Episode 121: The Case for Women’s History

Cover of Oxford Handbook of American Women's and Gender HistoryIn the spring of 2019, a widely circulated column assailed the field of history for being too “esoteric,” in particular calling out subfields like women’s and gender studies. The executive director of the American Historical Association, Jim Grossman, wrote a response suggesting that the critic should have talked to actual historians about why fields that may seem esoteric are actually very valuable. Today’s guests are the editors of the Oxford Handbook of American Women’s and Gender History.

Ellen Hartigan O’Connor and Lisa Materson, both professors of history at the University of California, Davis, join us to discuss the field of women’s studies, which as they’ve argued in the introduction to the book, is not an esoteric topic at all, but actually quite critical to our understanding of American history.

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Chris Rose
So I don’t want to steal the thunder from the intro to the book. But let’s talk a little bit about how history has traditionally been recounted? And why there is a need for women’s history and why it’s actually a very important topic. So why don’t we start off with what you addresses? What has history normally consisted of when people have told it from the perspective of gender?

Ellen Hartigan O’Connor
Well, I think actually, many people have been interested in women’s history, I think there’s a long tradition of what are sometimes called “women worthies” — so queens and nuns, famous people, I think. Also, people are very interested in their women in their family’s history. It’s very common for people to be fascinated with their grandmothers, or stories of where their great grandmothers came from. I agree that many students–and Lisa and I both teach American women’s history at UC Davis–many students come in with an understanding of history as being set by nation states and high politics. And traditionally, those are not taught with much attention to gender–that’s changing. But most students have not had a lot of exposure to social history, cultural history, places where women and gender have always been much more prominent.

Lisa Materson
Yes, and to add the importance of understanding history from the perspective of only half of the population, placing women’s and gender history at the center of inquiries about the American past is foundational to understanding basic narratives of US history. And if that history is only written, with sources about half of the population, it’s not a realistic history of the United States. And what we think of as US history looks foundationally different if we put women and gender at the center. Basic narratives don’t appear as one might expect. Many people think of history — US history as a painting. And that something like women’s, and women’s and gender history is something you come along and you just add a few things that have been left out. But really Women’s and Gender history is about re-painting all together, refashioning the entire image. And it looks quite different when the other half of the population is included in the writing of this history.

Chris Rose
So I know from my own work — I personally focus on the peasant class of Egypt. And one of the things that’s very difficult is, this is a group of people that didn’t tend to leave sources behind and trying to find ways to get into their perspectives. How does one document or how can we understand this more complete picture of American history through voices that haven’t been explored or or given as much prominence at our historical narrative?

Lisa Materson
So the core of women’s and gender history as a field is archive innovation. Because, to your point about, you know, the lack of sources, or voices don’t appear in archives, the whole field is built around, in many instances, writing histories of people who either appear sparsely in records, in court cases, in business correspondence, or in diplomatic treaties for example. So they appear either very infrequently or not at all. And alternatively, these are archives, or the records that have been created, not from the perspective of women. And so as a result, the field has developed a range of approaches that interrogate the archive, and are innovative in the in the way that they approach it to recover the history of those of women, for example, and those individuals who haven’t historically appeared in the archive.

Ellen Hartigan O’Connor
And I think it’s worth mentioning that what are sometimes just referred to as silences, or “the sources are not there.” I think the most recent scholarship on Women’s and Gender history points out that those silences are deliberate that the sources are the result of records created by people in institutions in order to consolidate power. That that was an essential part of creating the archive is to consolidate power over women over other women, men over women, heterosexuals over non binary folks. And so rather than to lament the sources that are not there–and it’s the task of women’s agenda historians both to read against the grain as they say–but also to critically analyze the way that the archive itself deliberately silences these voices.

The example that Lisa and I talked about recently had to do with non binary conforming people. And this is an example from the turn of the 19th century. In the early 19th century, there was an obituary that described a person who had died after a long marriage. And in passing this obituary mentioned that this Lewis person had, as a young person, dressed as a woman, and then married and had a large family. And most of the obituary really affirms his masculinity: calls him “he” throughout, talks about how he has a wife and children. And so covers over what could be a very complex story, right? We don’t know who is the father of the child that was born of this union, but in the way that the obituary recreates the story of this person’s life, they affirm this person’s maleness, their heterosexuality, gives legitimacy to this relationship, that may have been a same sex marriage, or may have been all kinds of non binary folks coming together living their lives in the past. And that’s not evident if you just look at the obituary, you don’t necessarily realize it because the obituary is telling the story of a long lived individual and granting him manly honor.

Chris Rose
Interesting.

Lisa Materson
Can I add on to that a little bit?

Chris Rose
You absolutely may.

Lisa Materson
So I’m really building on some of the ideas that Ellen has mentioned. By looking at an example like this, what you really can see is kind of–even though it’s just a sliver of this history or this person’s experience, you really can see the kind of potential depth and persistence of non binary history.

And it also offers–and these are examples of the way that the field provides us a window into histories that are not who had been written out purposely from the record, from the archives, it gives us also a some insight into the lived experiences of people who have transgressed heterosexual norms of a given era. So just to add on this is are some specific ways taking this example where a scholars in the field can then open it up and think about the different sides to what it reveals about the structure of a society and the expectations and the way the power dynamics operate.

Chris Rose
Can you talk a little bit about the linkages and also the differences or the tensions between the fields of Women’s and Gender history? (Ed’s note: question is asking about the tensions between the fields of women’s history and gender history.)

Ellen Hartigan O’Connor
I think chronologically in thinking about the way these fields developed within historical scholarship, women’s history emerged first. It emerged as a desire to recover the past that had not been recorded, a desire growing out of women’s activism in the 20th century as well, to insist on the equal validity of men and women in the past. And it’s interesting when you look at the people who wrote some of the first academic studies of women’s history in the late 20th century–the second half of the 20th century–they often were not trained as women’s historians, they were radicalized by their political experience, and their political experience drove them to look harder at the kinds of sources that we’re talking about. And so they were uncovering a story of people silenced, a story of people ignored. But they were also changing what counted as history, right? The idea that what pregnancy was like for a poor person in the 17th century is history — was an awful idea, in many ways, right? That this is not just what a female body does, from time immemorial. But that rather has a specific history and specific significance. This is really an important idea that comes out of early women’s history.

Now almost immediately, as well, there are tensions within that field over basically, Who are you calling women? The idea that there’s a unified female past is very quickly demolished, particularly by scholars of color who are taking their colleagues to task for assuming universal female experience. That being pregnant in the 17th century meant something very different if you were a poor enslaved woman, and if you were a poor free white woman. And that fruitful dialogue, at times tense, at times, very productive, continues to this day. Gender history, I think also stemmed from a desire to integrate these interesting stories into bigger narratives, political narratives, cultural narratives.

Lisa Materson
One of the things that’s quite interesting is that a lot of people who, who wrote really important books when it moves into a field of gender history, read the first book on women’s history. So it’s not a coincidence that you have these authors who are first writing for someone like Joanne Meyerowitz, who’s writing about women in the furnished district of Chicago, then writing history of trans individuals. And so there is a deep connection. And so that would be some of the the things it’s important to understand the trajectory of the way that Women’s and Gender historians has emerged in the field.

Ellen Hartigan O’Connor
One of the interesting things, too, in thinking about gender history that Lisa and I came across in working on this project, and really let us to multiple revisions of the table of contents and which authors we were contacting, was the question of whether studying gender history requires you to give men and women equal time. Is that what gender history means? And we concluded pretty quickly that it doesn’t, that what we wanted to do instead was to think of the story we were telling as being critical about when and how people just deployed ideas about manliness, or ideas about femininity in order to secure hierarchy, because that’s a key part of what gender history is about, is understanding the way words that appear to be linked to sexual difference, are used to shore up ideas about power or ideas about hierarchy. And sometimes that’s connected to actual men and actual women. And often times, it isn’t, often times it stands in for other kinds of power relationships that are supposed to be or that are intended to be shored up.

Lisa Materson
Yeah. And the other thing that’s important to recognize what the history of this question of what is the relationship between women’s history and gender history? Is there have been there have been tensions historically, within the field. Concerns that, you know, as Ellen’s talking about–does it mean giving men and women equal time to include gender history? In other words, it’s a kind of losing the ‘what’s the there there’ in women’s history, if it just becomes men’s history again, in other words. But if you look at the field now, what really has emerged, not some of these concerns that it would kind of turn away from this original space for recovering and writing the experiences of women in the United States, in American history. What you see is, really, what is a big tent of history that brings together Women’s and Gender history. And it’s a very rich interplay between these two parts, if you will, of the field.

Ellen Hartigan O’Connor
The example I give from my teaching concerns the Revolutionary War. So, I teach American women’s history from time immemorial until the Civil War. And then Lisa just covers the last 125 years–

Chris Rose
“just” [laughter]

Ellen Hartigan O’Connor
So, when I’m lecturing on the Revolutionary War, I’m thinking about how women’s and gender history go together. So, one of the things I talk about is women’s participation in military camps, and the presence of women as laundresses, as well as cooks, as well as nurses, all kinds of support work that they’re doing, for instance, in Washington’s army, and in the British Army. Right there, there’s a standard ratio of the number of women to men that you need in an army that the British are much more rigorous about. And Washington’s army being newer is more lax, and it leads to a disaster at Valley Forge. And one of the reasons that leads to a disaster at Valley Forge is not only do the troops not have enough women to do support work, but the men, the soldiers, have ideas about who should be washing their clothes and keeping track of their bandages. And because they believe it to be gendered women’s work, they won’t do it, even as their own feet are freezing off. And so one of the first things that the renovation of Washington’s army that happens after that terrible winter, is to bring in more women. That they have a terrible time convincing soldiers, no, actually, you need to be aware of your body care as well. And so that’s the story that’s both about gender ideas about what appropriate work is, and women here are people who were paid to serve the army, just in a different role than a soldier.

Chris Rose
Let me read a short sentence from the the introduction which you co wrote, which is that you comment that the chapters in the book, come together using different perspectives and “The essays don’t map onto familiar assertions that the continents history, that of North America, flowed from enslavement to freedom, from constraint, from constraints to liberty, and from discrimination to rights.” I’m wondering if you have a particularly favorite illustration of this, or something that you found in compiling this collection that really sort of shed light on this? Because, to me, when I was reading the intro, this really sort of rang, you know, as this is why this is an important story, because it completely upset and the normal narrative of what is understood as American history.

Lisa Materson
So, one of the ways that it disrupts this narrative is that if you look at Women’s and Gender history, it’s, it’s really about the migration of people, money, and goods that are at the heart of American women’s history. And you the only way that you can kind of see this as a whole is to look beyond the nation. So one example is the entrance of white, middle class women into the paid labor force, after World War Two. And this is an era of great productivity for the United States after World War Two. But this productivity really rests on the reproductive labor of other women, largely women of color and migrant women. And I should mention by reproductive labor, it’s the reproduction of the family and the dailiness of life. So, this great story of post war productivity, we can only really understand it in this transnational context of the migration of populations, women from, in many instances, developing nations who are often times, very underpaid historically, don’t have the same benefits of the era that were extended, during this moment of great productivity, and benefit enhancement for many of Americans. And so within that context, it’s quite different. And so it really is not just a story of upward productivity in the economy, but a much more complicated story.

And there are many stories like that. If you take the case of the history of the sexual revolution of the 1960s and the 1970s; for many women, the pill, the female oral contraceptive was revolutionary in the sense that it gave many American women — the pill became approved by the FDA in 1960. And very quickly, within a year, it was widely being used, and it gave them some control over their reproductive lives. And this is a story of liberation or expanding freedoms for one group of women. But of course, it is well known that the testing of the pill was done in barrios, in San Juan, around San Juan, and that Puerto Rican women in a US colony suffered terribly as part of the production of the pill.

So there’s this dark history to be, and they’re not separate, they’re not just kind of coincidental. They’re two sides of the same coin, the ability to enhance the lives of one group of women was tied to the lack of control over one’s reproductive lives in the case of other women. So you know, the history of reproductive rights and reproductive justice is a very good case.

You can see the kind of two sides of it. Now I can say some, I can also say something about just disenfranchisement. So what Ellen was referring to? So, you know, and this is this, what Ellen pointed out to this idea of the women’s history has its its limitations from this idea of kind of a woman. So when we look at the history of disenfranchisement, at the same time, that it so women are getting get the right to vote through the 19th amendment in 1920. And exactly at that moment, there’s the disenfranchisement of African Americans throughout the south, including African American women. So these are not the these are. This is the same history, the expansion or the ability–let me stop at that.

Ellen Hartigan O’Connor
So, there’s another example that I like to give from 100 years prior to that right at the time of the American Revolution, and immediately afterward, a time that we tend to think of as the expansion of the franchise, and into the 19th century, the expansion of democracy in the 19th century. And of course, when you look at women’s history, you see a much more jagged story. So, the favorite example that I use in my teaching pertains to women in New Jersey, right, who, initially when the voting rights are–or when New Jersey articulates who can vote, which previous to the American Revolution was a privilege associated with property owning. During and after the revolution new states begin to write in specific voting laws in which they set age barriers, they lower the property rights, and they begin to expand the franchise to all residents.

In the case of New Jersey, it mentioned specifically that the right to vote would be available to all inhabitants, who owned a certain low amount of property. And when property owning women began to vote in small numbers in New Jersey, this issue came up before the legislature and they were asked whether they should have affirmatively grant women the right to vote in the early 19th century, and a male legislator said that we don’t need to. That all maids, black or white, have this right. Well, what happens soon after that was, of course, a contested election in which they were claims that there was voter fraud, and we need to clamp down on this. And the result instead was a set of laws that specified the right to vote by gender and race as well. So at the same time that the franchise is being expanded to white men, and no longer needing to have a certain amount of properties, some real, true democratic principles there, it is being deliberately and specifically close to all people of color and white women at the same time.

And that was a way to make voting seem natural, in that it was tied to supposed bodily differences that you could see. You could see who showed up at the polls and whether that person was supposedly a white man or a white woman or a black man or a black woman. And there was this linking of the right to vote, which of course is a specific right rooted in law, to ideas about natural differences among people. So a moment of expansion, but also moment of contraction and hardening of ideas about race and gender.

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