It’s been said that the greatest achievement in American history in the 20th century is the progress that was made – although the journey continues – toward woman’s equality, what with women’s right to vote codified in the 19th amendment (1920), women’s reproductive rights affirmed by the Supreme Court over a half century later (1973), and every advance in between and since. Our national government has done what it can to recognize that progress, and to remind us whence we came. The National Park Service, for example, tells us that when our country started:
The religious doctrine, written laws, and social customs that colonists brought with them from Europe asserted women’s subordinate position. Women were to marry, tend the house, and raise a family. Education beyond basic reading and writing was unusual. When a woman took a husband she lost what limited freedom she might have had as a single adult. Those few married women who worked for pay could not control their own earnings. Most could neither buy nor sell property or sign contracts; none could vote, sue when wronged, defend themselves in court, or serve on juries. In the rare case of divorce, women lost custody of their children and any family possessions. . . .
And that . . . “Women actually lost legal ground as a result of the new United States Constitution.”
What if there were an opportunity to study this struggle and the progress we have made in great depth – in an online course from Columbia University and the New-York Historical Society featuring its star women’s historian, Alice Kessler-Harris, now emerita, and a lineup of guest voices from all around the country interviewed under her leadership to provide their expertise on matters of progress and equality? And what if there were a new Center for the Study of Women’s History launching at the same time, even on the same day – March 8, 2017 – to provide a more permanent place for examining and understanding how to make this progress even more expansive?
Women Have Always Worked, a 20-week online class, premieres its first 10 weeks today – free on the edX platform. The offering (enroll here) is unique in the history of education. The course introduces the first collaboration between a university and a historical society to present knowledge to the world – with extended video-recorded conversations and artifact and document discussions with renowned scholars and authors including Baruch’s Carol Berkin; Deborah Gray White from Rutgers; Iowa’s Linda Kerber; Carroll Smith Rosenberg from Michigan; Thavolia Glymph from Duke; St. John’s Lara Vapnek; Blanche Wiesen Cook from CUNY; Louise Bernikow; Harvard’s Nancy Cott; Elaine Tyler May at the University of Minnesota; NYU’s Linda Gordon; the great New York writer Vivian Gornick; and more.
The course page lists some of the questions covered:
• How women’s participation in, exclusion from, and impact on American economic, political, and social life have altered American history.
• How key figures and events have challenged the role of women in the home and workplace.
• How ideas, such as democracy, citizenship, liberty, patriotism, and equality have differently shaped the lives of women and men.
• How women of different races and classes have experienced work, both inside and outside the home.
• How historians of women and gender study America’s past, including hands-on opportunities to practice analyzing primary sources from the present and the past.
• How women’s history has developed and changed over time.
And did we say it’s free?
The second part of the course will launch in June, in association with the annual meeting of the Berkshire Women’s History Conference at Hofstra University – the largest meeting of women’s historians anywhere. The MOOC is inspired by Kessler-Harris’s book, Women Have Always Worked: A Historical Overview, first published by the Feminist Press in 1981 and coming out in a newly updated edition also in 2017 from the University of Illinois, publisher of Kessler-Harris’s landmark Gendering Labor History (2007). The original book brings forth a million gems of knowledge and analysis in text and images; the online course brings forward video and audio and documents and artifacts such as few media can accomplish. Intelligent Television had the opportunity to produce many of the video interviews, conversations, and testimonials.
The struggle of women at work is the struggle of all who seek a better and more just world. The course is a little miracle alight within it.
Peter B. Kaufman runs Intelligent Television (www.intelligenttelevision.com) and twice served as Associate Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at Columbia.