The Women's History Boom
Transforming a profession from the inside.
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."
Megan Marshall is the author of The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism. She teaches nonfiction writing and the art of archival research at Emerson College.