My Women’s History Course

Over the past few weeks I’ve been putting together my second-semester elective which is called "19th and 20th Century Women’s History."  This is my first time teaching the course and I have to admit to being just a little nervous.  I am new to the material and with 14 girls and no boys registered I can’t help but think that I am in for a few uncomfortable moments.  In my best moments I tend to think that my feelings of uneasiness are a positive sign of a willingness to take chances.  Here is my course description:

This course focuses on the history of women in the United States during the late 19th and 20th centuries. The major historical events involving women during this period are analyzed: the Suffrage movement, Progressivism, World War II, the 1960′s, and the Feminist Movement. Specific themes include women at work, abortion, women and politics, and women in the military. The course also includes a unit on the debates surrounding the social and political construction of gender. The class seeks to uncover the factors that affected women’s lives as well as the major changes in women’s history and the cause of those changes.

The class is organized as a research seminar and roundtable discussion. Students spend a significant amount of class time exploring a topic of their choice with the goal of producing an essay that utilizes a wide range of primary sources. Research skills that are emphasized include formulating a research question and thesis, collecting and organizing material, and producing critical/analytical writing. In addition, students are expected to come to class prepared to engage in discussion with their peers. Each student is responsible for leading the class discussion at least once during the semester. Ultimately, the goal of this course is to develop an appreciation for the process of doing history in a cooperative, inquisitive, and intellectual environment.

I’ve ordered two texts, including Through Women’s Eyes: An American History With Documents edited by Ellen C. DuBois and Lynn Dumenil and Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique.  The former book is a text with primary sources and I hope to integrate Friedan and other secondary sources into the class during the semester.  We are going to start in the period following the Civil War since I want to spend as much time on more recent trends as possible.  The big question that I need to figure out is whether I want to stick to a strictly chronological approach or organize by themes.  I like the idea of organizing the class around themes.  For example, I just finished reading a chapter on "Work" in Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women and thought that we could begin with it and then look at some of the history.  This might work well when we get to topics such as birth control and other issues related to sexual relations. 

I am also looking for quality movies that focus on gender and women’s history in the 20th century.  Overall this has been alot of fun organizing and I can’t wait to get started.

4 responses... add one

Have you considered using part of Evelyn Higginbotham’s _Righteous Discontent_? Its a very readable secondary source that does a great job of integrating issues of gender, race, and class. Other interesting readings are: 1) Joan Brumberg’s _Fasting Girls: The History of Anorexia Nervosa_, 2) The Bedford Series collection containing Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper (it also has a lot of other primary sources that are fabulous), 3) Judith Leavitt’s, _Brought to Bed: Childbearing in America, 1750-1950_, and 4) Carroll Smith Rosenberg’s _Disorderly Conduct_.

Wow! Thanks Kristen. This is why a blog is so damn useful. I will definitely check out these sources. The Brumberg book sounds particulary interesting; perhaps it will provide a contrasting view with Wolf who seems to suggest early on that anorexia and other weight issues are more a reaction to the “Beauty Myth.”

I still need to respond to your last post re: Ken Burns and the classroom.

Sounds like a great class! My suggestion would be to make sure to consider the experiences of women of color. Many white feminists and traditional histories of “women in America” tend to neglect women of color.

Naomi Wolf’s book, for example, says nothing (as far as I remember) about the fact that American standards of beauty have been constructed in a patently racist fashion. Black women have their own “beauty myth” to cope with.

I’m guessing one of your first topics will be Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and the female suffrage movement. This would be a good time to discuss the issue of racism among white feminists. Here is Stanton on the issue of black men being granted the right to vote before women:

“The representative women of the nation have done their uttermost for the last thirty years to secure freedom for the negro, and so long as he was lowest in the scale of being we were allowed to press his claims; but now, as the celestial gate to civil rights is slowly moving on its hinges, it becomes a serious question whether we had better stand aside and see “Sambo” walk into the kingdom first.”

Then again, there were black women such as Sojourner Truth who agreed that women should not temper their rhetoric (although they obviously would have still taken umbrage at Stanton’s use of the “Sambo” stereotype).

Ida B. Wells and the movement against lynching would also be a good thing to cover around this time. There is a book by Adam Fairclough called “Better Day Coming” that has an excellent history of Ida B. Wells and central role played by black women’s organizations in the fight against lynching.

My other advice would be to resist the temptation to turn the class into a condescending list of “women’s contributions” to America. As teachers, we talk a lot about “race, class, and gender” but we ought to talk more about white supremacy, capitalism, and patriarchy.

It’s nice to talk about how oppressed groups struggle against odds and formulate their identities and turn them into a mode of empowerment. However, we need to also talk about the institutions and systems that force oppressed groups to develop those oppositional identities in the first place.

For example, I don’t think any class about gender would be complete with the pervasiveness of rape and sexual assault in America not being a central theme. I’ve seen studies that show that anywhere between a 1/3 to 1/2 of all women will be the victim of a rape or an attempted rape in their lifetime. If you expand the definition of “rape” to include unwanted sexual advances and sexual harrassment, the figure is probably close to 100%

And there is a racial component to this too. It is well known that (but perhaps not well known enough) white slave owners raped their female “property” with impunity during slavery, but not many know that the sexual exploitation of black women continued well into the 20th century.

Thank you very much for the suggestions Justin. I have been thinking of ways to integrate race into the class and your thoughts are quite helpful. I agree that _The Beauty Myth_ is missing a discussion of race. A discussion of rape and sexual assault will definitely be included. Thanks again.

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