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(A copyrighted publication of West Virginia Archives and History)

Volume 49
Recovery and Revision: Women's History and West Virginia

By Barbara Melosh

Volume 49 (1990), pp. 3-6

In this volume of West Virginia History, scholars take up the work of recovery and revision that is the project of women's history. Once a small and marginal enterprise, women's history has now claimed a place in academic and public life alike. Dozens of new books attest to the burgeoning research about women's lives; articles on the history of women appear in the Journal of American History and American Historical Review as well as in the many periodicals directed toward feminist scholars; exhibits on women's experiences attract enthusiastic public audiences. Still, for all its vigor and visibility, women's history has remained somewhat of a separate endeavor. Even social historians, closely akin to women's historians in their questions and methods, do not consistently use the findings of this scholarship or take up the theoretical challenges of using sex and gender as crucial categories. Thus, this essay offers a rough map to the terrain of women's history, outlining some important landmarks for readers who may venture infrequently into this field.

With the rebirth of women's history in the 1960s and 1970s, feminist scholars challenged the authority of conventional historical accounts that largely excluded women's experiences. "[A]ll history as we now know it is merely prehistory," declared Gerda Lerner in 1975.1 In titles such as Hidden from History, A Heritage of Her Own, Making the Invisible Woman Visible, and The Majority Finds Its Past, feminist scholars underscored the significant absence of women in historical accounts, and sought to reclaim a female past.2 In what has been called "compensatory" or "contributions" history, some scholars looked for women who had been active in traditionally male endeavors, for example, recovering the history of female doctors or reformers. Others called for more comprehensive historical revisions, arguing that the evidence of women's experiences required new categories, new methods of analysis, and revised periodization.3

No single framework has emerged. Indeed, as the scholarship of women's history grows, such a framework appears increasingly elusive. Scholars confront the formidable difficulty of assessing the experience of sex and gender in light of the crucial differences of race, ethnicity, and class. This essay is not a comprehensive review of the extensive literature, but a survey of a few of the major paradigms and critiques that have shaped the field. One influential framework grew out of the fruitful interdisciplinary ferment of women's studies. Beginning from the fundamental assumption that women's secondary status is not rooted in biological necessity but in social life and culture, women's historians have been natural collaborators with anthropologists. In Woman, Culture and Society, published in 1974, feminist anthropologists Michelle Zimbalist Rosaldo and Louise Lamphere presented a bold interpretation and revision of human culture and history. The evidence suggested that women's subordination was universal, but across different societies they performed every imaginable task of human society and culture.4

Michelle Rosaldo reviewed a wide range of ethnographic literature, and argued that it revealed a universal bifurcation of social institutions. She discerned in many cultures a division of social life into public and domestic, or private, realms. Everywhere, she argued, men claimed the public functions, the activities considered most crucial and self-defining within that culture. Women were associated with the lesser tasks of the private or domestic sphere, usually child-rearing and the work arranged around it.5

Women's historians read this account with a combination of excitement and skepticism. At the 1975 Berkshire Conference on the History of Women, French historian and feminist scholar Natalie Zemon Davis considered the significance of Woman, Culture, and Society for a revised history of women. She praised the ethnographic investigation of women's place and at the same time subjected Rosaldo's central argument to a searching critique. The public-private split, she argued, was not universal in human culture but rather a specific historical development linked to changing patterns of work and urban concentration. In a widely discussed article, Eli Zaretsky had made a similar argument for American history. Examining the emerging separation of home and work after the industrial revolution, he argued that the division was more ideological than real: that is, he discerned no clear economic or structural division between home and work, but rather a pervasive ideology that portrayed the two realms as separate.6 Many critiques and refinements of the public-private paradigm have been mounted, but historians have been frequently influenced by some version of the conceptual framework articulated in Woman, Culture, and Society.

The public-private paradigm translated feminist politics into a conceptual revision that suggested new research strategies. The new feminist anthropology reinforced the tradition of social history that sought (as in the Annales school) to render social life as a totality. It broadened the range of scholarly investigation with its version of the ideology of the 1960s social movements: if the personal was political, it was also historical. Women's historians asserted the legitimacy of subjects previously considered beyond the scope of historical inquiry. Ranging beyond the records of paid work, formal organizations, and politics, feminist scholars probed the history of female friendship, marriage and divorce, sexuality, childbirth, mothering, and housework.

Stimulated by the women's movement, the scholarship in women's history reflected the political currents of the second wave of feminism. One strong current emphasized inequality and oppression. As these feminists documented women's secondary status, they fought to secure women's access to institutions dominated by men, such as higher education, government, the professions, and business. But even as feminists exposed inequality and protested women's exclusion from male-dominated institutions, some also celebrated a distinctive female tradition. In this current of feminism, women's differences posed a powerful critique of male institutions. For these feminists, equal access alone was not sufficient; indeed, in some situations it was anathema. Feminists critical of the state, the military, or a capitalist economy, for example, were not inclined to see female political leaders, soldiers, or corporate heads as triumphs of feminist politics. Whatever one's position in the multiplying varieties of feminism, whether liberal, socialist, or separatist, to name just a few, for many, the women's movement fostered a new appreciation of traditional female activities, associations, and accomplishments.

Historian Carroll Smith-Rosenberg demonstrated the interpretive power of this appreciation for women's lives in her influential scholarship, especially her article "The Female World of Love and Ritual." Published in the first issue of Signs in 1975, this work is probably the most frequently cited in all the scholarship of women's history.7 Smith-Rosenberg presented this paper at the second Berkshire Conference on the History of Women, electrifying a large audience with readings of nineteenth-century women's letters, documents of the intense emotional relationships that these women shared. Many used Smith-Rosenberg's work to elaborate on the concept of "women's culture," a term that signalled an emphasis on female agency and autonomy even within the constraints of women's subordination. "Women's culture" was no academic coinage. Minted in the 1970s women's movement, it expressed a buoyant affirmation of womanhood against a dominant ideology that devalued women. Signs of a challenge to this approach had appeared by 1980, most clearly signalled in a debate in the pages of Feminist Studies. Critics argued that the emphasis on women's culture gave too little attention to the structures of power and inequality that shaped women's lives, and that the celebration of difference might inadvertently be read as an acceptance of women's secondary status.8 Notably, this debate in women's history closely paralleled debates in both black history and labor history. Critics have warned a social history that strives to understand different groups' self-definitions and to recover their historical agency may also romanticize subordination and obscure the harsh realities of racism, class conflict, and sexism.

As scholars unearthed evidence of women's historical experience, new conceptual and strategic questions emerged. Historians have struggled to find a language to convey women's complex and contradictory relationship to the rest of society. Women are everywhere integrated at the most intimate levels of private life, half of every class and ethnic group; and yet everywhere separate, inhabiting a social sphere defined by gender within those groups and sharing with other women a common exclusion from the most privileged realms of public life.

Where is women's history heading? The public-private paradigm continues to influence much historical work. Still, it is clearly on the wane. At the 1987 Berkshire conference, the organizing theme called upon participants to interpret the intersections of the public and private arenas in women's experiences, refuting the framework of discrete public and private realms. One forceful critique argues that the public-private paradigm is strongly biased toward the investigation of white, middle-class women, based on a domesticity limited to bourgeois culture. Many scholars are now struggling for better ways to interpret race, ethnicity and class in their accounts of women's history. Some recent work edges toward a challenge of what has so far been the dominant assumption of women's history, that, despite differences, women's common oppression as a sex makes "women" a meaningful unitary category.

On another front, women's historians have engaged in the debates surrounding post-modernist literary criticism. Radically culturalist in its assumptions, this kind of criticism has gone so far as to disclaim history itself: the assumption is that social life is constructed and reconstructed in language, and that social life and history have no independent operation or meaning outside of language. For post-modernists, "woman" loses meaning as a category; instead, most have emphasized "gender" and sought to explain how people at different historical moments have understood and elaborated on the idea of sexual difference. Deconstruction has provided a new critical apparatus for issues of ideology that have long concerned women's historians, offering provocative accounts of the cultural construction of gender. At the same time, it has also generated a new language and orthodoxy that have sparked heated debate.9

Some historians have used the term and the concept of "gender" in a call for a synthesis of women's history into a comprehensive revision of history. Debates about the feasibility of such a synthesis have paralleled the debate about synthesis in social history more generally. Those in favor argue that the concept of "gender" offers the potential of reshaping the curriculum in history and avoiding the potential marginality of women's history conceived as a separate field. Others have insisted that research in women's history is not sufficiently advanced; Gerda Lerner has called such a synthesis "grossly premature."10

Women's history is as multi-faceted as the political movement that nourished its development, but its defining tasks remain the recovery of women's experiences and the revision of historical narratives. The essays in this issue contribute to both endeavors. In a number, we see women's activities in the public life of politics, organizations, higher education, and paid work. Anne Effland's essay shows us West Virginia women's participation in the suffrage movement. Barbara Howe documents the diverse organizations that women created and supported. Lillian Waugh and Judith Stitzel evoke the struggles of the first generation of college women at West Virginia University. Frances Hensley traces the participation of women in industrial work. Analyzing women's place in the state's economy, Mary Beth Pudup's study argues that West Virginia women's work, paid and unpaid, exposes the inadequacy of conventional economic categories.

Other essays investigate the everyday lives and communities of West Virginia women. Shirley C. Eagan interprets the work and self-image of West Virginia farm women. In her essay, Janet Greene describes West Virginia's coal camps from a new angle of women's perspective. Ancella Bickley uncovers the rich traditions and contributions of West Virginia's midwives. Taken together, these essays provide a wealth of new evidence that expands the historiography of West Virginia, and challenges the adequacy of state histories that exclude women.


Barbara Melosh is the Associate Curator, Medical Science Division, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, and Associate Professor of English and American Studies at George Mason University. She earned the Ph.D. degree from Brown University.


1. Gerda Lerner, "Placing Women in History: A 1975 Perspective," in Berenice A. Carroll, ed.. Liberating Women's History (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1986), 366.

2. Sheila Rowbotham, Hidden from History (London: Pluto Press, 1973); Nancy F. Cott and Elizabeth Pleck, eds., A Heritage of Her Own (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1979); Anne Firor Scott, Making the Invisible Woman Visible (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1984); Gerda Lerner, The Majority Finds its Past (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1979).

3. Linda Gordon et al, "Historical Phallacies: Sexism in American Historical Writing," 55-74; Ann D. Gordon, Mari Jo Buhle, and Nancy Schrom Dye, "The Problem of Women's History," 75-92; and Lemer, "Placing Women in History," 357-68, all in Carroll, Liberating Women's History. Also, see Joan Kelly-Gadol, "The Social Relation of the Sexes: Methodological Implications of Women's History," Signs, 1(1976): 809-24.

4. Michelle Zimbalist Rosaldo and Louise Lamphere, eds., Woman, Culture and Society (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford Univ. Press, 1974).

5. Michelle Rosaldo, "Woman, Culture, and Society: A Theoretical Overview," ibid., 17-42; see also Sherry B. Ortner, "Is Female to Male as Nature Is to Culture?," ibid., 67-88. Anthropologists as well as historians subjected the arguments in Woman, Culture and Society to a thoroughgoing critique. Some contested the idea of universal female subordination; for an early example, see Karen Sacks, Sisters and Wives: The Past and Future of Sexual Equality (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1979). Others disposed of the public-private, nature-culture dichotomy; see, for example, Carol McCormack and Marilyn Strathern, eds. Nature, Culture, and Gender (Cambridge, Eng: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1980). But whatever their ultimate limitations, these ideas have had a powerful and fruitful influence on the interpretive frameworks of women's history. The public-private paradigm continues to inform much research, teaching, and writing in women's history; it is a testament to its vigor that, years later, the idea is still being refuted.

6. Eli Zaretsky, Capitalism, the Family, and Personal Life (New York: Harper and Row, 1986; 1st publ. in Socialist Revolution, 1973).

7. Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, "The Female World of Love and Ritual," Signs, 1(1975): 1- 29.

8. See Estelle Freedman, "Separatism as Strategy: Female Institution Building and American Feminism, 1870-1930," Feminist Studies, 5(Fall 1979): 512-29 and Ellen C. DuBois, Man Jo Buhle, Temma Kaplan, Gerda Lerner, and Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, "Politics and Culture in Women's History: A Symposium," Feminist Studies, 6(Spring 1980): 26-64; Hilda Smith, "Female Bonds and the Family': Continuing Doubts, "Organization of American Historians Newsletter, 15(Feb. 1987): 13-14; Hilda Smith, "Female Bonds and the Family: Recent Directions in Women's History," in For Alma Mater: Theory and Practice in Feminist Scholarship, ed. Paul Treichler et al (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois, 1985), 272-91. Smith documents the outpouring of work about domesticity and private life and criticizes what she sees as the scholarly neglect of women's public lives. Gerda Lerner's examination of recent dissertations in women's history suggests that a shift may be underway; biography, labor and work, and education were the three most common subjects of dissertations completed between 1981-87. See her overview and research agenda, "Priorities and Challenges in Women's History Research," American Historical Association Newsletter, Perspectives, 26(Apr. 1988): 17-20, esp. 19.

9. Debate has swirled around Joan W. Scott's recent argument that linguistic representation is the key to historical understanding of gender: see "On Language, Gender, and Working-Class History," lnternational Labor and Working-Class History, 31 (Spring 1987): 1-13; and in the same issue, responses from Bryan Palmer (14-23), Christine Stansell (24-29), and Anson Rabinbach (30-36). See also Scott, "A Reply to Criticism," ibid., 32(Fall 1987): 39-45. For two excellent commentaries on this debate, see Judith Newton, "Family Fortunes: 'New History' and 'New Historicism" (5-22) and Judith Walkowitz, Myra Jehlen, and Bell Chevigny, "Patrolling the Borders: Feminist Historiography and the New Historicism" (23-43), both in Radical History Review, 43(Jan. 1989).

10. Lerner, "Priorities and Challenges," Perspectives, 17-20.

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