What Is Women's History?

A Short Overview

U.S. Supreme Court justices Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg
U.S. Supreme Court women Justices honored for Women's History Month, 2015. Allison Shelley/Getty Images

In what way is "women's history" distinct from the broader study of history? Why study "women's history" and not just history? Are the techniques of women's history any different from the techniques of all historians?

How Did the Study of Women's History Begin?

The discipline called "women's history" began formally in the 1970s, when the feminist wave led some to notice that women's perspective and earlier feminist movements were largely left out of the history books.

While some writers had presented history from a woman's perspective and criticized standard histories for leaving women out, this new "wave" of feminist historians were more organized. These historians, mostly women, began to offer courses and lectures that highlighted what history looked like when a woman's perspective was included. Gerda Lerner is considered one of the major pioneers of the field, and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese founded the first women's studies department, for instance.

These historians asked questions like "What were women doing?" in various periods of history. As they uncovered a nearly-forgotten history of women's struggles for equality and freedom, they realized that short lectures and single courses would not be adequate. Most of the scholars were surprised at the amounts of material that were, indeed, available. And so the fields of women's studies and women's history were founded, to seriously study not only the history and issues of women, but to make those resources and conclusions more widely available so that historians would have a more complete picture to work from.

Sources for Women's History

The pioneers of the women's history wave uncovered some important sources, but they also realized that other sources were lost or unavailable. Because at most times in history women's roles were not in the public realm, their contributions often didn't make it into the historical records. This loss is, in many cases, permanent. For instance, we don't even know the names of the wives of many of the early kings in British history because nobody thought to record or preserve those names. It's not likely we'll find them later, though there are occasional surprises.

To study women's history, a student has to deal with this lack of sources. That means that historians taking women's roles seriously must be creative. The official documents and older history books often don't include much of what's needed to understand what women were doing in a period of history. Instead, in women's history, we supplement those official documents with more personal items, like journals and diaries and letters, and other ways that women's stories were preserved. Sometimes women wrote for journals and magazines, too, though the material may not have been collected as rigorously as writings by men have.

The middle school and high school student of history can usually find appropriate resources analyzing different periods of history as good source materials to answer common historical questions. But because women's history has not been studied as widely, even the middle or high school student may have to do the kinds of research usually found in college history classes, finding more detailed sources that illustrate the point, and forming conclusions from them.

As an example, if a student is trying to discover what a soldier's life was like during the American Civil War, there are many books that address that directly. But the student who wants to know what a woman's life was like during the American Civil War may have to dig a bit deeper. She or he may have to read through some diaries of women who stayed at home during the war, or find the rare autobiographies of nurses, spies, or even women who fought as soldiers dressed as men.

Fortunately, since the 1970s, much more has been written on women's history, and so the material that a student can consult is increasing.

Earlier Documenting of Women's History

In uncovering women's history, many of today's students have come to another important conclusion: the 1970s may have been the beginning of the formal study of women's history, but the topic was hardly new. And many women had been historians—of women and of more general history. Anna Comnena is considered the first woman to write a book of history.

For centuries, there had been books written that analyzed women's contributions to history. Most had gathered dust in libraries or had been tossed out in the years in between. But there are some fascinating earlier sources that cover topics in women's history surprisingly astutely.

Margaret Fuller's Woman in the Nineteenth Century is one such piece. A writer less known today is Anna Garlin Spencer, although she enjoyed more fame in her own lifetime. She was known as a founder of the social work profession for her work at what became the Columbia School of Social Work. She was also recognized for her work for racial justice, women's rights, children's rights, peace, and other issues of her day. An example of women's history before the discipline was invented is her essay, "The Social Use of the Post-Graduate Mother." In this essay, Spencer analyzes the role of women who, after they've had their children, are sometimes considered by cultures to have outlived their usefulness. The essay may be a bit difficult to read because some of her references are not as well known to us today, and because her writing is a style current nearly a hundred years ago, and sounds somewhat alien to our ears. But many ideas in the essay are quite modern. For instance, current research on the witch crazes of Europe and America also looks at issues of women's history: why was it that most of the victims of the witchhunts were women? And often women who didn't have male protectors in their families? Spencer speculates on just that question, with answers much like those in today's women's history.

In the earlier 20th century, historian Mary Ritter Beard was among those who explored the role of women in history.

Women's History Methodology: Assumptions

What we call "women's history" is an approach to the study of history. It is based on the idea that history, as it is usually studied and written, largely ignores women and women's contributions.

Women's history assumes that ignoring women and women's contributions leaves out important parts of the full story. Without looking at the women and their contributions, history is not complete. Writing women back into history means gaining a fuller understanding.

A purpose of many historians, since the time of the first known historian, Herodotus, has been to shed light on the present and the future by telling about the past. Historians have had as an explicit goal to tell an "objective truth"—truth as it might be seen by an objective, or unbiased, observer.

But is objective history possible? That's a question those studying women's history have been asking loudly. Their answer, first, was that "no," every history and historians make selections, and most have left out the perspective of women. Women who played an active role in the public events were often forgotten quickly, and the less obvious roles women played "behind the scenes" or in private life are not easily studied. "Behind every great man there's a woman," an old saying goes. If there is a woman behind—or working against—a great man, do we truly understand even that great man and his contributions, if the woman is ignored or forgotten?

In the field of women's history, the conclusion has been that no history can be truly objective. Histories are written by real people with their real biases and imperfections, and their histories are full of conscious and unconscious errors. The assumptions historians make shape what evidence they look for, and therefore what evidence they find. If historians do not assume that women are part of history, then the historians won't even be looking for evidence of women's role.

Does that mean that women's history is biased, because it, too, has assumptions about women's role? And that "regular" history is, on the other hand, objective? From the perspective of women's history, the answer is "no." All historians and all histories are biased. Being conscious of that bias, and working to uncover and acknowledge our biases, is the first step towards more objectivity, even if full objectivity is not possible.

Women's history, in questioning whether histories have been complete without paying attention to the women, is also trying to find a "truth." Women's history, essentially, values searching for more of the "whole truth" over maintaining illusions that we already have found it.

So, finally, another important assumption of women's history is that it's important to "do" women's history. Retrieving new evidence, examining old evidence from the perspective of the women, looking even for what lack of evidence might speak of in its silence—these are all important ways to fill in the "rest of the story."

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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "What Is Women's History?" ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/what-is-womens-history-3990649. Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2023, April 5). What Is Women's History? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-womens-history-3990649 Lewis, Jone Johnson. "What Is Women's History?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-womens-history-3990649 (accessed May 31, 2023).