H-Business Emerging Scholar Interviews - Mary Bridges

Ashton Merck's picture

The Business History Conference offers extensive support to emerging (or early-career) scholars, including a doctoral colloquium, a mentoring program, and, crucially, a much-loved free breakfast at the BHC. But when, exactly, do you emerge? And what happens after that?   That’s what I hope to illuminate with this series of interviews with emerging scholars on their state of mind, the state of the field, and everything in between.

Today’s interviewee is Dr. Mary Bridges, the 2021-2022 Henry Chauncey Jr. '57 Postdoctoral Associate/Fellow in the Brady-Johnson Program in Grand Strategy at Yale University. 

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AM: To start off, could you tell me how you got interested in business history?

MB: Before starting graduate school, I worked as a business reporter for a new Condé Nast magazine. It was a career breakthrough for me, but my editors’ response to my pitches was often to shake their heads at my “uncommercial” ideas. Great masters’ thesis, boring magazine story, they’d respond. They wanted breaking news about scandalous hedge fund managers. I wanted to write about structural challenges in global supply chains. It was clearly time for more school.

 

AM: When was your first business history conference? Was there anything particularly memorable about it? 

MB: I remember my first BHC meeting in Portland, Oregon, in 2016. I participated in the Doctoral Colloquium, which was immersive, wonderful, and a bit overwhelming. My mind was still reeling a bit as the Conference progressed, and I remember sitting around a big white table in a hotel banquet hall on the last night, surrounded by dozens of names I had previously known only through my bibliography. Now they were suddenly sitting next to me. And there was Roger Horowitz grinning ear to ear. He said something along the lines of: “This is why we do this. Now have fun.”

 

AM: You were a Krooss finalist this year, so it’s safe to say that your transition from “graduate student” to “academic” has been affected by the pandemic in pretty significant ways. Can you reflect a bit on your path since finishing the PhD?

MB: When the panic started, I was in the final stretch of revising my dissertation. As the world went on lockdown, I was in my own lockdown of manuscript editing. The biggest difference I felt involved childcare, which suddenly disappeared or became newly precarious. I logged 25-minute pomodoro increments of editing and writing time before they woke up, during naps, and in pre-negotiated chunks with my partner, who graciously absorbed a ton of childcare responsibilities. It was isolating and unpredictable, of course, but relative to the world around me, we were so lucky. We stayed healthy, and we both got a lot of time with the kids at key ages in their development.

The harder part was transitioning to the new postdoc at Yale. Trying to build a community over zoom felt forced at first. I had also planned to spend the first year of the postdoc in the archives to gather new evidence for the manuscript. I clearly needed a new game plan. Still, the online connection-building worked better than I thought it would, and now that I’m seeing those colleagues in person on a more regular basis, it feels like we’re all that much closer, having endured that weird, suspended time together. In other words, it wasn’t all bad, but I’m ready for the precarity to end.

 

AM: Can I ask how you approached revisions to your manuscript even when you couldn't get to archives to gather additional evidence?

MB: I had planned to revisit NARA before completing the dissertation, but the lockdown prevented that. In a last-minute panic about archival sources, I ended up revisiting a hard drive of photos from a previous research trip. I found a source that became the centerpiece of one of my chapters—an auditor’s report detailing all major loans of a bank in the Philippines in the early 1900s. The source allowed me to triangulate where exactly the bank was lending, and suddenly, I could understand in technicolor detail what US branch banking actually looked like on the ground. In other words, the pandemic forced me to be more creative with the sources I already had.

 

AM: Can you tell us a bit more about your current role at Yale?

MB: This postdoc is a such a gift to emerging scholars. Its central organizing principle is a Tuesday lunch colloquium series, and the caliber of discussion is inspiring on a regular basis. It raises the bar for what I want my work to accomplish. Postdocs and faculty from Yale and other institutions present their works-in-progress, and we also trade drafts and ideas informally. The experience is particularly gratifying because I knew some Yale faculty and staff in a previous life as an MA student at Yale’s Jackson Institute, prior to my PhD at Vanderbilt, so I had an easy on-ramp to community-building.

I'm also happy to report that as of this interview, I recently accepted a new role for the upcoming 2022-2023 academic year -- but nothing is official yet, so I can't say more right now.

 

AM: Congratulations! I'll be sure to check back in with you for an update in early fall. Speaking of your work, could you tell us a bit about your dissertation? Where are you in the process of turning your dissertation into a book?

MB: My book manuscript, “Branching Out: Banking and the Globalization of US Power, 1900s-1930s,” focuses on the central role that US overseas banks played in building an infrastructure of US foreign power in the early 20th century. In the late 1900s there was virtually no such thing as a US foreign banker. By World War II, US bank branches dotted the globe. I argue that the history of these brick-and-mortar institutions can help us understand the mechanisms of US imperial power and how that power unfolded, encountered resistance, and changed formats on the ground. 

The book connects the pioneering banking efforts of a motley assemblage of Gilded Age tycoons to the more bureaucratized work of the Federal Reserve System. While scholars often analyze the Fed in domestic terms and by quantifying its monetary policy implications, my analysis demonstrates that Fed effectively propped up the globalization of US bank branches and, therefore, served as an important pillar of US empire through the creation of a new financial asset, the bankers’ acceptance. What looks on the surface like the bureaucratization and modernization of an international financial system was in fact a precarious apparatus that relied on elite connections, racialized and class-based hierarchies, and state support. I’ve just submitted the manuscript for full review to an academic press that I’m eager to work with. Fingers crossed!

 

AM: Congratulations!! Hoping for good reports. What are you reading these days? Whose work are you paying attention to, or what work is the most exciting to you right now?

MB: I’m reading Nicholas Mulder’s The Economic Weapon right now, which is a helpful model for my work and provides a different angle on my time period. I’m also being more systematic about my reading of Naomi Lamoreaux’s complete collection (she’s so prolific!) because her work on banking is a joy to read. And to be quite honest, fiction is my go-to. I want to write an academic book with clean sentences and a compelling plot. Reading fiction helps me remember the pleasure of prose that flows like water. Hamnet and Euphoria are recent favorites.

 

AM: I’m so glad you mentioned fiction! Whenever I am struggling to stay focused on reading or writing, going back to fiction always seems to help me, too. 

Thanks again for taking the time to speak with me today. Any last words for our audience? Where can readers find you or your work?

MB: Email me! Mary.bridges@yale.edu

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This is part of a series of interviews with Emerging Scholars on H-Business. 

Because I’m away and not able to update these interviews in real time, some of their contents, particularly peoples’ current roles or positions, may be slightly outdated. In some cases, I may check back in for an update when I return, in August or September.

- Ashton Merck, H-Business Associate Editor