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feminist history

feminist history. ‘Do women have a history, Professor?’ said the French customs officer to a woman claiming to be attending a 1984 UNESCO conference on the history of women. As a question permitting a range of intonation from genuine puzzlement to withering sarcasm, it is richly suggestive of the suspicion and hostility with which the notion of feminist history may be viewed both inside and outside academic circles. Why should ‘women's history’ have become defined as a separate sphere? For feminist historians, one answer might be that there are two sides to any narrative and that we have heard only one for the last two and a half millennia. Precisely because women outside the ruling classes have been of little interest to historiographers, there has until recently been scant research into the lives and achievements of a wide social range of one half of the historical population.

Many of the protesters in 1960s newsreel footage of women's movement demonstrations were part of the influx of women into higher education in that decade. For those who perceived sexual discrimination as widespread, the male-dominated content of many educational syllabi seemed both part of the problem but also a potential solution. Beginning in the 1960s, a handful of college and university courses across the United States began to redress what was perceived to be a gender imbalance in the study of a range of humanities disciplines. Given that the majority of women in history had found their activities confined to the domestic sphere or a supporting role in politics, it is not surprising that women's history developed alongside social history. So successful have feminist historians been in recovering the history of those marginalized by traditional historiography, that few universities in the Anglo-American world now lack courses focusing on women from the medieval period to the present day.

The academic growth of feminist history has generated a vast critical literature, the authors of which are the heirs of early women writers who protested about the place allocated to them in society in virtue of their sex. Reading Mary Astell's Serious Proposal To the Ladies (1694), Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), and John Stuart Mill's Subjection of Women (1869), we can see that feminist history has finally succeeded in legitimizing a field of enquiry that is at least as old as the history of early modern thought.

Norman Macdougall

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