Gerda Lerner, an expert in contemporary women’s history and a history professor at the University of Wisconsin, believes women’s history still has a lot of catching up to do.
“We have had 4,000 years of history focused on men and 250 years of history on women, but only 30 years of concentrated study on women,” Lerner said. “Until we have as much writing on women as men, we cannot abandon women’s history.”
The “U.S. Women’s History in 2001” panel discussion, held in front of a large crowd Thursday at the Hall of Graduate Studies, presented a mixture of attitudes on the present status and future of women’s history.
Lerner said she was concerned that women’s history is becoming less focused on political issues.
She said most recent studies regarding women focus more on occupation, sexuality and culture and less on suffrage, women’s organizations and law. Out of 292 historians, she said only 18 were interested in subjects before 1800 and half in topics before World War II.
“What is the future of women’s history?” she asked. “I wonder and, frankly, I worry.”
Kathryn Kish Sklar, a history professor at the State University of New York, spoke with a more optimistic perspective.
She said there is potential for a new narrative in U.S. history grounded in women’s history which would have the advantage of being broader in scope than traditional history because it must address the role of men as well as women.
“By studying gender, we study the consciousness of identity,” Sklar said.
She said she was enthusiastic about studying the way gender intersects with identities such as race and culture.
Ellen Dubois, a history professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, and Rutgers University history professor Nancy Hewitt presented views that were less contrasting.
Dubois discussed the idea of political culture and citizenship, citing issues like the Democratic party’s slow process of coming to terms with women voters, and urged female historians to be ahead of the curve in putting the United States in a larger world picture.
Hewitt said she did not want to criticize the work of her assembled colleagues, so instead she offered a critique of her own work, “Women’s Activism and Social Change.” She said women’s activism insufficiently understands race, gender and class issues.
In the crowded room, filled with both men and women, the possibility that women’s history could be abandoned seemed distant.
“You can’t do American history without looking at women’s history, ” Michael Jo GRD ’05 said.