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Journal of Women's History 15.1 (2003) 145-163

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Considering the State of U.S. Women's History

Nancy Cott, Gerda Lerner, Kathryn Kish Sklar, Ellen DuBois, and Nancy Hewitt

Nancy Cott:

We are going to get a range of views on the state of the field. I think this is a propitious time to consider this subject. It has been just about thirty years that the contemporary field of women's history has been in practice. There have been changes within the field, in the bulk of the work and where its gravity lands. The initial impulses and ambitions in the field simply were to make women visible, to put women on the historical record, to enable women's voices to be heard, to listen to their voices, and to show their points of view. That was not a simple endeavor. It involved changing—broadening—what had been seen as "history," what had been seen as historically important. It even involved changing typical periodization and assumptions about causation in history. The ambition to focus on women's lives and experiences involved revisualizing what was subjectto history—including, for instance, what went on in the family or what had been seen as private life. Fulfilling that ambition significantly changed what was in the corpus of U.S. history in the 1970s and into the 1980s.

But by the mid-1980s, there were major challenges to the initial vision of what women's history might include and what it might mean. I am being very schematic here, but I would suggest that these major challenges or interventions fell into three categories. One was the challenge of postmodern approaches to scholarship, which affected all fields and disciplines. In the case of women's history, the way that postmodern theory of the "subject" and the formation of subjectivity put in question the straightforward authoritativeness of personal texts struck very close to the heart of assumptions women's history made in the early 1970s.

Second, there was a series of interventions on the "color"—the whiteness—of women's history. Scholars and activists, especially women of color, began challenging the extent to which gender had been separated from racial or ethnic considerations, in thinking about who "women" were and what the significant differences between women and men were. This move certainly caused a great deal of new attention to the intersection of gender with race and with other forms of identity and markedness, in thinking about what it meant to be female. It put far more focus on women's differences from one another, with conflicts between groups of women being [End Page 145] seen to have perhaps even greater historical interest than distinctions between women and men.

And then third, a group of challenges arose around the question of "gender" or "women." Some scholars argued that "women's" history gave too little attention to gender as a social ordering system of society as a whole and stressed that this, rather than women's lives as such, was what we ought to be investigating. Such a focus on gender as a system of representation, a symbology, and a language of power encouraged more attention to institutional considerations and also to men as gendered beings than had previously been the case.

In the decade-and-a-half since the mid-1980s, these challenges have been worked through, and to a great extent embraced as evidence of expansion and maturation of the field. Still newer approaches have surfaced —meaning that women's history, or gender history, continues to change, and uncertainties remain about how it should be characterized. Each of our speakers is going to address this from a perspective she finds useful.

Gerda Lerner:

[Because Professor Lerner's findings are preliminary, she preferred to have no more than a summary published.] Gerda Lerner summarized a study she has undertaken of the recent "women's history" entries under "Current Scholarship" in the Journal of American History. These 720 items included...


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