In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • The So-What Question
  • Alice Kessler-Harris (bio)

As I think of the history of women’s history, I think of the challenges that we faced at the start of the process: Gerda Lerner called the kind of history we started out with contributions history. We had an obligation, she insisted, to prove that the history of women could be written by excavating the sources that demonstrated not only that women had been present in history but that their absence impoverished the historical enterprise. Women, she wrote, had not simply been adjuncts to history; they had been an essential component of it. Those early excavations opened the field up to the hostile question asked by many of our mostly male colleagues and later taken up by Gerda. So what? So what if we uncovered women? How did our understanding of the past change when we added women to the mix? What did we understand about social circumstance that we had not previously understood? Did finding and including women change our conceptions of the historical process? So What? It’s a question that led Gerda ultimately into her last books, including Why History Matters. It is a question I still ask my graduate students.

In the 1970s, the years when I worked with Gerda most closely, we (we em-battled historians of women) were happy to answer that question simply: adding women, we argued, enriches our knowledge. As Suzanne Lebsock often said, it makes us smarter. We proudly celebrated the recovery of lost women, especially of previously invisible women of color, of the poor, of the wage-earning minority. And yet we sought to rethink the notion of women’s history as a systemic process best comprehended relationally. As students of African American history were beginning to do for race, we wanted to know how the social relations of the sexes affected historical change.

Gerda Lerner initially opposed this initiative for fear that historians would neglect women in favor of masculinity. She had earlier, in her pioneering Black Women in White America, diverted larger questions of race by uncovering a wide array of sources that documented the history of black women. By revealing the presence of sources that illuminated the historical presence of black women, she launched a generation of historians on new research agendas. One might say that she briefly stymied the turn to gender history by insisting on women as the subject of our investigations. Organizing her next book around “women’s culture” and “the female experience,” she sought to demonstrate commonality among women—to find in their shared and quotidian [End Page 12] experiences the sources of a collective consciousness and, ultimately, of women’s liberation.

That move proved problematic for students of race and of class, like me. I had learned rather painfully to pay attention to relational questions in the course of a dissertation on New York’s Jewish immigrant community of the 1890s. Focusing on the Jewish labor movement, I had entirely ignored the existence of women on the then-prevailing assumption that paid work was for men and that the labor movement was therefore necessarily male. The motivating forces for social change, I believed, emanated from differences in religion and ethnicity and above all tensions in class and culture.

I defended my dissertation in 1968, just in time to discover an emerging women’s movement. Informed by my uncomfortable graduate school experience as a woman, and embarrassed that I had systematically discarded evidence about women’s activism, I began research on my first articles by searching for the women workers and trade unionists I had missed. I was, as you can imagine, acutely conscious of class. Already familiar with the work of E. P. Thompson, who defined class as an ongoing interaction between traditional cultures and the tensions created by new means of production, I quickly became involved in a Marxist-feminist study group. This posed conceptual problems: If class and ethnicity and religion had constituted the analytic centers of my questions as a labor historian, how would I incorporate gender? What role would it play in the historical dramas I was trying to illuminate? So what if I found the laboring women? What...


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pp. 12-16
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