The writing of women's history has always been closely linked with contemporary feminist politics as well as with changes in the discipline of history itself. When women sought to question inequalities in their own lives they turned to history to understand the roots of their oppression and to see what they could learn from challenges that had been made in the past. If a woman's role could be shown to be socially constructed within a specific historical context, rather than natural and universal, then feminists could argue that it was open to change.
Activists within the first organised women's movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries found that women were largely absent from standard history texts and this inspired them to write their own histories. Detailed studies of women's work, trade unionism and political activities were produced by authors such as Barbara Hutchins, Barbara Drake and Alice Clark.(1)
Suffrage campaigners were also anxious that the achievement of the vote, and women's part in gaining this victory, should not become lost from view and therefore they took an active part in constructing a narrative of the campaign that would have a long-lasting influence on subsequent generations of historians. The Suffragette Fellowship and the Library of the London Society for Women's Service (successor of the London women's suffrage organisation led by Millicent Fawcett) were established in the 1920s to collect source material about the militant and constitutional sides of the movement respectively, while many campaigners produced autobiographies about the suffrage years. Ray Strachey and Sylvia Pankhurst, both participants in the suffrage campaign, wrote histories of the movement that are now considered classic texts.(2)
With the fragmentation of the women's movement after the First World War, however, these pioneering histories tended to be lost from view. Women's history continued to be written – there was a renewed interest, for example, in the history of women's suffrage during the 1950s and early 60s – but these studies had little influence on the writing of history more generally or on the academic curriculum.
It was the Women's Liberation Movement (WLM), or 'second wave feminism', from the late 1960s that would have the greatest impact on the writing of women's history. Political activists again pointed to the lack of references to women in standard texts and sought to re-discover women's active role in the past. Sheila Rowbotham produced a pioneering study, Hidden From History,(3) that was followed by detailed investigations into varied aspects of women's lives, including employment, trade unionism, women's organisations, family life and sexuality. A context was provided by developments in social history and the social sciences that sought to recover the history of less powerful groups – 'history from below' – and challenged conventional wisdoms about what should be seen as historically significant.
Feminists made a distinctive contribution to these developments by highlighting women's specific experiences in institutions such as the family, drawing attention to the significance of sexual divisions in the workplace and in the home and exploring the interconnections between public and private life. By looking at history through women's eyes they questioned familiar chronologies and notions of time and argued that family concerns, emotional support and personal relationships were just as important as waged work and politics. In doing so they went beyond putting women back into a familiar framework and began to reconfigure the way in which history in the broadest sense was written.
Women's history and feminist history are often used interchangeably but this serves to play down the specific approach of feminist historians. Feminists argue that the power relationship between men and women is just as important as that between social classes in understanding social change, and that a recognition of conflicts between men and women leads to a re-interpretation of standard accounts of social movements and ideas, as well as opening up new areas of enquiry. Thus, Barbara Taylor's study of women's involvement in Owenite Socialism (4) provided a new lens through which to understand the aims and ideas of that movement. Although women are usually the subject of feminist history that is not invariably the case, since a feminist approach can be used to understand all areas of history. For example, Sonya Rose and Wendy Webster have brought feminist insights to the study of national identity, race and citizenship during the Second World War and the post-war years.(5)
The writing of women's history flourished in the 1970s and 80s, in particular in the United States and Britain, although there were differences of emphasis and approach that mirrored divisions within the contemporary women's movement, in particular between radical and socialist feminists. In the United States research concentrated on a separate women's culture, the growth of all-female institutions, the family and sexuality. In Britain, where labour history was much stronger and many feminists had come out of a socialist politics, the emphasis was on waged work, trade union organisation and labour politics.
In trying to make sense of women's specific experiences socialist historians explored the complex relationship between Marxism and feminism and introduced the concept of patriarchy to help make sense of the fact that 'women have not only worked for capital, they have worked for men'.(6) The boundaries between the different approaches did, however, become more fluid over time – for example Sally Alexander's study of working-class movements (7) in the early 19th century examined how the unconscious entered politics and how the understanding of self and sexual identity would change our understanding of class.
Within the women's movement there was growing criticism about the predominance of white, western heterosexual women and their concerns and this affected the writing of women's history. Greater attention was paid to the differences between women, including race, ethnicity, class and sexual orientation. Lesbian historians sought to rescue their history from invisibility and drew attention to the ways in which men's control over women's bodies underpins patriarchy. In the Spinster and her Enemies, for instance, Sheila Jeffreys argued that the social construction of heterosexuality in the late 19th century helped to maintain male power.(8)
Studies of Black and Asian women highlighted the importance of race as well as sex and class in shaping their lives, while insisting that they were not a monolithic group but had a diverse range of experiences. Similarly, important studies by Antoinette Burton, Vron Ware and Claire Midgley (9) drew attention to the complex relationship between 'first wave' feminists and empire, and to the ethnocentrism of their views.
Despite the growth of research into women's history mainstream history texts and educational courses often ignored women's experiences and there was a tendency to view women's history as separate from other developments. In the 1990s, therefore, Jane Rendall and others called for a new gender history that would apply the themes raised by women's history to both sexes and would focus on the varied ways in which gender differences across time and place have been constructed and understood. In its first editorial, Gender and History claimed that the journal's intentions were to study male institutions as well as those defined as female and to address men and masculinity as well as women and femininity.
Davidoff and Hall's study of family and work in Birmingham (10) during early industrialisation is a good example of such an approach, where the complex connections between family relationships, sex roles, work and the development of class identity are seen to be gendered. An emphasis on gender-centred history has been controversial – for some feminists it implies that women's specific experiences will be lost from view within an approach that sees the interests of the sexes as similar. It is suggested, therefore, that a focus on women's history is the only way to ensure that sexual inequalities and the power relationship between men and women remain central to historical enquiry.
Postmodernism has also influenced the theory and practice of gender and women's history. The emphasis on language and discourse has challenged old feminist certainties about lived experience, the nature of women's subordination and the use of the category woman. There has been a shift away from an interest in the material conditions of women's lives towards a concern with representation, symbolism, discourse and the text. The 'new cultural history', however, has proved to be contentious. Mary Maynard (11) has argued that lived experience is mediated not just through discourse and the text but also through material structures and relationships. Nonetheless, it has opened up new areas of enquiry such as the female body, the emotions and the construction of historical memory as well as drawing attention to the shifting, multiple and often conflicting ways in which women develop gendered identities.
Although gender history has increased in popularity, research into women's history continues to thrive. In contrast to the period of 'first wave feminism' the study of women's history did not become lost once the WLM began to lose momentum. The expansion of higher education opened up more jobs for women academics who were able to influence the curriculum and to introduce women's history courses. Publishing outlets increased with the development of a women's press, notably Virago and Honno, and new journals, including the Journal of Women's History, Gender and History and the Women's History Review.
Various groups have been formed to give women's history a voice, to promote the study of women's history and to maintain links with contemporary feminist activists. In 1991 leading women historians came together to launch the Women's History Network (WHN). The WHN encourages contact between all people with an interest in women's history, whatever their background or qualifications, and aims to promote research into all areas of women's history. Its annual conference provides a space for sharing recent developments in the field and for meeting other researchers.
The International Federation for Research in Women's History (IFRWH), established in 1987, has similar aims and encourages co-operation across national boundaries. The retrieval of sources has also been crucial in ensuring the continuing growth of women's history. The Women's Library, part of London Metropolitan University, plays a pivotal role here – as well as providing an internationally renowned resource, it also promotes women's history through varied events and seeks to inspire debate in the area. Regional archives, including the Feminist Archive (North and South) and Women's Archive of Wales have also played a key part in rescuing sources and promoting the study of women's history.
Women's history is now far more embedded in the curriculum in higher education than half a century ago, the number of professors in women's history has increased and there are far more publishing outlets. On the other hand women's studies courses both at undergraduate and at postgraduate level have declined over the same period and many mainstream history texts still give little space to women and their specific experiences. In this context it remains important to promote research into women's history both inside the academy and in the wider community. The close relationship between contemporary feminist politics and historical practice means that women's history is still able to excite enthusiasm and is constantly changing, developing new areas to research and new concepts and approaches with which to analyse them.
June Hannam is professor of Modern British History at the University of the West of England. She has been closely involved in the Women's History Network since its inception and is a member of the editorial board of the Women's History Review.