A Response to Everyone Who Asks me “Why Women’s and Gender History?”

By Madison Filzer

Oftentimes I’m bombarded with the question, “Why would you get a master’s degree in Women’s And Gender History?” As if the work of Women and Gender Historians is insignificant and unnecessary with little to no place in a world outside of academia. This question suggests that I have done something wrong by choosing this path rather than attending law school straight out of college like I intended to.  If I were to answer the question above, it would warrant a two-part answer from me. Sarah Lawrence College encourages dialogue amongst our peers, and Re/Visionist gives me space to openly answer that question, so I am going to take the time to do so. First, I took the opportunity to get a degree in Women’s History because I wanted to discover the truth in all situations, past and present. To me, that is what the art of history is all about, finding the truth by looking at its source. Second, learning how to construct a narrative based on my own interpretation of evidence, as historians do, is a skill that will translate well in the legal field. I have found that people expect that I will have a broad knowledge of all history that has ever happened, EVER. This is not the case. In the last few years, I have learned how to find truth in books, on the internet, and in physical archives to make sense of the past for both myself and for others. 

The first thing that comes to mind when I think about my understanding of historical truth is the American Women’s Suffrage Movement that took place in the early 20th century. The first time I heard of Women’s Suffrage was when someone jokingly asked whether I wanted to end women’s suffrage. Since I had never heard of it, I assumed it meant ending women’s suffering, and I said yes. Joke was on me because I had no idea what Women’s Suffrage really meant, but after a quick google search, I found some level of truth on what it meant to “End Women’s Suffrage”. However, it was not until my first year of graduate school that I was able to wrap my head around how complex the Suffrage movement really was. One particular assignment was to write a historiographic essay in which we would look at a primary document and analyze the way other historians have made sense of it. We were tasked with reading a debate between leaders of the Suffrage Movement, specifically Susan B. Anthony and Cady Elizabeth Stanton, as well as Henry B. Blackwell, a proponent of African American Suffrage. [1] For me, this historical moment validated my desire to find the source of information and be able to . Reading the transcript of the debate enabled me to formulate my own understanding of the Suffrage Movement. With my own knowledge, I can retell a narrative of the Women’s Suffrage movement in America that showcases the racism within the leadership of the Movement accurately. 

The efforts of the Suffragists always arise in March as part of Women’s History Month, and this August will mark 100 years since white women gained the right to vote. I think this is a notable example for me to reflect on because 4 years ago, I didn’t even know what the Suffrage Movement was. Now when people start talking about how great Susan B. Anthony and Cady Elizabeth Stanton are, I can reference the exact words these women used to prioritize white women’s right to vote over that of African American’s. In doing so, I can reconstruct a narrative that tells more than one side of history. 

To answer the question, by getting a degree in Women’s History I can spend my life searching for sources of truth and offer interpretations of my discoveries in ways that may not have been done before. As I begin to work on my thesis, I have found that few, if any, historians or scholars have researched my topic of choice making me the first female historian to write about the 1968 Glenville Shootout in Cleveland, Ohio. There aren’t many places where you can obtain a degree specific to Women’s History, and to be doing it at the first institution in the nation to offer this type of degree is an accomplishment worth postponing law school for. Not only are we creating history, but some of us are making history too. 

Madison is a second year Master’s Candidate in the Women’s History program at Sarah Lawrence College. Her research interests include Civil Rights activism in Cleveland, Ohio, and Black women’s activism in the United States.

Endnotes:

[1] DOCUMENT 30 (II: 381-98): Debates at the American Equal Rights Association Meeting, New York City, May 12-14, 1869

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