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Women’s History

August 2020

It is trivializing women’s history to suggest that baby has come a long way in the last 50 years. Women have always considered their past, often through genealogies, storytelling, oral histories, and even quilts. But in the last half-century women’s history in books and articles has come of age.

Today it is still mostly women who are its chroniclers. Most men avoid women’s history. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it does suggest the degree to which symmetry—true equality of an androgynous fellowship—continues to elude us in everything from housework to the writing of history. To a much greater extent than in the field of black history, which whites do not hesitate to enter, women’s history remains largely a gender-segregated preserve, what Charlotte Perkins Gilman once designated as Herland.

A previous generation of determined pioneers of “herstory” deserves credit for the emergence of women’s history as a legitimate subject. Their fundamental insight, encouraged by the feminism of the 1960s and 1970s, was that the personal was the political. Along the way the field has changed the mainstream understanding of what a proper study of the past must include.

In the case that women historians have explicitly made, if history is to offer a context for both present and future, it must not simply be a consideration of public events and male leaders. A paraphrase of Alexander Pope serves as an appropriate slogan for the social history that women historians have taught their compatriots: “How small a part of all mankind endures/That part that laws and leaders can cause or cure.” To ignore women in history is to misunderstand the entire organization of any society. Accordingly, the women’s history of today has spawned new historical study of topics such as family history, reproduction, sexuality, marriage, and courtship as well as investigations of institutions and politics. No longer simply an exercise in filling in the shadows and giving compensatory time to women worthies or noting their contributions, the field has established a new tapestry for all historians to embroider. And it is often ordinary folk who become its subject matter, whether anonymous members of the suffrage movement or textile workers in the early-twentieth-century South.

Today women’s history is no longer a backwater, nor is the profession of history a male craft. On the contrary, the field has developed its own structures. These include collections of primary sources available through the Internet, meetings of historians at the Berkshire Conference on the History of Women, journals, and even controversies, such as that over the relation between private and public spheres, or over the issue of mainstreaming—whether it is time to end the separate focus on women’s history. (The eminent historian Gerda Lerner recently commented that men had had 4,000 years to define history by looking at the activities of other men. “Give us another 4,000 years and we’ll talk about mainstreaming.”)

Some books stand out as pioneering studies in the creation of American women’s history—as essential texts, because they established and defined the perimeters of the subject. Others are noteworthy as especially fine examples of the practice of women’s history. What follows is my list of the classics in the field that should not just be on everyone’s bookshelf but should be savored and enjoyed.

In 1953 the translated version of the French existentialist Simone de Beauvoir’s Le Deuxième Sexe became available in the United States. An eclectic bombshell, The Second Sex (Vintage) emerged as a bible for postwar intellectuals, feminists, and historians, who found in its 732 pages the central questions about the relationship between the sexes. Beauvoir did not answer all of them. Rather her central thesis—that man, the incontestable first sex, defined women in relation to him—undergirded much of postwar women’s history, which, following Beauvoir, investigated women as victims. Men compelled women to assume the status of the other, the outsider to them. In a book of vast erudition and shining insights that cruised through history, literature, psychology, and sociology, Beauvoir noted that women had no past and no history.

Soon a number of professionally trained scholars began investigating that history, some (and I am one) having been influenced by a second classic, Betty Friedan’s 1963 The Feminine Mystique (Norton), a polemic that sold more than a million copies. Middle-class women, according to Friedan, found themselves mired in an isolated domesticity that brought frustration and unhappiness. Staying home all day, raising small children mostly alone, and cooking, cleaning, and making peanut-butter sandwiches and Jell-O perfection salads became a radicalizing experience in many lives.

While both Friedan and Beauvoir adopted the oppression model of women in history, Mary Ritter Beard thought differently. In 1946 she published Woman as Force in History: A Study in Traditions and Realities (Macmillan; out of print). In this powerful reconstruction of the history of women from prehistoric to modern times, Beard argued that women, especially through equity law, were active agents of their own lives. For Beard female oppression was a myth, but it was an enduringly destructive one that needed revising as women instead discovered their accomplishments through the study of history.

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.

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