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From the Archives… Women’s History

In a 1990 Journal of American History piece, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich recounted her experiences working with archivists about her dissertation on colonial women. As she recalled, “they usually said, with raised eyebrows, ‘You won’t find much here.’ … At most archives there were few finding aids and almost no card catalog of entries under my topic. There was also a heavy air of skepticism. Conditions have certainly improved since then.” Likewise, conditions have changed in the 27 years since the publication of Ulrich’s essay. As Cornelia H. Dayton and Lisa Levenstein pointed out in a 2012 state of the field on “The Big Tent of U.S. Women’s and Gender History” published in the Journal of American History, the field of women’s and gender history has expanded enormously in recent years. In honor of International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month, we peeked into the Journal of American History’s archives for some of the research that has contributed to this efflorescence.

In an open-access 2015 article for the JAH’s Carceral State special issue, Kali Nicole Gross investigates the history of African American women and mass incarceration. She argues that since the seventeenth century, black women in America have not been “entitled to the law’s protection, though they could not escape its punishment.” Throughout American history, she notes, black womanhood has been tied up in a dynamic of exclusionary protection that has contributed to the overrepresentation of African American women in prison.

In her 2014 article “Tippling Ladies and the Making of Consumer Culture: Gender and Public Space in Fin-de-Siècle Chicago,” historian Emily A. Remus discusses the rise of the “lady tippler” as an object of anxiety in turn-of-the-century Chicago. Many upper-class women sought to take part in a new culture of public alcohol consumption, but faced a backlash from Chicagoans who viewed this behavior as unwomanly. At stake, Remus argues, was the legitimacy of women’s “pleasure-seeking in the city’s new commercial public spaces.” Remus also created a Teaching the JAH web resource as a companion for this article.

Examining the discourse surrounding breast-feeding in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Nora Doyle’s 2011 article argues that an emerging “rhetoric of pleasure in representations of breast-feeding contributed to the development of a sentimental maternal ideal that would dominate white middle-class conceptions of womanhood into the mid-nineteenth century.” Yet many women had difficulty keeping up with this prescriptive ideal. In contrast to this rhetoric, Doyle finds, many mothers writing about their experiences described a “more ambivalent than sentimental” relationship with breastfeeding.

Wendy Warren’s 2007 article “’The Cause of Her Grief’: The Rape of a Slave in Early New England” examines the story of one women whose “sole appearance in historical documentation occurs in one paragraph of a seventeenth-century colonial travelogue.” Although few hard facts exist about this unnamed woman’s life and the circumstances of her assault, Warren meticulously reconstructs part of the woman’s story based on surviving evidence of slavery in seventeenth-century New England. In the process, she argues that “African slaves and sexual abuse existed alongside Puritan fathers, Indian wars, and town meetings in colonial New England.”

Linda K. Kerber’s “Separate Spheres, Female Worlds, Woman’s Place: The Rhetoric of Female History” (1988) is one of the most-cited articles in the Journal. In this piece, Kerber carefully traces the origins of twentieth-century women’s historians’ emphasis on a woman’s “sphere” as a central fact of women’s experience in the past, particularly in antebellum American society. Walking readers through decades of scholarship on women’s history, Kerber deconstructs the trope of “separate spheres” as a device used by “people in the past to characterize power relations for which they had no other words” and by historians who needed to “dispel the confusion of anecdote and impose narrative and analytical order on the anarchy of inherited evidence.” Melding the historical and historiographic, she asked “why feminists of every generation—the 1830s, the 1880s, the 1960s—have needed to define their enemy in this distinctively geographical way?”