Authority For Women's History Department At Penn Begins A Doctoral Program

Posted: March 07, 1989

A poster on the door of her office at the University of Pennsylvania proclaims: "Sisterhood is blooming. Springtime will never be the same."

Inside, history professor Carroll Smith-Rosenberg is busy planting the seeds of an intellectual revolution that aims to give women their place in the history books.

"Women have essentially been ignored in most history textbooks and most history courses," Smith-Rosenberg said during a recent interview. "What's true for white women is doubly true for black women."

As part of an effort to fill the gap, Penn last fall began offering a doctoral program that allows students to concentrate in women's history. The program is the first of its kind in the Ivy League and one of the few in the country.

"We've taken women's history from a marginal status in the field, clustered under the rubric of women's studies, to a central, mainstream position in our history department," said Smith-Rosenberg, a noted scholar of feminist theory and coordinator of the new doctoral program.

Although Penn has been offering courses in women's history for years, the new program pulls the classes together in an organized fashion. Under the program, students can concentrate in one of three areas - public policy, feminist theory, or work and the family.

"Women at all points in our history have constituted at least half the population," said Richard R. Beeman, chairman of Penn's history department and an expert in American colonial history.

"It goes without saying that their presence in our history is currently under-represented. Carroll and the people working with her have played a major role in redressing that balance."

Besides Smith-Rosenberg, a number of professors who teach in the new program are regarded as among the nation's leading historians of women.

They include Lynn Hunt, who specializes in women in French society; Evelyn Brooks-Higginbothom, an expert in Afro-American women, and Mary Frances Berry, a member of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission and an expert on women and the law.

All three left prestigious jobs at other schools to come to Penn.

"I was attracted here because Penn's program in women's history is probably one of the strongest in the country," said Berry, the Geraldine R. Segal professor of history whom Penn recruited from Howard University, a black school in Washington.

"We have people working in a variety of fields - legal history, Afro- American history, French history - and we can offer students a specialization in any particular aspect of women's history that they are interested in."

In the current academic year, about a fifth of the approximately 100 doctoral students in history are taking classes offered under the new program, according to Smith-Rosenberg.

They include students like Kathi Kern, 27, who is completing her doctoral dissertation on Elizabeth Cady Stanton's two-volume work, The Woman's Bible, a collaborative effort by a group of 19th-century radical feminists involved in the women's suffrage movement.

"Penn is becoming a real powerhouse in women's history," said Kern, who will assume a tenure-track position teaching women's history at the University of Kentucky next fall. "Penn is going to emerge as one of the places - if not the place - to do women's history."

The driving force behind the effort is Smith-Rosenberg, 52, who began teaching part time in Penn's night school 24 years ago. At the time, she was married to a member of the history department and nepotism rules prevented her

from teaching alongside her husband.

By 1972, however, the rules had fallen and Smith-Rosenberg, who holds a doctorate in history from Columbia, moved into College Hall along with her male colleagues.

The author of an influential 1975 essay titled "The Female World of Love and Ritual," which traces the friendship ties that developed between women in 19th-century America, Smith-Rosenberg is credited with helping to launch modern feminist scholarship in the United States. She is also the author of the book Disorderly Conduct: Visions of Gender in Victorian America.

At the core of her scholarship is the contention that sex is determined not so much by biology as by cultural norms.

"One of the most important things that women's history is doing is asking the question, 'What is natural?' " Smith-Rosenberg said during an interview in her office on the second floor of College Hall.

"The traditional view is that gender is biological. The historian of women takes the view that gender is socially constructed. The characteristics of maleness and femaleness are specific to a particular time and culture."

As an example, Smith-Rosenberg cited the 19th-century view that too much education would cause women to suffer nervous breakdowns, become infertile and develop shriveled breasts.

Although supposedly grounded in biology, the view was promoted by a male- dominated social order as a way of keeping women out of positions of power, Smith-Rosenberg said.

"What women's history is doing is questioning the premise in the modern world that the prevailing social order is 'natural,' " she explained.

Borrowing from literary criticism and cultural anthropology, women's history also attempts to discern what Smith-Rosenberg calls the "symbolic meaning" of historical events.

In explaining why abortion has been so prominent in the nation's political agenda for 20 years, for example, Smith-Rosenberg points to the symbolic issue that lies behind the struggle between pro-choice and anti-abortion forces.

"A woman who wants an abortion is a symbol of social change out of control," she said. "People believe that if they can control her, they can control their society."

Such feminist scholarship has come under attack by many in academia, including other professors in Penn's history department who say it is pressing a particular ideological agenda.

But Smith-Rosenberg is quick to reply that "all scholarship is ideological."

She added: "By insisting that there is no 'natural' way of structuring society, I am also trying to uncover the ideologies that inform the way a university is structured, the way disciplines are organized and the politics of who gets hired. If we can bring this to the foreground, we can at least begin talking about it."

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