Opinion | Op-eds

Interview with Professor Rosenberg

Because I’m a historian, I think in historical categories, and in thinking about why Women’s History Month is important, the first question I ask myself is, “What’s the background—where did Women’s History Month come from?”

Women’s History Month dates back to the early 20th century when the Socialist Party of America came up with the idea of an International Women’s Day to celebrate women workers and to protest the dangerous working conditions to which they were subjected. Eventually, March 8 became the day on which International Women’s Day was celebrated, and that celebration became part of the economic, political, and cultural movement for women’s rights throughout the world that culminated in women winning suffrage in many countries, including the U.S., in 1920. During this period, much was written about women in history as part of an effort to understand women’s role in social, political, and economic life.

With suffrage won, however, interest in women fell dramatically—so much so that by the 1960s, there were only a handful of scholars who thought that women were people who had a history worth paying any attention to. Gerda Lerner, the historian usually credited with being behind the rebirth of women’s history in this country, taught one of the first courses—maybe the first course—in women’s history at the New School in the early 1960s. Annette Baxter taught one of the first courses in women’s history at Barnard in the mid-1960s.

But it was not until the early 1970s that women’s history began to generate widespread interest. There were two reasons. First, second-wave feminism drew attention to women’s issues generally, and therefore to the history of women. Second, there had been a shift since World War II toward a broader understanding of history. Historians began to study the past not just from the top down, but also from the bottom up. The study of women’s lives in the family and in social movements grew out of that broader approach to the past.

Women’s History Month, in turn, was a product of that renewed interest in women’s past. It started in California with Women’s History Week, which was created by the California State Commission on the Status of Women in 1978. The concept of a Women’s History Week got further attention the following year when Lerner, who was then at Sarah Lawrence, hosted a conference on women’s history. Lerner inspired something called the National Women’s History Project in 1980, and in 1981, a measure was passed in Congress that was supported by—you’ll be surprised to hear—Orrin Hatch, a Republican from Utah, and Barbara Mikulski, a Democrat from Maryland. Hatch and Mikulski worked together to get Congress to declare a national Women’s History Week in March, and then, in 1987, Congress expanded Women’s History Week to be Women’s History Month.

Why should we continue to celebrate Women’s History Month? So that women do not disappear again from history. Someone once said that women’s history “has always been written in invisible ink.” Without a political movement to shine a light on women’s past, the history of women has tended to disappear from view. I know that from my own experience.

In 1969, I was studying for my doctoral orals in U.S. history at Stanford. One of the faculty members on my committee, professor Carl Degler, a founder of the National Organization for Women and a pioneer in the new women’s history, urged me to do a minor field on American women. I responded, “No, I want to be taken seriously as a historian, and if I study women, I won’t be.” Estelle Freedman, Barnard class of 1969, tells a similar story. Professor Annette Baxter, who pioneered the teaching of women’s history here at Barnard, asked her, “Estelle, won’t you take my new class in women’s history?” Estelle responded, “No, I want to take real history.” Estelle was about to enter Columbia as a graduate student, and she wanted to take the courses in political history that were still the core of historical study at the time. Ironically, Estelle earned her degree in U.S. women’s history at Columbia and went on to teach at Stanford. I earned my degree in U.S. women’s history at Stanford and came to teach here. But if it were not for the handful of scholars who continued to be interested in women’s history in the 1950s and 1960s and who were our mentors, we would never have spent our careers teaching about women’s past.

Rosalind Rosenberg is a professor in the history department at Barnard. Jennifer Fearon is a Barnard College first-year and a Spectator associate editorial page editor.

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