March is Women’s History Month. This had its origins as a national celebration in 1981 when Congress passed Pub. L. 97-28 which authorized and requested the President to proclaim the week beginning March 7, 1982 as “Women’s History Week.” Throughout the next five years, Congress continued to pass joint resolutions designating a week in March as “Women’s History Week.” In 1987 after being petitioned by the National Women’s History Project, Congress passed Pub. L. 100-9 which designated the month of March 1987 as “Women’s History Month.” Between 1988 and 1994, Congress passed additional resolutions requesting and authorizing the President to proclaim March of each year as Women’s History Month. Since 1995, Presidents have issued a series of annual proclamations designating the month of March as “Women’s History Month.”
Few fields of American history have grown as dramatically as that of women's history over the past several decades. Courses in women's history are now standard in most colleges and universities, taught by specialists who have trained in the field; many schools also have interdisciplinary women's studies programs. Professors and graduate students continue to produce a wide range of scholarship on issues of women and gender. Textbooks that once relegated their coverage of women to luminaries such as Abigail Adams, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Sojourner Truth, or Eleanor Roosevelt now include full discussions of major topics and viewpoints in women's history as an integrated part of their general narrative. Although there is still controversy about how American history should be taught, it seems unlikely that we will ever return to the days when women were totally absent from history books or broader historical narratives.
The challenge of women's history is not a simple question of “add women and stir.” It means rethinking and rewriting the story. Linda Gordon, whose pioneering work in the 1970s on the history of the birth control movement helped spur the development of the field, explained: women's history “does not simply add women to the picture we already have of the past, like painting additional figures into the spaces of an already completed canvas. It requires repainting the earlier pictures, because some of what was previously on the canvas was inaccurate and more of it was misleading."
In the classic feminist text A Room of One's Own (1929), Virginia Woolf tells the story of going to the British Museum to do research for an upcoming lecture on women and fiction. “If truth is not to be found on the shelves of the British Museum,” she asked herself, “where . . . is truth?” Her search was not an especially satisfying one. She found many books written by men on the subject of women, all of them totally useless to her task at hand. She left discouraged, feeling an outsider in the men's world of knowledge and scholarship.
If Virginia Woolf were to walk into the Library of Congress or any major library or research facility today, she would have a far different experience. Instead of finding the subject of women neglected, excluded, or marginalized, she would confront a wealth of information on topics concerning women and gender that would have been inconceivable in the 1920s, or even as late as the 1960s. Now the problem is not too little material on women: it is how to master and find one's way through the explosion of feminist scholarship of the past three decades. Just as important, a whole range of previously overlooked documents and sources unearthed by feminist scholars sheds new light on women's experiences in the past and present.
Women's history itself has a history, which, in turn, has influenced how the field developed, what kinds of questions were asked at various points in time, and how the field interacted with larger contours of American history in general. This process is ongoing. One of the most vibrant things about the field of women's history is its determination to avoid complacency. According to Linda Gordon, women's historians have been “continuously self-critical of our generalizations.”4 To revisit some of those earlier generalizations and to examine how the questions have been recast and deepened over time provides a good introduction to the field as a whole.
Some of the earliest work in American women's history dates to the nineteenth century. Usually produced by amateur historians, these works are often referred to as “compensatory” or “contributory” history because they focused on previously unknown or neglected contributions that women had made to various aspects of the American experience. Many of these early historical works were biographies of famous women, often authors, first ladies, or women otherwise defined by their relationship to prominent men, a focus that became less dominant as the field matured. Not terribly sophisticated methodologically but often written in a lively and accessible style, these early attempts to put women in history were nevertheless important for showing that the materials and resources existed to write about women's lives and their contributions to American life.
One way to think about women's history today is to realize how many of its major concerns are focused and oriented toward relationships: in addition to the reigning trilogy of race, class, and gender, the field addresses relationships between groups of women, between structures of power and their subjects, between regions and nationalities, and so forth.
Instead of revealing a singular “womanhood,” women’s history makes the diversity of the American experience more visible. While women often faced social constraints and could be restricted by conventional ideas about gender roles, the realities of women’s lives have never been neatly confined to the “domestic” spaces of the home. They have been active participants in American society—as political activists, intellectuals, innovators, entrepreneurs, laborers, and educators.
Native women played important family, economic, and diplomatic roles in their communities. For example, matrilineal societies like the Ocmulgee Nation—or Creek—in modern-day Georgia frequently arranged marriages between Creek women and fur traders in order to form alliances and strengthen trading networks. As translators and intermediaries, they aided cooperation between diverse communities by negotiating trade and peace treaties. Native women even bridged immense cultural differences and intermarried with European settlers and traders. As healers and elders, they nurtured their communities and sustained their traditions and oral histories long after the American government expelled native tribes from their ancestral lands.
Women were political actors long before white suffragists gained the vote in 1920. Abigail Adams (1744-1818) was just one of the most well-known women who shaped American politics. While Adams oversaw the running of her family home and the upbringing of her children—including future president John Quincy Adams—she also advised her husband John Adams during his long career as a diplomat, Vice President, and President. Even while they were prohibited from voting, holding office, and had limited access to formal education, women influenced American politics within the narrow parameters that were acceptable in the Early Republic—by conforming to the ideals of “Republican motherhood” and raising virtuous citizens.
Women of color faced even greater barriers. Effectively excluded from American civic life, women of color adopted alternative strategies to fight racial oppression. While many white women called for the abolition of slavery, black women sacrificed life and limb to help enslaved people escape bondage. Harriet Tubman (1822-1913) — an escaped slave and conductor of the Underground Railroad — provided safe passage for nearly 70 enslaved people to freedom.
After the Civil War, Tubman and other emancipated women became vocal advocates for women’s suffrage and black equality. Mary McLeod Bethune (1875-1955) strove to aide black communities through education. She established schools and civic organizations for African-American students and became a member of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Black Cabinet,” where she served as a voice for disenfranchised blacks throughout the South. Business entrepreneur Madam C.J. Walker (1867-1919) became the first self-made millionaire in America with her line of beauty and hair products. Walker believed she could help black communities across the country by helping women gain financial independence. Her training program provided working black women important training and skills. During the twentieth century, feminist activists like the Combahee River Collective continued the conversations begun by these women—arguing that oppression based on race and gender could not be overcome separately.
In the decades following the revolution, America was flooded with people clamoring to define and shape the nation’s political, social, and religious identity. The Shakers—or more properly known as the United Society of Believers—was one such group. Their charismatic leader, “Mother” Ann Lee (1736-1784), built a public ministry dedicated to the establishing “heaven on earth.” In 19 communities spread from Maine to Kentucky—listed on the Shaker Historic Trail Travel Itinerary—the Shakers sparked a religious movement committed to communitarian principles, including celibacy, pacifism, and gender equality. The Shakers’ alternative ideas about worship, marriage, and the family challenged mainstream culture and the very social order of a growing nation.
As artists, women were keen observers of daily life in America. Alice Austen (1866-1952) was one of America’s earliest photographers. Her work captured daily life in American society while also testing Victorian values—female subjects appeared in men’s clothing and even smoked in public. Austen also challenged Victorian social mores in her personal life. She never married and instead shared a home with her partner Gertrude Tate for nearly fifty years. Austen’s entire body of work—nearly 8,000 photographs—was developed in the darkroom at her Staten Island home “Clear Comfort,” now a National Historic Landmark.
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