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About forty years ago, historians of women began to claim a place for their subject as a distinct scholarly field. This movement emerged particularly powerfully in Britain, its early preoccupations and questions shaped by the feminist movement, the New Left, and especially by Thompsonian social history. A clutch of brilliant young feminist scholars uncovered the forgotten claims and achievements of women Chartists, Owenists, suffragists and social reformers, their work enabled by and further fostering a raft of innovative and successful (if financially fragile) networks, institutions, and publishing ventures. At the meetings of the London Feminist History Group and through chance encounters in the Fawcett Library’s rediscovered and rich collections, in early issues of Feminist Review and History Workshop Journal, through Virago Press’s publication of new scholarship on women and the rediscovered fiction and historical records of earlier periods, and in the struggle to found women’s studies courses and programs, this new field took shape.
That early flowering of British women’s history was symbiotically bound to American developments from the start. Strong transatlantic feminist ties brought young American women scholars to London, and the better-funded and, to a degree, more anarchic structure of American higher education also made space for collaboration. The Berkshires Conference of Women’s Historians, Feminist Studies and other new journals, and the Conference of Women’s Historians, fostered exchanges, friendships, and paradigms. Graduate courses and then graduate programs in women’s history and women’s studies emerged, launching a generation of women into the profession. Through the seventies, women’s history also engaged with, and was reshaped by, well-founded criticisms of its blindness to imperial legacies and racial hierarchies; paradigms asserting the ‘primacy of patriarchy’ jostled with those relying on the triumvirate of ‘race, sex, and class.’ Connections to literary criticism on the one hand, and to sociology on the other, turned Victorian ideology and male-dominated social structures into major foci of research. Then, suddenly, structuralist explanation was under challenge from within, as scholars turned to Foucault, Saussure and Lacan for a theory of ‘difference’ less tied to physical bodies and material or state structures. Some of the field’s prominent early founders changed course; ‘gender history’ had arrived.
Today, that moment of ‘women’s history’ seems both present and a long way off. The field’s founders and pioneers are now retiring. They leave impressive accomplishments – an academic landscape in which ‘women’ as subjects of study and ‘gender’ as a ‘useful category’ are taken for granted; positions, programs and professorial chairs in the UK and US alike; rich scholarship stretching across three generations. But institutionalization and what we might call analytic ‘complexification’ has also changed the field in many ways. It seems a good moment for celebration and acknowledgement, then, but also for reflection. How does this field now look to some of its early pioneers? How has mentorship and ‘school-formation’ worked? What have successive generations taken from earlier generations’ work, and how have they transformed it? What happened to those early institution and networks? What has been gained and lost through the process of institutionalization? What has happened both to the ‘place’ of the feminist imperative within history, and to the relatively privileged place of Britain within that scholarship?
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