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History of Women

Source:
The Oxford Encyclopedia of Women in World History
Author(s):

Karen Offen

History of Women. 

Women's history encompasses the history of humankind, including men, but approaches it from a woman‐centered perspective. It highlights women's activities and ideas and asserts that their problems, issues, and accomplishments are just as central to the telling of the human story as are those of their brothers, husbands, and sons. It places the sociopolitical relations between the sexes, or gender, at the center of historical inquiry and questions female subordination. It examines the closely intertwined constructions of femininity and masculinity over time in one or more cultures, looking for evidence of continuities and changes. It also exposes and confronts the biases of earlier male‐centered historiography, asking why certain subjects and choices of themes for study were favored over others and posing new questions for investigation. Women's historians have expanded the scope of research on women and gender both temporally, from prehistory to the present, and geographically, from dealing only with the West to encompassing the globe.

Since the 1970s the number of publications in women's history has multiplied explosively. The number of its practitioners and readers, both women and men, continues to grow. Seeking out and making visible, and thereby valuing, the women who were neglected or missing in earlier historical writing became its principal goal. Women's historians listened carefully for women's voices and unearthed hidden sources. They recorded and interpreted women's experiences, words and ideas, activities, and contributions. They pioneered what then seemed to be a new field of inquiry into the past: “her‐story” challenged “his‐story.”

Restoring women to history remains a vital task of women's history, but it has never been the only goal of contemporary women's historians. Women's history challenges and shifts the male‐centered perspectives of earlier historical narratives (typified by “man and his past”) by looking at the past through women's eyes. It questions the choices, priorities, and values that have characterized earlier research and writing by mostly male historians. In adding women, and rethinking the writing of history, women's historians seek to alter these narratives and to confront the politics of constructing gender. They demonstrate that gender politics lies at the heart of knowledge.

Exploring Women as Historical Subjects.

Insistence on women's presence in history is not new. Although the French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir asserted in Le deuxième sexe (The Second Sex) in 1949 that women had no history, that they were invariably “the other,” not “subjects” in their own right, this was never the case. A careful investigation of the history of historical writing confirms that for centuries historians of both sexes were preoccupied with the exploration of the history and condition of women as part of ongoing debates about the “woman question.”

In Europe, historical dictionaries of famous and learned women began to proliferate in the sixteenth century. In the eighteenth century, a wealthy French woman, Louise Marie Dupin (1706–1799), organized a project to write a world history of women. Scottish Enlightenment scholars, from William Alexander to John Millar, and other European scholars in France, England, and Germany also investigated the history of women. They factored women's “condition” into their theories about social and political change. Other French women criticized the politics of historical knowledge in the early nineteenth century. Numbers of articulate, well‐read women took to writing lengthy and increasingly well‐researched histories, including women's histories. Catharine Macaulay (1731–1791) of England was among

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Mary Beard. Underwood & Underwood/Library of Congress

the most celebrated of the eighteenth‐century historiennes. In the nineteenth century many other women—and men—published books and articles on the history of women. Women investigators called out for the inclusion of women in history textbooks and contributed to that development.

In the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, however, the professionalization of historical writing in Western universities led directly to the demotion of women as a focus for historical inquiry. This development resulted from the efforts of an all‐male cadre of academic historians, inspired by national projects, to shift the focus of historical research to political, military, diplomatic, and economic history. They focused on the growth of nation‐states and empires and relied exclusively on records deposited in public document archives and libraries, where women were unwelcome. Even among intellectual and cultural historians, only the ideas of canonical male philosophers, artists, composers, novelists, and poets came to count as important. Reading these histories it seems as though women had made no significant contributions whatsoever.

Despite the climate of prejudice that existed at Oxford and Cambridge, women scholars based at the London School of Economics such as Eileen Power, Alice Clark, and Ivy Pinchbeck published landmark studies in medieval women's history and women's labor history during the early twentieth century. French historians such as Léon Abensour and Marguerite Thibert investigated the legal history of women as well as the linked histories of socialism and feminism. In France it was still possible for women and men to write and publish women's history studies, but in North America this became increasingly exceptional.

A series of efforts by women's movement activists to furnish women's history with a rich archival base peaked in the 1930s, with the founding of the Schlesinger Library for the History of Women in America at Harvard University, the International Archive for the Women's Movement (IIAV) in Amsterdam, and the Bibliothèque Marguerite Durand in Paris. Mary Ritter Beard's parallel attempt to establish a World Center for Women's Archives (WCWA, 1935–1940) in New York did not succeed. Writing women's history and archiving sources continued, but went unnoticed by the academy. World War II and the early years of the Cold War dampened such efforts but did not destroy them. Several European women's movement archives, seized in the early 1940s by the Nazis, disappeared and were thought lost. They resurfaced in Russia during the early 1990s. Other rich archival deposits lay uncataloged and inaccessible in private collections and public archives, awaiting rediscovery.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s a significant number of young women (and some young men), many of whom had participated in the civil rights and antiwar movements, arrived as students in academic history departments (especially in England and North America, but also in Continental Europe and India). Influenced by the new wave of the women's movement, this new generation of researchers was convinced that something was missing from history. They asked, where are the women? They recognized that women's history represented the shadow side of the narrow, male‐centered past that was then being emphasized. They claimed that women's activities were important topics for research and teaching. They claimed, too, that women's history was useful. Women of their generation and those to come needed to know something about the past of their own sex in order to foster self‐respect and to live more confidently in the present. In “Placing Women in History” the pioneer women's historian Gerda Lerner pointed out in 1975 that the very assertion that women have a history challenges patriarchal assumptions of value: “The true history of women is the history of their ongoing functioning in that male‐defined world, on their own terms” (p. 6). Two goals, according to Lerner's colleague Joan Kelly, characterized women's history: “To restore women to history and to restore our history to women” (1976, p. 809).

Some women's history scholars thought the most promising approach lay in the “new social history,” which some referred to as “history from below,” or “from the bottom up.” This approach focused on working‐class, often poor, disadvantaged or “silenced” women—domestic servants, wage workers, single mothers, union activists, prostitutes, and witches. Others resurrected the history of elite, mostly white Western women who had been missing from histories of ideas, culture, art and music, literature, law, medicine, education, and politics. They published biographies of outstanding women as well as histories of women's organizational efforts and women's campaigns for legal reform and political rights. They addressed the history of feminism (the arguments and campaigns designed to end women's subordination to men). They explored the development of women's formal and informal education as well as their entry into the professions (from teaching and social work to medicine, law, science, the humanities, economics, and business). They discovered evidence of women's participation in wars and revolutions and asked why their actions had been erased from earlier narratives. They investigated women's intellectual history.

These topics paralleled studies of men in public life, but they demonstrated what had been lacking; they also demonstrated that men, too, were sexed beings, not “abstract individuals.” These women's historians also expanded the range of legitimate topics from what Lerner called “compensatory” and “contribution” history to include the history of the so‐called private sphere—family relations, sexuality, childbirth, motherhood, dowries, household and farm labor—and they investigated women's culture and their relations with one another, as mothers, daughters, sisters, friends, and lovers. They also examined women's activities in female‐controlled spaces, such as convents, schools, and hospitals. They looked at women as missionaries and travelers. They established that the notions of public and private spheres, though arbitrary and prescriptive, were inseparably intertwined.

Pathbreaking collections of scholarly articles began to appear. Of particular importance were Suffer and Be Still: Women in the Victorian Age (1972), Clio's Consciousness Raised: New Perspectives on the History of Women (1974), Liberating Women's History: Theoretical and Critical Essays (1976), and Becoming Visible: Women in European History (1977), all published in the United States though not uniquely devoted to American topics. These volumes influenced many other women's history scholars outside North America. Published volumes of documents provided rich resources for teaching women's history, some organized in unusual ways—as, for example, around the female life cycle, around the woman‐question debates over several centuries, and around “women's work,” encompassing both unpaid and paid labor. All highlighted women's voices and activities. Other volumes provided basic texts of the women's emancipation movement, or feminism.

In the United States, women's historians expanded the range of possible topics by turning to the study of African American, Chicana, and Native American women, thus challenging earlier works that focused on white, elite Euro‐American women. Along with their counterparts who investigated the history of lesbianism, they confronted the emerging canon of so‐called important subjects and rewrote the criteria for judging importance. It became obvious that women came in every shape and size, every race, every ethnicity, every religion. Historians questioned what such diverse women had in common and began to examine conflicts among them. Some asserted that the category “woman” must be entirely deconstructed or broadened to encompass the differences that existed among women. Other, more theoretically inclined practitioners proposed to evacuate the physical bodies of women by referring to “sex” also as a social construction. They charged their dissenting counterparts with “essentialism.”

By the 1990s the provocative question of the early and mid‐1970s—Is there a history of women?—had been overwhelmingly answered in the affirmative. By 1995, senior scholars in American women's history insisted that the entire history of the United States of America must be rewritten as women's history (U.S. History as Women's History: New Feminist Essays, edited by Linda K. Kerber, Alice Kessler‐Harris, and Kathryn Kish Sklar). In Unequal Sisters (3d edition, 2000), Ellen Carol DuBois and Vicki Ruiz brought together a multicultural history of women in the United States. In 1990, Darline Clark Hine edited a sixteen‐volume Black Women in United States History, and Nancy F. Cott and her associates produced a twenty‐volume History of Women in America.

A team of women's historians in Australia, headed by Patricia Grimshaw and Marilyn Lake, dared to rewrite their national narrative by putting women and gender at its center. Their controversial 1994 book Creating a Nation underscored just how excruciatingly male, white, and British the founding story of the Australian nation, as interpreted by earlier male historians, had become. Women's historians in other countries also began rewriting their national histories. Some women's historians in Canada, the United States, Germany, and other countries explored regional and even local women's history. A coalition of women's historians in Scandinavia headed by Ida Blom (appointed to the women's history chair for all Norwegian universities) published a world history of women from an explicitly Nordic perspective. Such publications made clear that the findings of women's history had the potential to revolutionize the way that history was written. Textbook publishers began to show interest in adding women, if not in integrating them.

Thanks to an entreprenurial Italian publisher with excellent international connections, a consortium headed by French scholars completed a pioneering multivolume, best‐selling History of Women in the West (first published in Italian in 1990, with series editors Georges Duby and Michelle Perrot), which has since been translated into a number of other languages including English. The Spanish, Dutch, and German translations include supplemental essays focused on their particular regions. Women's historians from Italy to India, from Poland to Portugal, from Japan, Korea, and China all began to publish their findings.

Varieties of Method and Audiences.

Historians of women in the academy approach their research subjects through many different methodologies. Among these are reconstructions and reinterpretations of women's biographies; comparative, cross‐cultural analyses; oral histories; visual and discursive “representations” and “reflections”; discourse analyses; quantitative analyses and material objects. Their research spans the customary range of fields and academic disciplines. Historians who work in reconstructing the history of feminisms, for example, consider their work to encompass the once distinct fields of political, intellectual, legal, social, and economic history. They bring together topics that used to stand alone—for example, population studies, nationalism, and feminism—and seek to demonstrate their intertwined relationships.

Women's historians who work on topics from the last two centuries are deluged with sources. For those who study earlier periods in literate societies, insufficiency or lack of adequate sources remains a problem. These historians have appropriated the tools of ethnology to look for the “silences” of women. In studying women's history in nonliterate societies, and especially non‐Western societies where much of the written documentation lies in colonists’ records, women's historians are pioneering creative approaches through investigations of myth, archaeology, inscriptions, art, oral histories, and so on (Bolanle Awe in Offen, Pierson, and Rendall). One researcher, the archaeologist‐historian Elizabeth Wayland Barber, has uncovered significant evidence of women's work in textiles over twenty centuries (Women's Work, the First 20,000 Years: Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times, 1994). Introducing the concept of the “string revolution,” she challenged male‐centered notions about chronology (“stone age,” “iron age,” “bronze age”) based on men's use of more durable materials and tools.

Women's historians pose important questions about the kind and degree of continuity and change over time in women's situation. Some, like the medievalist Judith Bennett (1997), challenge the enticing notion of some earlier “golden age” for women and call for women's historians to confront the origins of patriarchy or male rule. Gerda Lerner's books The Creation of Patriarchy (1986) and The Creation of Feminist Consciousness (1993) have provided pathbreaking feminist analyses that revisit the earliest written records in the Near East. Others have posed challenging questions, such as Joan Kelly's query in the title of her 1977 essay “Did Women Have a Renaissance?” All insist that as in any other field of historical investigation, a commitment to women's advancement does not preclude objectivity.

There were at least two intended audiences for women's history. The first encompassed women's movement activists but reached out to the general reading public. Writers of women's history for popular audiences, such as Marina Warner and Antonia Fraser, and women's biographers, such as Carrolly Erickson, have enjoyed great success. The second audience was in the university world, where increasing numbers of students took degrees, including doctorates, in women's history. Few publications reached readers in both these groups. One notable exception was Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's 1990 book on early American women's history, A Midwife's Tale, which won a number of major national prizes in the United States and sold an enormous number of copies outside academia. Another highly successful work was Natalie Zemon Davis's The Return of Martin Guerre (1983).

The Emergence of Gender History.

In the 1980s some university‐based women's history practitioners began to ask, was writing the history of women—or of women's culture or women's organizations—sufficient? And was it theoretically sophisticated enough? Or “objective” enough (that is, not “feminist”)? Could it really transform existing historical narratives, as was claimed by women's history pioneers? Such questions arose primarily in university settings, where women's historians’ quest for legitimacy in male‐dominated institutions continued. Seen from outside the academy, one might rephrase those questions as, “enough for what purpose?”

Already in the early 1970s some women's historians sought insight from cross‐disciplinary perspectives (notably anthropology, sociology, and literary studies) and developed questions about conventional theoretical approaches to history framed in terms of “general” or “universal” history, on the one hand, and “particular” history on the other. They began to question an allegedly exclusive focus on women. By 1975, Gerda Lerner spoke of earlier stages in the exploration of women's history as “compensatory history” and “contribution history” and posed a series of additional questions that would lead in the direction of examining the tensions between male and female cultures. Joan Kelly proposed examining the “social relations of the sexes.”

Others, particularly in the United States and Great Britain—with a shared legacy of black African slavery and emancipation movements, compounded by the civil rights movement of the 1960s—came to the practice of gender history out of a concern with the overarching

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Natalie Zemon Davis. Courtesy of Derin Terzioglu of Bogazici University, Istanbul

importance of race and its inextricable intersections with sex and class. In their hands, “race, class, gender” became a powerful mantra that deeply influenced subsequent scholarship in women's and gender history well outside North America. Their efforts were complemented by a new generation of black American women's historians who insisted that the story of black women must be included in any comprehensive women's history. The history of women from other “minority” groups also required investigation and inclusion. In Canada and Australia, women's historians examined the interactions between white settlers and First Nation and Aboriginal peoples. Gender relations turned out to be central to the story.

Since the early 1980s, some academic women's historians have proposed “gender” history as a broader, more compelling approach. Gender history seemed theoretically more satisfying because it directly challenges the unnamed sexism of “universal” or “general” history. Many of those who first argued in favor of gender history came from a background in social and/or labor history and New Left politics. Most had lived (or had studied, or had studied with a mentor who had studied) in New York or London or Paris and had engaged with both Marxism and Critical Theory and sometimes with psychoanalytic theory. Often identifying themselves as socialist‐feminists, these historians disputed the perceived inadequacies of Marxist historiography and theory. They objected to the facelessness of studying processes of historical change. They especially criticized the hegemony of a gender‐blind “class” analysis, as well as an exclusive focus on male workers (and sometimes peasants). They sought an equally powerful explanatory framework, one that would encompass the categories of race and sex as well as class, and not only the working class. They also argued for the equivalent importance of gender. They began to question the analytical categories embedded in Western philosophy and insisted on showing that even conceptual categories had a history. They pondered the sexual politics of knowledge that determined how we know what we know and why we know (or don't know) it.

In the field of social history, the publication of Mary Ryan's Cradle of the Middle Class (1981) and Family Fortunes: The Making of the English Middle Class by Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall (1987) demonstrated the enormous reinterpretative potential of a gendered approach to the formation of the middle class in the United States and Britain. These women's historians placed women and family issues, religion, law, and property at the heart of explanations for Britain's economic success in the Industrial Revolution. They challenged prevailing liberal theories that had been built around a notion of the autonomous individual (male) by demonstrating that behind every purportedly autonomous and entrepreneurial male individual lay an entire gendered social support structure to which women were centrally important.

Cultural history also required gendering. In the 1980s a series of postfeminist theoreticians from other academic disciplines began to challenge the conceptual categories of “woman” and “women” that underpinned the very subject of women's history. Important contributors to this theoretical stream included Denise Riley and Judith Butler. Most feminist historians, even as they wrestled with the notion that biology underlay female identities, have persistently reclaimed the necessity of the category “women.” They base their argument on a common political history of female subordination to male authority precisely because of women's bodily commonalities and the importance of their reproductive potential. They argue that women, even taking the vast variety and complexity of female experiences into account, do form a collective group that has a past to be investigated and from which everyone can learn important lessons for the future. The continuing importance of the female body was underscored by the historian Laura Lee Downs, who remarked that “If ‘Woman’ is just an empty category, then why am I afraid to walk alone at night?” (1993).

Downs was directly addressing the publications of Joan Wallach Scott, who also began her career as a labor historian. In late 1986, Scott's article in the American Historical Review introduced a redefinition of gender as at once a “useful category of analysis” and a “signifier of power.” Scott gave gender a new linguistic spin, borrowing from and built on arguments derived from French (male) poststructuralist theorists as well as from postmodern literary and cultural studies theorists. She provided a complex, highly intellectualized response to certain skeptical academics who had asserted that women's history made no difference whatsoever in the existing framework of historical knowledge. Empiricists such as Scott's former coauthor Louise Tilly, well informed in the theoretical debates of the social sciences, took exception to Scott's move toward a theoretically inspired discourse analysis at the expense of empirical social historical work (Tilly, 1989). She challenged Scott's critique of social history and her turn to linguistic analysis, concerned that by this move “the existence of a real world” and “human agency” were thrown into question. These articles were quickly translated and debated on both sides of the Atlantic.

Other women's historians less identified with the New Left, social history, or critical theory thought they had been engaged in gender analysis—where gender connoted the social construction of sex in a sex/gender system—for many years before Scott raised the philosophical stakes. They seemed less inclined to view history writing through the lens of high theory, especially of the postmodern (anti‐Enlightenment) variety, or to take the “linguistic turn.” It seemed to them, as to Louise Tilly, to evacuate the substance and diminish the importance of women's lived experience in favor of analyzing discourse or language as the sole arbiter of lived experience. They strenuously resisted this approach, viewing Scott's postmodern version of gender as an attempt to explode the “liberal subject” and to subvert identity, by showing it as shifting and unstable, even fragmented. They did not find this approach helpful just as women around the world were trying to establish their identities as complete human beings and claim their right to a history of their own. Some argued that the Enlightenment was not merely about the establishment of the autonomous, reasoning (male) subject, but also provided a springboard for women's rights.

Controversy intensified during the decade following the 1989 debut of the journal Gender and History, which came at exactly the same moment as the launching of the Journal of Women's History. Some asserted strong preferences for gender history over (and in some instances against) women's history. Already in 1988 the young French historians Michèle Riot‐Sarcey, Christine Planté, and Eleni Varikas provided a list of reasons to justify their refusal to use the term “histoire des femmes”; their stated objective was to “reintegrate women into history” (p. 22). They claimed history to be “an area of research rather than a discipline.”

Eleni Varikas, based in France where official political and educational policy religiously fosters the universal over the particular, insisted that the future for women's history in the French academic system lay in addressing general historical questions. Gisela Bock countered in the first issue of Gender and History in 1989 by claiming that women's history “concerned not merely half of mankind but all of it” and that it is “gender history par excellence.” The French women's historian Françoise Thébaud approached the controversies from a different angle in her 1998 book Écrire l'histoire des femmes. Following a careful study of an immense body of publications from a number of countries, she argued that gender history should be considered part and parcel of women's history.

Some cautiously approved of the new theoretical directions being proposed. In a 1991 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education Carol Berkin pointed to what is “truly revolutionary” about gender: to examine gender in studying any historical topic “has more than an enriching effect; it reveals new questions, challenges old assumptions, and forces reinterpretation of historical issues once thought to be resolved” (“ ‘Dangerous Courtesies’ Assault Women's History”). Gender ensures that findings about women cannot be marginalized or subjected to “dangerous courtesies” such as simultaneous acknowledgement and dismissal.

Sharp dissent erupted in 1994 when Joan Hoff, founding coeditor of the Journal of Women's History, denounced Scott's “gender” as “a postmodern category of paralysis” for women's history (Women's History Review 3, no. 2). This provoked additional polemics. The debate continued in Francophone and Anglophone Canada, and in England during the late 1990s a heated exchange took place between Penelope Corfield and June Purvis (editor of the Women's History Review) in a new journal called Rethinking History. Corfield argued that “women's history is broadening fruitfully into gender history” (implying the superiority of the latter), while Purvis and her coauthor Amanda Wetherill accused Corfield of “Playing the Gender History Game” (1999).

Other women's historians stood firm. The Australian authors of Creating a Nation resisted the poststructuralist deconstruction of the category “women,” asserting instead that “our historical project pays tribute to and is crucially dependent on the past labours and insights of countless real women who have in numerous ways made this work possible” (p. 4). Hilda Smith, a historian of English women's intellectual history, focused in 1999 on retrieving women's perspectives on relations between the sexes, took a similarly strong stand against the poststructuralist approach to gender. She argued that it privileged the works of male theorists (such as Michel Foucault) “for whom women were seldom the subject.” “Women over the centuries,” she explained, “have offered systematic and impressive explanations for the power of men within their societies, for the standing of their own sex, and for both hetero/homosexual and social relationships. Yet their insights, for the most part, have been ignored” (“Regionalism, Feminism, and Class: The Development of a Feminist Historian,” in Boris and Chaudhuri, p. 37).

Amid such polemics, one of the more practical arguments put forward for preferring gender history (and gender studies) has been its potential appeal to a broader constituency—those who felt left out by women's history (or women's studies). These included male scholars interested in sexual difference and in masculinity issues (sometimes they just want to write about “sex”), who pioneered men's history and the history of masculinity within the area of men's studies as a new academic field. They also included scholars engaged more generally in issues that go beyond the norms of heterosexuality, beyond the masculine/feminine dualism—namely, scholars who wished to explore the social construction of all sexualities and who have pioneered queer history within the area of queer studies.

To others, gender history simply seems more objective or safer because less political (that is, less feminist). It seems to offer a lens through which to view the past, as one might use a microscope or telescope; in short, it offers a semblance of critical distance from the subject of study. As one scholar in California observed, “gender is something you can talk about without having a particular commitment to it.” Another scholar from Eastern Europe explained that it was a more politically acceptable choice: “In our region women's history is considered to be of minor importance and gender history sounds better to our academicians and university teachers who are afraid of everything connected with feminism.” Ultimately, the interlinked combination of women's and gender history offers a rich variety of approaches. Different topics lend themselves to different combinations, and an either/or choice between “women” and “gender” is not really an option. Susan Pedersen asserted in 2000 that it is “an argument neither side should ever win…. Women's history isn't a stage that we move through as we struggle toward gender history, for gender history itself sends us endlessly back to women. And both inquiries have transformed our historical work and understanding” (p. 20).

Development of Women's History around the World.

Research in women's history in and about other parts of the world developed in tandem with that in the West. In 1962, Anant Sadashiv Altekar published The Position of Women in Hindu Civilization: From Prehistoric Times to the Present Day. This long survey complemented the many more specific studies of women, particularly under colonialism, that appeared thereafter. In addition, histories by specialists appeared in collections of articles; among them notably were those edited by J. Krishnamurty, Nina Kumar, and Kumkum Skugari and Sudesh Vaid. Susie Tharu and Ke Lalita presented a two‐volume anthology of Indian women's writings since 600 b.c.e.

Scholars also focused on both religious and postcolonial issues, along with women's experience of slavery and other forms of labor. For East and Southeast Asia, studies of the earlier period were limited mostly to China and Japan, with concern for the influence of Confucian patriarchy. For the later period, women's historians addressed a vast array of topics, including the accomplishments of women as artists, writers, and intellectuals. Scholars concerned with developments in China, Japan, and Southeast Asia also investigated women's participation in political movements, including trade union activism and struggles for national liberation and national empowerment. Studies of women in wartime have also flourished, as did studies of women's domestic and economic roles.

African women's history is now under way, with works such as Adamé Ba Konaré's Dictionnaire des femmes célèbres du Mali (1993; Dictionary of Mali's Famous Women) and Kathleen Sheldon's Histoical Dictionary of Women in Sub‐Saharan Africa (2005) falling into the genre of celebrating women of achievement. The subject of general women's history arose in Africa in the 1970s and 1980s and concerned socioeconomic conditions in particular, with later consideration of the impact of international feminism and activism throughout modern African history. One of the most influential early works was Esther Boserup's Women's Role in Economic Development (1970). Soon thereafter followed several anthologies, including thoseedited by Edna Bay, such as Women and Work in Africa (1974).

Other scholars investigated the condition of women's political work and their solidarity in labor and national liberation movements. Some of this writing was informed by anthropology's and ethnography's emphases on family and kinship, along with anthropological insights into gender systems. In many instances African women's history challenged the importance of certain canonical formulations in Western women's history such as the public‐private distinction. Islamic women's history early on limited itself to biographical studies of famous women, especially those honored for their relationship to the Prophet but also those honored for their good works and scholarship. In the past three decades, however, scholars have investigated women's religious experiences more generally and have also noted their participation in both nationalist and feminist movements.

Women's historians began to come together at the Berkshire Conferences on the History of Women, which began in 1973. From the beginning, women's historians from other countries participated. Early international conferences took place in the late 1970s and early 1980s in the United States and Western Europe. With the founding of the International Federation for Research in Women's History (IFRWH) in 1987—formalizing what had been a series of informal cross‐national networks of North American, British, Western European, and neo‐European (Australia, New Zealand) historians and fostering the growth of networks and connections in India, Japan, Latin America, Africa, and Eastern Europe—the stage was set for transnational dialogues on a variety of themes. Yet most women's historians still lacked even a partial picture of the worldwide state of the art in women's history.

In 1989 women's historians from Europe, North America, Latin America, India, Africa, and Asia convened at the Rockefeller center in Bellagio to pool their knowledge and begin to frame comparative questions and projects. It became clear that research in women's history in the non‐Western world had been enhanced by the pressure exerted on national governments by the United Nations Decade for Women (1975–1985). The Beijing Conference of 1995 and its successor conferences confirmed the important of international pressure. Affiliating the IFRWH with the prestigious International Commission on the Historical Sciences (ICHS) in 1987 greatly expedited the implantation of women's and gender history themes into the quinquennial international historical congresses in Madrid (1990), Montreal (1995), Oslo (2000), and Sydney (2005).

Where women's and gender history is having a particularly significant impact is in addressing the most hallowed male‐centric fields of national and international political, diplomatic, and military history, as well as the newly emergent postcolonial histories of empire. “Gendering” the nation has become a particularly productive approach, as has examining the play of gender in the imperial projects of the Western nations, as for example in the collection Nation, Empire, Colony: Historicizing Gender and Race, edited by Ruth Roach Pierson and Nuper Chaudhuri, which grew from sessions at the 1995 International Congress of Historical Sciences at Montreal, or in Domesticating the Empire, edited by Julia Clancy‐Smith and Frances Gouda (1998).

As Leonore Davidoff, Keith McClelland, and Eleni Varikas indicate, “recognising gender relations widens the definition of politics and the political” (p. 418). Historians such as Ute Frevert, Karen Hagemann, Marilyn Lake, Mrinalini Sinha, Patricia Grimshaw, Antoinette Burton, Siân Reynolds, Jo Burr Margadant, Michèle Riot‐Sarcey, Mary Jo Maynes, Gisela Bock, Ida Blom, Frances Gouda, Mary Nash, and many others are employing gender analysis, coupled with women's history, in a wide variety of ways to rethink histories of nation‐state and empire building, socioeconomic development, state policies and legal battles, war and peace, diplomacy, justice, shifts in family formation, social policy, demography, and many other topical approaches. Laura Lee Downs provides and explicates a number of recent examples of good practice in her book Writing Gender History.

Several challenges lie ahead for women's history. One concerns the continuing effort to write global women's history. A second is to embed women's history and gender analysis in the rewriting of global history. This effort will necessarily confront current approaches to world history, which are most often based on the comparison of “systems” and “processes” and which seem to ignore the lives of real people. Women's history aspires to humanize world history. The Scandinavian women's historians effort, “Women's History of the World from the Earliest Time to the Present Day” (to date published only in Swedish and Danish), has much to teach us. A third objective is to enfold the histories of the United States and Europe into a broader, truly global framework. Other historians including Judith Zinsser, Merry Wiesner‐Hanks, and Peter N. Stearns are pioneering such approaches from a Euro‐American‐based comparative perspective. Additional challenges to prevailing notions of global history are coming from outside the West, where women's historians and others challenge the utility and biases of Western paradigms.

Women's history practitioners have an obligation that goes beyond the concerns of the university world and its academic theorists: namely, to share their questions, concerns, and findings with broader audiences, and to do this not only with the general public but also with teachers and schoolchildren, especially girls. For beyond all else, women's history, its stories and narratives, can be empowering to today's women and informative to men.

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                                                                                  Karen Offen

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