SCHOLARSHIP in women's history, like scholarship in other politically volatile areas, tends to operate very near the line that separates inquiry from advocacy. A controversy among feminist historians is now demonstrating some of the bad things that result when that line is crossed. Some of these historians have sharply censured one of their number, Rosalind Rosenberg, who was an expert witness in the recently concluded case won by Sears, Roebuck and Co. against the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Sears argued it had not discriminated against women employees. Prof. Rosenberg's offense was to be an "expert witness" -- one offering supposedly objective factual and historical background -- on the winning side of a case that feminists feel they lost.

The EEOC based its case on statistics, arguing that disproportionate numbers of men in certain better-paying jobs indicated that sex discrimination had taken place, though no women were brought forward to testify that they had directly experienced it. Prof. Rosenberg testified on the other side that, historically, other factors besides outright discrimination -- factors such as family responsibility and "historically . . . different interests, goals and aspirations regarding work" between men and women -- had helped motivate women to pursue and even to prefer different types of jobs.

Prof. Rosenberg has been attacked by colleagues for allowing her scholarly work to be used in a context that would hurt the broader feminist agenda. "As feminist scholars we have a responsibility not to allow our scholarship to be used against the interests of women struggling for equity in our society," reads a resolution passed by a committee of women historians. She has argued in response that the decision for Sears was not a "loss" to women's interests at all -- that, by contrast, admitting that factors other than overt employer discrimination have kept women in separate jobs would be a step toward addressing those barriers.

The implication here is that scholarship should be used only for politically preferred ends. That argument is hardly unique to feminism. The civil rights community attacked Daniel Patrick Moynihan in the late 1960s, saying his observations on the disintegration of the black family -- true or not -- would lend fuel to racists. It's fine to attack Prof. Rosenberg's position on the Sears case, the quality of her research or the use she put it to. But to argue that she should not, regardless of her beliefs, testify "against women's interests" is to apply, blindly, a party line.