The Women’s History Boom

Transforming a profession from the inside.

During the summer of 1976, as the country was turning its back on defeat in Vietnam with unabashedly patriotic celebrations of its bicentennial, I took a work-study job at the Women’s History Research Center in Berkeley, Calif., a choice I viewed as a minor protest against the boosterish mood of the times. The name conjures up now, as it did when I applied for the job from my college dorm room in Cambridge, Mass., a think tank where scholars pored over archival materials in a climate-controlled reading room. In fact, the place was run out of a dank church basement off Telegraph Avenue. The enterprise was presided over in absentia by its founder, Laura X, a St. Louis heiress née Laura Murra, who preferred to spend her days in the house in the Berkeley hills where she had started the organization in 1969.

In a fury after a UC-Berkeley professor had expressed doubt that there was enough material on women to fill a quarter’s course, Laura X had dropped her last name, proclaiming that, like Malcolm, “I don’t want to have my owner’s name, either”—that is, her father’s. Then she had proceeded to spend much of her inheritance gathering thousands of books, pamphlets, clippings, diaries, photographs, and oral history tapes documenting women’s accomplishments around the world and throughout history in an effort to prove that professor wrong. By 1976, the feasibility of a course in women’s history was no longer in question on almost any college campus—and Laura X’s dizzying array of sources, most of which were strewn about her Berkeley house, had spun out of control.

I quickly learned that the WHRC’s heyday had come and gone, and my summer would be spent helping close down the place. Each day I packed up more files and correspondence to be shipped off to the women’s history archive at Radcliffe’s Schlesinger Library. A recent check on the Schlesinger’s holdings shows that the WHRC collection is still “unprocessed” more than 30 years later, but includes, along with reports, minutes, clippings, and pamphlets, “records on interns, volunteers, and staff.” Quite possibly I had archived myself that summer.

Laura X’s campaign had a lot more in common with Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party  than it did with a movement by university-trained historians working from the inside to expand the horizons of the discipline, which gathered force in the mid-1970s and has never let up. At about the same time I was taping up cardboard boxes in Berkeley, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, who’d graduated from her own version of WHRC—the Mormon Sisters Inc., of Arlington, Mass., which put out a feminist newsletter celebrating the accomplishments of early Mormon women—to a Ph.D. program at the University of New Hampshire, published her first scholarly article. The article, “Virtuous Women Found: New England Ministerial Literature, 1668-1735,”—which appeared in American Quarterly, the 27-year-old journal of the American Studies Association—grew out of Ulrich’s desire “to know more about ordinary women.” She had mined Puritan funeral sermons for evidence about women whose lives had otherwise gone unrecorded. “Well-behaved women seldom make history,” she noted in her opening paragraph, in explanation of her difficulty locating sources.

Ulrich went on to write three impeccably researched books—Good Wives (1982), A Midwife’s Tale (winner of a Pulitzer in history in 1991), and The Age of Homespun (2001)—each one using new and ingenious methods to document the lives of “well-behaved” women. She also became a tenured professor in Harvard’s formerly all-male history department. Meanwhile, that one-liner from her first article took on a life of its own, ironically seeming to endorse an entirely different, activist style of history-making from the quiet, quotidian one Ulrich preferred to write about.

The sentence “escaped into popular culture,” Ulrich writes in her new book by that title, after journalist Kay Mills used it as an epigraph in her survey of American women’s history, From Pocahontas to Power Suits (1995). From there, the sentence made its way onto T-shirts, coffee mugs, posters, and bumper stickers, where it “now keeps company with anarchists, hedonists, would-be witches, political activists of many descriptions”—the spiritual daughters of Laura X—along with “quite a few well-behaved women.” It is a motto that has been embraced by, among others, nurses, school teachers, women in retirement homes, and a network of quilters based in Puyallup, Wash., who, according to their T-shirt-dealing spokeswoman, “see themselves as a little outrageous and naughty and out-of-control with their hobby.”

Why was “misbehavior … such an appealing theme,” Ulrich began to ask, recognizing that, paradoxically, her own brand of misbehavior as a historian had been simply “to care about things that other people find predictable or boring”: a New England midwife’s daily diary or the provenance of a linen cupboard. Turning to history as a profession had not been, for her, a journey of self-discovery or a means of empowerment. Rather she had found “liberation in working with material that seemed opaque and alien.” As a housewife pursuing graduate work at UNH in the 1970s, she had felt the burden of being “all-present, accountable to the world and people I loved,” and relief when, “moving backward in time, I was able to establish a critical distance from my own life and culture. There was no point in advocacy. I had to sit back and try to understand.”

Yet advocacy has always been an element in women’s history, perhaps all historical projects. Whether you are Laura X proving a point to a Cal professor or Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. writing about the Kennedy White House, there is always an argument to be made. Ulrich has liberated herself a second time to examine, with a historian’s critical eye, the roots of contemporary feminism in women’s historical writing. Her goal is to persuade those T-shirt wearers of the value of examining the past as “serious” historians do.

Ulrich looks at three women who experienced feminist epiphanies at very different historical moments. She begins with Christine de Pizan, who wrote the Book of the City of Ladies in 15th-century France, celebrating the lives of “worthy women—queens, princesses, warriors, poets, inventors, weavers of tapestries, wives, mothers, sibyls, and saints,” after realizing that the books on her study shelves, all written by men, were filled with “devilish and wicked thoughts about women.” Ulrich then turns to the United States and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. In her memoir Eighty Years and More (1898), Stanton wrote of her youthful vow to agitate for legal reform after reading, in her father’s upstate New York law library in the 1820s, the “inexorable statutes” depriving married women of their civil rights. Ulrich’s tour of book-inspired awakenings ends with Virginia Woolf, whose question “Why was one sex so prosperous and the other so poor?” led her to the library of the British Museum in 1928. There Woolf found only a dismaying profusion of volumes by men emphasizing that woman was “naturally the inferior” sex—and she wrote her landmark plea, A Room of One’s Own, in response.

Interested to demonstrate how women’s history has flowered in recent decades, Ulrich devotes the remainder of her book to showing how contemporary historians have tackled many of the questions raised by these earlier writers, employing ever more enterprising, archivally based scholarship. Important to her account, as well, is a survey of the “multiple feminisms” that arose during the women’s liberation movement of the late 1960s and ‘70s and led to women’s embrace of previously male-dominated professions, not least the profession of history.

Have women changed the practice of medicine, law, or politics by joining those games? The matter is open to debate. By contrast, how history is studied has radically changed—though not as its pioneering polemicists might have imagined. Back in the days of WHRC and the Mormon Sisters Inc., there was plenty of talk of finding our “foremothers” and of writing an alternative “herstory,” a favorite neologism of Laura X. Yet it turns out that, as Ulrich’s book shows, we didn’t need to change the language to discover and tell the stories that Pizan, Stanton, and Woolf were searching for.

For the formative historians of women’s lives whose careers Ulrich briefly describes (the founders of the field, Gerda Lerner and Anne Firor Scott), or whose work she cites—not to mention Ulrich’s own oeuvre—the most traditional kind of spadework has proved essential to a revolution, in a sense, from within. Serious historians “explore the things that get left out when a person becomes an icon”; recover the all-important details from primary documents and artifacts that can tell us how obscure women and men lived in earlier times. “Historians,” Ulrich writes, are “less interested in discovering universals than in tracing change over time.”

Armed with new questions, women’s historians have transformed a discipline that is defined by the very questions its practitioners ask, expanding the scope and texture of the field and deepening its rigor at the same time. After centuries of asking, women no longer have to wonder, where are the women in our history books? They are there, because sleuths like Ulrich saw the need to look harder at all the “unprocessed” ephemera of women’s lives—which in future years will no doubt include a T-shirt or two—and “try to understand.”