Paper presented at the annual luncheon of the OAH Committee on the Status of Women in the Historical Profession, Seattle, WA, March 28, 2009.  Not for quotation or reproduction without the permission of the author.


"Is There a Future for Women’s History?
Beyond the Cycle of Revisionism"

Mary P. Ryan
The Johns Hopkins University

Paper presented at the annual luncheon of the OAH Committee on the Status of Women in the Historical Profession, Seattle, WA, March 28, 2009.  Not for quotation or reproduction without the permission of the author.



      Thanks to the Committee on Women in the Historical Profession for the invitation to speak today, and especially to Tom Dublin and the many sponsors that funded the attendance of graduate students. Free lunch for graduate students seems to me an ideal addition to the economic stimulus package.  It has worked magnificently bringing so many of you here.  Just now, as I heard Tom report on my publishing career, however, I realized that I might be a very bad model for graduate students. The usual advice to young historians is for you to pick narrow topics for research and pursue them exhaustively and in meticulous detail.  I have seldom followed such sage advice, and will not do so today. In addition, I must warn you that I will be deviating from correct professional practice by straying away from the topic advertised in the program: “Is There a Future for Women’s History?”  I originally intended that question to introduce a discourse on historiography, and dutifully reviewed recent scholarship and calculated the number of sessions devoted to Women’s History on this year’s OAH program.  On that basis I can answer that ominous question in the affirmative. Any comparison between my first book in 1975 and any new monograph found in the book exhibit will testify that recent historians of women have traveled light years ahead of the pioneers, in the sophistication of their theories, the ingenuity of their research methods and the subtlety of their arguments. Yes, as our program attests there is a thriving present and assured future for the field.  By my hasty count women or gender is the theme of about 8 percent of all the panels. Curiously, references to the female sex far outnumber the terms gender, masculinity and sexuality that at one point seemed to be displacing  the original label of our field, simply “women’s history.”

      But I had no sooner drafted such an essay on historiography than I was apprised of a conversation on H-Women  that interpreted my title in another way.  It had prompted a discussion of the precarious state of women’s history and women historians on the faculty of American colleges and universities. I share that concern, and affirm the need for both discussion and action to deal with it.  As the generation that battled to secure academic positions for women’s historians is about to retire, prospects for their replacement are uncertain, jeopardized by both the economic downturn and by shifting scholarly and political priorities. The uncertain outlook for women’s historians reflects the status of women in the academy more generally.  In my university, Johns Hopkins, for example, the representation of women among the faculty has stalemated at around 30 percent, well below parity with the number of recent Ph. D’s. A search for those women missing from the tenure-track leads to places like the adjunct faculty; at Hopkins two-thirds of those who labor in this academic sweatshop are women. The situation seems alarmingly familiar to students of women’s history, who may wonder if another wave of feminism will leave a residue of sexual inequality in its wake.  If so, historiography and contemporary history, that is both interpretations of my title, may be converging around a single issue, the long and continuing struggle to achieve the equality of the sexes. Therefore, I have decided to resolve the conflicting interpretations of my title by addressing the history of sexual inequality in America, or, putting it positively, the ideal of the equality of the sexes that has inspired feminists for over two hundred years.  I warn you that this trip will be treacherously swift and especially superficial after the 19th century when I exhaust my limited expertise.  But here goes.  

      American women raised the standard of sexual equality almost from the moment of the nation’s founding.  Even before Mary Wollstonecraft wrenched a call for women’s rights out of European enlightenment, Judith Sargent Murray penned a treatise with that simple and portentous title, the “Equality of the Sexes.” The Early Republic abounds with evidence that the quest for equality crossed the boundaries of gender.  Murray rejected “This distinction to the sex ascribe” and rejoiced that “nature with equality imparts.”  She was joined by the anonymous “Female Advocate” who in 1801 called upon “the wise and pious” to “concede an equality between the sexes.”  She laid claim to “nothing more than the just rank, which God and nature designed, that equality of talents of genius, of morals as well as intellectual worth, which, by evident traits does exist between the sexes.” This blunt assertion of sex equality commenced in the 18th century, rebounded off the walls of that small chapel in Seneca Falls, New York in 1848, and still resounds in my mind today. It did, however, quickly encounter resistance and produce second thoughts.  Rosemarie Zagarri has called it a backlash. By the 1840’s the clarion call of equality had been muted by a gender ideology whose variants have gone by the different names that lace any women’s history syllabus: republican motherhood, true womanhood, separate spheres, women’s influence, maternalism , and right up through the age of the hockey mom.  The forthright assertion of the equality of the sexes has been repeatedly muddled, if not eclipsed, by a doctrine of separate but (reputedly) equal.

      While white men advanced along a relatively straight-forward path toward equality, women’s political history took a detour. What Mary Kelley calls “gendered republicanism” became the “feminine other to the masculine state”; Zagarri argues that separate spheres were a direct reaction to political democracy. That first clear call for of sexual equality proved to be overly optimistic, even a bit naïve. The social conditions of gender in the Early Republic could not sustain it.  The path to equality for women was blocked by dependency and subordination in households which were the property of men, and where women’s energies were exhausted by the tasks of social reproduction.  In this context, expectations of equality could easily be diverted into other channels where women found work and worth, and food for a distinctly feminine imagination. The voice of simple equality was muffled by a print culture that overflowed with celebrations of feminine domesticity, much of it penned by ambitious and talented women.

     The 19th century would find women occupied in their homes, subordinated in the labor market, or practicing social benevolence in an unobtrusive womanly manner. Historians have clearly demonstrated  that  women’s  places  had  their  own  intrinsic rewards  and would, over the  course  of the 19th century,  open up many  avenues to power  outside the home and in the public realm.  This womanly world was too expansive and invested with too much cultural value to be called unequal.  It would reach its zenith near century’s close in the epoch known as the Women’s Era among African Americans and Progressivism for white reformers.  Despite their accomplishments, the female giants of the Progressive Era, like Jane Addams, did not often speak the language of sex equality. Partially as a consequence the programs they sponsored institutionalized gender differences and propagated sexual inequality. Those members of the Progressive coalition who found their way into policymaking during the New Deal were shunted into separate and secondary positions, where they drafted policies that were riddled with inequities. To women and mothers went lesser welfare benefits accompanied by extensive surveillance; to men and soldiers went more generous and unconditional public compensation.  After 1920 and despite women’s suffrage, women’s political influence, while hardly exhausted, seemed to stall. Women remained a small minority of office holders; wives, and mothers entered the labor force in growing numbers but secured low status jobs and paltry wages compared to men.

     When a new woman’s movement placed gender on the public agenda late in the 1960’s, the Equal Rights Amendment was finally pushed through Congress but never secured ratification.  Equality was a prominent motif, implicitly the critical thrust behind the second wave, but probably not the dominant language.  The National Organization for women set out to bring women into the mainstream in a partnership with middle class men.  The young, scruffy, more rebellious contingent of the second wave announced itself as a Women’s Liberation Movement, seemingly more preoccupied with freedom than equality.

      Then late in the 20th century, the plot line of this my ridiculously schematic history takes a curious twist.  Women made major advances in status, but seemed to have left the banner of sexual equality behind. Jump started by the feminist movement, advances toward the equality of the sexes continued and even accelerated, but against the tides of a putatively post- feminist gender culture. Restrictions on women’s employment dwindled until by recent estimates women accounted for as much as 49 percent of the paid labor force.  By the end of the 20th century one could actually discern whole sectors of society and economy where sex no longer seemed to decree inequality. Women laid equal claim to professions like doctor and lawyer, and became the majority in the nation’s colleges.  While still underpaid and overworked, both women’s wages and man’s contribution to housework rose to significantly higher levels and at a faster pace than ever before.  Could it be that even as the demands for the equality of the sexes have grown quieter, some invisible hand of economic change is about to erase the inequities that have been women’s lot throughout our history?  Will the steady erosion of the gender division of labor wash away sexual inequality?  Is that divide between mother and breadwinner, along which previous campaigns for gender equity faltered about to dissolve? And will the promise of the equality of the sexes gleamed by Judith Sargent Murray over two centuries ago finally, magically be realized?

     With this flamboyant proposition I will hastily make my retreat from contemporary history and turn to historiography. But here, in recent historical writing, I find a certain analog to this disconnect between gender change, even in a progressive direction, and explicit and forceful demands for sexual equality. Three recent trends in historiography come to mind. First is the body of recent writing that has demonstrated how individual women can make their way very masterfully past the barrier of sexual inequality to find power and status.  I think of Catherine Algor’s portrait of the demure ladies of Washington in the early republic, who operated the levers of federal power from their tea tables, or of Mary Kelley’s accounts of how women achieved a rich subjectivity through reading and writing, even while sequestered under the formidable patriarchy of Southern plantations. Other historians have found women prospering in the farthest and darkest corners of our unequal society, even as leaders of the KKK.  Writing the history that women made in the backwaters of sexual inequality is a major and often brilliant strain in recent women’s history.

      A second major strand of recent scholarship has proved Mary Beard’s claim that women are a force in history, or in the title phrase words of a book by LeeAnn Whites, that Gender Matters.  Southern History is one of the major beneficiaries of this literature. Kathleen Brown demonstrated that gender shaped the institutionalization of slavery; Stephanie McCurry showed how the domination of women cemented the class relations that brought on Civil War, Laura Edwards, Martha Hodes, Amy Dru Stanley, Glenda Gilmore, among others, exposed the sexual underpinning of Jim Crow. Another group of historians too numerous to name have shown women to be a powerful force in the history of the 20th century, particularly with their work on the welfare state. Practitioners of the New Indian History have also been apprized that gender matters by such recent works as Juliana Barr’s Peace Came in the Form of a Woman.  Barr’s demonstration of how gender influenced the outcome of encounters between Europeans and Indians on the Texas frontier also reveals how the power of gender, like the agency of women, does not ally neatly with the equality of the sexes. In fact the two may even operate in opposition to one another. Those women so critical to the diplomatic relations between Indians and Europeans, for example, were sometimes abjectly unequal; captured and enslaved they were traded between tribal chiefs and European invaders.  In cases like this it was sexual inequality that was powerful historically. Some of this work, which I deeply admire, holds the equality of the sexes at bay, as it deploys women and gender as explanatory factors in the study of other, some would say larger, historical issues. 

       Before I address this contradiction, let me offer one last example of how the shadows of sexual inequality play upon recent historiography. Again it comes from one of the richest bodies of contemporary historical scholarship, studies of African American Women’s History. Much of this work places female subjects in the pantheon of their sex. If we are tracking the gender organization of civil society, for example, we would find that the first women’s benevolent association was the Society of St. Thomas, founded in Philadelphia in the 1780’s. The historical honor of first public speaker is usually granted to Maria Stewart, who stood before a mixed audience in the name of such unusual gendered subjects for the time as those she called “Individuals of my sex who transact business for themselves.”  The past experience of most African American women also puts in question the division between private and public. Historians like Elsa Barkley Brown, Margaret Jones and Erica Armstrong Dunbar have shown how African American women and men shared a common public realm.  As early as 1830 when women were denied seats in an African American political meeting they reassembled outside and hired themselves a hall of their own. With emancipation women and men commingled in the capacious spaces of African American politics, in the churches, outdoor meetings, exuberant public rallies. And these assemblies, more often than any other American political venue, issued a call for the equality of the sexes. Such was the message etched in the masthead of Frederick Douglass’s North Star: “Right is of no Sex, Truth is of no Color.”  At a meeting of African Americans in 1848 Douglass proclaimed outright that “We fully believe in the equality of the sexes.”  From evidence like this Martha Jones has come to the conclusion that in the 19th century African American did not privilege race over gender when they demanded equality.

       African-American history seems to cut against the grain of the history of sexual equality in at least two ways.  First the differences between African American men and women appear to be more balanced that among whites, which might lead to the erroneous conclusion that African American some have eluded the sexual inequality.  Obviously, especially to those who labored through most of our history as slaves or domestic servants, race combined with gender to relegate African American women to the bottom of American social structure. Secondly, the pursuit of equality could put race and gender in direct conflict.  The chief case in point is that awkward moment just after the civil war when Frederick Douglas among others proclaimed the Negro’s hour and subordinated women’s rights to the pursuit of the franchise for African American men.  Rather than pitting race against gender in the historiography of inequality, incidents like this prompt me to conclude simply this: that separating the two has been a political as well as a scholarly mistake.  The pursuit of racial equality for one sex only did not prove to be effective politics.  It left gender inequity to handicap the first civil rights movement. African American men were robbed of their hard-won franchise by a campaign of terror that drew heavily on gender differences, especially the pretense that helpless, disfranchised white women needed the protection of the male voters who created the lily-white Southern Democratic Party. More recent history offers a converse proposition, that political movements and policies that target gender and racial inequality together can yield a major payoff’s for women and African Americans of both sexes. For example, the addition of the category of sex to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 redounded to the benefit of black men, women and children, all those who saw their household income grow as a consequence of prohibiting discrimination against working wives, mothers and female household heads.

        African American history presents an especially illuminating example of how race and gender came together to tighten the grip of inequality. Maria Stewart and Frederick Douglass knew this because they saw women and non whites summarily excluded from the egalitarian promises of the America Republic and at approximately the same moment in time. Soon after the nation’s founding both women and racial others were stranded outside the privileged circle of Western democracy and enlightenment, denied votes, liberties, custody of their children, and a voice in the public square. All this occurred at a time when white males were winning the title to full citizenship, democratic participation, and equality of opportunity, regardless of class or creed. As Lisa Low movingly writes, “every narrative articulation of freedom [and I would add equality] is haunted by its burial, by the violence of forgetting. What we know as ‘race’ or ‘gender’ are traces of this modern humanist forgetting.”

        Translated into mundane advice to historians, I would say that we should not forget, but rather studiously remember, the inequality of the sexes, for it still haunts the relations of race and class as well as gender.  In our own parlous time, when by many measures gender difference and sexual inequality inequity have diminished, significant inequities remain, measured in 77 cents on a dollar of wages, a few more hours a week of housework, or the near invisibility of women among the power brokers charged with salvaging the world economy. Those inequities are significant both in themselves and because their effect is magnified at the bottom of American social structure which is overpopulated with racial minorities.  The increasingly wide gulf between rich and poor both registers and reflects gender differences, and may grow in the current economic crisis as families depend on women’s lower wages and rarer benefits. In sum, this is no time to retire the concept of the equality of the sexes, that venerable theme in women’s history and lodestar of American feminism.

        By extracting the theme of equality from the complex web of women’s history I am obviously exercising a political judgment.  I would focus historian’s attention on the equality of the sexes in order to mobilize intellectual and political resources in behalf of women and all their kin. The promise that “All men are created Equal” has driven most of the progressive advances in our history, from Seneca Falls, to the campaign for gay marriage, to the mobilization of the electorate in behalf of an African American candidate for president last November.  Feminists should be particularly proud to carry that banner forward, because the equality of the sexes affects all those of women born.

       But I have strayed far from my more proper professional role of reviewing the historiography of women’s history. So in closing let me place a few research priorities before you.  First of all I would like to see my quick and dirty review replaced by a genuine intellectual history of the concept of sexual equality.  Second on my agenda is a renewal of attention to those matters of reproduction and family relations which at critical moments of women’s history have derailed feminist offensives. The undertow of domestic ideology and reproductive burdens that curtailed the advances of gender equality both after the Revolution and during the Progressive Era can rise up to block the advances of women once again. This moment of economic crisis may warrant special vigilance in this regard.  Thirdly, I would urge historians to place gender as embodied by women, at the center of their research. Having shown how much the category of gender and women as historical agents have contributed to the construction of other social formations like race, or historical domains like the public sphere, it is time to re-focus intently on how gender in itself, and the unequal status of women, is made and remade.

       Which brings me to a final suggestion:  I would place one last item on the research agenda--scrutiny of how gender meanings and feminist aspirations are passed between generations. What is lost, gained and created at the transfer point between mothers and children, teachers and students, one generation of historians and the next? The relations between the generations of feminists and women’s historians are not seamless.  I concede that my research agenda is very much still bound to the time in which I came of age as a citizen and a historian.  Still I take assurance from you presence here this afternoon that the legacy of women’s history is being passed on. The elders who were especially instrumental in planning this meeting have not dropped the baton, and the graduate students in attendance are marching on to the rhythms of your own drummers, and at a critical period in our common history.  I would offer only one last self-serving request, that along with revising the work of previous generations, you return occasionally for inspiration to the well spring of feminism, the idea of the equality of the sexes. It too is an American dream.


Mary Ryan’s most recent book, Mysteries of Sex: Tracing Women and Men through American History, is available in paperback from the University of North Carolina Press.