Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

Oral History, Identity, and the Italian Women's Movement in the Future of the Contemporary Past

Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

Oral History, Identity, and the Italian Women's Movement in the Future of the Contemporary Past

Article excerpt


In this essay, I reflect on the use of oral history and participant observation as tools for researchers of the contemporary past. I want to argue that these approaches must, as Nietzsche has stated, "serve life" by pushing traditional guidelines and by considering the rich cultural fabrics not recorded in oral or written form. Feminist scholars must experiment with methodologies that allow them to consider identities by continually reflecting on their own. But, they should neither become trapped by the narrow definitions of identity politics nor indulge solely in personal exploration.

I first discuss briefly the relationship of oral history to feminism and postmodernism and examine the role of meta-narratives in framing research questions. I then draw on my study of the women's movement in Italy and consider how, in the process of conducting research, I was influenced by written narratives, oral accounts, participant observations, and casual exchanges.

Keywords: oral history, feminism, Italy


Nietzsche insisted that history should be in the service of life (Nietzsche 1980). Feminist oral historians have served women by keeping alive stories that might otherwise be lost. Postmodernists serve to remind us that the role of personal experience should not be discounted in favor of serving abstract concepts like objectivity. This essay is an attempt to reflect on my position as a historian who struggles with feminism, postmodernism, and oral history but at the same recognizes the power and potential of each in serving life through the telling of stories from the contemporary past. In my effort to practice a feminist methodology of contemporary history, I will try to make connections among personal experience, currents in feminist and postmodern oral history, and my research on women's associations in Italy. The careful modeling of histories that serve life and serve women requires active engagement with the sorts of questions that might too easily be discarded when confronting the recent past. I begin with questions of interdisciplinarity and feminist methodologies. I then apply these queries to my interpretation of the contemporary women's movement in Italy and reflect on the influence of non-traditional sources and identity on the outcome of my work.

The impact of Nietzsche and postmodernism on my training and research means that I cannot easily place myself in a neat category called 'historian' and perform a function that dates to the beginning of the written word. I do, however, feel compelled to position myself in relation to my work in an attempt to understand the future meaning of my efforts. Does my identity change as I conduct research? Am I in fact a historian, a sociologist, or a philosopher? Have I transcended categorization? Methodological questions are not always appealing when first becoming excited about a topic, but I ask how I am to undertake the project at hand--a study of women's associations in post-World War II Italy that encompasses three generations of women, two political points of view that have been battling for dominance for years, a major world religion, and a country that is often characterized too easily as 'turbulent.' More importantly, how can I understand my research subjects--primarily women who are still alive--from my perspective as an 'outsider' Italophile? An interdisciplinary approach to this contemporary problem seems the only valid one. As a historian, I consider the broader context and look to the written record. As a philosopher, I read the literature of these women and attempt to understand who they are and what motivates them. As a sociologist, I interview women, act as a participant observer, and attempt to grasp group dynamics and relationships.

One technique that allows for a multidisciplinary feminist approach and makes use of the contemporary advantage of having living subjects is oral history. …

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