All the history books I had to read in elementary school were filled with names of famous heroes and villains, but there were no women in most of these stories, and I never felt I could identify with any of the action.
What was I personally to pick up from reading about self-sacrifice, heroism, making a change in the world — in short, having a life that had some relevance beyond my own existence — if every single one of these books made it clear that women were not important, that they played secondary roles at best, and led historically insignificant lives at worse?
In addition, history seemed to revolve around political and military matters, both of which were completely unappealing to me.
It was much later, when I got to college, that I began to feel empowered to ask different questions and to think about making sense of history in a way that was closer to my experience of the world. I became a historian to be able to write differently about the past and offer new lenses for understanding the richness of our collective humanity: I wanted to see women being taken into account seriously, rather than marginally.
Having come of age as a scholar during the years of post-structuralist hegemony in the humanities, when deconstructing discourses and power relations was the norm, I took that approach as a necessary first step for critiquing the insufficiencies I observed in methodology, theory, and the ontological foundations of this discipline.
A quarter of a century later I find myself dissatisfied with this approach, which has done little to avert the fragmentation of our intellectual landscape. I would like to move toward taking greater risks in writing about the world whole, rather than fragmented. I also want to bring more hope and model optimism, even as I approach historical sources critically. There is less of it in the scholarly discourse today than two generations ago, and I believe the humanities need to play a more constructive role in academia than they have in the last three decades.
My current book project, “The Century of Women,” aims to blend judicious critique with audacious hope in radically altering the framework we use to make sense of the past, in this case the twentieth century. Imagine a clear canvas on which an enormous diversity of colors and shapes can be painted; this is how I want to start.
The first and most important question is: how do we determine that a historical fact is primary rather than secondary? Another way of thinking about this is to ask: what are the changes that have played the most significant long-term impact on humanity?
These questions allow me to lay bare our assumptions about what kinds of actions and people are relevant to understanding the fundamental elements of our past.
Since Herodotus, historians have taken it for granted that the stories about people holding political and military power (men) are the basic outline within which other events in the past have to be rendered meaningful.
But change is brought about first and foremost by life, rather than death, and by care-taking rather than limiting access; and women are responsible for most of the activities in both of these areas—bringing life into the world and taking care of those around them.
By starting from these assumptions, rather than giving in to the established frame of reference based on primarily political and military power, I want to articulate a very different set of arguments about what are the most important developments for humanity in the twentieth century, as well as what these developments bode for my children and the students I teach at IU as they become adults. This project is supported by a New Frontiers of Creativity and Scholarship grant.
Over the twentieth century, from the global population explosion to the political changes in granting 50 percent of humanity significantly more political and social rights, women have transformed their societies in unprecedented ways.
Without the creative spirit and economic activities (paid and unpaid) that women have contributed to altering how we think, how we feel, what we eat, where we live — all of them rising to unprecedented levels everywhere on the globe over the twentieth century — the world would not have developed as far and diversely as we observe, or even take for granted, today.
This book will encourage readers to think with greater appreciation about these contributions and to imagine solutions to contemporary problems that take into account a richer set of accomplishments, as well as continued forms of oppression with women as partners, rather than secondary players.