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Journal of Women's History 15.1 (2003) 7-9
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Last November, in California, a group of women from West Marin stripped off their clothes and lay down in a meadow to spell out the word "Peace" with their bodies. It was both a traditional and untraditional protest over the threat of a United States-led war against Iraq. Inspired by an action in which a group of Nigerian women threatened to shame the executives of a multinational oil company by disrobing, the California women hoped to send the message to President Bush that there is strong grassroots opposition to war. A local photographer captured the image, it got on the internet, and, voilá, the message spread around the globe.
This protest came to mind not only because I worry about the future of the world while contemplating the future of women's history. These women's action illustrates many of the themes that are critical to women's history: the meaning of "public" and "private," the relationship of the local and global, forms of feminist thinking and action, the use of new technologies. At the beginning of the fifteenth year of the Journal of Women's History, we offer an issue that touches upon many of these.
We begin with a retrospective that takes a slightly different tack than others in our series, "Women's History in the New Millennium." Rather than focus on a classic book or article, we asked Leonore Davidoff, Sandra Lauderdale Graham, Carole Turbin, and Elizabeth Thompson to reflect on the concept of public and private spheres from their own particular perspectives. Their discussions touch upon topics ranging from the built environment to divorce to clothing to law, and their thoughtful essays resonate throughout the rest of the issue.
Sexuality, for example, poses some classic problems for our understanding of public and private, for what is ostensibly private often and easily becomes public in diverse situations. And not just in the case of "public women," the subject of a comparative review essay in this issue by Pippa Holloway. Graham, in the public/private dialogue, analyzes the cases of three Brazilian women—upper-class, middle-class, and former slave—making their private lives public in order to protect themselves. Saskia Wieringa, in her article, shows how women's sexuality—or rather slander directed against women's sexuality—played a critical role in the successful battle of General Suharto against the Indonesian Communist Party. Wieringa's work also adds to our understanding of the powerful role of gender in the construction and maintenance of nationalism.
In a very different context, Sarah Judson argues that fear of working-class women's sexuality in Atlanta during the first World War opened a space for both white and African American female reformers to make inroads [End Page 7] into city politics, although in different ways and to different degrees. Like Wieringa, Judson connects women's sexuality to other issues, in her case racial politics and the struggle over the meaning of citizenship. And Judson's work connects to the issue of respectability in African American women's history, the subject of a review essay by Paisley Harris.
The concepts of public and private arise in a very different way in the work of Theresa Smith, who shows Maria Romero utilizing the vehicle of translation to circumvent the barriers to women's public authorship in eighteenth-century Spain. As Smith so nicely puts it, Romero's manipulation of the text allowed her to "veil herself and unveil her ideas," which included a gender critique shared with the author she was translating but also a call for religious reform that undermines the presumed dichotomy between reason and passion in Enlightenment thought.
Smith's emphasis on religion points to another area, like sexuality, that has often challenged the dichotomy of public and private spheres. Two of our review essays—Allison Sneider on nineteenth-century U.S. Protestant feminists and Robin Judd on Jewish women's and gender history—analyze works that bring together religion and such topics as feminism, politics, the body, and sexuality. They connect...