Women’s History Month—Every Year!

It may have been 1965 or 66 . . . it was almost summer, and Joyce and I were looking for employment. We had a couple more years in high school and needed to keep our cars on the road, which takes money. What better way to spend June, July, and August than scooping ice cream at Baskin-Robbins! Or so we thought . . .. We filled out the applications and walked into the cool, sweet-smelling ice creamery. We handed our hopeful papers to the young man behind the windows that protected the product and waited. He read them, looked at us, and reread them. Then he handed them back. “Girls can’t work here,” he said. “They aren’t strong enough to scoop frozen ice cream.”

I think that women’s work on military history exemplifies the best of what historians now call “New Military History” — the study of war that looks beyond battles and campaigns.  I choose not to write much about battle tactics or the second day at Gettysburg because many other historians have done this already. I am not sure there is new ground there for me to churn up. I concentrate more on details that are not always considered. My first post for ECW was on embalming, after all. It seems to me that the people affected by the war are much more complex than a look at battle formations for four years would indicate.

I am interested in how there came to be a civil war in the first place, politically and socially. Even though I live in California, I am not particularly a dove when it comes to armed conflict. There are worse things than war. War is a horrific and painful process that affects real people. I believe women’s scholarship on war is more likely to deal with issues related to the suffering and trauma of both combatants and civilians.  Many women scholars who work on war consider gender issues.  Others look at the impact of war on society more broadly. I think slavery is worse than war—political, social, or economic slavery. Just how did the average Yankee feel about all this, and how did it affect him or her? That is what I want to know about.

I read, and read, and read. I read newspaper accounts, diaries, editorials, speeches, memoirs, and images. I read primary sources and secondary sources. I read old stuff and new stuff. Reading is non-gendered. So is accessing information on the computer, which I do a lot of as well. It has come to me that virtual work helps women very much. No one knows if you are old or young, pretty or plain—and these things matter, unfortunately, where women are concerned. A simple email asking for specific information is much more likely to get fair and equal treatment than how it used to be when travel was constant, and a woman had to justify being a military historian in the first place.

One place where male or female seems to be an issue is in the current divide between academic historians—college professors and the institutions that support research and the rest of us. However, there are many woman walking battlefields today, and many of us blogging, researching, and publishing. The NPS has been proactive in its hiring, and “woke” folks like the ones at ECW have opened both arms and doors to those of us who were previously relegated to a back burner. There are challenges ahead for women, and for independent historians as well, and I am proud to be part of both groups.

My personal goals are fairly well contained: let the world know about Colonel Elmer Ellsworth, redeem the 11th New York Fire Zouaves from their besmirched reputation as cowards at First Bull Run, and get some sort of marker at Fort Tejon that explains Jonathan Letterman’s relationship to that fort—it was his last posting before he was called to help the Army of the Potomac.

A Woman in a Zouave Jacket–Oh Dear!

I shall use my small-but-bully pulpit here to encourage other women to be historians, and if that is where one’s heart is, follow it. Mostly encourage each other and take heart in knowing that history needs to be looked at from many points of view to be more clearly understood. Look for other women to encourage and help others keep the faith.

As I read this post over, I notice a lot of the use of the word “I.” It is a personal post, after all. Nevertheless, my resolve is to go forward in the spirit of “we,” and start to see myself as part of a whole—a whole lot of really terrific woman whose hearts and minds are driven by the past. Don’t let anything stop you if this is what you wish to do. There are more opportunities for success now than ever before. And if you are a father to a daughter (or a husband to a wife or any relation to one of us who wants to become a historian) be positive and helpful. There is truth to the notion that history is not a well-paying job.  She may need to support herself in other ways. This does not mean that she should abandon her first love. Help her find a way. For this, I thank the men at Emerging Civil War.

By the way, Joyce became a lawyer and then a state judge in California. We are both entirely capable of scooping frozen ice cream.

6 Responses to Women’s History Month—Every Year!

  1. I agree; law school enabled me to grasp the complexities of ice cream scoop manipulation as well. I am somewhat surprised about the author’s either/or evaluation of the relative horrors of slavery and war. I find it difficult to see war as less horrific than slavery in its disruption of all of society. Our civil war was unique in that it was largely confined to the geographic region in which our system of slavery was entrenched. Perhaps if California had been devastated, or New York littered with human bodies one’s viewpoint would be less absolutist.

    1. Doing anything military is often difficult in the area of California in which I live. All wars are seen as completely bad & unnecessary. I have emptied out faculty rooms by discussing strategy, tactics, or asymmetrical warfare. War is as nuanced as anything else in life–maybe more so. I do NOT simply relegate war to an absolutist explanation unless I am writing a short blog about myself and writing history. I wish you lived in central California–I have a large porch and an old house. I make good lemonade, and could spend the rest of my life sitting on that porch talking Civil War. You have my personal invitation!

  2. I join you in this quest! I come at History from a background in Political Science, often being the only woman in the room in the one year of PhD study I was able to complete. My contribution has been a home front story of the South: “The War Outside My Window: The Civil War Diary of LeRoy Wiley Gresham, 1860-1865” which looks at the Civil War from an alternate perspective. There is so much left uncovered in this pivotal conflict in American history!

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