Framing the American Past to Better Understand Women and Gender History with UC Davis Professors Ellen Hartigan -O’Conner and Lisa Materson
[Trigger warning: This transcript and related audio recording contains material about sexual violence.]
Today we’re going on record with Professors Ellen Hartigan-O’Connor and Lisa Materson. Both women are historians at UC Davis who specialize in women’s and gender history. Together they co-edited The Oxford Handbook of American Women’s and Gender History, which consists of 30 analytical chapters covering topics such as women in U.S. imperialism, interracial unions and state power, gender and sexuality in popular culture and women’s work under free and unfree labor regimes.
Caitlan McCafferty: Welcome professors.
Ellen Hartigan-O’Connor: Thank you for having us.
Lisa Materson: Thank you for having us.
Caitlan McCafferty: I’m so excited to talk to you today. Your work is so important as we celebrate and reflect during Women’s History Month. And personally, I’m just thrilled to talk to you because I love history and I love learning more about it and having these conversations.
Describe your backgrounds as women and gender historians.
I study women gender and economic culture in the 18th and early 19th centuries. I’m interested in women as buyers, sellers and the sold. My first book was on women’s economic networks in the late 18th century highlighting the fact that consumption is not an individual act, but it is embedded in all kinds of relationships including who you owed allegiance to and who you were buying on behalf of and that kind of thing. I’m now working on a book on auctions and market culture, looking at all of the different kinds of auctions that took place in the 18th and 19th century, and the way they created ideas about gender in their method, in the bidding itself kind of made capitalism all about gender from the beginning.
I am a specialist in U.S. women’s and gender history in the so-called modern period, the late 19th into the 20th century. I specialize specifically, on women’s political history, U.S. women’s political history. I wrote a book on African-American women’s electoral activism between the 1870s and the 1930s. This is a period that’s often described as the nadir of black life in America, justifiably so, and I explored the ways that African-American women use their access to the vote, even when it was limited, to engage in a larger effort to extend civil rights to their communities and to those communities that were in other parts of the country, particularly in the South where there’s significant disfranchisement, initially of African-American men and then extended after the 19th amendment to African-American women.
I’m completing a book on women’s involvement in the Puerto Rican independence movement. And again, I remain animated by questions of the intersections of ideas of citizenship, gender inclusion, exclusion in the American body politics. And then of course Ellen and I have collaborated quite a bit. We have the handbook and we are in some continuing collaborations in various public history engagements.
Could you describe the feeling of being asked to produce a book that would be the first of its kind to illustrate the history of an entire continent through women and their contributions to the nation? How did you approach this monumental project?
It was a monumental experience working on it and a highly pleasurable one. We had been having conversations for years. I mean, we’re very fortunate to be working together at our university and with Ellen working on the earlier period and me on the later period, we have been having these conversations for years about the larger narrative of American women’s and gender history. We knew that there were all of these fascinating stories and we knew that it’s so meaningful to students when they hear these stories. With this information, they really start to grapple with the idea that most of the history that they have learned was written primarily with sources from men that had served as the representation of all American history.
It was not just meaningful; it really was transformative in their sense of the past and their contemporary world. Just one example that I often use in my teaching that is significant in helping them make this connection is one of a painting of the past, of the historical past, because oftentimes people come to American women’s and gender history or women’s and gender history and they think, “Well, this is really a picture of the past that’s already been painted and all we need to do is to paint a woman here and paint a woman there, and it will become more complete.” And it’s really about a complete repainting, the whole landscape of history is foundationally different when we bring women and gender and its toolkit to the table. But it’s challenging too.
Yes. So, the question is then how do you do that? Right? And we have developed different strategies in our teaching of course, of how to do it, but when we sat down to map out the handbook, our first thought was to try to align the organization with somewhat the conventional narrative of North American and U.S. history. So we had three sections. We had the colonial period, we had the 19th century and we had the 20th century. These are conventional ways that you break up the American story. And the reason we did this initially, was we wanted readers to be able to immediately perceive the significance, right? That this wasn’t a narrative that was happening in the laundry room, and wasn’t directly connected to all the big issues of American history. So we wrote it out that way and it completely didn’t work, right? It didn’t work for a number of reasons.
One of the reasons it didn’t work is that there’s no such thing as women, right? There isn’t a single definition of women that applies to all. So, for instance, we had a chapter on what’s sometimes called the sexual revolution of the late 18th and early 19th century, where white women are able to get more control over their reproductive lives. But that was a turning point linked to revolution, a political revolution that didn’t make any sense for poor women and women of color. And so trying to shoehorn into that national narrative was really confusing. The other example I give is, the way we organized it, there was no way to explain why women were doing laundry in the 17th century and they’re still doing laundry in the 21st century because it would pop up in different places. And that wasn’t an argument we wanted to engage in. Why is this the case about reproductive labor? So we scrapped it, and we moved ahead.
We really thought about what are some of the guiding features that we want to bring to the table in putting together this larger volume to create a synthetic history of where there is no synthesis, where there is an unstable category, the category of woman is unstable. And so we made a few key decisions. One of the key decisions that we made was that because woman is a historical category, we would use the volume as an opportunity to probe the boundaries of the category of woman. What is the category of woman, when it is being employed, and for whose sake?
So, to really think about for whose sake is the category of woman legally, economically being employed.
We also decided that gender history did not mean giving men and women equal time in telling this history. Rather, we want it to be very conscious of when and why individuals, groups, communities employed ideas about masculinity or femininity and for what purpose. And we also wanted to have a through line of thinking about when there was transgressions or perceived transgressions of the male, female binary. These were conversations we had about how to see some through lines. What we landed on were three toolkits or framing devices of the field and one of them is intersectionality.
This is something that is more widely known these days as a result of more recent activism, but it’s an important category and we decided that this is one of the framing devices for approaching this through line of history. We also wanted to highlight transnationalism as a through line. This is foundational to the history of women, American women, U.S. women. And then finally to really think about what is the archive, to interrogate the archive and to think about what are the methodologies and the tools that women’s historians offer in terms of piercing the silences of the archive, I guess, is one way to put it. So that’s a lot and we can pick this up, it’s pretty fun. But we put a lot of thought into what are the through lines so that we don’t just have, as Ellen said, women doing laundry in the 1700s in one chapter and in another chapter, but not thinking about what is the kind of framing devices of the field and the firepower of the field for repainting that picture.
This is so interesting because we are still unpacking why women aren’t a monolith. I think a lot of people that write about women in present day, so media, political journalism, specifically, I think have a difficulty writing about women and their differences, and not just the decisions or the polls that we all end up in. And importantly, that we include all people that identify as female when we consider women.
I think that’s fascinating and that’s very connected to what we do as an agency when we’re talking about communications and when we’re thinking about these issues.
How does the handbook help future historians organize their thoughts around gender and how a society’s understanding of gender impacts events?
I think I would want to just take one of these three framing devices that I mentioned because these are intersectionality interrogating and the archive thinking about the life lived experiences of women in a transnational context. If we took intersectionality, for example, this is a critical piece of women’s and gender history, but moving forward for future historians, for future contemporary journalists, people engaging in questions about women and gender. I mean, to really think about that there is no single category of woman, that there’s no monolithic category of woman, that it’s important to think about where an individual woman or group of women are positioned in society, and that women of itself and the experiences of privilege and subordination, are shaped by where someone lives in the country, historically freedom and unfreedom, their sexuality, their able-bodiedness and their race and ethnicity, their class, etc.
Let me draw an example that appears in the book and it appears in my teaching. This is about a young woman named Celia. So we don’t know her last name, she was enslaved and she was purchased from a Missouri farmer when she was about 14, in 1850. And from the first, he intended to abuse her sexually. So from the first, this is an abusive relationship and this is supported by the law of the time which said that an enslaved person is property, and an owner can use an enslaved person or any piece of property for whatever purpose they want. And she lives on his farm for five years, she gives birth to children and she’s pregnant a third time and he comes at her again and she defends herself.
She hits back at him with a stick and she ends up killing him. And then she tries to hide what she’s done. She knows the significance of what she’s done, and she burns his body and it’s incredibly visceral and upsetting story. And she’s found out, she’s found out and she confesses and there’s a trial for murder. And there’s so many interesting things about this. So under the law, she’s a piece of property and yet she’s tried for murder, for having a will to defend herself. And, at the time actually Missouri law said that women, they could use deadly force to “Protect her honor.” And so part of what was going on in this trial is the question, “Is Celia a woman who has honor that can be protected, she’s being tried, or is she property and so doesn’t have any honor to defend and ultimately isn’t a woman in the eyes of the law.”
And it’s interesting to point out of course, because she was enslaved. She couldn’t testify on her own behalf. So there’s this back and forth between, is she a woman? Is she enslaved? Can a person be both at the same time? And as in all cases of intersectionality in these circumstances, she’s the one who suffers, right? I mean, she is convicted, she appealed but she ends up being executed. One of the things that always strikes people here, her enslaver had three daughters, and they knew what was going on. And there was no sisterly sympathy. There was no sense of shared womanhood. And so how can you say, in a case like this, that the woman’s opinion was X or women were seen this way in the 1850s. It’s just so vivid the way these different experiences exist and they couldn’t oppose their father either because they were completely dependent on him for all these other gendered reasons, so that these intersections of identity law and oppression really come out in these kind of stories. And I think there’s a connection to modern day assumptions about who are you going to be sympathetic to? Presumed women’s sympathies for other women. And what that means.
I’m curious too, in your studies, did that case go further than say the trial court or wherever it was locally?
Yes, it did. They appealed it all the way up to the Missouri Supreme court because there’s a precedent being set here. There’s a precedent being set of, “To what degree is this a woman who has this legal right, but also this recognition of her will being determinative.” Whether that will being to murder, which is what a murder trial would be about, or self-defense, and can you have this kind of gendered self-defense? She lost her appeal.
It’s also worth mentioning that the justice, the so-called justice system waited. She was pregnant. So they waited until she gave birth to her child, who I believe was ultimately still born, but they waited until she gave birth to her child until they executed her. That ultimately speaks to the ways that this embodiment of intersectionality also played out in terms of its connection to the law and this defining of some women within the category of women, every women at the category of woman and how that is tied to their reproductive lives. How that is tied to their lived experiences of violation and, as I just mentioned, their reproductive lives.
Why is it important to you to showcase not only women’s and gender history, but also the scholars whose intellectual innovation continues to bring women’s stories to life?
We were very deliberate in inviting multiple or several generations of scholars to contribute to the handbook because we stand on the shoulders of the generations of scholars and they’re not too many. It is a relatively newer field compared to U.S. history. We’re saying something very different, that it’s not a sub-field, that it’s a methodology, an approach to understanding the past. And I wanted to make that distinction since we’re throwing these words around. We are the beneficiaries of the intellectual firepower and still the struggle to enter into the Academy, and to say this is what counts as history, this is history, this is a methodological approach and so we want it to showcase the diverse frameworks that multiple generations have brought.
And multiple kinds of scholars. I would say that the field of women’s and gender history has always had within it, the way all fields do, its own blind spots, its own prevailing assumptions that need to be taken down, like the early work on American women’s history tended to be about white women and tended to make assumptions about all women. And so it was the vital contribution of scholars of color to push on this and say, “This requires a broader analysis, this requires drawing insights from other fields because you’re presuming things about your own subject that you don’t even see.” And so we worked hard on that too, to make sure that we had people with all kinds of different interests, all kinds of different identities bringing their scholarship together to paint this picture.
What is a story that has stuck with you throughout your work? And what does it say about the experience of people that identify as female?
I’m going to start with a person we don’t have a name for, and this is a point I want to make too, and this is particularly for my period, right? You often don’t have a woman’s name because there’s no reason why it would have been written down in the kinds of evidence that historians use. I’m an economic historian, right? And one of the things that’s absolutely amazing to realize is, when you think about early American economics, when think about trade, I think about hats. So I think about those big black hats that all those guys wore. Either the military hats or the other kinds of… if you look at any early modern painting, portraits, if they’re outdoors that were in a big black hat. And of course that was made out of beaver felt, and that came from international fur trade.
And the international fur trade depended utterly on indigenous women, right? Because the way European fur traders got connected to hunting, the way they got connected to trade, was by travel and intermarriage and relationships within networks that already existed among indigenous people and then trying to monetize them. And without partnering with indigenous women, they would have died and nobody would have fed them, and that would have been the end, no hats in Europe. So, here is this absolutely essential part of something that is right in our faces about trade and about consumer goods that you don’t see if you define economic history as export figures, right? You wouldn’t see any of these indigenous women right in those. But if you define it as being about family, basically, and so then you think, “Well, let’s see what the church records say about intermarriage. Let’s see what we can find and an offhand comment that some Jesuit priest made about alliances going on.” That’s when you see them, and that’s when they come forward.
So that’s plug for the unnamed. Now that said, I work hard at trying to bring more names into the forefront. Lisa had mentioned earlier that she and I are working on a project with the national park service in which we’re going around to parks in the West and the Pacific specifically to write little bios of women who were affiliated with the parks, so that if someone wants to search about Redwoods Park, they can find a woman affiliated with it and so there does need to be a balance, right? Between saying we’ve got to have names and searching for names, sometimes we leave stuff out.
Indeed. So many important stories out there that are waiting to be told. For me, it’s a hard question and I appreciate Ellen coming down with a single answer because the two of us have talked many times about so many different stories that are important to teach and to bring to light. I think to pick one for me, I’m always returning to the history of the pill or the female oral contraceptive, that is often called the pill, that the FDA approved in 1960 and very quickly became widely used by women in the United States. And it was liberating for millions of women to have more control over their reproductive lives and that was something that became a right legally because there were supreme court cases that made it constitutional to have a realm of privacy to have access to contraception, first for married couples and then for unmarried individuals.
But the history of the pill was not liberating for everyone and just one example is that it was something that one of the main G.D. Searle companies that developed the pill did initial testing on low-income women in communities in Puerto Rico or U.S. colony, and many women experienced a significant and very harmful side effects. They were in essence being used as a test group and they were not informed of this. And so to think about the sexual revolution, for example, it requires a greater awareness. So for me, it’s exemplary of paying attention to the context in which different histories are being told and recovered.
I guess the last thing that I would say with regard to that specific example is that it also points to the difference between reproductive rights and reproductive justice. I mentioned the right, the legal right to have access to contraception or to a legal abortion. But as women activists of color have pointed out and mobilized around, a right is not enough, it’s context in which reproductive choices are made, and this gets back to this issue of intersectionality. To really understand the choices that a low-income woman is making about her reproductive life, for example, she may have a right to certain things, but is she in a position to make certain choices even with that right that are just? So that’s the other piece of this why I would pick this as the history that I’m always coming back to, and it makes me think a lot about the difference between rights and justice more generally, but also in terms of, I mean, specifically in terms of reproduction, but just more generally.
And thinking about that story too, in the present moment, it really gives you some insight into why some communities, when we’re talking about vaccines or different medical treatments, or just the medical community in general and relationships with different communities, why there is a mistrust there. I think that’s an incredibly relevant and important thing to be thinking about as we hopefully move towards the end of the pandemic, or try to communicate with different groups. This touches on intersectionality again, you have to remember in communication and education, anything, that people have different points of view for very different reasons. And you have to take all of that into account.
Right. You have to convince them of the logic. You have to bring people around to what’s obvious, right? But it’s understanding the context, it’s understanding that people are going to make their decisions based on the context that they’re in and the history, right? That people have memories, that communities have memories. And that’s how they’re then taking in new information. So yeah, communication has to be sensitive to that. I can’t say all Americans are X or all women are X or for all kinds of purposes.
What are some of the misconceptions about women’s and gender history?
I think for me, when I think about this question, I think, again, intersectionality comes up here again too, when we’re taught in school in lower grades, we know a lot about Susan B. Anthony, but not a lot about African-American women that really fought for the right to vote. So, I think, what are some of those other gaps in our learning generally?
I think one big misconception is that there’s just not enough sources there to tell this history and indeed there are silences in what historians call the archive, which in some cases can be, for example, like the Library of Congress, where there are collected papers, but there are different types of archives. So there are silences and they’re deliberate. They are deliberate in the sense that specifically men and institutions have created, in essence, the story that they want recorded or archived. Women who are in positions of privilege have had the ability to create a historical record that tells a certain story that other women haven’t been able to, they’re heterosexuals have been in positions to create a certain kind of story for gay men where gay men and women haven’t been able to do that or non-binary individuals. So there are privileges and subordinations that get transferred into who gets to define or who has the ability, the power, the resources to preserve records and that tells a certain story in advance that there isn’t anything there, but that’s not the whole story.
Yeah. Say, “Well, we just can’t find anything, the sources aren’t there.” And I think your example of Susan B. Anthony is a good one. That you have to actually be a creative scholar to think, “Maybe I’m looking in the wrong place, or maybe I’m looking in a limited place.” That if you want to find out more about black women’s political activism, looking at certain kinds of publications is not where you look. You look in church, you look in all kinds of community club and church networks and there you find political women all over the place. And so it’s only if you’re defining the suffrage movement in a particular way, honestly, in the way that it depicted itself for some periods of American history, that you’re stuck with Susan B. Anthony forever. Not that I don’t want to talk about Susan B. Anthony, I think another part of it is a way to say, “We found this woman and therefore we’re done.” Right? Because there aren’t sources on anyone else.
I, for example, studied the anti-Vietnam war movement in college. I was a history major. And you hear a lot of male names in that movement, Abbie Hoffman, Todd Gitlin, that was what made up my literature review. And then my primary sources, I looked at alternative press, where women were writing in letters about their awful experiences working for these organizations and things like that. So it is, like you’re saying, that you just have to look in different places and be creative.
Yeah, and be creative and realize that your definition of even your search term, may already have in it all these assumptions about what counts as politics, or what counts as activism, or what counts as meaningful activity. And so I always say this to my students, that the facts of the deliberate silences, the facts of subordination and oppression doesn’t mean that the only story to be told is victim hood, that we need to be looking for, “What are people doing?” And that we don’t want to reproduce that kind of silencing by sticking with the definition that we had for activism politics or the economy. Back to my hats. Right?
Now there’s so many examples, so that’s the whole methodology approach of women’s and gender history, is piercing those silences, is looking, being aware and thinking about how to Pierce the silences and there are so many examples of, for example, sources that have been dismissed as not reliable. An example is the works progress administration interviews of formerly enslaved people, because they were elderly were often dismissed as not being reliable sources. And these are historians of the slave regime, have demonstrated the ways that it is a central piece of primary source for recovering all kinds of lived experiences. So it’s very much tied to thinking about what kinds of sources are available, how to use them, oral history for example, or what historians often say, women’s historians are reading against the grain, looking for those moments where oftentimes were working with sources that are, for example created if we take the case of the slave regime, they’re created by white and slavers.
But how do you start to recover certain stories with sources that have been created by enslavers? And it’s looking for these moments where they may be mentioning something as NSI and thinking about the larger context where an enslaved person may be mentioned and thinking about the larger context of that moment. So there’s many, many examples of that methodology in piercing the silence. And once you start to do it and look and learn how it’s stunning the history that is possible to both recover and reframe our thinking about the U.S. past.
What is the best way we can capture, study and record women’s and gender history that is happening now?
I do think that writers and speakers are probably better than they have been in the past at not presuming that all women are the same. Right? And so looking for non-dominant voices, looking for variety among women in the same way that we’ve always presumed variety among men. I think in a central part of that, is representation in the people producing and doing the recording now, right? This is why it’s important to have reporters from all gender identities, right? It’s important to have bloggers or I guess, tweeters from all kinds of gender identity, lawyers from all gender identities, right? So that the archive, getting back to Lisa’s point about the archive, that the archive being produced already has built into it people who know to look for something else, right? Because they’re coming from their own perspective. So I think the more that we see women involved in directly telling the stories of their communities, stories that interest them, those things get into the public, and then you aren’t limited to a certain elite group who know exactly how to use the power structure to tell their specific story as if it were universal over and over again. So I think broad representation, broad variety and diversity in people producing the first draft of history is really essential.
I would love to see more funding, either private funding or public funding into many small archives, the library of Congress and places like that are invaluable, but there’s an archive that I use regularly. It’s the Center For Puerto Rican Studies, it’s associated with Hunter College and they are preserving the history of exactly what Ellen is talking about, and they’re one example, I’m just drawing from my own research. There are many other small archives who are doing exactly this. It can be difficult work, it’s very rewarding, but to be able to connect with individuals and communities and to ask them to contribute their papers or to give oral history interviews, and then to have it preserved for people who are then going to, now we’re in the future, write those histories, it requires funding. And so, I guess, I would use this as opportunity to ask anybody who is committed to these types of histories to look around at some of the smaller archives and really think about what kind of supports, whether in terms of showing up at events or actually contributing, buying non acidic boxes that can hold papers, all of these things that cost money, time and resources to potentially contribute when one’s thinking about donating.
I hadn’t planned to come on this show, but I really think that’s essential, these small archive, not small, but these very important archives that are doing the hard work of preserving this first draft of history at the base level are just so important. So look around in your communities and think about what are those archives that are important to the histories that are important to women’s and gender history.
My hope is that what this would do, I mean, what projects that Lisa and I are talking about does, is change contemporary’s people’s relationship to the past, right? We want to hear on the news, not just what George Washington would think about this piece of legislation. What would Celia think? And to have in the front of people’s minds that the past is like today, in that 50% of the people who are alive live as women, and the same was true then. That’s history too.
I find that in my life all the time that having historical context for something, for an event that’s happening, helps me understand it, helps me put it in context with the rest of the American past and people’s experiences, and helps me organize in my own mind and understand. Especially the last few years in the United States have been a little hectic. But putting that in context with the rest of our history, especially in 2020 has really been helpful to me in assuaging my own anxiety and helps you be a better media reader, understand journalists better. And definitely makes me a better communicator as I work for our clients and things like that.
Well, I’m delighted that your taking the longer view makes you optimistic. So, I’m going to cling to that. And I would just add that taking the longer view also reminds us that change doesn’t unfold automatically, right? That there are people who did all of these things, right. It takes action to change history and that’s what we see in the past too, and that should be a helpful thing as well.
Excellent. Thank you both so much for joining me today.
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