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Journal of Women's History 15.1 (2003) 178-182

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Regenerating Women's History

Stephanie Gilmore

When I composed my reading lists for my comprehensive exams, Leila Rupp shocked me with recollections of her single-page list of published sources on women's history. Mine went on for five single-spaced pages and seemed little more than a bird's eye view of what women's his-tory had to offer. The monographs, edited collections, and articles I read took me across time and space, offering me mere glimpses into women's lives and gendered experiences through paid and unpaid labor, sexuality, feminist activism, and formal politics. Moreover, my readings took me on a historiographical journey through the many theoretical developments within and related to women's history. As I studied, I lamented that I would never be able to read and synthesize all of the rich scholarship that was out there! Although my anxieties were great, I also fantasized about the utopian future of which Kitty Sklar spoke. That we (or at least I) have such worries and fantasies suggests that it is, as Nancy Cott suggested, a propitious time to consider the state of women's history. 1

Though intrigued by many points the panelists raised, I decided to focus on Nancy Hewitt's reminder that all history is contemporary history—and that could be no more evident than in women's history, a discipline that arose from feminist activism in the 1960s and 1970s. After she neatly summarized Croce's dictum that "all history is written in dialogue with current issues, concerns, and perspectives," she illustrated how her own work reflected issues contemporaneous to the times in which she was working on her various projects. In my own research, I write about the second-wave feminist activism in which she and other panelists participated. Conducting this research takes me on the usual goose-chase for written records, but more important, it sends me on seemingly countless yet marvelous interviews in pursuit of activists' personal recollections and thoughts on feminism past, present, and future. These interviews have shown me how concerned second-wave feminists are with the future of "their" movement. Joined with the volumes of memoirs, personal histories, and documentary collections related to the history of second-wave—not to mention this very dialogue—it is clear that scholars and activists are thinking about how age and generations matter, evinced by their desires to pass along their thoughts about the past and future of the women's movement and, in turn, women's history.

We have an abundance of various activists' reflections on the women's [End Page 178] movement. One of the first personal memoirs I recall was Sheila Tobias's Faces of Feminism: An Activist's Reflections on the Women's Movement. 2 Though I had identified as a feminist in the mid-1980s—a lonely stand for a high school student at that time—this book brought home to me the importance of a movement that teachers told me was dead and made me realize even more that the feminist movement was not only a part of the past, but was also a necessary part of our present and future. Of course, I had been aware of this, but it was only after reading Tobias's book that I realized how participants were actively passing along their thoughts about feminism and the women's movement to my generation. It seemed to me that a wave of such memoirs followed—for example, Phyllis Chesler offered Letters to a Young Feminist and Susan Brownmiller recalled what life was like In Our Time. 3 Together, these well-known feminist activists shared anxieties about the movement's future, but they assured us that the movement is still alive.

Feminist academics have also been sharing their own stories about their lives as teachers, scholars, and activists. Estelle Freedman's No Turning Back: The History of Feminism and the Future of Women is a brilliant example of how such labels are not mutually exclusive. Dedicated to her students, this book is born out...


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