Pamela Nadell and Kate Haulman begin their recently published volume of essays, Making Women’s Histories, with an anecdote about the late women’s historian Gerda Lerner. As a graduate student, [End Page 713] Lerner encountered a world in which women appeared nonexistent. Like Joan Scott, Alice Kessler-Harris, and other pioneering women’s historians, Lerner spent her career making women’s history. They mined the historical narrative for gaps and have excavated women’s diverse experiences from the archives—their production of knowledge working both academically and politically to radically revise the patriarchal metanarrative.
Published in the year of Lerner’s passing, Making Women’s Histories looks back at the historiographical emergence and transformation of women’s history over the past fifty years. The book uses the experiences and perspectives of gender historians to capture the state of the field’s past, present, and future. The ten essays in the volume, written by both intermediate and distinguished scholars, blend memoir, historiography, and conjecture, as historians collectively trace the efflorescence of women’s history and imagine its future within a global framework. Although the essays are divided along geographical boundaries, they directly speak to one another, revealing a rich history of intercultural and transnational gender scholarship.
Nadell and Haulman are both professors of women’s and gender history at American University and are renowned for their award-winning books within the field. While both scholars focus on American women’s and gender history, Nadell and Haulman’s interdisciplinary, intercultural, and transnational research interests reflect the broader intention of the collection—to historiographically reveal women’s histories as thriving beyond America’s borders.
Collectively the volume analyzes the field of women’s history since 1960s feminism, tracing the relationship between “the woman question” and the nation-state from the perspective of different geographically specific historiographies. The collection begins with Kathy Peiss who situates the field of women’s history within second-wave feminism and outlines four major turns in the field: the rise of women’s history, the prism of gender, the cultural and poststructural turn, and the transnational turn. Each historian thereafter situates her scholarship within this trajectory by interpreting the successes and weaknesses of [End Page 714] these turns as costs and benefits to the goals of women’s history.
Including essays on Egyptian, Indian, Russian, and Latin American gender history, the collection embraces divergent transnational directions beyond the exceptional “women worthies” of Western white women’s history (p. 115). Although the field has offered fresh and illuminating perspectives on the diversity of women’s experiences, at times it has also revealed “the modernization of patriarchy rather than its dismantling” (p. 8). Rather than depicting a historiographically progressive advance toward modernity, the volume sidesteps determinism by positioning these historical approaches and historiographical paradigms as competing axes of tension within the field. Although the marriage between transnational and feminist history has varied between “connubial bliss, angry accusations, or quiet disappointments,” according to Jocelyn Scott, the partnership has not only been necessary but exponentially lucrative in reminding us of the “particularities of place and the impossibility of placelessness” in women’s history (p. 252).
Although more exploratory than definitive and at times more personal than historiographical, the volume collectively reflects the tangle of debates that have emerged in the field over the past five decades. Within the context of political, social, and economic currents, women’s and gender historians have not only imagined new histories, but have engendered national and nationalist projects and utilized transnational approaches to the study of gender, sexuality, and the nation-state. Fusing the personal, political, and professional, Making Women’s Histories situates women’s, gender, and sexuality history as an unfinished global project of activist scholarship. [End Page 715]
KERA LOVELL is a PhD candidate in American studies at Purdue University. Her dissertation is tentatively titled, “The People’s Park: Women in the Fight for Public Space in U.S. Postwar Protest Movements.”