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Women’s History Today

June Purvis looks back at thirty years of women’s history in Britain.

The June 1985 issue of History Today included a fascinating section on ‘What is women’s history?’. Eight contributors answered that question, often with reference to their own research in specific fields. Now, nearly twenty years later, it is appropriate to survey the field of women’s history as it has developed since in Britain. I shall focus on publications relating to women in nineteenth and twentieth century Britain.

 

  But in the making of women’s history in the twentieth century, both in Britain and the United States, it was ‘second wave’ feminist historians, influenced by the new approaches advocated by social history, who forged the path. As activists in the women’s liberation, discussing and analysing the oppression and inequalities they experienced as women, they inevitably sought to find out about the lives of their foremothers – and found very little. History was written mainly by men and about men’s activities in the public sphere – war, politics, diplomacy and administration. Women were largely excluded and, when mentioned, were usually portrayed in sex-stereotypical roles, such as wives, mothers, daughters and mistresses. History was value laden in regard to what was considered historically ‘worthy’. Generalisations about humanity in the past had been based on what men had done.

 

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