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Journal of Women's History 15.1 (2003) 172-174

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Interdisciplinarity and Institutional Change

Penny Messinger

I am writing from the perspective of a third-wave feminist who has been fortunate to reap the harvest of scholarship created by the field of women's history. I have not, however, had the privilege of sharing in the experience of the vital women's movement that existed some three decades ago when this field began to take shape. It is a great pleasure to have the opportunity to reflect upon the panel discussion on the future of women's history, and upon the suggestions offered by these scholars who have had such an influence in the field.

To me, one of the most fascinating aspects of the roundtable discussion concerned interdisciplinary issues—the connections that link women's history with other disciplines and with scholarship in the field of women's studies. Gerda Lerner's concerns about the predominance of literary analysis are well taken, but the emphasis on literary analysis is largely the outgrowth of interdisciplinary questions. This trend is certainly not limited to women's history, or even to history; much of the best recent work in women's studies relates to work on "whiteness" and on the construction and deconstruction of women's roles and women's lives. Kathryn Kish Sklar and Ellen DuBois approach this issue from another angle when they examine the impact that women's history has had upon other scholars. Here, we see how the questions asked by women's historians have invigorated the study of political history, and how their contributions are shifting the focus of that subfield. Although there is a tendency to still see women's history as something new, we can see in these works of political history the acceptance of women's history and its influential role in the interplay among scholars.

Although the major focus in the roundtable was on the future of the history of American women, the panelists raised important points about transnational or international connections. In addition to the transnational history of struggle for rights, the international peace movement, and diplomacy, one can imagine an international history focused around other questions that grow from the scholarship on women's history and women's studies. As DuBois observed, "women's studies has become fully transnationalized" in a way that women's history has not. 1 Sklar points out that those scholars who have taken their questions from women's history have come to new insights about social structures, American politics, and communities of people of color. In much the same way, transnational and world history offer the potential for enriching the field of women's history. [End Page 172]

Nancy Hewitt's evaluation of her own work presents a powerful argument for telling a story from the perspective of the people who lived it. Hewitt points to the importance of one's background and training in making visible the important threads of connection in our sources. Would she have been able to see the connections that Frederick Douglass saw between his interest in women's suffrage and in the international fight against racial oppression unless she had lived in Tampa and had observed there the interconnected threads of labor activism, feminism, and national liberation? As Hewitt points out, the evidence was there all along, but not until she herself had gained additional experiences and expertise did she understand its significance. Such experiences shape, in a fundamental way, the questions that historians ask. This is a central insight of the "new" social history of a generation ago, but also of postmodernism. Women's history and social history redefined the historical canon by bringing new voices into the debate. They challenged the role of "gatekeeper" by engaging a debate over who defines the canon, and what is to be included in it. The increased presence of African Americans in historical study brought questions and interpretations that reflected the perspective from the "inside out," much as the entry of the children of "new immigrants" helped to transform the fields of ethnic history and...


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