Linda Gordon was born in Chicago but considers Portland, Oregon, her home town. Gordon is the daughter of William and Helen Appelman Gordon and the sister of Laurence Edward Gordon and Lee David Gordon. She is the wife of Allen Hunter and they have one daughter, Rosa Gordon Hunter, of Cambridge, MA. She graduated from Swarthmore College, and from Yale University with an MA and PhD in Russian History. Her dissertation was later published as Cossack Rebellions.
She taught at the University of Massachusetts-Boston from 1968 to 1984, and at the University of Wisconsin–Madison from 1984 to 1999. The University of Wisconsin awarded her the university's most prestigious chair professorship, the Vilas Research Chair. Today she is University Professor of the Humanities and professor of history at New York University.
Starting in the 1970s, Gordon’s research and writing examined the historical roots of contemporary social policy debates in the US, particularly as they concern gender and family issues. Her book on these topics, Woman's Body, Woman's Right (published in 1976 and reissued in 1990), remains the definitive history of birth control politics in the US. It was completely revised and re-published in 2002 as The Moral Property of Women.
In 1988 she published a historical study of how the US has dealt with family violence, including child abuse, spousal violence and sexual abuse, Heroes of Their Own Lives, which won the Joan Kelly prize of the American Historical Association.
Pitied But Not Entitled, her history of welfare, won the Berkshire Prize for best book in women's history and the Gustavus Myers Human Rights Award. Gordon was active with the failed campaign of a group of scholars of welfare protesting the repeal of Aid to Families with Dependent Children in 1996.
She served on the National Advisory Council on Violence Against Women during the Clinton administration.
Changing direction in the 1990s, Gordon then began to explore narrative, story-telling history, as a way of bringing large-scale historical developments to life. A westerner herself, she wanted to write stories that would help to counteract the East Coast bias in the way American history has been told. Her most recent book, The Great Arizona Orphan Abduction, the story of a vigilante action against Mexican-Americans, won the Bancroft Prize for best book in American history and the Beveridge Award for best book on the history of the Western Hemisphere.
Her biography of photographer Dorothea Lange won many prizes, including: the Bancroft prize for best book in US history (making Gordon one of the very few ever to win this award twice); the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Biography; and the National Arts Club prize for best arts writing, to name a few. In the process of researching that book, she discovered an important group of Lange photographs long unnoticed and never published: photographs of the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, commissioned by the US Army but then impounded because they were too critical of the internment policy. Gordon selected 119 of these images and published them, with introductory essays by herself and by historian Gary Okihiro.
- Gordon, Linda (1983). Cossack Rebellions: Social Turmoil in the Sixteenth-century Ukraine. SUNY Press. ISBN 9780873956543. Details.
- Gordon, Linda (1976). Woman's Body, Woman's Right: the History of Birth Control in America. Viking/Penguin. ISBN 9780140131277. Details.
- Gordon, Linda (2002). The Moral Property of Women. University of Illinois Press. ISBN 0252027647. Details.
- Gordon, Linda (1988). Heroes of Their Own Lives: the Politics and History of Family Violence : Boston, 1880-1960. Viking/Penguin. ISBN 9780252070792. Reissued by the University of Illinois Press 2002. Details.
- Gordon, Linda (1994). Pitied But Not Entitled: Single Mothers and the History of Welfare. Free Press. ISBN 9780674669826. Harvard University Press 1995. Details.
- Gordon, Linda; Fraser, Nancy (1995), "A genealogy of dependency: tracing a keyword of the U.S. Welfare State", in Brenner, Johanna; Laslett, Barbara; Arat, Yasmin, Rethinking the political: women, resistance, and the state, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp. 33–60, ISBN 9780226073996.
- Gordon, Linda (1999). The Great Arizona Orphan Abduction. Harvard University Press. ISBN 0674360419. Details.
- Gordon, Linda (2009). Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits. W. W. Norton. ISBN 9780393057300. Details.
- Gordon, Linda (2006). Impounded: Dorothea Lange and the Censored Images of Japanese American Internment in World War II. W. W. Norton. ISBN 039306073X. Details.
- Gordon, Linda; Baxandall, Rosalyn Fraad; Reverby, Susan, eds. (1976). America's Working Women. W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 9780393312621. Details. Revised ed. 1995.
- Gordon, Linda, ed. (1990). Women, the state, and welfare. University of Wisconsin Press. ISBN 9780299126643. Details.
- Gordon, Linda; Baxandall, Rosalyn Fraad, eds. (2001). Dear sisters: Dispatches from the Women's Liberation Movement. Basic Books. ISBN 9780465017072. Details.
- The Perils of Innocence, or What’s Wrong with Putting Children First (PDF).[dead link] Why policies that seem to put children first have so often disadvantaged children. (in Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth 1 #3, Fall 2008.)
- The New Deal Was a Good Idea, We Should Try It.
- If Progressives Were Advising US Today, Should We Listen?. (Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, April 2002)
- How `Welfare' Became a Dirty Word.
- A Genealogy of Dependency (PDF).[dead link], with Nancy Fraser, in Signs 19 #2, winter 1994.
- Black and White Visions of Welfare., in Journal of American History 78 #2, 1991.
- Translating 'Our Bodies, Ourselves'.[dead link], (The Nation, May 29, 2008)
- Social Control and the Powers of the Weak., in On Violence: a Reader, ed. Bruce B. Lawrence and Aisha Karim, 2007.