Associate Professor & Director of Undergraduate Studies
Leandra Zarnow earned a B.A. in American Studies and Government from Smith College and M.A. and Ph.D. in US History with a Doctoral Emphasis in Feminist Studies at University of California, Santa Barbara. Before coming to University of Houston, Zarnow taught at Stanford University as an American Council of Learned Societies New Faculty Fellow in the History Department. She has also held research affiliations with the University of Toronto’s Centre for the Study of the United States at the Munk School of Global Affairs and the Tamiment Library at New York University. Along with colleague Professor Nancy Beck Young, Zarnow leads “Sharing Stories from 1977,” a digital humanities public history project to commemorate the 1977 National Women’s Conference.
Professor Zarnow frequently teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in the History Department as well as Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies. A specialist in U.S. women’s political, legal, and intellectual history, she teaches courses that broadly explore the role of gender, race, sexuality, and class in US law, politics, and society. She also offers courses that look at social movements comparatively and transnationally. Committed to community engagement, she often teaches courses that immerse students in the practice of “doing history.” These include hands-on public history classes as well as courses that explore the politics of archives, the craft of biography, the practice of digital humanities, and the ethics of community-centered interdisciplinary scholarship. Zarnow received a Provost Teaching Excellence Award in 2022.
A women’s historian, Zarnow is most interested in how women have engaged in a range of social movements within and outside the United States to access and influence power centers—government, media, the academy, and the courts. Most centrally, she is interested in examining how individuals and groups transition from pushing for social change from outside to within formal, dominant, or elite channels. She explores this theme through biography, thinking about the formation of political philosophy and identity. Her work is also comparative, er work considering the possibilities and limits of coalitional politics both in a domestic and transnational context. In a theoretical realm, she considers the contours of justice and injustice as well as citizenship and statelessness using an intersectional lens. Zarnow’s current book project, “The Heterodites: Six Women and the Secret Society that Shaped American Feminism,” will appear with Liveright Publishing. “The Heterodites” weaves together the stories of lawyer Crystal Eastman, journalist Elizabeth Mary “Bessie” Beatty, Harlem Renaissance patron Grace Nail Johnson, cartoonist Annie Lucasta “Lou” Rogers, labor organizer Rose Pastor Stokes, and anthropologist Elsie Clews Parsons. All were members of Heterodoxy, a secret feminist supper club that met in Greenwich Village, New York from 1912 up to World War II. A who’s who of American women, they took a break from their globe-trotting and organizing for causes from labor and peace, to racial civil rights and civil liberties, to talk about their lives and dream up “what humanism ought to be.” Placing feminism at the core of this concern, this group served as an incubator for modern feminist thought and action that still has an imprint of feminism today. Additional book projects keep Zarnow busy. With Katherine Turk of the University of North Carolina, Zarnow is working on, “A Past of Our Own: Writing Women into History,” the first major intellectual history of the field of women’s history. Zarnow is also completing research for, “In Defense of Citizenship: Women’s Advocacy of Human Rights and the Development of Feminist Jurisprudence,” which introduces women lawyers who worked in civil rights, civil liberties, public welfare, labor, and immigration law in the early to mid-twentieth century, paving the way for the field of feminist jurisprudence. Her first book, Battling Bella: The Protest Politics of Bella Abzug, was published in November 2019 by Harvard University Press. This study of New York Representative Bella Abzug’s political ideology and legacy is at once a history of the varied development and impact of New Politics Democrats at the height of influence between 1968 and 1976. Zarnow is working on a second volume, Becoming Bella: Bella Abzug, Cold War Dissent, and the Radical Roots of Postwar Feminism, which traces her formative development during the Great Depression to her work as a cause lawyer at midcentury.
The National Endowment for the Humanities, Woodrow Wilson Foundation, Mellon Foundation, Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, Feinstein Center for American Jewish History, and various libraries have supported Zarnow’s research. She has also received research prizes from the American Bar Foundation, Association of Jewish Studies, and the National Women’s Studies Association.
- Battling Bella: The Protest Politics of Bella Abzug (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2019).
- Co-editor with Stacie Taranto (Ramapo College of New Jersey), Suffrage at 100: Women in American Politics since 1920, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2020.
- “Braving Jim Crow to Save Willie McGee: Bella Abzug, the Legal Left, and Civil Rights Innovation, 1948-1951,” Law and Social Inquiry 33, no. 4 (Fall 2008), 1003-1041.
*Winner of the 2007 Law & Society Graduate Student Competition and the 2010 Judith Lee Ridge Prize.