Through Women's Eyes
The field of U.S. women’s history has particularly
struggled to come to terms with the structures of racial inequality
so central to the American national experience. Modern scholars
have learned to think about race and gender in similar ways, no
longer treating either as unchanging biological essences around
which history formed, but as historically specific cultural constructions
that, while long-standing, changed meaning and content over time.
Building on nearly a century-long scholarly tradition in African-American
history, black women scholars explored the interactions between
systems of racial and gender inequality. Other scholars of color
made it clear that their histories could not be understood within
the prevailing black and white model of racial interaction. The
necessity for a multivocal and multicultural narrative of U.S. women’s
history that acknowledged women’s diversity in terms of race,
class, ethnicity and sexual orientation has been advanced on many
fronts, and includes explorations of Native American, Mexican, Asian,
black, as well as Anglo women.
Despite all these achievements, teachers and writers
of women’s history continue to confront the response that
women’s history is nothing more than a supplement to “real”
history. The challenge of fully integrating women’s history
into the national narrative involves insisting that family life
was as important as military strategy, that women’s-rights
movements belonged up there with abolitionism and trade unions.
To bring women’s history and the traditional narrative of
American development into a single field means recognizing and reconciling
the different emphases and concerns of the two accounts. As U.S.
women’s history has been written, it has developed its own
historical pacing and chronology, its own must-tell incidents and
not-to-be-missed heroic figures. How to present these historical
discoveries in all their richness and depth while at the same time
giving a comprehensive and balanced account of our national experience:
This is the big challenge.
As one example, consider the period from 1965 to the
present. In most U.S.-history texts, the chapter on “The ’60s”
reliably includes a section on the women’s-liberation movement.
Indeed, this is one of the two or three places in the standard U.S.-history
narrative where the reader can count on finding some concentrated
discussion of women’s historical experiences. But in the women’s-history
account, the rise of the second wave of feminism plays a far larger
role, initiating a rapid and epochal shift in the social and personal
meanings of femaleness, the character of gender relations and the
range of women’s public possibilities. To give the feminist
second wave and its aftermath full historic weight, yet to avoid
the temptation to see all subsequent women’s history only
as a reaction to or an elaboration of this historic watershed, is
a formidable task.