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Susan J. Pearson


Ph.D., University of North Carolina, 2004
Curriculum Vitae


Geographic Field(s):  American History, Before 1900

Thematic Field(s):  Legal and Criminal History; Political and Policy History; Gender and Sexuality History


Susan J. Pearson (Ph.D., University of North Carolina, 2004) is an historian of the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century United States. She is particularly interested in the cultural politics of reform, the expansion of the state and forms of governance, and the development of American liberalism. Professor Pearson is the author of two prize-winning books as well as essays and articles in The Journal of American HistoryHistory and TheoryThe Journal of Social History, Modern American History, and the Journal of the Civil War Era.

The Rights of the Defenseless: Protecting Animals and Children in Gilded Age America (University of Chicago Press, 2011) examines the connection between animal and child protection after the US Civil War, and argues that such organizations expanded state capacity by exercising police powers and through a theory of “sentimental liberalism” that reconciled rights with dependence. The Rights of the Defenseless was awarded the 2012 Merle Curti Prize for the best book in US intellectual history from the Organization of American Historians.

The Birth Certificate: An American History tells the story of both how birth registration became compulsory in the United States and how birth certificates became trusted forms of identification. She shows how states and the federal government used birth registration to collect, collate, and disseminate knowledge about their populations, and she shows how birth certificates became central to the administration of social policy and citizenship. Far from acting as neutral recorders of facts, birth certificates opened and closed the gates to school, work, entitlements, pensions, passports, drivers’ licenses, even land. They were instruments in a state that sorted and allocated goods according to age, gender, race, and citizenship status. The Birth Certificate won the 2022 Book Award from The Order of Coif, the legal honor society.


(If your library does not have access to any of the articles listed below, please contact Professor Pearson at

Recent Awards and Honors

  • 2022 Book Award, The Order of the Coif (awarded for The Birth Certificate)
  • Charles A. Ryskamp Research Fellowship, American Council of Learned Societies, 2014-2015
  • National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship, 2012-2013
  • Kluge Fellow, Library of Congress, 2012-2013 (declined)
  • Merle Curti Award in Intellectual History, Organization of American Historians, 2012 (awarded for The Rights of the Defenseless)
  • Andrew W. Mellon Short-term Research Fellowship, Massachusetts Historical Society, 2010
  • Visiting Scholar, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2008-2009 (declined)
  • Best Article Prize, Society for the History of Children and Youth, 2007-2008 (awarded for “Infantile Specimens”)

Media Appearances