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UCLA Magazine Spring 2005
From Murphy Hall
Living La Vida 'Lorca'
Stress Fractures
What's at Stake
The Importance of Being Elma
House of Cards
The Quest
Through Women's Eyes
Dynamic Duo
Bruin Walk

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Spring 2005
Through Women's Eyes

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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.

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