Women's History: An Extremely Short Introduction

Since it is officially women's history month in the United States, this seems like a good time to think about the study of the past, centered around women's experiences: or, "women's history." Please note: I'm writing this from my own, personal and limited perspective as a historian who is concerned with women and gender. This is an attempt to briefly summarize the development of women's history in the West for non-specialists. In it I cite a very few examples, which are not meant as comprehensive, nor even fully representative of "important" works. I invite suggestions for further engagement in women's history, in comments.

As an academic discipline, women's history hasn't really been around very long, although of course women had a past long before historians started writing about it. But "history" isn't the same as "the past"; rather, it's the discipline in which we study and reconstruct the past. That past is reconstructed via clues called primary sources, the (usually) written documents from which we piece together narratives.

It's not that women haven't been written about, nor that women haven't left primary sources. For example, Enehduanna, a Sumerian aristocrat and priestess, left behind one of the earliest pieces of poetry left by any human, man or woman. Where women showed up in written histories in the pre-modern world, as in the works of Herodotus or Bede, or even in the Bible, they are largely supporting characters in the political and religious narratives that centered upon men.

If women starred in historical narratives in the West, it was as Exceptional Women: queens, saints or other "female worthies." An early modern English example, Thomas Heywood's The Exemplary Lives and Memorable Acts of Nine of the Most Worthy Women of the World, detailed the lives of three Jewish women, three "heathen" women, and three Christian women. Heywood drew on fantasy and legend as much as history, but still undoubtedly centered women in his book. Still, this wasn't "women's history." These were Exceptions who proved the rules of patriarchy.

These biographies of "women worthies" became an acceptable way for women to write history, even if they were shut out of the academy and formal, "professional" historical study. Victorian Englishwoman Agnes Strickland, for example, made a name for herself with the entirely respectable Lives of the Queens of England and other volumes co-written with her sister Elisabeth.

The first wave of women's activism stirred some small academic interest in women's past lives. I'll mention only two historians here. 1919 saw the publication of Working life of Women in the Seventeenth Century by Alice Clark, and was a groundbreaking work in the archivally-based study of women from a perspective of their labour. Clark's work is wide-ranging, critiquing the origins of capitalism through the perspective of female labor.

American Mary Ritter Beard was interested in far-reaching questions of women's oppression. In her 1946 work Woman as a Force in History, she critiqued and analyzed specific moments in history that resulted in the disempowerment of women, such as the embrace of those English legal tradition in the young United States that denied the personhood of married women.

It is not accidental that Clark, Beard, and others like them, were heavily influenced by suffrage and labour movements. Those forces challenged academic historians to rethink history from the perspective of ordinary people, and approach often called "history from below." Not surprisingly, Second Wave feminism and its related movements had an even more profound affect on edging women's history into the academy. By the 1970s, a critical mass of historians, suffused with the questions and consciousness of Second Wave feminism, began producing many works both concretely archival and challengingly theoretical.

The late Gerda Lerner was one of this groundbreaking generation. Her book Black Women in White America: A Documentary History, published in 1972, furthered the very important work of preserving the archival sources of women's lives and making them available to the public, while her ambitious work The Creation of Patriarchy (1986) was an impressive attempt to trace the ways that patriarchy had evolved as a social contruct.

Lerner was also groundbreaking in demolishing the myth of female solidarity across time and place; essays in The Majority Finds Its Past definitely disproved the racist "sisterhood" myth so beloved of many white Second Wave feminists. Far from gender solidarity trumping race, white women had indeed oppressed black women, and race was at least as crucial a component of women's experiences in America as gender.

The problem of racial and ethnic intersectionality in women's historical experience became an increasingly pressing intellectual problem in the Uited States and elsewhere. Speaking personally, I remember being blown away when I first read Deborah Gray White's book about enslaved Black women's experiences, 1985's Ar'n't I a Woman? It beautifully grappled with deep complexities of gender, race, sexuality, family and class within women's experiences. It was a work with strong social justice roots; simultaneously, it was deeply intellectual and theoretically complex.

Such complexity in women's history helped launch new histories. Joan Wallace Scott's 1986 essay Gender as a Useful Category of Historical Analysis brought new attention to the social construction of gender in history. From these roots in women's history, and gender history, new historiographies arose: the history of sexuality, family history, queer history and more. In doing so, all of these fields often answered a very personal question: What did people like me do in the past? I like the introduction from 1987's Quebec Women: A History:

Like thousands of children, Anne liked to journey back in time. In history classes, nobody could tell her what Emilie, her great-great grandmother, had done. They would tell her only about the great men who had changed the course of history. Had she been bold enough to ask about the women who had played a role in this history, they would probably have read through the short list of fmaous women, from Marguerite Bourgeoys to Thérèse Casgrain... For historians, Emilie had no historical importance: she had simply lived her life and was therefore non-significant. What brought us to write this synthesis of the history of the women who had lived during the past four centuries was our refusal to accept that the hundreds of thousands of Emilies were non-significant... Women had also made history. We had to find them, to find out where and why they were overshadowed. We had to put the facts in their true perspective.

One of those early women's historians who made me re-think the "true perspective" of history was Joan Kelly. Her groundbreaking essay Did Women Have a Renaissance was published in 1977, nearly 20 years before I encountered it. I can still remember the "click" moment when I read it for my undergraduate historiography class.

Kelly noted that most of the characteristics we associate with the "rebirth" of European intellectualism did not affect women, even elite women, the way they affected men. Her essay challenged me to re-think my entire structure of history. It had literally never occurred to me that the very periodization of history might have a bias, that embedded in categories like "Renaissance" might be the assumption that only certain pepole's experiences mattered in history.

Make no mistake--women's history (and all the historigraphies related to it) is/are still very much in progress. Early historians of women in the West tended to focus on elite, white, straight women--and those women still get more attention than do others. It's partly a matter of the records, but more importantly a matter of the will and the interest and the support for pushing the history of women beyond its white, straight, Christian, elite roots. Historians of women are becoming more diverse; we need to become much more diverse, both in our persons and our mindsets.

But that's not a problem unique to women's history. Indeed, I'd say it's a sign of the maturation of women's history that it continues to evolve--because so does all serious academic history. Women's history intersects with cultural history, with military history, with the history of every geographic division of the world, with histories of religion and law and race and labor--and it will continue to intersect with new histories that are only beginning to be explored. The past may remain static, but history is always changing.

Have you been engaged by any memorable works of women's history--academic or popular? (Speaking personally, since my own background is in British, American, and Canadian history, I'd be especially interested in women's history from non-Western historiographies.) Do you have plans to explore women's history this month, or any month? Feel free to leave recommendations or stories in the comments below for films, books, exhibits, archival resources, or anything else you'd like to recommend.

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