. Stevenson also embodies that mission, for she herself is a lifelong and constant learner; one who shares her knowledge with her students, so that they, in turn, can use that knowledge as they navigate the world and its histories. Join us in getting to know Dr. Stevenson in our Author Spotlight series.

From ‘science geek’ to ‘history buff’

Dr. Stevenson was a self-identified ‘science geek’ in high school. She grew up in Portsmouth, Virginia, to parents who wanted her to become a physician, or a lawyer, but not a teacher. When she started her undergraduate studies as an Echols Scholar at University of Virginia, Dr. Stevenson listened to her parents and began a pre-med track. She was going to become a doctor.

Dr. Stevenson followed through on that promise to become a doctor (it’s in her title), but not the kind of doctor that she or her parents had anticipated. Instead, she learned a hard truth that many other STEM students learn when transitioning to college: science is much more difficult at the collegiate level than it is in high school. Fortunately, as part of the Echols Scholars Program, Dr. Stevenson was able to explore other interests early in her undergraduate career.

The Echols Scholars Program at the University of Virginia is unique in that it includes the top two percent of the freshman class, and these students need only to take a certain number of academic hours to graduate. “Of course, it was a fun program because we were able to live together like in Greek life,” she said of being an Echols Scholar, "but the best part was that we were able to take whichever courses we wanted. It gave me the intellectual freedom to discover other areas of study outside of the sciences,” said Dr. Stevenson.

Students in the Echols Scholars Program would ask one another which classes they’d taken or were taking and provide each other with recommendations. “You ask what your friends are taking and you get sort of drawn into it,” said Dr. Stevenson, “so I remember taking an African American literature class taught by Professor Arnold Rampersad. I didn’t know anything about it beforehand, but his course was mind-opening.”

Dr. Stevenson described taking Dr. Rampersad’s course as serendipitous because he was only at the University of Virginia for the year that she took his course. “It sparked an interest in me that lay dormant but was very much awakened,” she said. Growing up in the South, Dr. Stevenson was surrounded by history. Her mother shared with her what it was like to grow up on the same farm where her family had been enslaved, and her father told stories about running away as a child during the Great Depression. “To top it off,” said Dr. Stevenson, “many of our family vacations were to visit local historic sites like Yorktown or Williamsburg. It was as if I couldn’t escape history!”

Perhaps Dr. Stevenson really couldn’t escape history. Everywhere she looked there was a statue, a plaque, or a street named in honor of an important historical figure. “Despite what I told myself,” she chuckled, “that I was so tired of history, and that I was never going to become a teacher, I began to be pulled in that direction.” After a talk by a professor from Yale University, Dr. John Blassingame, about his book, Dr. Stevenson was hooked. She decided she would continue onto graduate school to study with Dr. Blassingame at Yale, and she would need to break this news to her parents. “I promised them that I would go to law school after I completed the master’s program,” she said. If she wasn’t going to become a physician, then Dr. Stevenson would become a lawyer.

“That certainly did not happen,” she said. “Dr. Blassingame convinced me to apply to the PhD program and well, the rest is history, as they say.”

Teaching to learn, writing to learn

Dr. Stevenson is currently teaching two courses: a survey course on African American history to a large undergraduate class of about 125 students and a graduate level course focused on Black women in the Atlantic World in the period of 1650 to 1850. “Both classes have been wonderful so far,” said Dr. Stevenson. “I haven’t taught the survey course in about 20 years, which meant I needed to write new lectures–an arduous but exciting task because I get to do something new by returning to something old.”

Her graduate-level course includes students from both UCLA and Oxford. “It’s been amazing to have people from both sides of the pond, as they call it, reading the same material and thinking about how it interacts with their own work and research,” she said. Dr. Stevenson’s favorite part about teaching is opening up students’ minds to things they didn’t know beforehand. “At the undergraduate level, I love seeing them being awakened to American history but also the kinds of histories within our nation and globally that allow them to create the knowledge they will eventually share with the world,” she said.

Brenda Quote.pngJust like her undergraduate students, Dr. Stevenson finds her graduate students inspiring. “They pose such interesting questions–things I’d not thought about before–and it creates new opportunities for me to explore history from other perspectives and write about it.” For Dr. Stevenson, both teaching and writing serve as outlets for her insatiable curiosity and desire to continue learning.

“I like learning about ordinary people,” she said, “and teaching about ordinary people.” Trained as a social historian, Dr. Stevenson examines how people’s lives are impacted by larger historical and societal forces. “I write mostly about women,” she said, “and I want people to see that you can be quite ordinary but do extraordinary things. Women’s impact in our country and around the world is undeniable.”

Dr. Stevenson writes about topics that she would like to learn more about. “I wrote a book about three very different women,” she said. “One was a Korean woman, another was African American, and the third was Jewish. It was the most challenging book I’ve written because I needed to deeply understand the histories of these three distinct women and their cultures.”

When Dr. Stevenson believes she has really captured the voices of the people whom she writes about, she feels most proud of her writing. “It’s something I’m doing for these historical women, for myself, and for my audience,” she said. This includes the sixth edition of Through Women’s Eyes, a text that spans the entirety of American history but with women at the center of it all. “It’s such a wonderful text, and it was a pleasure to work with Dr. Ellen DuBois on the most recent edition,” said Dr. Stevenson.

The state of women’s history

Through Dr. Stevenson’s career, much has changed in the discipline of history. “When I was in graduate school,” she said, “Women’s Studies was quite new but was starting to develop in such a magnificent way.” Dr. Stevenson described her time as a student as an explosion of intellectual curiosity about women. “People were starting to pay more attention to women who were marginalized, women who were poor, or middle or upper class, or famous women,” she said.

More recently, Dr. Stevenson recognizes advancements in gender theory in Women’s Studies. “Today, more than ever before,” she said, “people are exploring the boundaries of womanhood and girlhood–of what it means to transition and become ‘woman’.” As Dr. Stevenson puts it, the world is starting to catch up. “In the 80s and 90s,” she said, “it was the Western world paving the way. In the United States, England, and other parts of Europe, people started to earn their doctorate degrees in Women’s Studies or History. Today, women’s history is starting to become something synonymous with society and culture. It’s wonderful to see.”


Brenda Elaine Stevenson (PhD, Yale University) is the inaugural Hillary Rodham Clinton Chair of Women’s History at the University of Oxford and the inaugural Nickoll Family Endowed Chair in History at the University of California, Los Angeles. She is the author of the award-winning monographs: Life in Black and White: Family and Community in the Slave South; and The Contested Murder of Latasha Harlins: Justice, Gender and the Origins of the L.A. Riots. She is also the author of What Is Slavery?; the editor of the Journals of Charlotte Forten Grimké; and the co-author of The Underground Railroad. Her new monograph, What Sorrows Labour in My Parent’s Breast?: A History of the Enslaved Black Family, appeared in April 2023. She was appointed by President Biden to serve on the Civil Rights Cold Case Records Review Board in 2022. When she is not teaching or writing, she is an avid gardener and teaches Sunday school to what she describes as “adorable six and seven year-olds”.