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Chapter 3 Women of Color and the Rewriting of Western History The Discourse, Politics, and Decolonization of History Historians have long struggled with the need to rewrite western history and to articulate a new, inclusive synthesis that fully incorporates the history of women of color.1 In her concluding remarks at the Women’s West Conference in Sun Valley, Idaho, in 1983, Suzan Shown Harjo (identifying herself culturally as Cheyenne and Creek and politically as Cheyenne and Arapaho) charged that women of the West are still possessed of inaccurate information about who we are collectively, who we are individually, and who we have been. We view each other through layers of racial, ethnic, and class biases, perpetuated by the white, male ruling institutions, such as the educational system that teaches in the early years and controls later research in the history of women in the West.2 This critique of the reigning historiography has changed little since then or since Joan Jensen and Darlis Miller first called for a multicultural, or intercultural, approach in their essay, “The Gentle Tamers Revisited: 104 Three Decades of Engendering History New Approaches to the History of Women in the American West.”3 A decade of “multicultural” historiography has still not come to terms with the historical, theoretical, political, and ideological issues raised by Harjo at Sun Valley. This essay discusses the historiography that was written during the 1980s about women in the nineteenth-century West. It examines the issues, politics, concepts, methodologies; and language of the “multicultural ” or intercultural approach first articulated by Jensen and Miller and the ways in which the intersection of gender, race, sexuality, ethnicity, class, and culture are described, theorized, and interpreted in the recent historical literature. The first section places in context the historiography of women of color in the decade before “The Gentle Tamers Revisited” was published, while the second places in context “The Gentle Tamers Revisited” itself. The Historiography of Women of Color and the Politics of History The academic discourse on the historiography of women in the West still does not accept that studying and writing the history of racial ethnic people as well as of women in the United States are avowedly political acts.4 Yet the political and intellectual roots of the contemporary historical study of women in the West were sown in the political struggles of the late 1960s and 1970s—in the case of white women, in the women’s liberation movements; in the case of women of color, in the national third-world liberation movements.5 These movements were at times related, but their political and intellectual origins, commitments, and ideologies were markedly different. The women’s liberation movement in the United States focused specifically on gender oppression. Never of one mind or one ideology, the women’s movement was nevertheless fundamentally rooted in a middleclass political liberalism that subscribed to including the excluded as long Women of Color and the Rewriting of Western History 105 as they fit within the existing norms. Its origins, identification, and praxis sprang from the suffragist movement of the mid-nineteenth century— a movement that never reconciled its origins in abolitionism with an abiding belief in white racial superiority. The study of women began with the political struggles of the women’s movements of the 1960s and 1970s and with the feminist theories and scholarship that grew from them. The women’s movement was a middleclass , white women’s movement, and until very recently, the historians who have researched and written the history of women in the West have been principally white women. Many of them participated in the women’s movement or are members of the generation of scholars who struggled to found women’s studies programs and departments in western colleges and universities. Most feminist scholars write the history not of women, but of white women in the West. In contrast, most women scholars of color who research and write the history of women of color look not to the women’s liberation movement, but to third-world liberation movements. These movements focused on the race and class oppression of African Americans, Chicanos, Native Americans, Puerto Ricans, and Asian Americans in the U.S. and identified with global struggles of third-world peoples for economic and political freedom.6 They found their historical and cultural origins in indigenous, native worlds that antedated European imperialism, and they began to reclaim those origins, which had been devalued and suppressed in Euro-American institutions and society...


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