Printer Friendly

A past with a future.

Twenty years ago, in an essay about placing American women in history, Gerda Lerner urged the writing of a "new history" that recognized "that no single methodology and conceptual framework can fit the complexities of the historical experience of all women."(1) In U.S. History as Women's History, a collection of essays edited by three prominent women's historians and dedicated to Professor Lerner, a variety of methods and frameworks suggest that her words have been heeded.

The fifteen essays encompass a rich variety of topics, ranging from the eighteenth to the late twentieth centuries. More important - and what's different about this collection - many of the pieces reflect a shift from earlier feminist histories that were concerned with the private spheres of household, family and "woman's culture," to ones that locate the workings of gender in the making of citizenship and public policy. Some of the essays, like Nancy F. Cott's study of marriage as "the primary institution that makes the public order a gendered order," are more innovative than others. Several others, including a discussion of the campaigns for the ERA and the election of women politicians, are too scaled-down from longer and more detailed studies. The diversity of topics, however, provides a solid introduction to many important questions in women's history, even if the format precludes a clear focus.

What the contributors have in common, aside from a desire to honor Gerda Lerner, is, as the editors note in their introduction, the experience of having "found her or his own path to women's history in the years between are very much the product of a generation of women's historians now firmly established within the academy, and the variety of their work attests to the vibrancy of the field. Ranging from culture (Barbara Sicherman on how various women read Louisa May Alcott's Little Women) to biography (William Chafe's case studies of Eleanor Roosevelt and Allard Lowenstein) to institutions (editor Kathryn Kish Sklar on the National Consumers' League and the American Association for Labor Legislation), the various essays share a political agenda: the desire to place women at the center of US history rather than at the margins.

The first of the book's three sections collects five essays under the rubric of "state formation," beginning with editor Linda Kerber's analysis of the meaning of citizens' obligations. In "A Constitutional Right to Be Treated Like American Ladies," she provides an intriguing overview of debates over aspects of women's relationship to the state. Kerber attempts to distinguish between notions of citizens' "rights" and "obligations," and to explain the significance of gender for the evolution of ideas about citizenship. After locating four types of civic obligations that have only gradually come to be applied to (or demanded by) all citizens - allegiance, tax-paying, jury duty and military service - she further demonstrates the ways in which race and gender powerfully shape access to, and experience with, these obligations.

The most enduring of assumptions about civic roles based on gender emerges in debates about women serving in the military. Kerber suggests that "the protective exclusion of women from the obligation to enact state-directed violence has eroded"; still, she might have gone farther in exploring how women's "special" obligations to the family have now shifted to more general obligations to the state.

If Kerber's essay raises questions about the connections between women and definitions of citizenship, two of the other essays on state formation offer a timely perspective on the origins of the welfare state. In "Putting the Children First," Linda Gordon offers a cautionary tale about activists who used children's needs as the primary rationale in demands for public assistance in the early twentieth century. By doing so, Gordon argues, such assistance developed along "welfare" rather than "social insurance" models in a way that pitted children's interests against those of women. The former were defined as much more deserving than the latter - as if parents' and children's best interests could be so easily separated.

In her analysis of the 1939 Social Security Amendments, editor Alice Kessler-Harris also provides very clear evidence of the influence of gendered assumptions on welfare legislation. She highlights the consequences of constructing a "model" family in which women remained dependent and a model for work that excluded domestic and casual workers (and therefore large groups of poor and nonwhite female workers).

Gordon and Kessler-Harris demonstrate that race was an important factor in the formulation of the arguments of both activists and policy-makers, and that racial and gender systems are deeply intertwined. But given contemporary international debates about the viability of welfare states, I would have liked to see more about how such American discussion and outcomes related to simultaneous developments in the more extensive European welfare states. A growing body of feminist scholarship has shown how assumptions about gender have determined policy across national borders, and a comparative perspective might have helped reveal the limited benefits of American policy.

While Gordon and Kessler-Harris demonstrate gender's influence on welfare policy, Judith Walzer Leavitt's account of the invention of "Typhoid Mary" uncovers how gender shaped the allegedly scientific management of public health. Leavitt analyzes the treatment of typhoid carriers Mary Mallon, who was a cook, and Jennie Barmore, who ran a rooming-house. Given that other carriers of disease did not receive such punitive treatment, Leavitt convincingly shows the extent to which assumptions about womanly behavior - the way in which Mallon was tinned into "Typhoid Mary" and depicted as '"different, deviant, unfeminine" - played rate the supposedly progressive and rational control of threats to public health in the early twentieth century.

Several of the other essays examine the ways in which women's networks and organizations have provided more formal means for sustaining social reform and feminist activism, even at moments when such activities also seem invisible. Joyce Antler describes the post-World War Two Emma Lazarus Federation of Jewish Women's Clubs, while Amy Swerdlow looks at the Congress of American Women's Left and feminist peace politics during the cold war. Both essays show the persistence of women's active attempts to forge links between community and global politics, with Antler offering a challenge to the usual assumptions about ethnic assimilation. She demonstrates how central both Jewish and feminist concerns were to women in the Emma Lazarus Federation. While other 1950s social organizations downplayed ethnic identity, this group commissioned among its educational activities biographies of Jewish women, such as that of abolitionist and suffragist Ernestine Rose.

The most provocative call for new interpretations of standard history comes in Nell Irvin Painter's eloquent look at "soul murder and slavery." Insisting that family dynamics be placed firmly in the realm of public history, Painter asks that the psychological damage that slavery caused to both black and white families be taken seriously. She adopts the psychological term "soul murder" (the depression, anger and low self-esteem induced by domestic, child and sexual abuse) to describe how circumscribed identity became under slavery.

According to Painter, the system's culture of violence shaped the lives and psychological states of all those who experienced it; the harm inflicted cut across the color lines in slaveholding society. She is cautiously experimental in applying the insights of late twentieth-century psychology to the world of slaveholding and the enslaved; yet she avoids merely recapitulating the thesis that slavery irrevocably damaged the psyche of slaves. Instead, she contends that slaves had several crucial resources - notably their families, communities and religions - that allowed them to withstand lasting damage.

Despite strong individual pieces, the organization of the book is somewhat mystifying. Two of the categories under which the essays are grouped are "power" and "knowledge." Yet all of the essays are about these intertwined subjects. The placement of Darlene Clark Hine's account of the creation of the encyclopedia Black Women in America under "knowledge," for example, is understandable, but her piece is also about "power": the power of who gets to publish what and why, and who determines what we get to "know." Although the editors briefly invoke Michel Foucault in their introduction, translating the concepts of "power/knowledge" into section headings is no substitute for a real engagement with the consequences of postmodern theories for feminist history.

The title also overstates the accomplishments of U.S. History as Women's History. While there are some valuable explorations of the intersecting systems of race, class and gender, this is not all of US or all of women's history. There are, to think of more obvious missing pieces, no Asian American or Native American or Latina histories here. Nor, with the exception of Estelle Freedman's fine analysis of the life and career of prison reformer Miriam Van Waters, is there much attention paid to lesbians.

Still, there are many lessons for historians and political activists in this valuable collection. It succeeds in celebrating the power of gender analysis and demonstrating that women's contribution must be seen and taught as an essential part of US history. The essays leave the impression of the continuing richness of women's history - an affirmation of "the complexity of the historical experience of women" that does Gerda Lerner proud.

1 Gerda Lerner, "Placing Women in History: A 1975 Perspective." In Liberating Women's History, edited by Berenice A. Carroll (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1976), p.365.
COPYRIGHT 1995 Old City Publishing, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1995 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Grayzel, Susan R.
Publication:The Women's Review of Books
Date:Sep 1, 1995
Previous Article:Loving rationality.
Next Article:No stranger than fiction.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2021 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters