Women’s History – Its Rise and Challenges

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“It has been common knowledge for ages that women exist, bear children, have no beards, and seldom go bald…but save in these respects, and in others where they are said to be identical with men, we know little of them and have little sound evidence upon which to base our conclusions.” – Virginia Woolf, 1920

Up until the mid 20th century, the bulk of historical writing had been about men, and very event-focused. Politicians, kings, aristocrats; stories of regimes and wars filled the pages of historical writings. A change took place in the mid-20th century in which the history of the “every-man” became important – through “social history.” In tandem, a concern arose for unveiling the history of women, as their impact was paramount throughout history. This blog post will cover the brief rise of women’s history as it reached academic acceptability, as well as some of the issues it encountered.

The Movements

There were two movements which brought the emergence of women’s history; the first of these movements was second wave feminism in the 1960s and 1970s. While the predecessor of this movement, first wave feminism, had succeeded in its activism for women’s rights through achieving the vote (1918 in the UK and 1920 in the USA), second wave feminism sought to “redress more insidious imbalances of power.”

One of the most inspirational narratives for this movement was published in 1963, by Betty Friedman, feminist and political activist. Her publication The Feminine Mystique vilified men and criticized their patriarchal structures as trapping women Image result for feminine mystique 1963

“…in a system that denies them self-identity as women and demands they find fulfilment through their husbands and children.”

This book began “second wave feminism” which ignited in the United States and quickly spread to the Western World.

The Woman Question

Central to the feminist ideology was the need for dissolution of the hierarchical constructions rendering women as inferior to men.  “The history of feminist thought is a history of the refusal of the hierarchical construction of the relationship between male and female in its specific contexts and an attempt to reverse or displace its operations.” This ideology goes back to the “woman question”, first emerging in the fourteenth century over concerns on the status and condition of women in male-dominated society.

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Christine de Pizan lecturing men.

Initially developed in a series of writings by a French court lady, Christine de Pizan, it grew as a philosophy which sought to solve the issue of misogyny and sexist attitudes. It had caused centuries of debate, and was, once again resurrected in the attitudes and ideologies of second-wave feminists as they challenged inequalities women were facing with in the patriarchal male-dominated society. Second wave feminism impacted historical studies of this period causing an increase of research on women in the UK and USA, and, inevitably, the rise of women’s history as a discipline in the 1970s.

New Social History

The second movement which impacted the rise of women’s history was that of the New Social History movement. This emerged in the 1960s and was led by Marxist historians who wished to provide an alternative to the elitism found in political and economic history. Its focus was on “history from below”, or, the history of all society, rather than just those of the political and economic ruling elite. Social history was therefore considered “synonymous with ‘expressing the voice of the common people.’” This movement allowed women’s historians the methodology and precedence to study the history of women.

During the 1960s, traditional history was incurring much criticism for its omission of women and their collective experiences. Feminist historians “blew the whistle” on historical studies, noting that until that point “history was merely men’s history masquerading as universal history.” Men had dominated history as its main actors, to such an extent that history was men’s history, to the exclusion of women. History, in its political and economic form, had excluded women from its literature; a dismal error since women were half of humankind (and sometimes more). Feminist historians, therefore, sought to rectify this error by restoring women to history, and thus “restore history to women.”

Challenges…

One of the main issues which immediately arose within this enterprise was what methodology to employ when “restoring women to history. Traditional historians wrote women’s history by focusing on the noteworthy women who were ‘missing’ from history and filling their stories into the formerly male-dominated historical literature. Unfortunately, this only focused upon few women and ignored the mass history of women. Alternatively, historians using the ‘contribution approach’ filled in the gaps by asking how women contributed to society; what impact they had on various movements and significant events. This method was also flawed in that it also ignored the mass history of women, and frequently stigmatized women’s history as being solely about their victimization.

 Largely, the experience of women was transmitted according to a male value system, and frequently also through male reflections. Feminist historians wanted to see women’s history shifted from a male-oriented consciousness to female-oriented one; written from the perspective of women. Gerda Lerner, writing in the 1980s, argued that the central question of women’s history should be: “What would history be like if it were seen through the eyes of women and ordered by values they define?”

Therefore, feminist historians decided they not only needed to restore women to history, but also needed to challenge the epistemological structures in which history was written. The issue at-hand was the need to create an appropriate framework and methodology through which all history should be written – “Women’s history is more than finding data about women and fitting it into empty spaces within patriarchal history. Women’s history is a new vantage point, a stance, a way of looking at traditional material with new questions.”

The main hindrance to women’s history in the current historical structure was that of periodization. Traditional history was periodized according to political and economic structures – conquests, wars, revolution, and cultural and religious shifts. However, women had been largely excluded from political and military power, rendering any inclusion of their history as subjunctive to the male-dominated history. This has disallowed women to be included as historical actors, because the nature of the questions asked about history have been biased against them. “To rectify this and to light up areas of historical darkness we must, for a time, focus on a woman-centered inquiry, considering the possibility of the existence of a female culture within the general culture shared by men and women.”

However, women’s historians failed to make headway in these aim. Women’s history had failed to achieve their goal of changing epistemological structures. Although feminist historians were producing quality work on women’s history, it continued to hold marginal status in the field of history. To many traditional historians, women’s history seemed like an add-on to history, which could easily be ignored with no detriment to mainstream economic or political history. Additionally, women’s history was distinguishable from most other history due to its feminist conviction. Women’s history could have been easily called “movement history” since it was founded upon and shaped by the feminist movements in the 1970s and 1980s. Its work “serve[d] to reinforce feminist politics by offering a historically grounded account of women’s identity as a group distinct from men.” The political associations of this movement left it sour-tasting to many mainstream traditional historians.

Therefore, women’s historians had failed to solve the “woman question” and needed a new angle to effectively challenge the epistemological structures of traditional history. This came through the application of the “gender” model during the 1980s, and the subsequent rise of gender history which incorporated both women and men’s domestic life into the realm of historical significance.

 

References and Further Reading
Bailey, J. (n.d.). Is the rise of gender history ‘hiding’ women from history once again? [online] History.ac.uk. Available at: http://www.history.ac.uk/ihr/Focus/Gender/articles.html
Bock, G. (1998). Women’s History and Gender History: Aspects of an International Debate. In: R. Shoemaker, ed., Gender and History in Western Europe, 1st ed. London: Hodder Education.
Brown, M. (2016). Gender and History. [Presentation].
Buchanan, Ian. (2010) “Friedan, Betty.” A Dictionary of Critical Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Buchanan, Ian. (2010). “Second Wave feminism.” A Dictionary of Critical Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Downs, L. (2003). From Women’s History to Gender History. In: S. Berger, ed., Writing History Theory & Practice, 1st ed. London: Hodder Education.
Kelly, J. (1982). Early Feminist Theory and the “Querelles des Femmes”, 1400-1789. Signs, 8(1), pp.4-28.Lerner, G. (1979). The majority finds its past. New York: Oxford University Press.
Scott, J. (2014). “Social History.” A Dictionary of Sociology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Tilly, L. (1989). Gender, Women’s History, and Social History. Social Science History, 13(04), pp.439-462.

 

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