- Whiggish Thinking about Transnational Women’s History and Queer History
Thank you all. I am incredibly honored and, to tell the truth, a little embarrassed. I even feel like a fraud, something that I expect is more familiar to women than to men in our profession. There are so many people, even just in this room, who deserve this honor more than I. Nevertheless, I want to thank Leigh Ann for organizing this session; Francisca, Joanne, Judy, and Susan for such deeply smart, moving, funny, and kind words; and everyone in the audience for coming.
I am really happy that the panelists took this opportunity to say so much about important developments in the field of women’s history. I am reminded of a story I told in my inaugural lecture as a full professor at Ohio State University. A Germanic dean instituted the practice of requiring a celebratory public lecture on the occasion of promotion. Mine was called “Outsider as Insider: The Challenge of Women’s History,” borrowing my title from Peter Gay’s book on Weimar culture and subtitle from Gerda Lerner.1 As an aside, the most memorable thing about the event was that, at the end, the dean said, “Thank you, Verta.” I guess one’s lesbianism is never far from some people’s minds. Anyway, I talked about what I called “my first feminist protest.” It was in second grade when we were celebrating Thanksgiving by dressing up as pilgrims and Indians. I was in the Indian group, and girl Indians were supposed to make dresses out of brown paper dry cleaning bags, which those of you old enough will remember preceded the clear plastic ones. Before anyone called me “stylish” or a “fashionista” (thank you, Joanne and Judy), I was a tomboy used to wearing my brother’s hand-me-downs, and I had a full “Indian brave” outfit at home. So I insisted that I should be able to wear it. Leaving aside the settler colonial aspects of the occasion, which I did not complain about or even notice during my protest, what strikes me as a grown-up feminist is that I did not insist that we should all be able to come in our preferred gender presentation, although in 1987 I would not have used that language. It was a very individualistic protest, and the point I made in my lecture was that feminism was much more than that.
So in the spirit of feminism as a collective effort to remedy systemic injustice, I want to make this a celebration of the women’s movement and the queer movement, without which we would not be here today. I also want to [End Page 165] acknowledge some of the people who have shaped my career: my mentors at Bryn Mawr, Barbara Miller Lane and Mary Maples Dunn; colleagues and friends at the Ohio State University, University of California, Santa Barbara, and others too numerous to mention by name but including everyone on the panel; my students, so well represented here by Susan Freeman; and especially Verta Taylor, my partner—as Susan says, my family—who could not be here today but who in our collaboration across history and sociology has taught me how to be a historian of the present and who has brought joy to my life for thirty-seven years. If she were here, she would probably insist that I call her my “wife” just to see me wince.
The contributions I am most proud of that the panel has talked about today are the development of transnational women’s history and the burgeoning of queer history, both of which are grounded in social movement activism. When I was applying for jobs in 1976 with a dissertation in comparative German and US history, my rejection letters would say, “comparative history is wonderful but we are looking for a German historian” or “comparative history is wonderful but we are looking for a US historian.” I feel fortunate that, in 1976, Ohio State University advertised for a women’s historian working in either European or US history—and hired me to fill the position. As Susan alludes to...