Women's History Today: June Purvis Looks Back at Thirty Years of Women's History in Britain

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THE JUNE 1985 iSSUE OF HISTORY TODAY included a fascinating section on 'What is women's history?'. Eight contributors answered that question, often with reference to their own research in specific fields. Now, nearly twenty years later, it is appropriate to survey the field of women' history as it has developed since in Britain. I shall focus on publications relating to women in nineteenth and twentieth century Britain.

Women's history is defined by its subject matter, women; in contrast, feminist history is informed by the ideas and theories of feminism and is a particular approach to history writing (feminist historians may also research topics such as men, masculinity and the male world). Although women's history may sometimes even ridicule women, the relationship between women's history and feminist history room the 1970s to the present has been strong. But in the making of women's history in the twentieth century, both in Britain and the United States, it was 'second wave' feminist historians, influenced by the new approaches advocated by social history, who forged the path. As activists in the women's liberation, discussing and analysing the oppression and inequalities they experienced as women, they inevitably sought to find out about the lives of their foremothers--and found very little. History was written mainly by men and about men's activities in the public sphere--war, politics, diplomacy and administration. Women were largely excluded and, when mentioned, were usually portrayed in sex-stereotypical roles, such as wives, mothers, daughters and mistresses. History was value laden in regard to what was considered historically 'worthy'. Generalisations about humanity in the past had been based on what men had done.

Sheila Rowbotham's Hidden From History: 300 Years of Women's Oppression and the Fight Against It, published in 1973, encapsulated the spirit of the feminist challenge and was an influential book that acted as a catalyst for the development of women's history in Britain. Rowbotham and other influential socialist feminists, such as Anna Davin, Sally Alexander, Jill Liddington and Catherine Hall, helped to chart the parameters of women's history at this time. Keen to write a 'history from below', they focused on workingclass women and their class straggle in capitalist society. Marxist concepts were re-worked in the attempt to analyse both class and gender divisions, the 'sexual' division of labour becoming a key analytical tool. In addition to these influential writers, another more broadly based grouping of liberal feminist researchers, including Olive Banks, Jane Rendall, Barbara Caine and Carol Dyhouse moved the parameters in a different direction as they published on the history of feminism and middle-class women's lives while a much smaller number of radical feminist writers, working mainly outside the discipline of history and in the newly expanding field of women's studies, made their presence felt in studies about sexuality. Despite the differing emphases between these various groups of researchers, one book, perhaps, epitomised the feminist approach: the Sexual Dynamics of History (1983), edited by the London Feminist History. The contributors to this volume argued that, while it was men's power that shaped women's experiences, women were not helpless victims but persons who individually and collectively found ways to challenge that power and to survive.

By the early 1990s, a wealth of feminist women's history had been published, most of it by writers who were on the margins of the academy. The act of making women visible in history, of changing the ways they had been represented, of analysing male power was not, of course, isolated from debates and controversies within the women's movement. And during the 1980s, as the women's movement had become increasingly fragmented, so the differences between women were given greater recognition. In particular, black and non-white feminists contended that the stress upon the solidarity of women, the bonds of 'sisterhood' in a common struggle, was exclusively white. …