ONE OF THE MANY constructive outcomes of the women's movement has been the development of a new academic field, women's history, and the creation of a new species, the historian of women. Often self-taught, this new historian eagerly examines the past with a new set of questions and values. The excitement of discovering new personalities, philosophies and perspectives has enlivened the discipline. These two volumes are good examples of the new scholarship.
Gerda Lerner's book is made up of her own essays and speeches from the past decade. A professor of history at Sarah Lawrence, she founded the women's studies program there in 1972 and has been a pioneer in the field. By bringing these pieces together, Lerner gives us a good opportunity to see the development of her thought as she participated in the shaping of the discipline.
Providing boundaries and definitions is always a major undertaking. What should be the goals of women's history? Should only the public record be examined or should private lives be equally explored? How can contemporary feminist concerns not distort the view of the past? These are some of the questions asked and answered, sometimes in different, ways, in Lerner's essays. Women's history has become, almost by definition, multi-disciplinary; indeed, this willingness to examine the same issue from multiple perspectives has been one of its most exhilarating, though sometimes frustrating, features. One must study and consult with experts in the areas of anthropology, history, psychology, sociology, literature, philosophy, medicine and law.
For sensitive scholars, like Lerner, women's history has proven to be a vitalizing agent, a force for change. Her caveats against only doing compensatory history (in which historians add the names and accomplishments of outstanding women to the record books) help the reader and researcher think about the purposes of history and the goals it serves.
Lerner addresses two important concepts in women's history, about both of which I have some reservations. The first is periodization, that is, the way historians define time. Arguing that the traditional categories of wars, depressions and presidential politics are not appropriate to discussions of women's history, she suggests that the discovery of birth-control techniques and the increases in educational opportunities were more significant events in women's lives. The second concept, the existence of a female culture -- rich, complex and parallel with the family culture, is one which many women historians are currently espousing.
Unquestionably, the rise of women's educational opportunities and the perfection of birth-control information provided the preconditions, as Lerner acknowledges, for women to change their adult lives. However, do the preconditions inevitably lead to new behavior? And do not these innovations interact with the human concerns facing all of us? Women's lives, like men's lives, are profoundly affected by every war, every presidential election and every legislative action.
Indeed, this point leads directly to my other concern: Does the existence of a female culture operate outside history? Don't women, like men, live in multiple cultures and play various roles within their lives every day of the week? Dominant cultural values affect women and men, as Lerner also notes, and the temptation of some women historians to portray all examples of female culture as subversive, alternative value-systems is questionable at best.
Professor Nancy Cott of Yale and Elizabeth Pleck, a Fellow at the Bunting Institute at Radcliffe, have both done extensive research in 19th-and early 20th-century women's history. Here they've assembled 24 previously published essays that treat a range of periods -- from colonial times to the contemporary era -- and vary in theme. Some look at new source material such as census records, city directories and marriage and death certificates in order to create a freshly textured picture of women's lives in the 19th century.
Nancy Cott's essay on "Passionlessness" as an ideology that developed during the Victorian era is a provocative reading of literary sources, sermons and advice books of the period. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's "Vertuous Women Found" effectively demonstrates, in a close reading of funeral eulogies of women and sermons on marriage obligations, delivered during the years 1668 to 1735, the dilemma of preaching an egalitarian philosophy in a culture that practices discrimination. Other essays look at old data through a new ideological perspective, sometimes with less than success. For example, Barbara Easton's survey of the last 200 years of the organized women's movement from a Marxist-feminist view adds little to our understanding.
A Heritage of Her Own and The Majority Finds Its Past also have essays in them that discuss minority women, working women, and the important but difficult-to-determine connections between class, sex, race, and religion. Lerner's work on black American women has contributed a great deal to our understanding of how race has defined and restricted black women while class has also created divisions within the race. Pleck's essay, "A Mother's Wages," is a workmanlike study of statistical evidence comparing black and Italian working women from 1896 to 1911 and shows how cultural differences, rather than economic considerations, played a major role in determining work patterns for each respective group.
By analyzing women within their particular subculture, historians of women hope to build a comprehensive portrait of women's lives as they existed within a female culture and as they interacted with their families their communities, and the larger world. By shifting the focus of study from the public arena to the private sphere, by redefining work to include homemaking and the unreported work done in the home, and by creatively using heretofore unused sources, historians of women are breaking new ground for all historians. They are striving to write a more human history that understands the past in its own terms but works to change the present so that the future will have a more humane history. Lerner, Cott and Pleck's work point toward that future.