What A World Without Women’s Studies Looked Like

April 8, 2013, 9:53 am


Before women’s studies, these signs were invisible.

Mariam Chamberlain, one of the founding mothers of women’s studies, died last week at the age of 94.  A Ph.D. in economics, as a program officer at the Ford Foundation she disbursed around $5 million in grants to identify key areas for curricular change, as well to establish research on women through institutes like the Center for Women Policy Studies.

It’s easy to forget how important women’s studies was to reshaping what knowledge looked like. In part this is because there are fewer and fewer of us who remember what universities that were almost entirely run by and for men looked like. But the success of women’s studies has led to its transformation — into feminist studies, gender studies, queer studies — and to inevitable (as well as important) critiques of what those early years looked like. It’s also very difficult to convey how exciting those early years were — you read every book as it came out, you dived into an archive and practically every piece of evidence you could find on women was a potential article, and groups of faculty and graduate students formed spontaneously in methodology seminars.

These were the years when you really needed your friends, because it was likely that two out of every three senior faculty you talked to about women’s history told you it was a trivial pursuit, unrelated to the broader themes of the field. There was an upside to this, however: you could also get hired, even if you weren’t formally trained in women’s history, because departments were being pressured to offer at least a survey in the field. And — you were a woman! So you could do that! Right????

There are many of us who remember what a college or university without women’s studies looked like, but if you are younger than 50 you probably don’t. So here goes: in a liberal arts curriculum without women’s studies:

  • There were very few women teaching in the social sciences at all, or in the humanities outside a literature department (where, not surprisingly, some of the early work in the field emerged.) When I attended Yale University in the 1970s, there were a number of women in the English Department, but I can only recall one tenured or tenure-line woman in history (Nancy Cott.)
  • In history courses, there were no women, despite the fact that books which continue to be important today were available. Gerda Lerner’s The Grimke Sisters of South Carolina: Pioneers for Women’s Rights and Abolition came out in 1967; Nancy Cott’s The Bonds of Womanhood: 1780 – 1835 ; and Tom Dublin’s Women at Work: the Transformation of Work and Community in Lowell Massachusetts, 1826-1860 came out in 1981.
  • Even in the 1980s, women’s history books did not appear in political history courses (Susan Ware’s book, Beyond Suffrage: Women in the New Deal, the first study of its kind, came out in 1981.) I was never assigned a book on women’s history in any of the courses I took as an undergraduate or as a graduate student, although had I been in social history that probably would not have been the case.  I still thank the Goddess for comprehensive exams, and for my relationships with other graduate students: following my coursework, I started reading voraciously in the field and began to ask questions about what counted as politics. (This is probably a good argument on behalf of limiting course work in graduate school, since it seems reasonable that it would be designed around the field as it is and not as it could be.)
  • You could get the novels of Richard Wright but you couldn’t get the novels of Zora Neale Hurston, which were out of print from the late 1930s until their reissue in the late 1970s. One former colleague in African American literature recalls reading them from Xeroxed copies that had been passed from class to class.
  • Female bodied graduate students who wanted to write about women were firmly told that the topic was insignificant, impossible (because there were no sources) or a career-buster.
  • There was no women’s political or economic history prior to suffrage.
  • Men were always considered the stars in graduate school, regardless of what they did or did not accomplish.
  • All people worth knowing about in history were men.
  • Men had no gender. Neither did anyone else, for that matter (thank you, Joan Scott, for clearing this up in 1986.)
  • “Women” had nothing to do with slavery, capitalism or class oppression: these evils were all the work of “men.”
  • Lesbians had no history.
  • Gay men had no history.  Start looking at your genealogies, and track who begat whom. I’ll start it for you: Nancy Cott –> George Chauncey; Carroll Smith-Rosenberg –> Marc Stein; Estelle Freedman –> Kevin Mumford…..
  • African American history had few or no women in it: Deborah Gray White’s Arn’t I a Woman: Female Slaves in the Plantation Southwas published in 1985, thanks to Ann Scott and Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, despite repeated, condescending explanations at every stage of the book’s production that there was too little evidence to write about enslaved women.
  • There was no triennial Berkshire Conference of Women’s History. Nicknamed the Big Berks, and organized by a group of determined women historians who began meeting in the 1930s, it is now one of the largest history meetings in North America.

Readers — do you remember a world without women’s studies? What did it look like?

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