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  • Why History Matters
  • Linda K. Kerber (bio)

We have been asked to reflect on five decades of change in women’s history and on Gerda’s relations to it. My assignment is citizenship, law, and politics, which is to say—as Thavolia Glymph reminds us—patriarchy.

I’ll start by thinking us back fifty years, to 1963, when Gerda Lerner began her graduate studies at Columbia and Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique. Gerda read the book almost as soon as it was published, and she fired off a letter. She told Friedan that it was “a splendid book.” But Lerner [End Page 6] placed Friedan’s work in historical perspective, arguing that the mystique Friedan had found in the 1950s was a new form of an old phenomenon, a “compensatory ideology developed in the antebellum era of industrialization,” now “updated by consumerism and the misunderstood dicta of Freudian psychology.” The problem, as Lerner saw it, was that Friedan had ignored the need for institutional solutions to the problems of women and had ignored how “working women, especially Negro women,” suffered from “the more pressing disadvantages of economic discrimination.” In effect the criticisms of American society made by The Feminine Mystique were themselves tangled in a romanticization—and a denial—of the power embedded in class and race relations. “It is a common fallacy,” Lerner would write a few years later, “to proceed on the assumption that what is true for middle-class women is true for all women.” And Lerner could be brutally clear-sighted: “Marriage and other sexual liaisons offer much more chance of upward mobility for the lower-class girl than does education.” For them the mystique worked.5

In 1963 I was already a graduate student at Columbia, although I never crossed paths with Gerda. My story is a story of what I have come to think of as Academic Malpractice.

Fifty years ago, preparing for orals, I clung for dear life to the then-current editions of Henry Steele Commager’s Documents of American History and Richard B. Morris’s one-volume Encyclopedia of American History. All those books that I was supposed to analyze, all those interpretations and reinter-pretations by which generations of historians outwitted and undermined each other, made me dizzy. Fixing the benchmarks in my head—the key statutes, the key court decisions, the culminations of years of political argument—gave me something I could trust. Together Commager and Morris stabilized blurry confusions and mapped the landscape.

Only years and years later, amid the political movement we know as second-wave feminism, was I startled to recognize the absences in those allegedly reliable maps. Neither Commager nor Morris included the Expatriation Act of 1907, by which an American woman citizen lost her citizenship when she married a foreign man (angered by Consuelo Vanderbilt’s marriage to the Duke of Marlborough—couldn’t she find an American man good enough?—Congress wrote into statute a long-established practice). Neither included the US Supreme Court’s 1915 decision in Mackenzie vs. Hare, upholding that law and ruling that when an American woman married a foreign man she engaged in “voluntary expatriation.” The result would be that thousands of women citizens who had married German men had to register as “enemy aliens” during World War I. And if her husband’s nation did not automatically make her a citizen at the moment of marriage, or did not continue to recognize [End Page 7] her citizenship when she was widowed, she was exposed to statelessness.

Morris, but not Commager, included a brief note to the effect that the Cable Act of 1922 “granted married women US citizenship independent of their husbands’ status,” but he did not explain why such a statute had been needed, nor did he explain that the grant did not apply to women who married men who were not themselves eligible for naturalization (which in 1922 included men from Japan, China, and South Asia, including India). The law would not be fully fixed until the mid-twentieth century.

Occasionally I use this story as a test, asking idly, in a conversation with lawyers or otherwise knowledgeable historians, “When do you suppose American...


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