Because Race Matters: How Women’s Historians Have Dealt with the Race Question

by Nydia Swaby

Academics are often inspired by the work of their predecessors and peers; this is especially true within the field of women’s history. Historians that acknowledge racial difference in their work share a collective understanding that examining race should be central to historical research and writing. Intellectual historian Elsa Barkley Brown and labor historians Dana Frank and Dolores Janiewski address racial difference in their scholarship and have inspired younger generations of historians to do the same. Through their scholarship Barkley Brown, Frank, and Janiewski demonstrate that in order to adequately represent the lives of women in any context, historians must acknowledge the ways in which race has shaped their subjects’ lives, and in doing so they may uncover a wealth of information that would otherwise go unrecognized.

In “What Has Happened Here: The Politics of Difference in Women’s History and Feminist Politics,” Elsa Barkley Brown considers why feminist historians are hesitant to acknowledge racial difference. According to Barkley Brown, some feminist historians and political activists fear that incorporating racial difference will muddle their attempts to “produce and defend women’s history and women’s politics” in support of a unified women’s movement.[i] However Brown insists that considering racial differences might be the way to establish a women’s community that is bonded in intellectual and political struggle.[ii] Brown takes that argument one step further and proclaims that it is unacceptable for historians to simply acknowledge racial differences. They “need to recognize not only differences but also the relational nature of those differences,” meaning that even when historians are examining the experiences of white women, they should also explore the impact race has had on shaping their lives.[iii] Barkley Brown agues that middle-class white women’s lives are not just different from working-class white, Black, and Latina women’s lives; middle-class white women live the lives they do because working-class women and women of color live the lives they do.[iv] Or as Dana Frank so poignantly stated in “White Working-Class Women and the Race Question”, “[r]ace is not just a question of difference, moreover: It’s about domination, and white women enjoyed racial privilege precisely because [women] of color were there holding them up.”[v] Continue reading “Because Race Matters: How Women’s Historians Have Dealt with the Race Question”