AT THE OPENING session of the Second Berkshire Conference on the History of Women, held at Radcliffe last October. President Mary Maples Dunn paid tribute to the recently deceased historian Alma Lutz, and in the next breath bade her farewell, thereby welcoming the "new women's history."
As an historian. Alma Lutz had done important research on the women's suffrage movement; as a feminist, she had been a member of the National Woman's Party, the movement's militant left-wing, and had campaigned for an Equal Rights Amendment. But the next generation of feminists, also historians, had begun in the '60 s and '70 s to write a different kind of history about their sex. Less interested in considering the suffrage movement as the high point of women's noteworthy activities, less interested in focusing on individual women attached to the movements or personalities already established in American history, this most recent generation seeks to understand the overall experience of American women as it has been shaped by social attitudes, ethnic background, class, the family, the economy. What did women do how did they feel about it, how did they relate to men and to each other? Beneath the surface of social organization and political events, was there a "culture" that linked women together, and how was it expressed? This new women's history, deeply indebted to social history and to the techniques of demographic study, is, at its best, "feminist" only to the extent that it takes women seriously.
In 1971, just as the first books attempting to deal with these questions came out, the Harvard University Press issued a three-volume dictionary called Notable American Women. The culmination of 13 years of work. Notable American Women was the brain child of Arthur M. Schlesinger, whose New Viewpoints in American History (1928) had mapped out the new area of social history, and whose interest in women's history had helped establish the Radcliffe Women's Archives, now the Schlesinger Library. It was Alma Lutz, along with another woman historian, who spent a winter during the mid-'50 s trying to determine whether there were enough women in American history to justify the undertaking. On the basis of their recommendations, the Radcliffe College Council voted in 1957 to sponsor the dictionary.
By its very nature as a collection of biographical sketches and by virtue of lingering influence of "old school" women's history. Notable American Women might seem stuffy. But the dictionary is not only an impressive testament to the number of women involved in American public life (1359 women were chosen out of an original 4000-name file); it is also a fascinating revelation, through the life-stories of individual women, of the range of activities that were permitted to American women, and how these women responded to them.
Writing in the '50 s and '60 s, the editors of Notable American Women (associate editor Janet Wilson James formally joined her husband Edward T. James '38 after their children had entered nursery school) found that they could not simply detail the lives of their subjects. The lack of readily available data often hampered them, but the absence of a clear context for women's activities defined the more serious problem of interpreting these women's achievements. Thus, as the biographies of individual women took shape, so did an overview of certain aspects of American women's history. This background information is set out in the dictionary's introduction, which offers a valuable guide to the issues underlining women's history--why, for instance, the American Revolution was not a significant date in terms of the non-domestic activities open to women, whereas the Depression of 1873 was.
THE BIOGRAPHIES themselves, spanning the period between 1607 and 1950, reflect the particular concerns of women's history. Although the editors were not immediately concerned with delineating family patterns in American history, they took care to find out the parental backgrounds, the atmosphere within the home, and the dates of birth for the children of these women in order to see how such factors affected their activity outside the home. Included in the dictionary are not only those women who made a distinct contribution in whatever fields they chose; but also those who, while not leaders, are significant precisely because they worked in areas non-traditionally feminine. Thus alongside the Grimke sisters is Charlotte Ray, the first black woman lawyer. And in contrast to the impact of the two abolitionist/feminists is the fact that Charlotte Ray, in the late 19th century, had to give up her legal practice for lack of clients, supporting herself afterwards as a teacher. All of these women's lives tells a story beyond their own--a story of the kind of treatment accorded different women at different stages of our history.
The only women who were included automatically on the basis of their husband's achievements are the wives of U.S. presidents, because, as Janet James explained, it was thought that people would want to look them up most. Indeed, given the infrequent mention that only a handful of American women have received in American history textbooks, many of the women in this dictionary are undoubtedly strangers to most people. It is possible that Notable American Women's value as a research aid will be supplanted initially by its value as a first introduction to these overlooked figures. Although the cost, even of the recently-published paperback edition, is prohibitive to the average book-buyer, book stores and librarians afford ample opportunity for opening one of the volumes, to whatever page; the experience is bound to be illuminating. "Notable" in fact is a broadly used term to describe these women. The grande dames of the suffrage and settlement house movements, the notorious popular figures such as Lizzie Borden and the legendary women like Betsy Ross whose significance lies more in myth than reality--all of them share the pages of Notable American Women.
The story that unfolds is that middle-class women by and large have moved outside their homes to concentrate on the typically feminine activities of health, education and welfare--and within those fields, to pay particular attention to other women and to children. It was through the groups they formed around their endeavors that they gained contact with each other and learned principles of organization and agitation, although not necessarily in feminist directions. Notable American Women is to some extent a catalogue of women's organizations and clubs, and gives a new perspective on activities that today might seem unsavory. The Women's Christian Temperance Union, for example, was not simply the haven of moralistic teetotalers, Frances Willard, its leader, and a pre-eminent feminist, deliberately feed she organization as a vehicle to draw women (especially in the south) into public activity under the umbrella of socially acceptable reform causes such as penal reform, labor legislation, the peace movement. Home economics at its inception was the vision of Ellen Richards, a scientist interested in creating new ways of employing women scientists. Her hopes lay in the broad field of "sanitary science" which covered everything from sewage disposal to consumer research. Although not always successful, women sought creative ways to circumvent the obstacles they found in pursuing their interests.
One gets a sense from these biographies of women as people. Despite the handicaps built into being female, they emerge as sincere, as zealous, as short-sighted, as inventive, as amusing, as self-interested, as generous, and, above all, as capable of defining themselves in terms of or against a social system over which they have no direct control, as any other human beings. There are lives of inspiration here as well as biographies which command less respect. Large numbers of women went into foreign mission work, because it was socially acceptable. Women were among the first critics of the U.S. government's American Indian policy. They were Socialists. They were Zionists. And they were capable of deceit and hypocrisy, as in the 1890 s when the suffrage movement shed its historical commitment to blacks in order to bring white Southern women into its ranks.
Notable American Women condenses vast amounts of scholarship into three volumes, presenting the complicated questions that feed into women's history in an objective, thoughtful and readable manner. The individual portraits were written by numerous scholars and authors from around the country (one of the best, on the pioneer cultural anthropologist Ruth Benedict, was penned by Donald Fleming, Trumbull Professor of American History, who is not known for his sympathy towards women) and double-checked by scores of graduate students and researchers. The comprehensiveness of the work is borne out by the fact that the editors have been notified of only one woman who they feel deserved to be included. As women's history expands and uncovers more "notables" the dictionary will require amendment. But as it stands, it represents a monumental collective work about at least some aspects of the collective experience of American women. It transcends itself, for beyond its importance as a biographical dictionary, it is an invaluable work in American women's history.