Old Passions, New Visions: A Snapshot of Women's History as It Reaches a Far-from-Complacent Maturity

By Taylor, Barbara | New Internationalist, September 1993 | Go to article overview

Old Passions, New Visions: A Snapshot of Women's History as It Reaches a Far-from-Complacent Maturity


Taylor, Barbara, New Internationalist


1969 A big left - wing history conference was meeting in Oxford. There were women there, but few spoke. In a tea break some women clustered together. 'What about a conference on women's history?' someone said. The idea caught hold but when Sheila Rowbotham stood up at the end of the plenary and began 'We thought it would be a good idea if anyone here who was working on women's history...' she was interrupted by gales of laughter. Another feminist historian, Sally Alexander, remembers how embarrassed she felt. 'What was so funny about that?' she recalls women murmuring to each other. 'Did we say something wrong?'

1993 In England last December we had a women's history conference -- to celebrate the bicentenary of Mary Wollstonecraft's feminist manifesto A Vindication of the Rights of Woman -- with over 400 attending and many more trying to crowd in. In the US this June the Berkshire Women's History Conference expects at least 2,000 participants to hear over 500 papers on subjects as diverse as 'Women and Global Integration' and 'The Economic Productivity of Medieval Jewish Widows'. All over the globe, but particularly in Europe and the Americas, books, journals and courses devoted to women's history are springing up. A recent volume carries articles on developments in India, Japan, Australia, Nigeria, the former Soviet Union.(f.1) So, whatever our diffidence back in 1969, women's history has proved to be neither wrong nor funny.

SUCH achievements do not come without struggles, sometimes bitter ones. Women's history was born from the prickly womb of the Women's Liberation Movement. There had been historical work done on women, much of it by feminists, in earlier decades, but it took second - wave feminism finally to put women's history on the intellectual map. Its presence there, throughout the 1970s and well into the 1980s, was an overtly political one: as historians of women, we saw ourselves as part of feminism's intellectual shock troops, our work contributing to the movement's broad offensive against male domination.

Women have come to revolutionary consciousness by means of ideas, actions and organizations which have been made predominantly by men,' Sheila Rowbotham wrote in 1972 in the preface to her pioneering Women, Resistance and Revolution. 'The language which makes us invisible to "history" is not coincidence, but part of our real situation in a society... which we do not control.' Rendering our history visible, then, was crucial to the struggle to achieve greater control over our destinies. 'Women's liberation brings to all of us a strength and audacity we have never before known.'

Women had been Hidden from History -- the title of another of Rowbotham's immensely influential early books -- and our task was to bring that hidden history to light. This reclaiming role for women's history remains important. Prior to the 1960s, few standard history texts even mentioned women, much less made our lives and struggles the object of independent scrutiny. In England the development of social history in the 1960s and 1970s broadened the focus of historical investigation to include working people, the poor, the politically disenfranchised -- yet even here (and even among its most radical proponents) little interest in women was evident.

The history of the family, which also emerged over this period, was written largely without reference to the specific experience of women or to power relations within the family unit. By the 1970s the growing presence of women in the field was changing this but as late as 1980 it was still possible for a leading male historian to deliver a conference paper surveying family history without mentioning a single article or book written by a woman. (An extensive supplementary bibliography was graciously provided the next day by three of the women present.)

As this last example demonstrates, mere ignorance was not the only obstacle women faced in making our history visible. …

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