- Patterns in Women’s History and in the Careers of Women Historians
Patterns never surprise historians, especially those prone to look for similarities rather than differences, for connections rather than ruptures. These tendencies describe this reviewer perfectly and explain the theme of this essay: the patterns that can now be discerned both in the evolution of women’s histories, and in the career trajectories and choices made by women in the historical profession. Initially, scholars engaged in the feminist project of rewriting the historical record asked what now seems a painfully obvious question, “what were women doing for all those centuries while men’s activities were being applauded and recorded?” Gerda Lerner, in one of her first essays, addressed this question and identified stages in the process of answering it. First would come “compensatory” and “contribution” [End Page 177] histories to give the names, dates, and stories of women valued for performing as men or for their contributions to categories created for men’s history, such as queens, political revolutionaries, and suffragists.1 Though incomplete this “add women and don’t stir” phase of the feminist endeavor has given female “worthies” a place in the national male narratives and led to the first separate histories of women in many parts of the world.
Noticeably absent, however, from this initial phase of the feminist project have been works on Eastern European women’s histories. A few exist, but because of language are little known outside of their own region. Feminist historians at the Central European University in Budapest, Hungary have provided an excellent resource that begins to address this problem, A Biographical Dictionary of Women’s Movements and Feminisms: Central, Eastern, and South Eastern Europe, 19th and 20th Centuries. They assembled scholars from throughout the region to write one-to-three-page biographies of over 150 feminist activists and theorists from twenty-two countries (including Turkey). In addition to providing information, as the editors point out in their introduction, their collection proves the falsehood of two commonly held views of Eastern European women’s history: that there was no feminism outside of Western countries and that when a feminist movement did begin in the region, it was only a version of the Western movement, unaffected by local circumstance and culture. With the publication and wide distribution of this exceptional volume, no subsequent history of nineteenth and twentieth-century Europe, whether focused on feminism, women’s activism, or more general studies of economic, social, religious, and political history can claim authority or inclusivity without reference to the lives and accomplishments of those chronicled in its pages.
Since Lerner wrote her essay in 1969, the modern field of United States Women’s History has expanded exponentially. This rapid growth has prompted women’s historians to reflect on the evolution of the field and their own careers. In 1999, the almost exclusively Euro-American leaders of the Coordinating Committee of Women Historians (founded as the feminist caucus of the American Historical Association) told their stories in Voices of Women Historians. Telling Histories: Black Women Historians in the Ivory Tower, edited by Deborah...