Nancy F. Cott
In much of the Western world’s written record of history, women’s presence is minimal. Women hardly surface as historical actors. An eminent male historian in the 1940s excused this lack by saying that it was “through no conspiracy of historians” that the composition of courts, parliaments, colleges of cardinals, and the great explorations, where history took place, were “pretty much stag affairs.” Yet just two decades after he made this pronouncement, historical interest moved its focus toward social history, putting a spotlight on ordinary people rather than ruling elites.
The trend toward social history converged with the feminist movement in the 1960s and 1970s to produce a harvest of knowledge. Developments in women’s history prove the maxim that what one finds in the past depends on what one looks for. If the traditional view of history typically obscured women, that was because it assumed men were the human norm and took men’s activities for human pursuits. No one denied that women were subject to history, but it required a different angle to see them as active agents in its making. New perspectives have now been found, which change the historical record altogether.
Investigating history is a matter of research, discovery of evidence, and interpretation, but it is also a field for imagination. We look to the past as one way of understanding ourselves. The experience of delving into history is something like traveling to a foreign land. We find other human beings and the societies they have constructed, and can compare them to ourselves. Their social creations may be somewhat similar to ours, or very different; they may arouse our sympathy—even our envy—and, equally, our antipathy. What makes the comparisons worthwhile is the double-headed fact that our forebears are both like us and not like us. History thus offers a field for mental expansion. It is a canvas that portrays a larger panorama of human possibilities, and enables us to envision alternatives to our present-day lives. In this respect, written history is like literature or drama: it provides us with characters, actions, and turningpoints. It is up to historians and readers to plumb the depths of these elements,