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Journal of Women's History 14.2 (2002) 90-101
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"I Was Appalled"
The Invisible Antecedents of Second-Wave Feminism
Linda K. Kerber
In the beginning, the collections we are celebrating this weekend—like all unprocessed archival collections—were inchoate, miscellaneous assortments of documents and artifacts that arrived in the boxes in which they had languished since their authors shoved them aside to make room for the rest of their lives. Historians who came to the archive encountered an unpredictable mélange of stuff. If I were the one taking a paper out of the envelope or untying the red ribbon, I could feel reasonably confident that no one else had seen it since the author had packed it away. And now all those papers have neat folders and the folders have labels and somebody already knows what is likely to be there. In some very deep way, I disapprove of the whole business. It makes these papers too accessible. It forces us to share them.
Yet I know that accessibility is what is most needed; that we are doing no more than has been done for decades for men whose names are familiar: presidents, politicians, writers, poets, and artists. And so I come today to welcome the papers of Dorothy Kenyon, Jessie Lloyd O'Connor, Constance Baker Motley, Mary Metlay Kaufman, Gloria Steinem, Frances Fox Piven, the National Congress of Neighborhood Women, and the Women's Action Alliance, and to celebrate their work and their courage.
We as historians do not think of ourselves as expensive commodities. Compared to faculties in business and professional schools, universities hire us cheap. We do not demand laboratories full of heavy equipment that gets outdated and has to be replaced; we are generally content with a low-powered computer and access to a Xerox machine. But if we are to do our work, people have to save their papers and their heirs have to cherish those records (Belle Moskowitz's adult sons threw hers out). And someone has to value that legacy enough to build the buildings to protect the papers, hire the curators, buy the Hollinger Boxes, and install the fire alarm.
Many of us in this room are practitioners of a history that was reinvigorated by the women's liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Those of us who have jobs that pay us for practicing history would not have found these jobs a generation ago. Our positions exist because women students sat in college presidents' offices, disrupted the lives of universities, and made a theatrical and persuasive fuss. "The world is now full of post-feminists," Linda Gordon observed. I take her to refer to some good [End Page 90] folks who happened to be born too late to have used carbon paper, to have the skill of putting a safety pin on a diaper without poking the baby, or to know how many of the opportunities they cherish are of recent invention. They do not know that they need to know their own history. They do not know that they need archives. As we admire these archives—the magisterial Sophia Smith Collection here at Smith College, the Schlesinger Library at Harvard, the newer archives at the University of Iowa and the University of Illinois at Chicago, and the many collections of women's papers elsewhere—we also rededicate ourselves to their continued expansion.
The general outlines of the women's history that we have been writing for more than a century—since Elizabeth Cady Stanton and her colleagues saved their papers and published them as the great six-volume history of women's suffrage—are easily summarized. Indeed, the outlines are easily caricatured. Outside rooms like this one, filled with knowledgeable feminists, folks tend to know that Abigail Adams told John Adams to "remember the ladies," and then there's a gap of fifty years. Then there were the abolitionists, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Sojourner Truth. Enslaved women claimed their freedom during the Civil War and struggled to make it meaningful...