Publication Date

October 22, 2021

Perspectives Section

Member Spotlight, Perspectives Daily


  • United States


Legal, Women, Gender, & Sexuality

Donna Rae Devlin is a PhD candidate at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She lives in Lincoln, Nebraska, and has been a member since 2012.

Donna Rae Devlin

Twitter: @devlinrae2

Alma maters: AS (secondary administration), Fort Hays State University, 1992; BA (secondary education), Fort Hays State University, 2006; BA (history), Fort Hays State University, 2006; MA (history/government), Ashland University, 2012

Fields of interest: 19th-century US, American legal, gendered sexual violence, westward expansionism, Kansas Territory, American constitutionalism

Describe your career path. What led you to where you are today?

My path has been nontraditional. After having children, I returned to get my undergraduate degrees to teach social studies at the 7–12 level. I taught at that level and the community college level for 11 years while completing my master’s degree in 2012, already knowing I wanted to teach at the university level. In 2017, I resigned from my teaching position in Kansas and went back to graduate school full-time in Nebraska. Through archival work at the National Willa Cather Center and the Webster County Courthouse in Red Cloud, I found my passion for research and writing.

What do you like the most about where you live and work?

I love where I live and work because I am fully immersed in the Great Plains region: its history, and culture. I have lived on a farm most of my life; I remain a country girl at heart. Though Lincoln, Nebraska, is a large, urban community from my perspective, it is still rural enough to be a welcoming central point from which I can easily access the archives necessary for my research.

What projects are you currently working on?

I am currently writing my dissertation, tentatively titled “Women of the Great Plains and the ‘Disruption’ of Neighborhoods: Challenging Sexual Violence and Coercion through Local Courts of Law in Kansas and Nebraska, 1870–1900.” I am creating a database of cases related to sexual violence and coercion from the courthouses along the Kansas–Nebraska border. Eventually, this will be expanded to include the broader Plains region. I also work as a graduate research assistant in history and at the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln on a grant headed by Dr. Katrina Jagodinsky, Petitioning for Freedom: Habeas Corpus in the American West, 1812–1924.

Have your interests evolved since graduation? If so, how?

My interests have evolved since entering the doctoral program at UNL, as they should with any excellent program of its caliber. I work with some of the best and brightest and have learned so much from their tutelage. Originally, my dissertation plan was to examine violence during the Kansas territorial period as an outcome of the extralegal settlement and land claims process. I continue to do research in this area and feel that the two subjects are interrelated through the confluence of law and society.

What’s the most fascinating thing you’ve ever found at the archives or while doing research?

The most fascinating archival discovery I have made is related to the life and experiences of Annie Sadilek Pavelka, the prototype for Willa Cather’s My Ántonia. Though Cather did not write this history into her 1918 fictional novel (in part, also a biographical sketch of Annie’s life in Red Cloud, Nebraska), Annie’s experience with sexual assault in 1887 led me to the discovery of hundreds of other accounts that form the basis of my dissertation and future research, proving sexual violence a significant element of settler colonial history during the expansionist years of American history. One article related to this discovery has been published with the Willa Cather Review and can be found online. A second article will be published in the fall 2022 issue of theWestern Historical Quarterly and is a more in-depth legal history regarding Sadilek’s experience with sexual assault and Nebraska law, entitled “A ‘Hired Girl’ Testifies against the ‘Son of a Prominent Family’”: Bastardy and Rape on the 19th-Century Nebraska Plains.”

Is there an article, book, movie, blog etc. that you could recommend to fellow AHA members?

I recommend two recent publications by members of my prestigious dissertation committee: A Question of Freedom: The Families Who Challenged Slavery from the Nation’s Founding to the Civil War by William G. Thomas III (2020) and The Only Wonderful Things: The Creative Partnership of Willa Cather & Edith Lewis by Melissa J. Homestead (2021).

What do you value most about the history discipline?

I value most the opportunity to contribute to an understanding of the past while educating future teachers of the social studies discipline.

Why is membership in the AHA important to you?

As a part of the AHA, I appreciate the knowledge and insight shared by AHA members and the opportunity to personally grow from their collective research and experience.

AHA members are involved in all fields of history, with wide-ranging specializations, interests, and areas of employment. To recognize our talented and eclectic membership, Perspectives Daily features a regular AHA Member Spotlight series.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Attribution must provide author name, article title, Perspectives on History, date of publication, and a link to this page. This license applies only to the article, not to text or images used here by permission.

Matthew Keough
Matthew Keough

American Historical Association