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The Majority Finds Its Past: Placing Women in History

The Majority Finds Its Past: Placing Women in History

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The Majority Finds Its Past: Placing Women in History

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Mar 30, 2014


Lauded for its contribution to the theory and conceptualization of the field of women's history and for its sensitivity to the differences of class, ethnicity, race, and culture among women, The Majority Finds Its Past became a classic volume in women's history following its publication in 1979. This edition includes a foreword by Linda K. Kerber, introducing a new generation of readers to Gerda Lerner's considerable body of work and highlighting the importance of the essays in this collection to the development of the field that Lerner helped establish.

Mar 30, 2014

Informazioni sull'autore

Gerda Lerner (1920-2013), author of twelve books in women's history, was one of the founders of the field in the 1960s. Her creative scholarship, her organizing work on behalf of women historians, and her leadership in graduate education have been widely recognized and honored. She was past president of the Organization of American Historians, Robinson-Edwards Professor Emerita of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and visiting professor of history at Duke University. Her books include Fireweed: A Political Autobiography.

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The Majority Finds Its Past - Gerda Lerner


The Majority Finds Its Past

Placing Women in History

Gerda Lerner

Foreword by Linda K. Kerber

The University of North Carolina Press

Chapel Hill and London

© 1979 by Gerda Lerner

Foreword © 2005 by The University of North Carolina Press

All rights reserved

Manufactured in the United States of America

Set in Bembo and Castellar by Tseng Information Systems, Inc.

The paper in this book meets the guidelines for permanence and durability of the Committee on Production Guidelines for Book Longevity of the Council on Library Resources.

The Library of Congress has cataloged the original

edition of this book as follows:

Lerner, Gerda, 1920–

The majority finds its past.

Includes bibliographical references and index.

1. Women—United States—History. 2. Afro-American

women—History 3. Feminism—United States—History.

4. Women’s rights—United States—History. I. Title.

HQ1426.L47 301.41’2’0973 79-1404

ISBN 0-8078-5606-1 (pbk.: alk. paper)

09 08 07 06 05 5 4 3 2 1

This book is dedicated to my students—

a new generation of women, who take for granted

the time and space for thought we had to win—

in faith and trust that they will carry on.


Foreword by Linda K. Kerber


Autobiographical Notes, by way of an Introduction

1. New Approaches to the Study of Women in American History

2. The Lady and the Mill Girl: Changes in the Status of Women in the Age of Jackson

3. The Feminists: A Second Look

4. Women’s Rights and American Feminism

5. Black Women in the United States: A Problem in Historiography and Interpretation

6. Community Work of Black Club Women

7. Black and White Women in Interaction and Confrontation

8. The Political Activities of Antislavery Women

9. Just a Housewife

10. Placing Women in History: Definitions and Challenges

11. The Majority Finds Its Past

12. The Challenge of Women’s History




Nowadays, when feminist historians write prize-winning books that publishers are proud to produce, it is easy to forget that not very long ago, women were—as a colleague once observed to me—a topic, not a subject. Gerda Lerner was not the first twentieth-century historian to embrace the history of women as a subject—before her there were Mary Beard, Constance McLaughlin Green, Eleanor Flexner—nor was she the only historian of her generation to do so, but she has done more than most and arguably more than anyone to establish the history of women as a field of inquiry. Like other historians, since the 1960s she has been undertaking scrupulous research and writing lucid narratives; unlike historians in other fields, she had first to demand respect for her subject.

She did this most effectively in the essays that are collected here. Written in the period between the publication in 1963 of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (to which many of these essays are a corrective, a friendly amendment) and the first years of President Jimmy Carter’s administration, Gerda Lerner’s careful refocusing of the distortions of history writing continue to clarify confusions and set an agenda that we still face. She perceived early on that women’s history is less a separate subject than a way of thinking, a strategy by which to focus on . . . that which traditional history has obscured. It is a route by which we can bypass the habit of treating the history of women as anecdotal, merely a collection of missing facts and views. And more than anything else, it is an intellectual exercise, calling into question the claim to universality which ‘History’ generally assumes as a given and identifying relationships of power that the powerful prefer to conceal.

Writing in a decade when feminists dreamed of sisterhood, Lerner shared the dream and worked hard in her daily life to structure the collective modes by which it could be realized. But she simultaneously judged it. Even the earliest essays in this book insist that it is too easy to assume that all women are sisters. Not all are oppressed in the same ways. Women differ in class, and they differ in race: the plantation mistress may be pressured by the patriarchal power of her father and her husband, but she herself is an oppressor of the slave. At a time when other analysts were identifying the antebellum cult of true womanhood as a device to weaken women, Lerner was clear-eyed enough—in the second essay in this book—to name the cult of the lady as itself a device to support class relations, enabling white and middle-class women to claim their superiority over working-class and nonwhite people and simultaneously justifying their own exclusion from equal education and from participation in the political process.

At a time when the American public was dazzled by Betty Friedan’s denunciation of the feminine mystique—the insistence that women find their fulfillment in marriage, domesticity, and tasteful purchasing of consumer products for the suburban home—Lerner shared much of the enthusiasm. She told Friedan privately that she had written a splendid book. But Lerner placed Friedan’s work in historical perspective, arguing that the mystique Friedan found in the 1950s was a new form of an old phenomenon, a compensatory ideology developed in the antebellum era of industrialization, now updated by consumerism and the misunderstood dicta of Freudian psychology. The problem, as Lerner saw it, was that Friedan had ignored the need for "institutional solutions to the problems of women and had ignored how working women, especially Negro women, suffered from the more pressing disadvantages of economic discrimination."* In effect, the criticisms of American society made by The Feminine Mystique were themselves tangled in a romanticization—and denial—of the power embedded in class and race relations. It is a common fallacy, Lerner would write a few years later, to proceed on the assumption that what is true for middle-class women is true for all women. And Lerner could be brutally clear-sighted: marriage and other sexual liaisons offer much more chance of upward mobility for the lower-class girl than does education. For them, the mystique worked.

By the end of the 1960s, Lerner had already begun to historicize the women’s movement of her own time that emerged from the Old Left and the civil rights movements of the 1940s and 1950s. At a time when the media teased women’s liberation, she offered the historical defense it badly needed, grounding it in the women’s movement that had emerged from abolition more than a century before. But she also criticized Women’s Liberation for its ahistorical and social naivete. When feminists claimed the universality and priority of sexual oppression as an experience common to all women, they might have constructed a useful agitational tool, but they did not have a tool that worked as a tool for historical analysis. When class relations were ignored, so were signs of the feminization of poverty—the displacing onto women of the burdens of industrial society, partially measured in maternal and infant mortality rates. When race relations were ignored, so too was reality: Lerner could write of the female-headed black family as a reasonable response and a useful adaptation to the pervasive economic disempowerment of black men, grounded in African cultural tradition. But to speak of black female–headed families as black matriarchy in contemporary society is a cruel hoax, she wrote in 1973: Matriarchy, by definition, means power by women: decision-making power; power over their own lives; power over the lives of others; power in their communities. Throughout Lerner brings historical analysis and historical precedents to bear on the challenge of understanding policy decisions and political practices of our own time.

Yet just at the moment when Lerner has convinced the reader that the differences among women are so multiple that there can be nothing all women share, she catches us with lists of what they have had in common over the course of centuries: a history of educational deprivation, a different relationship to property than men have had, a vulnerability to sexual exploitation, topped off by a political marginalization that has denied them political representation and power in government. Lerner is hungry for sweeping generalizations, and occasionally the ones she proposes have not stood up well over time—for example, the assertion that women’s status in the nineteenth century was considerably worse than in the colonial era now seems overly emphatic (but not without some truth, although historians are more likely to speak of patriarchy gaining strength at the beginning of the eighteenth century as well as, along different lines, in the nineteenth). Many of these generalizations, however, have even greater strength than Lerner could have predicted. When she wrote in the 1970s, for example, of sexual exploitation manifested in the rape of women of the conquered group by the victors . . . [and] in the millennia of organized prostitution, she had in mind events ranging in time from antiquity to the aftermath of World War II; when I read these words, I think of Rwanda, Bosnia, and the traffic in women in Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe, and immigration scams in the United States.

In these essays Gerda Lerner speaks of oppression with some frequency. To speak of the oppression of women by men in the contemporary United States is no longer much done. In a world in which women are trained to exercise violence in the name of the state police and armed forces (and have shown that they are capable, as at Abu Ghraib, of misusing that power) generalizations about the oppression of women can sound misplaced and overstated. But Lerner’s broadest generalizations, threaded through the essays, ground the oppression of women deeply in economic power, family structures, and race hierarchy. Although this work is evidence of Lerner’s deep engagement with Marxist thought, she wears her economic determinism lightly. She demands, over and over, that we ask questions of the archaic division of labor and . . . the values that sustain it. The questions she asks remain compelling. Lerner’s analysis makes it clear why conservatives like Phyllis Schlafly are not wrong to insist that behind the apparent modesty of much of the women’s rights agenda—equal pay for equal work, equal educational opportunity, equal treatment under the law—lurks a direct threat to the patriarchal family structures that we have inherited. So long as the patriarchal family is strong, it shapes economic relations and undermines political change.

The oppressions of racial hierarchy are at the intellectual as well as the physical center of The Majority Finds Its Past. In three essays, Lerner shifts the history of black women out of the anecdotal doldrums in which it had lain and into a position to challenge inherited social history. She also turned the reader’s attention to the neglect of the archives on which the writing of history must be based. By making the denial or neglect of their history central to the oppression that black women experience, by emphasizing that despite the renaissance of black history in the 1960s and 1970s, black women remained victims of historians as well as victims described by historians, Lerner revitalized a line of work that had long been neglected. Her denunciations of the neglect of primary sources, her appreciation of the hidden work that has to be done to save primary sources and develop archives before historians can do their work, and her own foray into the analysis that fresh data will permit (see pp. 58–62) energized a whole generation of historians, librarians, and archivists. Lerner’s forthright recognition of the confrontation, competition and conflict that has marked interaction between black and white women quite as much as, if not more than, cooperation and collaboration, her admiration for the patience displayed by black women as they strove to teach white women . . . to learn to see a connection between the protection of their own homes and the protection of the honor and rights of black women, and her appreciation of the ways in which white women were radicalized through their contacts with black women undermine white historians’ temptations to romanticize interracial sisterhood.

When she published the first of the essays in this book, Gerda Lerner had held her Ph.D. for barely three years; in professional terms, she was a very junior historian. But she was forty-nine years old, and behind her was a life—about which she has written in Fireweed: A Political Autobiography (2002)—that she had saved by skepticism and by courage. Born Jewish in Vienna, she was a teenager as the fascists came to power; Lerner entered the United States alone, a vulnerable young refugee in 1938. When she writes of working-class women, she can draw on her own experience as an immigrant desperate for short-lived jobs as a domestic, in factory work, and as a salesgirl. When she writes—as she does in one of the essays here—of housewives, she can draw on her own years as a mother who immersed herself in the PTA and grassroots suburban activism. When she writes of white women who learn from black women, she could be speaking of her own experiences in progressive social movements in Los Angeles and New York.

Historians like to think that we go where the interesting questions lie. We rarely appreciate that the questions we are most likely to find interesting are the questions already resonating in the culture that surrounds us. As Clifford Geertz has famously observed, Common sense is not what the mind cleared of cant spontaneously apprehends, but rather what the mind filled with [historical and cultural] presuppositions . . . concludes.** Gerda Lerner learned early, alas, that following what counted as common sense, the path of least resistance, led inexorably to concentration camps. Her practice of distrusting received wisdom saved her life. Her practice of distrusting received wisdom pervades this book and makes possible her innovative work in women’s history. Throughout her life’s work, Gerda Lerner has wrestled with the central question of why history matters; in everything she writes she has challenged her readers to embrace that question as their own. Twenty-five years after its first publication, The Majority Finds Its Past retains its freshness of perspective. Few questions it raises have yet been fully answered. The agenda for future research it outlines is only partially accomplished; much remains compelling. History continues to matter as women seek public policy on which we—women and men—can rely.

In the 1970s, following Faith Whittlesey, we used to say that Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did—but she did it backwards and in high heels. It is worth noting that Gerda Lerner wrote this book in her second language.

Linda K. Kerber

Iowa City, August 2004


* Gerda Lerner to Betty Friedan, Feb. 6, 1963, Betty Friedan Papers, Schlesinger Library, Harvard University, quoted in Daniel Horowitz, Betty Friedan and the Making of The Feminine Mystique: The American Left, the Cold War, and Modern Feminism (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1998), p. 213.

** Clifford Geertz, Local Knowledge: Further Essays in Interpretive Anthropology (New York: Basic Books, 1983), p. 84.


Most of the essays in this volume originated as lectures or conference papers. They were transformed, often through several versions, in response to audience reaction, criticism, and challenge from colleagues. Most scholarly work is subject to such beneficial exchange among scholars, but the quality and nature of feminist scholarship, at least as I have experienced it in the field of Women’s History, is something quite different. We, who create Women’s History, as we seek to uncover the female past and interpret it, are often an embattled lot, struggling for the right to teach what we research and to win professional recognition not only for our work but for the field in which we work. Our professional contacts with other feminist scholars therefore take on a significance far greater than that of the traditional scholarly exchange. We have become a community of scholars, vitally interested and involved in each other’s work, trying to combat within ourselves and one another the competitiveness which is structured into our institutional and professional life and to substitute for it a new and as yet untested model of supportive and engaged scholarship. Feminist scholarship seeks to respect individual work, while searching for collective solutions to intellectual as well as societal problems. It seeks to break down and combat the artificial hierarchies, the elitism and narrow specialization so characteristic of our profession; it seeks constantly to broaden and deepen the connectedness between thinking and committed social action. The history we study offers us models for the kind of people we are trying to become and so some of the deep splits in personhood, from which so many of us have suffered, are healing. Thus, in preparing this volume of my own past work I am above all aware of an indebtedness far greater than can be acknowledged to my students, my lecture audiences, my colleagues in and out of academe—in short, to my sisters in Women’s History. This work, whatever else it may be, represents an ongoing, continuing dialogue among many of us, concerning issues and questions as vital to our future as to our present. As I have all my life in different fields, I have in this work at times stood in opposition to prevailing trends, seemingly alone, yet I have never felt myself disconnected from that rising stream of consciousness, will, and force which seeks to have women realize their full human potential. It would be impossible to list here and acknowledge my indebtedness to all the individuals whose thought, help and support has made this work possible. Let me simply say that I feel myself embedded in the collective effort and that I hope my own, sometimes lonely explorations have added to its strength.

I am grateful to Sheldon Meyer for his understanding and skillful editing of this volume and to Leona Capeless for her perceptive copy editing.


The essays, which have previously been published, are here reprinted with some cuts made to avoid repetition. In a few places ideas and concepts have been sharpened in the light of recent scholarship. In other places I have, from my current vantage point, critically commented in the footnotes on my earlier work. All bibliographical footnotes have been updated to bring them in line with recent scholarship.

The terms of reference by which Blacks have referred to themselves have changed in the course of history. In recognition of the emotional and symbolic significance of the choice of a name, which is part of self-definition for individuals as well as for groups, I have used the terms generally accepted by the group at a given time. Thus the term Negro is used when referring to the Negro Women’s Club movement, while in other places Black is the term of reference. When the word Black means Negro I have capitalized it when used as a noun, but not as an adjective. Should the use of the word Black for Negro persist, it will undoubtedly be capitalized in the adjectival form, but such usage is still rare.

A similar wide range of usage with sensitive connotations concerns the terms ladies and women. Here I use ladies to designate members of the leisured or upper and middle classes, and women to refer to all others. In the spelling of Woman suffrage and woman’s rights I retain the usage current at the time of origin in the 19th century, as I do in referring to the 20th-century women’s movement.

G. L.

Tomkins Cove, N.Y.

April 1979

Autobiographical Notes, by Way of an Introduction

The essays in this volume were written over a span of eleven years in an attempt to develop a theory of Women’s History. The first of these essays appeared in 1969, shortly before the birth of the then new women’s movement and before most activists of the new feminism had begun to raise the demand for the restoration of the female past. Thus, this volume represents not only the personal intellectual growth of an individual historian, but also stages in the growth of a new field. In some ways, these essays contributed to the common consciousness, challenging earlier-held beliefs and assumptions; in some ways they represent an individual’s answers to questions posed simultaneously by many historians.

Clearly, the very terminology used challenges and poses problems. Is the past gender-determined? Can there be a separate history of men and of women? And what is the content and meaning of the term Women’s History?

Even in its surface meaning, the term Women’s History calls into question the claim to universality which History generally assumes as a given. If historical studies, as we traditionally know them, were actually focused on men and women alike, then there would be no need for a separate subject. Men and women built civilization and culture and one would assume that any historical account written about any given period would recognize that basic fact. But traditional history has been written and interpreted by men in an androcentric frame of reference; it might quite properly be described as the history of men. The very term Women’s History calls attention to the fact that something is missing from historical scholarship and it aims to document and reinterpret that which is missing. Seen in that light, Women’s History is simply the history of women.

The individual concerned with the search for what is missing from traditional history usually conceptualizes the problem that way, as a first step: The story of women missing from history is discovered, resurrected, and newly interpreted. Women are made to fit into the empty spaces of traditional history. Once engaged in this enterprise and confronting the vast untapped riches of primary sources, the historian becomes aware of the inadequacy of the concepts with which she must deal, of the limitations or inapplicability of the traditional questions she is asking. The search for a better conceptual framework for the history of women begins at that stage. One is led, step by step, to new definitions, to the search for more appropriate concepts, to dissatisfaction with periodization in traditional history. One searches for appropriate comparisons of women with other groups in society. One tries to find new conceptual models, borrowing concepts and tools from other disciplines. Women’s History, at this stage, is no longer only a field, rather it is a methodology, a stance, an angle of vision.

Women’s History is a stance which demands that women be included in whatever topic is under discussion. It is an angle of vision which permits us to see that women live and have lived in a world defined by men and most frequently dominated by men and yet have shaped and influenced that world and all human events. Women’s History challenges the androcentric assumptions of traditional history and assumes that the role of women in historical events—or the absence of women from them—must properly be illuminated and discussed in each and every case. Such an examination can also provide the basis for answering the other questions asked earlier. Is the past gender-determined? Is there a different history of men and of women? Another way of posing these questions is to ask, does gender determine a person’s experience, activities, and consciousness? Few would disagree with the statement that gender, like class, race, and ethnicity, is one determinant in shaping the individual’s life. The difficulty lies in making generalizations based on our one-sided knowledge of the human past. The study of the history of women is a necessity, if only for purposes of comparison.

Women’s History, finally, is both a world view and a compensatory strategy for offsetting the male bias of traditional history. It is an intellectual movement of seriousness and considerable range, which aims for a new synthesis which will eventually make its continuation unnecessary.

I came into the study of history through my work on a biography of Sarah and Angelina Grimké. As a writer of short stories, articles, screenplays, and two novels, I planned to write a fictionalized biography. I was fascinated with the lives and characters of these two women, who had not had a biography written about them since 1885. I wanted to make them come alive as persons, as they had come alive to me while reading their diaries and letters. I wanted to trace their development and growth: creatures of society emerging into selfhood; selfless advocates of reform becoming, out of their own needs, organizers of women and finally creators of feminist thought. They

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