Kathleen Brown is a historian of gender and race in early America and the Atlantic World. Educated at Wesleyan University and the University of Wisconsin, Madison, she is author of Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs: Gender, Race, and Power in Colonial Virginia (Chapel Hill, 1996), which won the Dunning Prize of the American Historical Association. Her second book, Foul Bodies: Cleanliness in Early America (Yale, 2009), received the Organization of American Historians' Lawrence Levine Book Prize for cultural history and the Society of the History of the Early American Republic Book Prize. Foul Bodies explores the relationships among health, domestic labor, and ideals for beauty, civilization, and spiritual purity during the period between Europe's Atlantic encounters and the American Civil War. Brown is also author of numerous articles and essays. She has been a fellow of the Omohundro Institute for Early American Studies at the College of William and Mary, the American Antiquarian Society, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Bunting Institute at Radcliffe College.
She received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2015-2016 to support her research and writing of her forthcoming book, Undoing Slavery: Abolitionist Body Politics and the Argument over Humanity(University of Pennsylvania Press, 2022). Undoing Slavery is a book-length interdisciplinary study of the transatlantic abolition movement set in the context of contemporary transformations in international and domestic law, medicine, and normative ideals for family and gender. It excavates medical and legal history to understand the abolitionist focus on the body on its own terms. Motivated by their conviction that the human body was universal in its sharing of "one blood," abolitionists in Britain and North America resorted to graphic descriptions of slavery’s violence to galvanize antislavery opinion, organize consumer boycotts, and assist refugees across borders into free territories. Emerging from an Atlantic history of detention, forced transport, and narrow privileges of protected movement, and faced with the growing racism of eighteenth and nineteenth century science, abolitionists focused on undoing slavery’s harm to the bodies of the enslaved. Their pragmatic focus on restoring the bodily integrity and wellbeing of enslaved people threw up many unexpected challenges. Slavery exploited the bodies of men and women differently: enslaved women needed to be acknowledged as mothers rather than as reproducers of slave property, and enslaved men needed to claim full adult personhood without triggering white fears about their access to male privilege. Slavery’s undoing became more fraught by the 1850s, moreover, as federal fugitive slave law and racist medicine converged. The reach of the federal government across the borders of free states and theories about innate racial difference collapsed the distinctions between enslaved and emancipated people of African descent, making militant action necessary. Escaping to so-called “free” jurisdictions, refugees from slavery demonstrated that a person could leave the life of slavery behind. But leaving behind the enslaved body, the fleshy archive of trauma and injury, proved impossible. Bodies damaged by slavery needed urgent physical care as well as access to medical knowledge untainted by racist science. As the campaign to end slavery revealed, formal legal rights, while necessary, were not sufficient either to protect or heal the bodies of African-descended people from the consequences of slavery and racism.
Brown offers a wide range of undergraduate and graduate courses on such topics as comparative slavery, colonial America, history of the body, race and sex in early America, and Atlantic history.
Since 2017 she has worked closely with students on the Penn & Slavery project as the project's lead faculty historian.