If you scan the history section of your local library, you’re likely to find significant sections on monarchs and rulers, military conflicts and the national borders they changed. For many centuries, history was essentially the study of great men and the wars they fought. Yet in recent years, historians have begun to view the past differently. History ought to reflect the story of all humanity; just like today, the vast majority of people in the past were neither kings nor great explorers, but ordinary people trying to make a living and protect their families. And, like then, approximately half of those ordinary people are women, a group that has often been excluded from the traditional retelling of history.
In the last several decades, universities and other scholastic institutions have taken steps to remedy the exclusionary historical practices of the past. One way in which scholars are attempting to give voice to the billions of women of which history has not taken much previous notice is through the implementation of women’s studies programs. Women’s studies is more than just history, of course. It is a broad field in the humanities that covers the roles, contributions, and experiences of women in the past and present.
An Overview of Women’s Studies
The academic field of women’s studies grew out of the American women’s movement of the 1960s and ‘70s, in which both men and women began to speak out against the sexism women endured. At this time, more women were entering the workforce, taking on more responsibilities in addition to their traditional roles as mother and homemaker. The women’s movement drew inspiration from the Civil Rights Movement and was fueled in part by Betty Friedan’s text The Feminine Mystique (1963). Friedan believed women were dissatisfied with their lives since they were not able to create meaningful individual identities outside of their husbands and children.
Today, women’s studies has been integrated as a major or minor field of study in hundreds of universities. It encompasses the history, philosophy, politics, art, health, sexuality, education, and culture of women around the world. If you are interested in pursuing women’s studies, see this list of women’s studies departments.
Women’s History Resources
An excellent starting point for delving into women’s history is the Women’s History Sourcebook put together by Fordham University. The sourcebook contains individual histories of women throughout the ages, which are helpfully divided by geography and culture as well as general time period. Here, you can find information as specific as the marriage practices of Ancient Mesopotamia through the Diaries of the Court Ladies of Old Japan. The section on the history of women in North America is particularly extensive.
Some other useful resources for women’s history:
- American Women’s History: A Research Guide offers a staggering collection of resources, including more than 2000 citations, over 1200 links, a searchable subject index, and an extensivedigital collection of primary sources.
- The National Women’s History Project was founded in 1980 as an educational nonprofit. The NWHP seeks to recognize the historic accomplishments of women by providing informational materials and programs.
- The WWW Virtual Library: Women’s History is an exhaustive and comprehensive resource that contains a series of chronological timelines of women’s history as well as information about the place of women in specific countries and geographical areas. It also links to a series of special topics including the academic study of men and masculinity and witchcraft.
Contemporary Women’s Culture
Many websites are devoted to specific areas of inquiry within women’s studies. Below are a sampling of useful sites.
- Art: The National Museum of Women in the Arts is dedicated exclusively to recognizing the contributions of women in art. ArtTable is a professional leadership organization for women in the visual arts.
- Literature: A Celebration of Women Writers recognizes the contributions of women writers throughout history. The Women Writers Project was established by Brown University to establish an electronic collection of texts by women.
- Politics: The United Nations Development Program contributed to the Women in Politics Bibliographic Database, which is searchable by country, organization, subject, and author. Women and Politics is a nonpartisan organization supporting women at all levels of politics.
- Business: American Business Women’s Association strives to bring women together to grow personally and professionally.
- Health: Womenshealth.gov is a project of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that provides reliable information on all aspects of women’s health from breastfeeding to domestic violence. This site is searchable by malady and contains limited information on infant and children’s health as well.
- Gender Studies: The Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies researches issues that affect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals. The International Center on Research for Women explores issues that affect women from reproductive rights to agriculture and food security.
For more general resources and access to large databases of information, women’s studies scholars should see the massive collection of Women and Gender Studies links compiled at the WWW Virtual Library. The Nation Women’s Studies Association includes links to ongoing social justice programs and initiatives for women and feminist activists. If you are looking for examples of inspirational women, see the National Women’s Hall of Fame, located in Seneca Falls, New York. You can access the Hall of Fame newsletter and browse merchandise online.
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