Appropriate Textbooks for Women's History Discussion (October 1998)


Query From Darcy Martin martinj@etsu.edu 06 Oct 1998

A fellow graduate student and I are having an ongoing discussion about appropriate texts for use in upper division women's history, in this case American women's history since 1945.

She objects to the use of literature such as autobiographies, novels as part of the texts and wants "real" history books. I disagree and believe that literature can enrich the presentation of the subject matter. Important, I think, is constructing an appropriate contextual framework for the material and that is often lacking. I am finding that presentation of "recent" history by my professors seems more difficult than "early" history. I'm not sure this makes any sense but am curious to learn what others may think.

Books used in this class include Homeward Bound, Lakota Woman, Divided Lives, Divided Sisters, The Body Project, The Good Mother, Where the Girls Are, and a few selected readings. Thanks.

Responses:

From Connie Ostrowski ostroc@rpi.edu 06 Oct 1998

Your colleague's objection to autobiographies as not "real" history is unfortunate---and seems to stem at least in part from her classification of them as "literature." While autobiography has often been granted literary status for several reasons, it also sits in the realm of of non-fiction, which has usually *not* been accorded literary status.

Of course, in the widest sense of the word "literature" as written text, autobiography certainly is--but so are "real" history books. (By the way, I agree with you that literature--in the aesthetic, literary sense--*can* enrich the presentation of subject matter.

But here enters my question as to what your colleague's definition of "history" is--"just the facts, ma'am" in terms of presentation of and analysis/interpretation of data (an inheritance from the male-based tradition) or does she grant that an understanding of the zeitgeist--the spirit of the times--the less tangible (in a sense). the less quantifiable (points of data to be chronologically graphed) events and perceptions by people who lived, even if they don't have academic credentials or fame in the public (usually political) sphere? I sense that she's leaning toward the former in rejecting autobiographies as not "real" history books (though of course I could be wrong).

From Helen Bannan bannan@vaxa.cis.uwosh.edu 08 Oct 1998

On the use of novels and autobiographies to teach Women's History: those of us with interdisciplinary inclinations are predisposed to come out in favor of using a variety of sources. But I also remember my graduate History seminars in the early 1970s with Nelson Blake, a well-respected social historian, who emphasized the need to balance the "cold facts" of history with the "hot truth" of fiction, that could distill the essence of an experience of a bygone era and make it resonate in the future.

I paraphrase Blake at the beginning of every history class I teach, to explain why I always use at least one novel. I also echo the 70s feminist slogan--the personal is political. By focusing on the personal, novels arouse empathy which helps students understand the human dimensions of historical trends.

From Joan Gundersen gunderj@elon.edu 08 Oct 1998

While literature has its place in history courses, I think the key here is that the history course is an upper division course. Students at the upper division should be held to a strong introduction to historical interpretation and historiography. That requires the use of materials WRITTEN by historians. My own preference is for fewer monographs and more use of scholarly articles. The readings already represent a range of historical and primary source material - Lakota Woman, after all is autobiography (primary). As an early Americanist, however, I'd never say it is easier to teach the early periods, especially given the amount of presentism in interpretation that we have to overcome to get to understanding of a previous era. Each period has its own challenges from the earliest to the most recent.

From emily mieras <emieras@stetson.edu> 08 Oct 1998

Re: Darcy Martin's query about appropriate textbooks for women's history

I believe both autobiographies and literature are valid and valuable sources to use in teaching an upper-division women's history class. Autobiographies provide first-hand insight into the times they describe and can help make an era come to life by presenting it through the eyes of someone who actually experienced it. Of course, autobiography is constructed like any other text; authors decide what to put in/leave out, etc. But there's no reason the issue of how a writer chooses to tell her story can't also be part of classroom inquiry.

A so-called "real" history text, it seems to me, is the ultimate constructed text, and I don't really know why a scholarly book should be presented as more reliable than an autobiography; it's just a very different type of source. (I am not trying to de-value monographs, just to point out that they have limitations too!) My goal in a women's history course (or any history course, for that matter) would be partly to show students these different types of sources and help them learn how to be critical readers of all texts.

As for literature, I agree w/the others that it, too, is a valuable source, as long as it's presented as representation and discussed as a product of its times.

To make "real" history books the greatest authority is troubling to me because it affirms the idea that the historian is the ultimate interpreter of the past and that there is some version of truth that will emerge via scholarly work that cannot emerge in an individual novel or autobiography-writer's description of their own times. In contrast, a course that uses different types of texts (from historical sources to autobio to lit to other primary sources like letters)would replicate the process of research itself by providing students with different types of evidence. I think that would be a really valuable learning experience.

From Deborah L. Blackwell dlblackw@falcon.tamucc.edu 08 Oct 1998

In response to your question Darcy, I must agree with the earlier posting by Connie Ostrowski about the very real benefits of using novels and autobiographies in history classes. As an example, I'm using Anzia Yezierska's autobiographical novel Bread Givers in my upper level women's history class this semester, and I've used Anne Moody's Coming of Age in Mississippi on several occasions as well. In my experience, students welcome the chance to read something different and something that frankly engages them to a much greater extent than the usual supposedly "real" history texts. And if they are given enough context and discussion time to help them sort through it all, most students can see the ways in which these works relate to an overall class discussion. Many of the women in my class also find these sources compelling because they see resonances in their own lives. I use novels and autobiographies as one of those sneaky ways teachers can get students to actually learn something and enjoy it at the same time--the spoonful of sugar, so to speak.

From Alan LaBeouf labeouf@netquarters.net08 Oct 1998

Recently developed a course for women's history for sophs . . . not quite upper class but maybe my experience may shed some light on student feedback about books/articles used.

The course had never been taught at the school before and I had 11 female takers and one gentleman. Began with colonial and went through at least to civil rights. I ran the course more like a seminar.

Used: Women and the National Experience:Primary Sources in American History by Ellen Skinner, and Women and Gender in Postwar American, 1945-1960: Not June Cleaver, Meyerowitz, Joanne ed. The course was more driven by scholarly articles from colonial to the 60s. I used no literature (but was tempted). Literature gives a nice dimension to a course; however, time does not always allow the luxury of a nicety when the core of information takes priority.

Feedback: Students loved the Primary Sources book because most had never read primary sources. They really liked the articles because they were manageable and made sense to them. The last book was also well received.

I had quite a time keeping the conversation from from jumping to current social women's issues but stayed my ground. The overarching question throughout was whether women's history was mainstream or minority (Grob & Billias). I found the students thoughtful & curious.

I had originally thought in terms of presenting women's history through a text.
Maybe the best would be to have American History I and II be required reading as a framework. Then a course on Women's History could logically build on that.
Joanne LaBeouf

From kazukai numata Kazukai@aol.com 08 Oct 1998

I should start by warning you that I have an undergraduate degree in both English and History and hold both disciplines in the highest esteem when one informs the other.

In answer to your question about the use of literature and autobiography in a women's history class, I think it is important to remember that women's voices are for more represented in the literary field than in the historical one. These texts inform historical study by prevalencing women's voices in their own terms and perhaps enhance primary source documents collected by men about women.

I think, what may be the larger issue at hand, whether you two are asking it or not, is "What is history?" Is history and "objective" pursuit of the "facts" or is it informed by what people in the past thought was important, the questions the historian finds important, the social interests of the day and colored by the narrative in which it is written, i.e. the language chosen to convey the history.

Haden White wrote a fairly interesting book on history and narrativity that address some of this.