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Getting to the Source Striking Lives: Oral History and the Politics of Memory Emily Honig As one of the only means of retrieving the historical experience of nonelite people whose lives are not recorded in historical documents, oral history has played a crucial role in the writing of women's history. Beginning in the early 1970s, the well-known oral historians Sherna Gluck and Daphne Patai observe, the desire to recover a previously ignored women's history "generated an enormous volume of women's oral history , making avaüable in accessible forms the words of women who had previously been süenced or ignored."1 Oral history, as two other practitioners note, offered a means of retrieving women's voices, allowing "women to speak for themselves, to describe their situation, define their identity, and interpret the meaning of their own Uves."2 Books composed of edited, but uninterpreted, texts of women's oral histories began to appear, the mere recovery and presentation of women's stories considered an essential ingredient of the "new women's history."3 Subsequent scholars began to integrate oral history interviews with other historical documents to construct social histories, such as those of cotton miU workers in the U.S. South, Chicana workers in the 1930s, Japanese -American women during World War II, women factory workers in early twentieth-century China, and prostitutes in Kenya during World War Π.4 Such histories are inconceivable (or certainly would not boast such rich detail, nuance, and complexity) without the possibility of recording these women's Ufe histories. So integral was oral history to the writing of women's history that some scholars labeled it a particularly feminist methodology.5 As oral history has become increasingly central to the writing of women's history, it has also attracted more critical scrutiny. "When examined through the lens of the expanding feminist scholarship of later years," Gluck and Patai acknowledge, "women's oral history revealed itself to be more problematic than we had imagined."6 Instead of treating a recorded life history as a straightforward representation of experience, feminist scholars began to problematize power relationships between the historian and interviewee, to see the narration of life history as performance , and to recognize the importance of speech patterns.7 The role of memory has also come into question. "Oral narratives reflect peoples' memory of the past," Devra Weber points out in her study of Mexicana farmworkers involved in a 1933 cotton strike in Catifornia's San Joaquin © 1997 Journal of Women's History, Vol. 9 No. ι (Spring) 140 JOURNAL OF WOMEN'S HISTORY SPRING VaUey. "They can be inaccurate, contradictory, altered with the passage of time and the effects of alienation." They may therefore be more indicative of women's consciousness than actual experience, Weber suggests .8 An even more critical reading of memory in oral history is presented in Luisa Passerini's study of workers in early twentieth-century Italy. In Fascism in Popular Memory, she argues for treating oral history interviews not necessarily as reflections of an individual's personal experience, but rather as records of a cultural form, reflections of collective memory and storytelling.9 One aspect of oral history has been overlooked in these critical scrutinies , and that concerns the way in which any particular rendition of a life history is a product of the personal present.10 It is well-recognized that chronicles of the past are invariably a product of the present, so that different "presents" inspire different versions of the past.11 Just as aU historical accounts—the very questions posed or the interpretive framework imposed—are informed by the historian's present, so, too, is a life history structured by both the interviewer's and the narrator's present. As Erik Erikson, reflecting on his effort to write Gandhi's biography, observed, "At best, memories connect meaningfuUy what happened once and what is happening now."12 This means that oral history cannot be treated as a source of some narrative truth, but rather as one of many possible versions of an individual's past. It also means that the stories told in an oral history are not simply the source of explanation, but rather require...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-2036
Print ISSN
1042-7961
Pages
pp. 139-157
Launched on MUSE
2010-03-25
Open Access
No
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