- How the Field Was Won: Susan Groag Bell and Women’s History
I first met Susan Bell in the fall of 1973, when I had just arrived at Stanford; she, Karen Offen, and I were preparing a joint presentation at the December annual meeting of the American Historical Association. That session stood at something of a turning point in the life course of European women’s history and the historical profession, for there were a mere two sessions on European women’s history: ours and another on socialism and feminism. There were, oddly, none in American women’s history, which was much more advanced than European at that moment in time. The six women on our panel were a hefty percentage of the women on the entire conference program, as the profession was just beginning to crack open for women and accept women’s history as a field of study. The audience bespoke the panel’s significance: it overflowed the room, spilling far into the hallway. I remember seeing my colleague Paul Robinson two rows deep outside the doorway. And, in the first row inside the room, just in front of the podium, sat a woman knitting.
The title of the session was “Three Critical Transitions in French Thought on the Education of Women.” Susan spoke first on Christine de Pizan and Renaissance Humanism; I then spoke on Fénelon and Madame de Maintenon as educators of girls; and Karen spoke on the feminist campaign for equal access to the baccalaureate degree. Between us, then, our topics were fairly representative of the ways scholars in those early days envisioned the task of adding women to the historical narrative: exceptional individual women, thinking about women, and women’s agency in collective action.
If the session marked a moment in time, it also serves today as a productive starting point for considering the importance of Susan’s work in women’s history down through the years, for her topic that day was the one for which she became best known—Christine de Pizan—and her first book, Women: From the Greeks to the French Revolution, appeared almost simultaneously with the AHA session.1 Women: From the Greeks to the French Revolution hit the field like a life-preserver. The teaching of women’s history had already crept into the curriculum at some institutions, but the available materials on women’s past were terrifyingly scant. Susan’s book calmed our nightmares about having too little to fill ten or thirteen or fifteen weeks of [End Page 190] classes. But the book was more than a set of teaching materials; it was also an ingeniously crafted argument for women’s centrality to history and a demand for women’s history as a research field.
Here is how. As a source book on women in the past, its spoken purpose, it had three puzzling features. First, it was filled with men’s voices: Erasmus, Vives, Chaucer, Aquinas, the Patristics, the Bible, Aristotle, and more. Second, it contained few women protagonists: Elizabeth I, Marguerite d’Angoulême, and the Countess of Dia. It omitted Mary Wollstonecraft in favor of Rousseau and omitted Christine de Pizan in favor of Andreas Capellanus. It relied upon the Goncourt for a look at salons rather than hearing from a salon woman. Third, the overwhelming weight of the book fell in secondary literature, background information from historians on the conditions of women’s lives. About half of the secondary articles and chapters dated from between 1896 and 1940. A very few were written after 1965 at the very beginning of the new wave of women’s history.
These three features of the book—privileging men’s voices, minimizing women’s, devoting most space to old-fashioned positivist essays—would appear at odds with women’s history. Susan wrote a programmatic introduction to the book that suggests what was going on with these features, an introduction that expressed her complex understanding of historical process and brought into focus her contribution to the founding (or re-founding) of women’s history.
On question one: why privilege men’s voices? The introduction laid out two presumptions that make sense of...