Why Study Women’s History?

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By Caitlin Wiesner

Why should one study women’s history? Most of the acquaintances and strangers that I encounter on a daily basis are far too polite to serve me such a pointed question whenever they inquire what “kind” of history I will being studying as a graduate student at Rutgers University-New Brunswick. Instead, I am typically met with a bemused cocking of the eyebrows, a terse nod or occasionally an offhand mention of Betsy Ross. I cannot entirely blame them for their confusion; most adults complete their meager study of history upon high-school or college graduation, and the exceptionalist narratives that they encountered there claim a scientific objectivity unsullied by politics or radicalism that my research topic (anti-rape discourses and organizations of the 1970s United States) seems to invoke.

They are at worst mistaken or at least mislead in their belief that what they were taught in school was rightfully devoid of an agenda, but nonetheless I find the tacit question inherent in their gestures deserving of an answer. If they reject the premise of feminism altogether (you know, that radical notion that women are people in spite of the way they have traditionally been treated), then there is little I can do to convince them.

However, I sincerely doubt that this frightening viewpoint characterizes my landlord, museum visitors, distant relatives, and dental hygienist. I believe their unspoken confusion falls more along the lines of “You can be a feminist, and you can be a historian of the United States, but what good it really does to combine the two? Why is that important?”

Surely it is no secret that the study of history is essential to understand how the lives and livelihoods of past peoples mold our present realities. Feminist theory similarly outfits the initiated (? WC?) to navigate the daily onslaught of sexist behaviors and dissect their intractable wellsprings of government, media, law and society to more effectively resist and undermine them. However, I am of the opinion that more often than not one alone is not enough.

A fusion of intellectual spaces is necessary to completely debunk and dislodge the oppressive elements of our world.

My example du jour: the most recent round of attacks directed at Planned Parenthood. The goliath women’s health resource has served as a lightning rod for pro-life activists since the 1980s, but this summer the anti-abortion organization, Center for Medical Progress (CMP), refreshed the stubborn campaign by releasing a series of heavily edited videos which they claim depict Planned Parenthood officials discussing the sale of fetal organs and tissue.

In spite of the fact that the videos were immediately condemned as spurious by Planned Parenthood officials (they may donate fetal tissue for medical research at the request of a patient, but fetal organs and tissue are never subject to sale, nor would any organs be viable for use in the first place), social conservatives garnered enough righteous outrage for a proposed bill to defund Planned Parenthood to reach the Senate floor. Feminists well versed in reproductive justice immediately recognized the smear campaign for what it was and eagerly rallied around the organization that provides reproductive health care to an estimated 3 million Americans annually, many of whom are economically underprivileged.

Through their efforts, Planned Parenthood appears to have weathered yet another storm for now; the proposed defunding failed to pass the Senate. Yet, the question remains not if but when the work of Planned Parenthood will against be jeopardized.

The unprecedented and admirable flowering of blogs, Youtube channels and editorials by feminists correcting distorted interpretations of Planned Parenthood’s policies and illuminating the importance of bodily autonomy does not appear to be breaching the consciousness of middle America.

The middle-aged couple who occupied the booth adjacent to mine at a local diner seemed uninterested in the importance of safe spaces. They took the continued existence of Planned Parenthood as a low watermark of the nation’s moral demise. They shuttered at the thought of a Godless nation gone awry in its permissiveness toward ending unwanted pregnancies. Instead, they pined for the “Good Old Days, when family was the most important thing.” Yes, that is a verbatim quote.

Ozzie and Harriet[1] were seated before me swallowing whole a mythological narrative of a linear trajectory of American sexuality from Puritanical wholesomeness to wanton indulgence, the same stereotype of liberal progression that Estelle Freedman and John D’Emilio laid bare in Intimate Matters (1988) two decades ago. Despite the foundational role that text played in my undergraduate history thesis, I could safely bet that Ozzie and Harriet had never even heard of it.

I realized in that moment that an interruption of assumptions needed to take place, but a feminist response would be rejected in a knee-jerk, the entire framework swiftly filed away among the godless march of liberalism that they decried. Feminism had edified me to this point, but alone it could not penetrate the cloud of educationally reinforced nostalgia these people held dear.

It was time for a new history lesson.

Let it be known: I am not usually the type to interrupt your breakfast, but if your dearth of feminist sympathies and historical acumen strike a sufficient chord with me you can expect just that.

“You know, abortion didn’t start in this country with Roe v. Wade. It didn’t even start with Planned Parenthood.” My choppy delivery betrayed the internal torrent that flooded my mind with readings I had encountered in my undergraduate years in The College of New Jersey’s History and Women’s & Gender Studies departments that detailed the nuances and complexities of women’s reproductive health and attitudes toward sexuality over the centuries.

I recalled clearly Cornelia Dayton Hughes’ revelations that American women who lived contemporaneous with the deified Founding Fathers regularly employed herbs such as savin and pennyroyal to induce abortions under the premise of restoring the regular menstrual cycle with relatively little state regulation. I knew from her that a setting as idyllic as an eighteenth century Connecticut village saw well-to-do teenagers from respected families ending unwanted pregnancies.[2]

Estelle B. Freedman’s message amplified alongside the words of Sara M. Evans, who traced how the falling fertility rates in the 1870s, which indicated deliberate family-planning in middle class families as women occupied larger positions within the public sphere, led to a sudden enactment of stringent abortion laws vis-à-vis the Comstock Acts of 1873.[3] The perennial scapegoat, Planned Parenthood, was founded in Brooklyn, New York in 1916 by Margaret Sanger (herself a controversial figure, but that is beyond the scope of this article) in response to the contraction of birth control resources that the domestic backlash had caused in the previous century, itself a reaction to a traditional leniency of the United States towards abortions performed before quickening.

My early training as a feminist historian allowed me to see properly contextualize and compare my unwilling breakfast companions and men like Anthony Comstock as cognate historical actors. It allowed me to strip them both of the invisible armor that elevated them as crusaders of the culture wars who fended off all threats to the endangered seedbed of national virtue known as the “traditional” family.

My extensive bibliography never reached the ears of my breakfast companions; they mostly pretended not to hear what I had said to them, and I know when to pick my battles. On my end, the inner melodrama illuminated why I study this “stuff.”

I thank feminism wholeheartedly for allowing me to call the backhanded dealings of oppression as I see it, but turn to women’s history more and more to better ensnare bigots and more thoroughly strip them of their privileged insulation.

Caitlin Wiesner graduated from The College of New Jersey in May 2015 with her BA in History and Women & Gender Studies. She is currently a first year history PhD student at Rutgers University- New Brunswick studying twentieth century U.S. women’s history, particularly the intersections of race and class in anti-rape speech and organization.

[1] Their names have been changed for their own protection.

[2] Cornelia Dayton Hughes, “Taking the Trade: Abortion and Gender Relations in an Eighteenth-Century New England Village,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd se., 48 (1991): 19-49.

[3] Sara M. Evans, Born for Liberty: A History of Women in America (New York: Free Press Paperbacks, 1997), 143.

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