- The Majority Finds Its Past: Placing Women in History
In "Why History Matters," Gerda Lerner writes, "What we remember, what we stress as significant, and what we omit of our past defines our present" (200). This quotation helps explain the importance of the recent reprinting, with a new foreword by Linda K. Kerber, of Lerner's 1979 collection The Majority Finds Its Past: Placing Women in History. Although there have been numerous developments and achievements in all areas of women's studies, the kind of patriarchal bias Lerner draws attention to in the field of history remains far too prevalent in many academic conversations in 2008. For example, as a feminist rhetorician, I am reminded that feminist rhetorical studies is still a marginalized area of study in rhetoric and composition, and despite important scholarship by black women like Shirley Wilson Logan and Jacqueline Jones Royster, it remains largely dominated by white women scholars. More generally, the reprinting of this collection is an important text for both students new to feminist studies and seasoned scholars. First, it offers students an accessible view of the past of women's history, a way into understanding the need for such study, and an introduction to some of the issues white and black women faced in the nineteenth century. The volume could be used in the context of a feminist history course, nineteenth-century American literature course, or Introduction to Women's Studies. Second, seasoned scholars gain an opportunity to reflect on the emergence of women's history in light of present methods of study and perspectives in women's history and women's studies in general. Because our past helps create our present, this text serves as part of the history of women's history and contributes to conversations about the ongoing need to theorize and create methodologies that continue to resist patriarchal bias in history and other disciplines.
Lerner's essay collection, written between 1969 and 1977, argues that women are an oppressed, invisible majority existing across all parts of society; it calls for study and (re)interpretation of the roles women have played throughout history using new conceptualizations and tools that recognize women's roles out of a [End Page 153] feminist consciousness, not an androcentric bias. The twelve essays focus on the urgent need for and recognition of women's history, discussions of methodology and theory-building, and demonstration of such methods through specific studies of African American club women and women's anti-slavery petitioning, among others.
Lerner's articulation of the need for women's history, like much feminist work, is both personal and professional; it's about an individual building her career and a scholar charting a disciplinary path. In the introduction, Lerner describes how her work as a community activist and mother helped move her into academic study and helped her see that "What [she] was learning in graduate school did not so much leave out continents and their people as it left out half of the human race, women" (xx). She describes how she used her undergraduate education to find ways to focus on women and later, guided by Mary Beard's work, decided to use her research and writing to make valid the study of women's history. Lerner teaches us that women's history offers a necessary corrective to the patriarchal perspective whereby women, who "are at least half and often a majority of all Americans" (132)—black or white, lady or mill girl—are ignored as active participants in history.
One of the most significant aspects of this collection for the contemporary reader is its critique of traditional or patriarchal history and call for new methods to study women's roles in history to correct the subordination of women and neglect of women's active participation in American history. Chapter One, "New Approaches to the Study of Women in American History"; Chapter Ten, "Placing Women in History: Definitions and Challenges"; Chapter Eleven, "The Majority Finds Its Past"; and Chapter Twelve, "The Challenge of Women's...