By Cara Delay
When I teach courses on women’s history at College of Charleston, I often begin the first day or week of class asking students to think about why they should take women’s history.
Students’ responses to the question about why they are taking women’s history are, of course, varied. Some students, brutally honest, are clear that they have no interest in women’s history but just need that final history course to graduate. Others who are well-versed in women’s and gender studies feel that they don’t know much history and wish to understand where patriarchy came from. Others consider themselves knowledgeable and experienced historians who claim to be fascinated by the topic because they never even knew there was such a thing as women’s history (as if women have no history at all).
I have noticed a common thread that becomes more apparent as the semester unfolds: Most students, whatever their backgrounds, see a gaping chasm between women’s history and what some think of as “real history” or even “normal history.” They seem confused about how to reconcile women’s history with what they understand to be mainstream history.
While many of my classes begin with the question, “Why should we study women’s history,” they usually end with the question, “Why MUST we study women’s history?” It seems only fair to posit some answers to that question as I write this in March (Women’s History Month) —and here I draw upon not only my own observations or the work of other historians, but also on the wonderfully thoughtful contributions of students over the years:
- We must study women’s history because it reminds us that sometimes our “great” events in history were not so great for everyone.
- We must study women’s history because it reveals that sometimes history is as much about continuity—what some historians have called “history that stands still”—as change.
- We must study women’s history because a responsible analysis of women and gender (and not the “add women and stir approach to history”) fundamentally revises our accepted chronologies and categories.
- We must study women’s history because through it we can learn that sometimes we need to engage in “women’s” history (viewing women as historical actors) and that sometimes we need to think about “gender” history (recognizing that ideas about both women and men affected the lives of both women and men).
- We must study women’s history because it encourages us to complicate the category “woman”: Not all women historically (just as today) thought alike, viewed the world from a similar perspective, or even had an awareness of themselves as women.
- We must study women’s history because it reminds us that while gender is a primary category of historical analysis, it is not the only one: At times in history, being a woman was only as important as being a member of a particular race, religion, sexual identity or social class.
- We must study women’s history because it forces us to realize that ideas about gender (and, of course, power) have been central to human societies across time and space. Examining how and why this is so can only help us understand more clearly the world in which we live today.