“So how do you compare women’s status in the U.S. and Japan?” Despite advance preparation, I had not anticipated this question.  I froze.  No, I was not defending my master’s thesis.  The question was posed by an immigration officer at Milwaukee International Airport.  I was returning to the University of Wisconsin, Madison, after a winter break in my native Japan, and my reason for re-entry, stated in my immigration document, was graduate education in sociology and women’s studies.  Before me was a female agent of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), her blonde hair pulled back in a tight bun, her blue eyes expressionless, and her holstered handgun gleaming.  At graduate school I was accustomed to handling questions under a figurative gun but never a literal one.  If I gave a “wrong” answer, I wondered, would I get into trouble?

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When I arrived at UCLA as a 16-year-old undergraduate in 1973, the first Moon landing was still a vivid memory.  It seemed to herald wonderful possibilities, and even in retrospect it remains an amazing achievement—something altogether new in human history.  Although the astronauts who set foot on the lunar surface were nominally the heroes of the event, the space program was actually the result of a coordinated effort of many thousands of individuals whose efforts were brilliantly harnessed to achieve a common goal. If it was not the moral equivalent of war, it was pretty close.

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Agency is what we seek to understand as historians: the demiurge of that disciplinary holy grail, causality.  Who or what stirs the cauldron of change?  When and how?  When we reflect on our own lives, the elusive nature of that power becomes even more palpable.  How did I become this thing, a historian of modern Britain?  Did I choose it, or did it choose me?  And what kind of agency does my being a historian give me?

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I was born in 1948 and grew up in the north-east of England at a time when its two major industries – mining and shipbuilding – were in decline.  My father had joined the Royal Navy in 1938 as a regular officer.  This was quite an achievement for a working-class Jew.  He served through the war as a naval aviator, including spending some tough months on the besieged island of Malta.  After the war he went into business with his brothers, sometimes successfully and sometimes less so.  There were times when we were very short of money.  My mother had shone at school but because of the war had not gone to university.  These days she would undoubtedly have had a successful professional career as well as bringing up two boys.  She never complained about this.

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From about the time I was twelve, my father and I would stay up late during summer nights discussing politics. As an immigrant to the U.S., he focused our conversations around international relations, although I didn’t quite realize it at the time. Our talks ranged from the political to the personal.  I remember clearly a common refrain. Whenever I would complain, he would reassure me that things would change.  “Slowly and slowly,” he would say, it would all work out.

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“Do they do the Cold War in Utrecht?” was the first question I was asked after braving a cloud of volcanic ash to arrive at the prestigious International Graduate Student Conference on the Cold War in Washington DC in April 2010.  Such was my enthusiasm to join, that I took my suitcase to Amsterdam Airport on a daily basis to ensure that KLM’s crew would let me onto the first intercontinental flight that was allowed to leave the airport after the notorious eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland.  Having barely finished my MA-degree in Comparative History, while still working as a Classics teacher at a Dutch gymnasium, I relished the opportunity to share my ideas with such Cold War icons as Odd Arne Westad, Bernd Schäfer and James Hershberg.  Although most Europeans – including the entire faculty of the LSE – had not managed to cross the Atlantic, I had gone to great lengths to arrive in Washington exactly to “do the Cold War in Utrecht.” Retrospectively, that seemed a long shot – I had a Classics degree from Cambridge and had only recently embarked on a study of the Cold War – but I did it.  In this essay, I will explain how.

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I didn’t set out to become a transnational historian, but then again, I’m not sure anyone did in the 1970s. My story begins with women’s history.  In 1969, after my first year at Bryn Mawr College and a summer in Cambridge, Massachusetts, studying French, where I first saw a poster for what was then called “Female Liberation,” I found a name for what I had felt since I was a young girl: I was a feminist.  I had already fallen in love with history, so the next step felt inevitable.  I set my sights on women’s history.  I had started college thinking I would major in psychology or political science, but it was history that grabbed me.

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Many of the essays in the series “Learning the Scholar’s Craft” suggest that for a number of scholars, “learning” depends as much on mentorship, intuition, and luck as it does on the research subjects one pursues.  In this respect, my trajectory was no exception.  When I went to college, I understood very quickly that intellectual history provided a way of combining my interests in European literature, philosophy, and politics, though I can’t say that I understood that then. I found my way to graduate school primarily because as an undergraduate I had some generous teachers, one of whom encouraged me to apply for a doctoral program in the same institution—I was one of those students to whom it would never have occurred to apply to graduate school—and I was admitted to Berkeley to pursue a Ph.D. in History.  In those days, the “new” cultural history was on the horizon, providing, in part through its engagement with anthropology and French theorists like Michel Foucault, a way of understanding the cultural production of ideas, especially by less canonical thinkers who were not addressed by more contextualist versions of intellectual history.[1] During my first year at Berkeley, Lynn Hunt organized a conference on cultural history, and faculty members in English, French, Comparative Literature, and History had recently founded the journal Representations, which provided a perspective – the “new historicism” – that historicized literary texts and was critical of poststructuralism.

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Growing up on a farm in west-central Illinois, near the town of Augusta where I attended high school, I never imagined that I would become a professor of history at a major university.  My father taught history at a different high school, but I took only the required course in this subject as it was less interesting than math and science.  After graduation in 1959, having won a four-year state scholarship that would pay my tuition and fees, I enrolled at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, as a pre-med student in its new Edmund J. James Honors Program.

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