The Politics and Scholarship of Women’s History
I began my graduate training as a historian at a particularly auspicious moment for educated American women. The revival of feminism in the late 1960s stimulated both a curiosity about women’s past and a commitment to advancing sexual equality. By 1970, the year I enrolled in a doctoral program at Columbia University, feminism had percolated into American popular consciousness. The publicity surrounding the women’s liberation movement was shaking the foundations of educational and cultural institutions. That year, Kate Millett’s revised dissertation on sexism in literature, Sexual Politics, helped revolutionize academic inquiry on gender, while Robin Morgan’s popular anthology of writings on women’s liberation, Sisterhood Is Powerful, inspired a generation to engage in consciousness raising. It was also the year that the American Historical Association formally acknowledged that women had suffered professionally because of sex discrimination. Just as I decided to become a scholar, a sea change in academia permitted my generation to create a “new women’s history.” In Linda Kerber’s apt summary, “The generic ‘he’ that had been alleged to encompass women’s experience as well as men’s turned out to be a fraud.”2 The challenge of documenting women’s lives and understanding both past inequality and resistance to it engaged this generation of scholars. Our goal was to correct the record by excavating women’s historical experiences as complex agents of social change, not only to empower women but ultimately to transform all of American culture.
More than a profession, then, women’s history resembled a mission to proselytize what we learned. Building on the idealism of the 1960s and propelled by the feminist politics of the 1970s, we set out to restore women to history in part to achieve gender equity at large. Over the next quarter century, we did in fact infiltrate classrooms and beyond. Students from elementary schools to universities learned about elite heroines, housewives, female wage laborers, and feminist organizers. Beyond the classroom, too, women’s history spilled into public life. The National Women’s History Project, historical museums and national parks, urban women’s history walking tours, documentary films, and even U. S. postage stamps transmitted the message broadly. In public policy debates and legal battles, women’s historians weighed in during the 1980s on workplace discrimination and abortion rights, as they have more recently on welfare policy and lesbian and gay rights.
The legal gains of feminism, including the demise of sex quotas in graduate admissions, made entry into academic life possible for many of my generation. These opportunities in turn fueled our desire to reshape the profession. We felt compelled not only to expand the curriculum by adding women’s lives to the classes we taught but also to redress continuing sex and race discrimination in hiring and promotion. For those of us forging a feminist path in the university, scholarship and politics have never been mutually exclusive. Accused by skeptics of being only political, and thus by definition unqualified to be objective scholars, we resisted the charge on multiple grounds. We acknowledged that all academic inquiry is, on some level, political, whether it serves to sustain existing power relations or to challenge them. At the same time, we insisted on creating an engaged scholarship that met the highest professional standards, and we tried to train the next generation of historians to do so.
Academic scholarship that dissents from the prevailing wisdom about what is historically important may be labeled political even when it meets those high standards, for to acknowledge any contemporary concerns raises the specter of a “presentism” that presumably biases one’s conclusions. A first- year graduate student brought home to me the dilemma of integrating the political and the scholarly during a class I taught in the 1980s. He had just read my essay “Separatism as Strategy” (chapter 1) and asked me respectfully, “How did you get away with being so political?” My politics, I explained, motivated the historical questions I asked but not the answers I reached. I had been intrigued by feminist strategies in the past because of the revival of feminism around me; my historical inquiry had revealed both positive and negative legacies of that past. The process of writing that article, I added, helped shape my views about feminism as much as my political questions affected my scholarship. Moreover, both my politics and my historical interpretations have altered further over the course of my career (as the essays in chapters 2 and 5 illustrate).
At the time, I might also have told this student, but did not, that I did not entirely get away with it. Many of us paid steep costs for our admittedly feminist politics. As I explain in chapter 3, I had to fight to keep my job at Stanford University in large part because of perceptions that women’s history was “mere” politics. Having to defend my work and the project of feminist history during the two years of my tenure review deepened my commitment to an engaged scholarship and a more equitable academy. It also reinforced my belief in the power of women’s communities.