Why Women’s History
“I’m not a hero,” said Jesse Ames.¨ “I’m only doing what is right.”
What Jesse is doing is running the Red River Women’s Clinic in Fargo, North Dakota, the only medical facility in the state available to women who need to terminate their pregnancies. Although Cass County, where Fargo is located, counts in the 88% of all U.S. counties lacking an identifiable abortion provider, two female physicians, one from Texas, the other from Minnesota fly to Fargo and perform abortions twice a week, Jesse explained. The health center sees approximately 1,300 women each year, some drive over five hours to get there, many have no health insurance, but each one leaves with some form of birth control in her hands.
Red River has thus far escaped the violence inflicted upon other clinics in the nation, but the threat is ever-present. Jesse has had to brandish a stun gun to fend off aggressive protestors. She takes a different route home from work each day, always checking the rear view mirror, and her children use a different last name.
When I asked what led her to this work, she answered simply, “I took women’s history in school.”
Jesse is an heir to the rich legacy of second wave feminists’ determination to challenge the all-male canon and bring women into the historical narrative. We looked for inspiration in the lives of those before us, many from the civil rights movement, many excavated from the rich yet untapped soil of our distant past. Isabella Graham, defying formidable male opposition of the early republic, ventured without a chaperon through the notorious Five Points District in New York to assist the destitute of her sex; Harriet Jacobs, born a slave in North Carolina, endured unmitigated hardships, hiding in an attic for seven years so she could stay near her daughter and away from the horrific abuse of her master; Sarah Winnemucca, author of the first autobiography of a Native America woman, Life Among the Piutes, remained a tireless advocate for the rights of her people. Crippling restraints and staunched dreams had carved inner beings of indomitable strength.
We called these women role models. Our icons. Connecting to them urged us to continue fighting for equal footing in a soul-deflating society systematically forcing women into second place. Their stories served as both life raft and compass in the perilous uncharted seas of sexism. Not because they were perfect, but because they weren’t, they empowered us. We believed it was crucial for women and girls, but also for men and boys, nurtured on masculine superiority, to realize the sweeping range of women’s fortitude, tenacity and achievement.
I started teaching women’s history at Sarah Lawrence College in the late-1970s under the mentorship of the esteemed Gerda Lerner, a pioneer in the field. On my office door, I hung a poster proclaiming: Women’s History is a World Worth Fighting For. Our struggle back then, to establish the field as a separate discipline, was enhanced by the formation of the National Women’s History Project (NWHP) in 1980 by Molly Murphy MacGregor and four of her colleagues. The NWHP’s goal, “to broadcast women’s historical achievements,” initially took the form of lobbying Congress to designate March as National Women’s History Month, now celebrated all over the country.
The incorporation of women’s history into the curricula at colleges and universities across the nation created a sea change in how Americans viewed our past. Over the course of the next decade, feminist scholarship exploded, stimulating ever-more research and encouraging the formation of interdisciplinary courses. As women of color called for a more complex approach to women’s experiences, Black Women’s History emerged as a field in its own right. The abundance of organizations, conferences, journals and monographs dedicated to analyzing the interconnections of gender with class, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, cultural and, more recently, global disparities, have deepened our understanding of the relationships between different groups of women as well as between women and men.
I have been fortunate to have watched the delight and enthusiasm of students for whom women’s history is an ongoing discovery, a source of profound intellectual engagement, pride and self esteem, sometimes transformative, often a prod for action, but always a gift. It offers girls and young women an opportunity to understand the distribution of power and privilege in society as it affords them a new visibility in development of our nation..
The benefits of knowing one’s past seem so obvious, I assumed, naively perhaps, that women’s history would remain a permanent fixture in our national consciousness. But after surveying nearly 400 women of different ages and backgrounds, I discovered sadly that over the past fifteen years women are once again being marginalized in the master historical narrative. The majority of the respondents, especially those 35 years old and younger, had no opportunity to study women’s history and confessed to knowing very little about women’s accomplishments, challenges, or even their rights.
Women’s history courses today are an endangered species, according to Molly Murphy MacGregor, currently Executive Director of the NWHP. There have, of course, always been the naysayers like Conservative writer and policy-maker David Horowitz. His academia-bashing One Party Classroom, cataloguing what he considers the worst 150 courses taught at American schools, highlighted 60 focused on women and gender. Horowitz’s charge— women’s studies courses are taught by ideologues rather than scholars—is nothing new, but in the current economic climate, with women’s studies courses (which include women’s history) on the chopping block, right wing propaganda can have a destructive impact.
The late educator Myra Sadker once said, “Each time a girl opens a book and reads a womanless history, she learns she is worth less.” I would go even further and suggest that she learns that the lives of those before her are also worth less. The Stupak Amendment’s addition to the House Healthcare Reform Bill stimulated much discussion about the generational divide within the pro-choice movement. Women, born after the Roe v. Wade decision of 1973, do not feel the same sense of urgency about choice—so the argument goes—compared to older women whose lives were shaped by the illegality of abortion. And while many members of Gen X and younger are committed to fighting for reproductive justice, there are others who told me they “simply can’t imagine a world without access to abortion.”
Understandable. Also rectifiable.
It’s hard to read pre-Roe stories (such as those reported by Dr. Edward Keemer of Washington, D. C.) and not imagine the absolute desperation of his young patients: “I had treated a woman…[who] still had the straightened-out coat hanger hanging from her vagina… Over the years I was to encounter hundreds of other women who had resorted to imaginative but deadly methods of self-induced abortion.…A sixteen-year-old girl…died after douching with a cupful of bleach...”
We forget the dark and tragic stories of long ago at our own peril. Not knowing your past is a banishment of sorts, cutting you off from powerful connections and deepest parts of your being. It limits the opportunity to understand the multiple experiences that have shaped the nation, shaped your life as a citizen in it and will shape possibilities for the future. “Writing Women Back Into History,” the NWHP’s theme for its Thirtieth Anniversary Celebration, hopes to reverse this trend.
Throughout the month, workshops, symposiums and speeches honoring the vivid heritage of diverse American women will be held across the country. Even if you can’t get to one of the formal events, there’s much you can do: visit your local library and take out some books on women’s history to read to your children or talk with their schools about how the contributions of more than half the population are woven into the curricula, not just in March but for the entire year. This might be a good time for your book club to add women’s memoirs and diaries to its roster or to ask your elderly neighbor about her youth, I bet she has a story or two to tell.
As for me—I’m going to dust off my Women’s History is A World Worth Fighting For poster, hang it up on my door again and get to work.
Barbara J. Berg, Ph.D. is on the Board of the National Women’s History Project and author of Sexism in America: Alive, Well and Ruining Our Future (Chicago Review Press, Sept. 2009).
¨ Not her real name