"Pioneering Women" and "Founding Mothers": Women's History and Projecting Feminism onto the Past

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Abstract: This essay provides an object lesson on "projecting feminism onto the past," meaning the presumption that historically significant women identify with women's movement or feminism, interpret their experiences via women's gender identity, or view themselves as victims of sex discrimination. The authors demonstrate "projecting feminism onto the past" using two oral history projects conducted by graduate students, one on "pioneering women '" and another on "founding mothers. " After discussing challenges in doing women's history, the authors tease out the implications of the two projects by examining: (1) the language of "pioneering women" and "founding mothers, " (2) the students' preconceptions about their narrators, and (3) the narrators' confusion regarding questions about women's issues. The authors wonder about reconciling the goals of research projects with the self-interpretations of women who are the subjects of research, as well as about teaching new scholars how to approach women "s topics.


In 1997, while directing a colloquium that collected oral histories from local "pioneering women journalists," Derina observed that her four master's students were surprised when their narrators rejected feminist labels. The students had assumed that the eight "pioneering women journalists" had been conscious activists advancing women's rights, rather than women who simply worked hard to succeed in an industry underrepresented by women. That same fall, Kim, then a graduate student, experienced a similar moment of recognition while collecting oral histories from the "founding mothers" of a water management district. Kim was taken aback when the first woman narrator responded contradictorily and somewhat defensively to a question about women's changing roles during the narrator's 30 years with the water agency.

Despite the encouraging vision of graduate students seeking out women's oral histories, or the authors' well-meaning urge to document women's movement, these two nearly simultaneous incidents raise questions about projecting feminism onto the past. By projecting feminism onto the past, we mean presuming that a historically significant woman identified with or is sympathetic to women's movement, interprets her life through a lens of gender identity, or is familiar with or subscribes to feminist thought. As one elderly "pioneering woman journalist" said, "We didn't discuss that sort of thing then."

It could be argued that any research about or by women is inherently feminist, but we propose a more precise definition: Any research about or by women has latent feminist potential, which may or may not manifest or develop. Additionally, although the following clarifications may be obvious:

* A women's project is not necessarily a feminist project.

* Historically significant women do not necessarily identify with feminism or even so-called women's issues.

* Asking women to explicate their experiences as women or to interpret and articulate their experiences within feminist frameworks will not necessarily elicit sympathetic or coherent narratives.

That said, we do not suggest that feminist historians or researchers refrain from noting a woman's importance to women's movement, regardless of her politics. Nor do we suggest that researchers refrain from asking women research subjects about their experiences as women or their attitudes toward women's movement. We do argue, however, that researchers self-consciously avoid attributing feminist intent where there is none. Following Chase and Bell (1994), we also argue that researchers be reflexive, first, about why they ask women research subjects to articulate women's experience and, second, about the ways such questions may force subjects to speak to researchers" interests rather than subjects'.

This analysis provides an object lesson on the perils of projecting feminism onto the past. …