Women’s History

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No matter which approach women historians took, they needed conceptual frameworks if they were to progress beyond mere description. Gerda Lerner provided these early road maps in her 1979 series of essays The Majority Finds Its Past: Placing Women in History (Oxford). Newly independent as a field, women’s history, according to Lerner, had to move beyond oppression alone and ask different questions, such as what women had been doing and how they had understood the American past; Lerner did not just offer methods for approaching the past, she also wrote scintillating short essays on specific groups of women, such as those in Jacksonian America and in reform groups.

For these pioneers in women’s history, the essav proved a compatible medium. In 1985 another talented historian, Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, used it in Disorderly Conduct: Visions of Gender in Victorian America (Oxford). Conscious that women must not be lumped together in one category (the traditional generic “women” in the indexes of previous American-history textbooks), Smith-Rosenberg provided concrete examples of how a historian might approach specific issues and time periods in American women’s history. Her analysis of nineteenth-century female friendships, her evocation of women’s life cycles, and her unraveling of the complexities of hysteria in “The Hysterical Woman: Sex Roles and Role Conflict in Nineteenth-Century America” displayed the growing sophistication of what had been invisible only 20 years before.

Another trailblazing contribution to women’s history, Linda Gordon’s Woman’s Body, Woman’s Right: A Social History of Birth Control in America (1976; Penguin; out of print), was an out-of-the-closet book. Birth control had hardly been considered a suitable topic in the male seminar rooms in American universities. On the basis of a dazzling display of new sources, Gordon dispelled two important myths: that the means of birth control came from modern medicine and that American women never cared about having effective birth control.

By the 1980s there were several textbooks of women’s history, including Mary P. Ryan’s ambitious Womanhood in America: From Colonial Times to the Present (1975; New Viewpoints; out of print). Textbooks challenge all historians, but Ryan successfully covered the essentials of what women were doing and thinking over three centuries. She even offered a model of the changes in women’s lives as they moved from the patriarchal household economy to the woman’s sphere in the industrial capitalism of the nineteenth century and into the once-male areas of education and occupation during the twentieth.

Paula Giddings’s When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America (1984; HarperTrade) tells the story of black women in U.S. history and their double jeopardy of gender and race, from slavery through the campaign for the Equal Rights Amendment. Comprehensive and well argued, Giddings’s book conveys not just oppression but the complex ways in which black women resisted white oppression, even as they dealt with gender conflicts in their own families and from outside society.

The sources for historians of women are fewer and more challenging than those for historians of men. But in her elegant unraveling of the previously neglected diary of an eighteenth-century midwife, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich shows how the simple entries of Martha Ballard can become the historical means of entering the life of a community. A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812 (1990; Knopf) combines the very best of narration and description into a fascinating account of sex, disease, reproduction, women’s work, and family life in Hallowell, Maine.

While many historians focus on women’s culture and organizations, others—including Linda Kerber, Ann Firor Scott, and Ellen DuBois—concentrate on women’s efforts to end the political discrimination against them and achieve true citizenship in the United States. Essential to their work is the painstaking editing of the papers of the nineteenth-century suffrage leaders Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton by Ann B. Gordon, titled The Selected Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony (1997; Rutgers). The correspondence of Stanton and Anthony serves as a fascinating memoir of two of the founding sisters of the movement for women’s equality in civic life.