Journal of Women's History 16.4 (2004) 10-27
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U.S. Women's History
Past, Present, and Future
In 1969, when Women's History as an academic field had not yet been established, I published an essay called "New Approaches to the Study of Women in American History."1 It began, quite appropriately: "The striking fact about the historiography of women is the general neglect of the field." That was putting it mildly, for "neglect" would have at least implied the recognition that there was such a field. That recognition was then non-existent. To illustrate the point for myself, I counted the books concerning women in U.S. history published by 1960. There were thirteen. By 1970, I could add to this eleven more books, for a total of twenty-four. Comparing this with the staggering number of titles published yearly in the twenty-first century, it is obvious that the field has come a long way in terms of its growth.2
Having been in this field since before its beginning, I have a profound interest in appraising its development, its growth and influence, and the trends pointing toward its future. The development, promotion, and advancement of Women's History have filled the better part of my life. I hope I may be forgiven for beginning this exploration of what the field has become and where it is going by reference to my own early work.
In 1969, the literature on women in history focused almost entirely on the winning of woman suffrage. Otherwise, women appeared in historical scholarship as a subset of social and economic history. The struggle of women workers for equal wages and for protective legislation as well as their economic roles throughout history were well covered. The field of family history was then beginning to develop and it already featured several important monographs on women. Historical biographies on women were few and far between and were mostly the product of writers, not of professional historians.
In the 1969 essay, I tried to define a conceptual framework for Women's History or, at the least, to lay out a research agenda for the near future. I proposed several new approaches: [End Page 10]
- "The subject 'Women' is too vast and diffuse to serve as a valid point of departure. . . . In modern society the only statement about women in general which can be made with validity concerns their political status. . . ."3 Therefore generalizations about women should be limited to a narrower field. I urged exploration of women's status at various times and places, with due consideration of class differences. (In subsequent essays I added "race" as a factor of differences.)
- "Historians must painstakingly restore the actual record of women's contributions at any given period in history. . . . [Their] story should be part of the history of the period; it is not now."4 I was then calling for what would later become known as "contribution history," that is the record of how women contributed to male-focused and male-defined activities. Since this record was at the time virtually unavailable, the limitations of "contribution history," namely its male-centered approach, were not apparent to me.
- Strongly under the influence of Mary Beard's thought, I could see the limitations of the feminist approach. "We might well discard the 'oppressed group model' when discussing women's role in the political life of the nation. . . . [Yet they] were longer than any other group in the nation, deprived of political and economic power."5 I suggested that Women's History research would prove that women nevertheless had power, which they exercised through organizations, pressure tactics, petitioning, and the creation of mass movements for various social reforms.
- "[W]omen are a group who for a considerable period of history were deprived of equal access to education." I suggested several analytic questions regarding the effects of this kind of discrimination and proposed that a "cross-cultural" comparison between the educational deprivation of women and that suffered by certain minority groups might be illuminating.