[girl]Women’s suffrage. Women’s liberation. For many students, these two subjects may represent the extent of their knowledge on women’s history. And while the history of women encompasses far more than giving women the right to vote or the second wave movement of feminism, prior to the 1970s, the women\’s studies field was nearly nonexistent. For this reason, organizations like the National Women’s History Project have helped to establish and promote the celebration of March as Women’s History Month. “The month was created during the aftermath of the 1970s women’s movement as a consequence of women’s liberation,” said Lisa Fine, history professor and interim director of the Program in Women, Gender, and Social Justice. “It was an effort to commemorate women as actually having a history.”
In the books
Fine believes Women’s History Month plays an important role in increasing public awareness, which is beneficial to history as a whole. She sees the celebration as being especially important in lower education, although it is often oversimplified in classrooms. Still, some history is better than no history.
“Historically, women have been left out of history and must be written back into it,” said Lydia Weiss, a sociology junior and the director of the MSU Women’s Council. “Otherwise, it will be assumed that women never made history, and that is just not true. Women have had extremely significant impacts on the history of this country and abroad. It is essential for women, especially young girls, to realize that women have the power to make a difference, and what better place to learn that than in school in a history course.”
For many students, women\’s history courses provide an opportunity to learn history from a perspective that was left out of traditional textbooks. “Ideally, men and women\’s history will be one entity,” Weiss said. “But currently they are not because women are not covered in typical history classes…and many people never learn about the wonderful gains women have made throughout history unless they take a women\’s studies or women\’s history class.”
Grace Wojcik, an interdisciplinary social science junior, enrolled in a women\’s history class for that reason. “I wanted to take a women’s history course because of the fact that most history classes focus on male history and events that happened with men,” Wojcik said. Wojcik is currently taking Women in the U.S. Since 1869, an American women’s history course taught by Fine.
Advertising junior Phil Squier took the class in order to “round out” his knowledge of history. “I have always liked history and I have taken a few history courses… This class looks at history through the different perspective of women’s history,” Squier said. “It’s interesting to learn about what hasn’t been written.”
[suffrage]Traditionally, history books have highlighted the accomplishments of men: brave war struggles, admirable moves made in the Oval Office, determined negotiations with foreign nations. Men have been at the forefront of the nation’s historical development, and as a consequence, women usually do not get equal attention. “I had never realized how women weren’t making it into the history books, how a lot of their history had been skipped over like it didn’t exist,” Squier said.
History books tend to take a different tone when students move beyond elementary and middle school. In higher education, women’s history courses have provided many students with a new perspective on historical events. “Over the years, students have said they have never looked at history this way before,” Fine said. “It’s looking at history through a different lens, which can be eye-opening. Some students will get mad, some will gain perspective,” she said.
The curriculum allows students to extend their knowledge about women’s history past the broad themes and topics that have always been emphasized. “I knew about major things [in women’s history], but it’s interesting to learn about the little stuff that’s not publicized or deemed as a big deal: things like women in trade union leagues or how radical suffragists were for their time, that they believed in other causes, too,” Wojcik said.
Another professor in the history department, Anne Meyering, sees women\’s history as “a form of social history that just asks different questions.”
The historical lens
The current methods historians have used to approach the study of women’s history have undergone a number of changes since the field’s inception in the 1970s. It began with the “victim school” way of thinking, Fine said. The victim school involved documenting the ways by which society treated women as second-class citizens. At the time, Fine said that this was both “disturbing and empowering” for women.
Also, during this time, the ‘stir and mix’ method of women’s history was prominent. Stir and mix involved the view that “there were also women” present in the past, Meyering said. Under this method, historians simply added women to existing records of history, creating an illusion of balance.
Following these schools of thought, women’s history began to concentrate on famous women of the past and the specific contributions of women, Fine said. This included honoring women like Betsy Ross, the wives of presidents, and “women firsts,” such as the first astronaut and the first woman to serve in Congress. Today, thanks to the emergence of social history, women’s history has shifted toward looking at common women. Social history encourages viewing society from the bottom up instead of simply admiring those women who have risen to the top of a social scale. And while these changes have added new perspectives to the field, Fine said the older methods of studying women are still practiced by a number of historians.
“Women’s historians look at women within their context, operating in their own worlds,” Fine said. “There are still people doing victim school work, which adds layers to how women’s history is studied.”
Female futures
The most recent changes to the field of women’s history involve what Fine described as a movement into gender. This new form of study involves looking at history in terms of gender and the ways the genders relate to one another, rather than just looking at women. A gendered view of history also requires seeing the genders as being complimentary, Fine said.
As a part of gender history, it is also important to realize the diversity within the concept of gender. “Gender is not just male and female – there are also transgendered people,” Meyering said. “[People often see only gender as] men and women, yin and yang … black and white.”
The curriculum at MSU allows students with many majors and specializations to select from a variety of women’s history courses. The majority of such courses are history classes, such as Women in the United States to 1869 or Families in Historic Perspective. Students can choose Women’s Studies as a specialization as well, which is a recent development at MSU, considering how long women have been a part of history. Additionally, many of the courses offered dealing with women\’s history have begun transititions into gender history.
Meyering believes gender history is a “major revolution in the way we think of humanity.” She said it involves criticizing and breaking down the conventional ways of thinking. Since women’s history and the methods by which historians and students study that history evolve as time goes on, the celebration of Women’s History Month will continue to be an important tradition for recognizing women’s contributions.
Although celebrating Women\’s History Month is important, some argue women\’s contributions should be recognized year-round. “I agree with having a time to recognize that women make a difference in the world, but I think it is ridiculous that we are expected to celebrate women for a month,” Weiss said. “Same goes for Black history or Chicano history months as well. It suggests that we are supposed to set aside a little chunk of time during the year to celebrate this group of people, but we must realize how marginalizing this is. I personally celebrate women every day of my life.”

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