Katherine Benton-Cohen is associate professor of history at Georgetown University.  She is the author of Inventing the Immigration Problem: The Dillingham Commission and Its Legacy (Harvard, 2018), Borderline Americans: Racial Division and Labor War in the Arizona Borderlands (Harvard, 2009), and served as historical advisor to the documentary feature film Bisbee ’17. Benton-Cohen was a fellow at the Wilson Center for Scholars in 2009-2010, and currently serves as an Organization of American Historians (OAH) Distinguished Lecturer.  

Project Summary

I am trained as a nineteenth- and twentieth-century U.S. women's historian. Over time, I became increasingly interested in the history of race and ethnicity in North America. As a result, my work crosses the boundaries of gender history and the histories of migration, race, region, and labor. My writing and teaching insist that these categories are mutually constitutive and inextricable. I am a third-generation Southwesterner, who has also lived in New Jersey, Wisconsin, Louisiana, Nova Scotia, and Washington. So I also think about how regional variation complicates our understandings of race and ethnicity in North America. These are pressing contemporary questions as well as historical ones. Ultimately, my work examines the question of who counts as an American? Why? Who decides? Who challenges these definitions? And how do they change over time?My first book, Borderline Americans: Racial Division and Labor War in the Arizona Borderlands (Harvard University Press, 2009) tracked the transformation of a nineteenth-century borderlands of many "races"—Mexican, Slavic, Italian, Irish, Apache, Chinese, etc.—into a strict racial border between Mexicans and white Americans. In the early twentieth century, this area spawned the Minutemen militia. But there is nothing natural about the binary racial system of Mexican versus white American on which the Minutemen lean. Today's borderlands racial system is the product of decisions made by corporate managers and state policy makers a century ago. Their racial ideas were rooted in gendered assumptions about wage divisions, household economies, and the nature of work. Ideas about the family—who should marry whom, what sort of house they should live in, the sorts of work men and women should do—were ways to build and define racial difference.In 2007 I moved from Louisiana State University to Georgetown University. Living in Washington has allowed me to revisit earlier interests in politics and policy that prompted me many years ago to work as an intern on Capitol Hill for Rep. Ed Pastor (D-Ariz.) and in political campaigns as a young adult. In particular, I now am thinking deeply about the roots of our current immigration policies and attitudes about race and inclusion. My current project examines the history of the largest study of U.S. immigration ever conducted—the joint Congressional Dillingham Commission of 1907-11. I want to understand policymakers' preoccupation with southern and eastern European immigration in the early twentieth century, and how they compared these groups with other immigrant streams, especially from Mexico, Japan, and China. What is new and what has changed? How have gender and "science" shaped the debate—and to whose benefit? What have been the unforeseen assumptions and consequences of immigration reform a century ago? These are the questions I will explore at the Wilson Center, where I hope to work at the nexus between history and policy.


A.B. (1994) History and Certificate in American Studies, Princeton University, summa cum laude; M.A. (1997) Program in U.S. Women's History, University of Wisconsin-Madison; Ph.D. (2002) Program in U.S. Women's History, University of Wisconsin-Madison


Assistant Professor of History, Georgetown  University, Washington, D.C., Fall 2007-presentAssistant Professor of History and Women's and  Gender Studies, LouisianaState University and A&M—Baton Rouge,  Louisiana, Fall 2003-Spring 2007


U.S. Women's and Gender History; History of Race and Immigration; Progressive-Era America; The American West

My project is a history of the U.S. Immigration Commission, also known as the Dillingham Commission (named for its chair, Senator William P. Dillingham [R-Vt.]). From 1907 to 1911, the joint congressional commission researched and compiled forty-one volumes of reports on what many Americans saw as a national crisis—the unprecedented number of immigrants flowing into the United States, mostly from southern and eastern Europe. The Commission's recommendations laid the groundwork for the national origins quotas of the 1920s, which ended mass migration until the 1960s. At once stringently "scientific" and deeply biased, the Commissioners captured the essence of their age—one in which Americans believed in limitless possibilities even as they feared change and the strangers who brought it from foreign shores. By focusing on the Commission's understandings of race, science, gender, region, and nation-building, this project explores how Americans understood immigration a century ago. The story of the Dillingham Commission tells nothing less than the story of Progressive-Era America, but also sheds light on today's immigration controversies by prefiguring the debates over science, politics, racial alarm, and immigration restriction.

Major Publications

  • Borderline Americans: Racial Division and Labor War in the Arizona Borderlands, (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, April 2009)
  • "Common Purposes, Worlds Apart: Mexican- American, Mormon and Midwestern Women Homesteaders in Cochise County, Arizona," Western Historical Quarterly 36, no. 4 (Winter 2005; special issue on western women's and gender history), 429-452