Minnesota Humanities Center

Recovering Women’s Stories/Inventing Women’s History

Posted March 24, 2021

In celebration of Women’s History Month, the Minnesota Humanities Center has asked some of our friends to write essays to share with you their thoughts on diverse women’s achievements and challenges over time, in Minnesota and elsewhere. These thoughts and reflections display a variety of perspectives to encourage healthy dialogue, nurture understanding, and spark positive change within community. Enjoy!

March has been National Women’s History Month since 1987.  It is amazing to realize that just two decades before that, the profession of history did not recognize women’s history as a valid field of inquiry.  As a child growing up in the 1950s, I loved my history classes, but I never questioned the underlying assumption that only men made history (with some grudging recognition of the occasional woman – like, say, Queen Elizabeth I of England).  History was the story of political, economic, and military conflict and change, all topics that were presumed to have little to do with women who were (or should) be preoccupied with domestic duties as wives and mothers. 

I only really thought about these questions when I became active in the early women’s rights movement starting in 1967.  Steeped in the egalitarian ethos of the civil rights movement, and the struggle to end the War in Vietnam, we found ourselves questioning the gendered restrictions that followed us even into those movements.  Our activism led us to ask questions about women in the past. We watched historical dramas like “Salt of the Earth” (1954), in which Latina women took over a miners’ strike picket line when their husbands were banned from demonstrations and who argued, even from jail, that the struggle affected them as much as the men.

By the fall of 1969, when I entered graduate school at the University of North CaroIina, I was convinced that women’s rights were centrally important to every other struggle, and if we wanted to make history, we needed to know our history.  At the time I was not aware that hundreds of young women were making the same decision.  Upon finding that there were no courses in women’s history, and very few female professors in history departments, we set out to challenge the underlying paradigms that made women in the past invisible and unvalued.  In every course, I found ways to research and write about women. All I had to do was ask: where were they? What were they doing?  In a colonial history course, I critiqued studies of the colonial family that focused on fathers and sons, as if women were not even there.  I wrote research papers on a bread riot in Richmond, VA, during the civil war, and a textile strike in 1929 led by young women workers in the mountains of Appalachia.  When the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians (created in the 1920s as an alternative to the extremely male dominated American Historical Association) offered a conference on the history of women in 1972, 800 women showed up, research papers in hand.  My first experience at a “Berks” was 1974, at Radcliffe (now fully incorporated into Harvard), where I discovered nearly 2,000 women engaged in the most exciting intellectual debate I could have imagined.  What does it mean to study women in the past?  What counts as history (family roles? sexuality? housework?), and what new sources do we need?  How does gender impact the lived experiences of class, religious, and racial difference?  Where have women been leaders in movements for change – from abolition to labor struggles to the Populist Movement? How and where do women show up in politics, even before they had the right to vote? This led scholars to explore a multitude of civic institutions—orphanages, settlement houses, libraries, health clinics, missionary societies, and clubs of all sorts—created by women.

The University of Minnesota was among the first to offer a faculty position in the field of women’s history. I landed there in 1976 and spent my entire career teaching women’s history and loving every minute of it.  Minnesota also had one of the earliest women’s studies programs, created in response to student demand in 1974. In that program I found an intellectual community grappling with the challenge to “rethink everything” simply by taking women’s perspectives seriously.  It was a heady time.  I learned that to fully explore women’s lives historians needed the insights, and the questions, of anthropologists, sociologists, literary scholars, and political scientists, and they needed us. 

Soon our conversations were intergenerational as well.   Generations of graduate students have taught me to keep asking new questions and challenging frameworks that get in the way of pursuing answers. 

A wonderful example of the discoveries enabled by this ferment of new questions, new ways of thinking, and new sources is the current exhibit at the Minnesota History Center in honor of Women’s History Month.  As the exhibit demonstrates, the richness of the stories we continue to unearth has forever changed our discipline, despite the initial scorn and skepticism we encountered.  When “the other half” of humanity is included in the story of our past, the story shifts, taking on depth and nuance.  Women have always been there.  Their presence has always made a difference. Today we celebrate that, and young women in every part of our society can know that they, too, are making history.

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Athena Kildegaard Headshot
By: Athena Kildegaard

Athena Kildegaard lives in prairie pothole country — that is, Morris, Minnesota — where she’s a lecturer at the University of Minnesota.