Women and History: Outside the Academy

THE ACTIVE PARTICIPATION OF WOMEN in the field of American history dates back to the earliest writings on the subject. The rich and long history of women writing, teaching and researching in the field of American History, however, is obscured by narrow disciplinary definitions of what actually counts as history and who is qualified to represent it. This article explores the professionalization and masculinization of history within the academy that took place in the second half of the nineteenth century and the contributions of women working as writers, teachers, archivists, and scholars outside the confines of academic history departments. Emblematic of this important work are the efforts of Sarah Bolton, Angie Debo, Dorothy Porter, Molly Murphy MacGregor, and Mary Kay Thompson Tetreault. Bolton’s biographies of exceptional women of the nineteenth century, Debo’s ethnohistories of Native Americans,[1] Porter’s archives of the African Diaspora, MacGregor’s National Women’s History Project, and Tetreault’s feminist phase theory and feminist pedagogy[2] have broadened the scope, method and uses of history. Acknowledging these women’s work expands our view of what counts as history and helps to make the disciplinary practices of history transparent, exposing their epistemological and methodological underpinnings to scrutiny. An examination of these contributions also serves to correct the misperception that women have come lately to the business of writing history.

History Becomes Gendered Work

The first histories of the United States were written in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century when historical scholarship was an amateur’s domain. At this time, writing histories was a considered a suitable literary avocation for educated gentlemen and a “feminine refinement” when pursued by ladies. American women were active producers and consumers of a range of historical writing which included popular novels, epic poetry, history textbooks, biographies and autobiographies.[3] However, academic reforms within the academy in the mid-nineteenth century narrowed the genre of what types of writing were considered history as well who was considered qualified to write them. Methods that helped educate and socialize this new breed of professional historian included an emphasis on seminar training and archival research.[4]As a tool for both education and socialization, the seminar replicated a patriarchal model in which young men were trained under the watchful eye of an older man. The knowledge and status of the elder scholar were bestowed upon his loyal apprentices. Because seminars were intimate, invitation-only arrangements conducted behind closed doors — often in a male professor’s home study, this practice was by nature exclusive.

Within the seminar room, participants focused their efforts on applying an objective eye to archival evidence. The quest to discover obscure or lost source material became part of the masculine challenge of scientific history. Archival research often required travel and solitary hours spent combing collections stored in inhospitable locations. Heroic tales of time spent in the catacombs and in remote locations uncovering historical evidence promoted a conquest mentality. Historians encouraged the image of their profession as a fraternity that aggressively sought secular truth.[5] Consequently, seminar training and archival research helped to define an elite cadre of men who believed that they were uniquely qualified and capable of enduring the mental and physical demands of scientific history.[6] The reliance on seminar training and archival evidence marginalized women both as the makers and tellers of history. The activities and experiences central to women’s lives were poorly represented or simply absent in archived documents[7] and the genres of narrative, biography, and curriculum in which women had been prolific writers, were no longer considered legitimate history. Thus, in becoming a professional and scientific discipline, the practice of history became a credentialed activity practiced by a male elite located almost exclusively in the academy. Women who did seek the training and academic positions required to practice the techniques of scientific history were routinely denied access to professional networks that defined successful academic careers.[8]

Women Historians Outside the Academy

Sarah Bolton is representative of the practice of American history prior to the masculinization of the field. Like other historians of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, she was considered a literary figure, not a scholar. Bolton published a series of collective biographies; Lives of Poor Boys who Became Famous (1885), Lives of Girls who Became Famous (1886), Famous American Statesmen (1888), Successful Women (1888), Famous Types of Womanhood (1892), Leaders among Women (1895). These widely read and commercially successful histories were typical fare from an era in which biography as well as fiction, epic poetry, and children’s literature were considered history genres.[9] Bolton’s credentials included her literary skills, her genealogical ties to prominent figures in New England during the Revolutionary War, the elite social circle in which she moved, and the moral refinement attributed to women in general. As part of the larger cultural notion of “Republican motherhood,”[10] nineteenth-century women were seen as particularly suited to making and communicating moral meaning. It was women who were entrusted to tell stories about the nation’s history to young citizens. In its pedagogy, methodology, content, and style, history was considered a powerful inspiration for literary expression and elemental to the development of a moral and capable citizenry. However, those devoted to establishing history as a discipline within American universities rejected histories like Bolton’s and dismissed their popular and curricular forms as unscientific and unprofessional.

Despite the gender bias built into the training and socialization associated with professionalized history, many women in the twentieth century sought academic credentials, but even if they earned advanced degrees in prestigious history departments, they encountered a profession that was often quite dismissive and even hostile to their contributions.[11] Angie Debo’s career provides an insight into the challenges these women faced negotiating the difficult waters of academic history. With only an eighth grade education, she taught at a rural elementary school for several years before a high school was established in her hometown of Marshall, Oklahoma. Taking advantage of this opportunity, she earned a high school diploma in 1913 at the age of twenty-three, and wasted little time before pursuing higher education, eventually earning two advanced degrees. The master’s degree won in 1924 at the University of Chicago was in International Relations because women were not admitted into the history program. However, in 1933, she earned a Ph.D. in history from Oklahoma University. Debo’s mastery of the tools of academic history is evidenced in the publication of her master’s thesis and her award winning doctoral dissertation.[12]

Although she made repeated efforts to obtain an appointment, Debo never found a permanent position in an academic history department.[13] She spent most of her career as a freelance writer and independent scholar. She was versatile and prolific, completing several local histories for the Works Project Administration and the Federal Writers Project. In addition to numerous journal articles, she wrote nine books and edited several others. Debo also held a variety of teaching appointments and was a curator at several universities and libraries. Her experiences on the fringes of academia reflect the bias female historians encountered within the profession in general,[14] but they are also attributable to the nature of some her writings. Her book And Still the Waters Run (1940) documented the fraudulent activities of officials in Oklahoma who stole lands from Native Americans. These revelations were so inflammatory that Debo’s life was threatened, and, for a period, she was barred from teaching in Oklahoma universities.[15] In contrast to the clubby environment that many of her male peers in tenured positions enjoyed, Debo’s quest for historical truth made her literally an outlaw and an exile.[16]

Throughout her career, Debo pioneered methodologies and interpretations that are now recognized as standard features of what has become known as the “New Native History.”[17] Before ethnohistory became a respected approach, Debo was combining anthropology and history in her studies of the Plains Indians. Before feminist theory began to transform historical perspectives, Debo was exploring gender roles from a Native American perspective. Debo refuted Turner’s Frontier Thesis, presenting a Western history not of manifest destiny, but of deliberate and brutal exploitation. Her determination to accurately represent the settlement of the West has earned her belated accolades. Oklahoma now proudly claims her contributions to its state’s history, and her portrait hangs in the capitol.[18] Her work has been cited in federal court cases involving tribal land rights, has been assigned widely in Native American history classes, and is considered by scholars to be essential to Native American historiography.[19]

Just as Angie Debo pioneered “New Native American History” working primarily outside of the academy, so too was Dorothy Porter a forerunner in the field that became know as the “New Negro History.”[20] In 1932, Porter was the first African American to receive a master’s degree in library science at Columbia University. Her master’s thesis, Negro Writers Before 1830, foreshadowed the important contributions Porter would make as a bibliographer of African American literature. She worked on several such bibliographies in the course of her career and was considered an expert on materials written by African Americans. However, Porter’s vision for what counted as history was broader than the work she could compile in these valued and influential bibliographies. Working as a professional librarian, Porter’s desire to archive source material related to the African American experience went beyond the borders of the United States to include a variety of materials related to Africans in Latin America and the African diaspora world-wide. She understood that the Negro experience did not fit neatly into the political boundaries of any country, nor could it be fully understood through written documents.

African American women’s experiences in particular were unlikely to be recorded and therefore could not be found in traditional archives. Generations of African American women passed on their history in the stories they told each other. Porter’s ability to access knowledge preserved in personal accounts helped Pearl Graham uncover evidence of Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with his slave Sally Hemmings and the children that resulted from that relationship.[21] Subsequently these claims have been confirmed by other scholars using the techniques of DNA testing. Porter’s vision for historical archives expanded existing definitions and provided scholars evidence with which to write alternatives to the racist histories that misrepresented the African American experience. Historians and authors like John Hope Franklin, Alex Haley, and Langston Hughes, who transformed popular understandings of the African American experience relied on source material Porter helped locate.[22] The vast and unique collection Porter developed is housed at what is now called the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University. This lasting repository is a priceless piece of public history that will allow future generations of Americans to make new meanings of their past in both academic and popular forums.

Just as Dorothy Porter’s work preserved a wide range of documents and artifacts that help to reclaim the historical experiences of African Americans, the work of Molly Murphy MacGregor has increased visibility for another group eclipsed by historical bias. In 1980, MacGregor, and her collaborators Maria Cuevas, Paula Hammett, Bette Morgan, and Mary Ruthsdotter, founded the National Women’s History Project (NWHP). The simplicity and clarity of the NWHP goals, and the persuasiveness of spokeswoman Molly Murphy McGregor, has engaged countless schools and communities in the discovery and celebration of women’s history. By prioritizing visibility and accessibility, this determined group has effectively raised public awareness about women’s history.[23]Evidence of their success includes a Congressional endorsement in 1987 of the celebration of March as National Women’s History Month. The NWHP has brought family and community histories compiled by amateurs as well as groundbreaking scholarship to popular audiences.[24] In the academy, this scholarship helped to carve out women’s history as a distinct field within traditional history departments and helped to establish interdisciplinary women’s studies programs.[25]

Turning to a consideration of the work of Mary Kay Thompson Tetreault brings this study full circle. Much of her work explores the vexing issues related to representing history to students in a way that corrects for the epistemological and methodological bias of scientific history. Tetreault examined the masculine bias within the history curriculum and explored pedagogical methods that could support a gender balanced historical inquiry. She analyzed how, when, and where women appear in high school United States history textbooks to assess the popular, pedagogical and scholarly state of the history students are meant to consume.[26] She concluded that women had become more visible in the secondary curriculum because of the cumulative efforts of the NWHP, women’s history scholars, and others who advocated for gender equity during the 1970s and 1980s.[27] However, Tetreault noted a tendency to merely affix images of women onto a male-centered narrative. For example, while as many as forty percent of the visuals in the typical textbook depict women, no more than eight percent of the written text was devoted to women.

In a retrospective analysis of a high school social studies elective course she taught entitled “Women in American Society,” Tetreault describes how the presentation of women’s experiences as historically significant affected students’ perceptions of themselves and the subject.[28] Earlier on in the class she observed student resistance to the content. They questioned whether ordinary women’s lives “counted.” Tetreault speculates that her students had internalized androcentric representations of history and thus defined women’s experiences as outside of “real” history and therefore unimportant. However, as the class progressed Tetreault noted that studying women’s lives seemed to connect her students to history in a way that had not previously experienced. Six years later, when Tetreault interviewed her former students, many testified that studying the lives of women in a history course was a novel, empowering, and even transforming experience.

Tetreault argues that feminist pedagogy can make learning about the past more meaningful to many students by explicitly challenging notions about whose experiences and what types of knowledge count. Feminist pedagogy engages students in a critical examination of the knowledge claims and methodologies of historians. Examining the human agency in the writing of history facilitates an analysis of historiography. An increased awareness of the authored nature of history removes the veneer of scientific certainty and allows teachers and students to question representations of the past. In her articulation of feminist phase theory, Tetreault explores the multifaceted process of creating new meanings about the past given the legacy of masculine bias within the discipline.[29] The table below summarizes the characteristics of each of Tetreault’s five phases applied to history curriculum.

Male-defined curriculum The absence of women in historical representations is not noted or is considered an accurate representation of their relatively minor historical significance.
Contribution curriculum Exceptional woman are added when and where they meet male-norms of significance i.e. Marie Curie, Queen Liliuokalani.
Bi-focal curriculum Gender inequalities are noted. The experiences of men and women are examined as separate and distinct from each other i.e. private and public spheres.
Women’s curriculum Women’s values, perspectives and experiences are used as the measure of significance. Diversity among women is recognized.
Gender-balanced curriculum The public lives of men and women are examined in relationship to each other as are the related aspects of identity and experience e.g. age, race, class, and culture.

Tetreault points out that feminist phase theory is not organized as a hierarchy or as a developmental sequence. Instead the phases are intended to represent different emphases within feminist scholarship and provide a useful model for analyzing curriculum and historiography. The contributions of the women discussed in this paper fall into all of these phases.

Ironically, the accomplishments of contemporary feminist scholars who established women’s history as a respected field and interdisciplinary women’s studies programs may contribute to the mistaken impression that women were not actively involved in researching and writing about history prior to the feminist movement. The work done by women not deemed historians remains marginalized within American historiography. Looking at women’s contributions to the field of American history dating back to the earliest days of the establishment of the United States allows our understanding of the discipline of history and of the past to become more detailed and nuanced.

Each of the women presented here, Sarah Bolton, Angie Debo, Dorothy Porter, Molly Murphy MacGregor, and Mary Kay Thompson Tetreault, draw on sources beyond the public records of the white male elite to create more complete historical representations. In so doing they challenged existing notions about the very nature of historical inquiry and the limitations of the discipline. Together they offer a range of approaches for teachers and students of history who seek a more comprehensive and balanced view of the past. Work done outside the methodological and ideological boundaries of masculinized history helps to extend these boundaries and may engage a wider audience in diverse and useful approaches to understanding the past.


1 Angie Debo, And Still the Waters Run (Princeton. NJ: Princeton University Press, 1940). Angie Debo, Geronimo: The Man His Time, His Place (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1976).

2 Mary Kay Thompson Tetreault, “Feminist Phase Theory: An Experience-Derived Evaluation Model,” The Journal of Higher Education 56.4 (1985): 363–384. Mary Kay Tetreault, “Integrating Women’s History: The Case of United States History High School Textbooks.” The History Teacher 19.2 (1986): 211–262.

3 Nina Baym, American Women Writers and the Work of History (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1995). Dorothy Helly. “Doing History Today,” Revolutions in Knowledge: Feminism in the Social Sciences, ed. S. Rosin Zalk and J. Gordon-Keller (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1992).

4 Bonnie G. Smith, “Gender and the Practices of Scientific History: The Seminar and Archival Research in the Nineteenth Century,” American Historical Review 100.4 (1995): 1150–1176. Bonnie G. Smith, “Gender and Historical Understanding,” Learning History in America, eds. L. Kramer, D. Reid, and W. Barney (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1994): 107–119.

5 Bonnie G. Smith, The Gender of History: Men, Women and Historical Practice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998).

6 Peter Novick, That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Question (Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 1988).

7 Joan Wallach Scott, “Women’s History and the Rewriting of History,” The Impact of Feminist Research in the Academy, ed. C. Farnam (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1987) 34–50.

8 Jacqueline Goggin, “Challenging Sexual Discrimination in the Historical Profession: Women Historians and the American Historical Association, 1890–1940,” The American Historical Review 97.3 (1992): 769–802. Gerda Lerner, “A View from the Women’s Side,” The Journal of American History 76.2 (1989): 446–456.

9 Baym, American Women Writers.

10 Linda Kerber, “The Republican Mother- Women and the Enlightenment: An American Perspective,” American Quarterly 28(1976): 187–205.

11 David D. Van Tassel, “From Learned Society to Professional Organization: The American Historical Association, 1884–1900, The American Historical Review 89.4 (1984): 929–956. E. Boris and N. Chaudhuri, Voices of Women Historians: The Personal, the Political, the Professional (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1999).

12 Angie Debo, with Fred Rippy, The Historical Background of the American Policy of Isolation (Northhampton, MA: Smith College Studies in History, 1924). Angie Debo, The Rise and Fall of the Choctaw Republic, 2nd ed. (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1961).

13 Shirley Leckie, Angie Debo: Pioneering Historian (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2000).

14 Gerda Lerner, The Majority Finds Its Past: Placing Women in History (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1979).

15 R. David Edmunds, “Native Americans, New Voices: American Indian History, 1895–1995,” The American Historical Review 100.3 (1995): 717–740.

16 The American Experience: Indians, Outlaws and Angie Debo, writ. and dir. Martha Sandin, prod. Barbara Abrash, The Institute for Research in History and WGHBH Educational Foundation, 1988.

17 Julie Des Jardins, Women & the Historical Enterprise in America: Gender, Race, and the Politics of Memory, 1880–1945 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2003).

18 Leckie, Angie Debo.

19 Edmunds, “Native Americans.”

20 Des Jardins, Women & the Historical.

21 Julie Des Jardins, “Reclaiming the Past and Present: Women, Gender, Race, and the Construction of Historical Memory in America, 1880–1940,” diss, Brown University, 2000.

22 Jacqueline Goggin, “Countering White Racist Scholarship: Carter G. Woodson and the Journal of Negro History,” The Journal of Negro History 68.4 (1983): 355–375.

23 Judith Zinsser, History and Feminism: A Glass Half Full (New York, NY: Twayne Publishers, 1993).

24 Judith Zinsser, History and Feminism. C. Farnam, The Impact of Feminist Research in the Academy, (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1987).

25 Gerda Lerner, The Majority. Kerber, L., A. Kessler-Harris, and K. Sklar, US History as Women’s History: New Feminist Essays (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1995). B. Sicherman, E. W. Monter, J. W. Scott, and K. Sklar, Recent United States Scholarship on the History of Women (Washington, DC: American Historical Society, 1980).

26 Mary Beth Norton, “Rethinking American History Textbooks,” Learning History in America, eds. Kramer, Reid, and Berney (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1994).

27 Tetreault, “Integrating Women’s History.”

28 Mary Kay Thompson Tetreault, “It’s So Opinioney,” Journal of Education 168.2: 1986. This study updates Trecker’s study of 1971. J. Trecker, “Women in the U.S. History High School Textbooks,” Social Education 35.3 (1971): 249–260, 338.

29 Tetreault, “Feminist Phase Theory.”