What Makes a Women’s Movement? Thoughts on a Women’s History Roundtable

On October 17th, Professor Alice Weinreb of the Loyola University History Department led an excellent roundtable on women’s history research at the Crown Center on Loyola University’s Lakeshore Campus. Professors Tanya Stabler and Elizabeth Fraterrigo and PhD candidate Ruby Oram, all also of Loyola, presented on their research. The event included spirited conversation among the guests and delicious snacks from the Middle East Bakery and Grocery in Andersonville. While the subjects of the research differed in era and geographic focus, each spoke to the thorny question: what constitutes a women’s movement, especially in the absence of explicitly feminist institutional structure?

After a few introductory comments from Professor Weinreb, Professor Stabler discussed her research on the Beguines, a lay order of women in medieval Paris. Inspired to works of piety and charity, these women took temporary vows and self-identified as religious, but mostly existed outside the control of canon law and a patriarchal monastic structure that often saw independent women as a threat to male leadership. Fascinating and compelling, these women were neither nuns nor “normal” women.  While much of the literature on the era focuses on official orders or notable nuns like Saint Clare of Assisi, Stabler focuses on the innovations of the Beguines while investigating them as a compelling women’s movement despite their lack of formal recognition.

PhD Candidate Ruby Oram (left) and Professor Tanya Stabler.

Next, Ruby Oram discussed her dissertation research on vocational education of young ladies in Chicago between 1880 and 1930. Much of the literature on Progressive-Era education focuses on industrial training for boys, but Oram notes that vocational training for girls preceded and even inspired similar programs for male students. Vocational education for young ladies took three forms: traditional craft skills like sewing and hat-making, white-collar labor like typing and stenography, and domestic education for modern home-making. Oram argues that Progressive reformers saw education for girls not just as an economic tool but also as a solution to social ills such as child labor, sexual delinquency, broken families, etc. Although the women spearheading these programs may not have identified as feminists or gender activists specifically, Oram sees their work as a women’s movement because women were organizing at the official level to influence law and policy.

Professor Elizabeth Fraterrigo outlined her work on the National Organization for Women in the 1960s-1980s and their work to change the culture through media, shaping and controlling representation to encourage gender equality. This program and other feminist projects like it in the era are readily identified as women’s movements partly because the 1960s was the era of movements. But this led the roundtable to also discuss whether or not anti-feminist activists, like the late Phyllis Schlafly, were part of a women’s movement as well, just one of a strikingly different nature.

Professor Elizabeth Fraterrigo.

Much of the current literature on women’s movements focuses on very structured groups of women led by “big names” like Betty Friedan or Saint Clare.  Broadening our answer to the question “what defines a women’s movement?” may help scholars and educators elevate the voices of influential but non-institutional groups of women working to improve their local communities, either as part of their own projects or within the structure of another. It may also allow us to investigate the tensions between the advantages of institutional protection and organization versus the freedom of movements with fewer structural restraints.

The next History Roundtable at the Loyola History Department will take place December 5th from 12:30-2:00pm in Crown 528. The topic will be ‘violence’, and the presenters will be Loyola Professors Gema Santamaria and Suzanne Kaufman and Loyola History PhD student Ella Wagner. According to Professor Weinreb, “this series is especially intended for grad students, particularly those who are currently writing/working through their research materials. The goal is to encourage discussion amongst faculty and grad students to tease out theoretical or conceptual categories that are relevant to many of us here at Loyola. Grad students – see this as an opportunity to hear from and talk about your work with faculty and other grad students whom you might otherwise not engage with! Come to pose questions about your work, or to hear other people discuss their ideas and struggles.”

Snacks will again be provided. We at the Lakefront Historian highly encourage you to attend.

[Photographs courtesy of David Hays.]

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Gender: Just Add Women and Stir

This post is part of a series from Loyola public historians attending NCPH 2014.

We’ve all seen it.  When museums, historic sites, and textbooks realize they need to address gender, the go-to response is to “just add women and stir.”  Sprinkle in a few “great women” to go with the great men or specifically talk about the women who lived in a historic house…usually only when you enter the kitchen.  The traditional male dominated history isn’t challenged in any way.  It’s still the same story, the same narrative, the same interpretation of the site, but now women have  been “included.”

The first panel I attended yesterday morning at NCPH 2014, “Gender: Just Add Women and Stir,” sought to challenge this standard trope.  The facilitators, a number of whom were from the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage in Philadelphia, had taken a study trip in 2013 to historic sites in New England to observe how gender and sexuality were interpreted—or not interpreted—at these sites.

Rather than a traditional panel where the audience is talked at, we immediately began an activity.  The panelists had placed scenes from historic house museums around the room and asked the audience to interpret each room in terms of gender and sexuality.  At first many participants seemed hesitant to imposing any sort of interpretation on these sites.  How were we supposed to interpret gender and sexuality based solely on images without any context?

As someone who attempts to be aware of assumptions and stereotypes based on gender and sexuality, this felt like an exercise in reifying useless categories and stereotypes.  What makes a room, or aspects of it, “masculine” or “feminine?”  Are we talking about 19th century views of masculinity and femininity or 21st century views?  Since societal views about these things aren’t static, but have in fact changed tremendously, there is considerable difference.

As far as interpreting sexuality goes, well there’s all sorts of trouble there.  The living room at the Gropius House in Lincoln, Massachusetts, for instance totally said gay stereotype to me.  Not gay, mind you, but gay stereotype.  I have no idea who used or designed this living room, and I can’t make any sort of judgements about their gender, let alone their sexuality based simply on an image of the room.

The image used in the session was a different angle, but you get the idea.
The image used in the session was a different angle, but you get the idea.  Photo courtesy of www.historicnewengland.org

Continue reading “Gender: Just Add Women and Stir”

A Dark Double Bind: Criminal Women in the Eyes of Reformers

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As part of a summer research project sponsored by the Women and Leadership Archives at Loyola University and the Carolyn Farrell, BVM, Professorship in Women and Leadership, I created an online exhibit exploring how the women of the Chicago Woman’s Club (CWC) shaped ideas about crime and proper womanhood around the turn of the twentieth century.  My research yielded troubling questions about the ways in which we historically—and contemporarily—talk about violent femininity.

I encourage you to explore the exhibit for some delightfully colorful language that makes the early Progressive Era an entertaining period of study.  In the meantime, here’s the main gist: the white affluent women of the Chicago Woman’s Club considered it within their distinct purview as wives and mothers to protect and reform delinquent children and criminal women in order to make Chicago a better, safer city.  Members of the CWC saw criminal women and delinquent children as both causes and victims of urban crime, a perspective which positioned the clubwomen as saviors of the women, children, and the city.

Continue reading “A Dark Double Bind: Criminal Women in the Eyes of Reformers”