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Unfinished Business Anne Firor Scott In this age of eledronic miracles somehow the Hst of proposed titles I sent to Kathleen Berkeley never arrived in Wilmington, and so she made up a title which turns out to be better than any I had proposed. "Unfinished business" is of course the central characteristic of our discipline. "History," meaning the history we write and read and talk about, is always changing as new evidence turns up, as new questions are asked. Unfinished business is also an appropriate subjed for a person my age seeking to understand what she has been about for fifty years. I propose to talk prindpally about the first meaning—that is the changing nature of women's history over time, and then just a little about the second. But first, given the present alarms and confusions in our discipline, I should try to say where I stand. After Ustening to many heated discussions I condude that I am a moderate postmodernist, if there is such a thing. By that I mean that I do believe that each of us sees the past through a prism created by our own life experience. I observe that historical evidence is perceived differently by different people in different contexts . How historians define history and what they choose to write about are also in part a function of their cultural milieu and the concepts and language avaüable to them. However—and this may mean that my claim to be a sort of modified post modernist won't do—I believe that real things happened to real people, to nations, to sodeties and cultures, which an all-seeing eye could discern. But since no eye is all seeing, we "construct" what we write from the materials at hand. However, the building blocks of that construction, if we are condentious about evidence, are approximations of reality. I also believe that however useful theoretical structures may be, condusions must follow from the evidence whether or not they fit the theory. My basic argument today wül be that from the beginning, women's history developed in close assodation with women's activism, and that the two continually influenced each other. That interactive process has accelerated to the point that what was once a thin trickle of writing is now a veritable torrent. I also propose to argue that from the beginning women's history followed a separate track from the grand narratives of the American past created by male historians. When I began thinking about the essay last summer I was re-reading Jane Austen's Northanger Abbbey. Some of you have discovered that mar- © 1996 Journal of Women's History, Vol. 8 No. 2 (Summer) This address was presented in November, 1995, to the Southern Assodation of Women's Historians. 112 Journal of Women's History Summer velous paragraph in which the heroine responds to a young man who is urging her to read history: "I read it a little as a duty," says Catherine Moorland, "but it tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me. The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars and pestilences in every page; the men aU so good for nothing and hardly any women at all, it is very tiresome." It occurred to me that Jane Austen was a younger contemporary of Mary Wollstonecraft—though it may be doubted that they ever heard of each other—and that each in her own way was responding to a current of thought that was emerging into popular consdousness in the late eighteenth century. Even before Wollstonecraft and Austen began writing, interesting things were happening across the sea in Massachusetts where Judith Sergeant Murray was drawing examples from women's history to support her argument for expanding women's opportunity for education. A few year later Hannah Mather Crocker's Observations on the Real Rights of Women also used historical examples to support her view that mind had no sex. In the 1830s Lydia Maria Child's two volume History of the Condition of Women in Various Ages and Nations and Sarah Grimke's tetters on the Equality of the Sexes used women's historical experience to build...


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