July 17, 1998

Making History

UCSC Women Shape Major New Book on U.S. Women's History

For politics professor Gwendolyn Mink, having a hand in creating a major new book about U.S. women's history gave her a chance to enrich the story of women in this country. In the process, Mink provided 16 UCSC (University of California, Santa Clara) colleagues with a similar opportunity to leave their own mark on history.

Mink is one of five editors of the landmark book, The Reader's Companion to U.S. Women's History, a 672-page volume dedicated to capturing the experience of women in the United States from precolonial times to the present. With more than 400 articles written by over 300 contributors, the book fills a unique niche, offering insightful commentary on topics as diverse as feminist theology, Native American cultures, and Prohibition.

Gloria Steinem was approached about the project by publisher Houghton Mifflin in 1992, and she hand-picked the team of editors: Dartmouth College history professor Marysa Navarro; Wilma Mankiller, former chief of the Cherokee Nation; writer Barbara Smith; and Mink.

Mink recalls being immediately intrigued by the prospect of such a major undertaking. She and her coeditors approached the project as a challenge to broaden the scope of U.S. women's experience beyond middle-class white women--to make the book reflect the diversity of race, class, and sexuality that is part of this country's landscape. "It was a unique opportunity, and as far as I know, there's no other book like it," says Mink.

It took nine months to define the initial subject categories, and then an advisory board of historians weighed in.

"Our first meeting was on Inauguration Day in 1993 in Washington, D.C., and then we met again a few weeks later on President's Day in New York," says Mink. "Both were very long meetings, and after that it was hundreds of hours on telephone conference calls. We'd talk for three or four hours at a time every week or two."

By fall 1994, the editors began to make assignments. Mink particularly enjoyed giving women who have made history an opportunity to showcase their own ideas, accomplishments, and expertise.

"The book is better because Dana Frank writes about class, Angela Davis writes on communism, Bettina Aptheker writes about cultural feminism, and Dana Takagi writes about racial discrimination," says Mink, referring to UCSC colleagues who are among the contributors to the book. "It's great to give such visibility to women who have made history--and to women historians who have changed our understanding of history."

Other well-known contributors include Janet Benshoof, who had successfully defended abortion rights before the U.S. Supreme Court and who wrote about reproductive rights; former Congresswoman Bella Abzug, who wrote about the women's economic development organization she founded; and Barbara Seamen, a pioneer in the field of women's health, who wrote about breast cancer.

The book is aimed at a general audience--most of the entries range from 250 to 1,000 words, and the volume is illustrated with 60 photographs.

As for working with a cultural icon like Steinem, Mink admits that she was curious initially about how Steinem would settle into such arduous, time-consuming, and detailed work. "She was very dedicated to the project," says Mink. "She never missed a conference call, and even when we'd been on the phone for three hours, she hung in there with everyone else. We all rose to the challenge, and we certainly all learned a lot."

One of the biggest challenges for the editors, all of whom are accomplished writers, was to let each contributor speak in her own words, says Mink. "As editors, we had to sublimate ourselves to the authors' voices," she recalls. "That was hard for all of us, but I'm very happy with what came out. I think it's a great service."

--Jennifer McNulty

Excerpts and photographs from the book . . .

Throughout the eighteenth and well into the nineteenth century, all U.S. women were barred from speaking "in public," that is, from the pulpit, in the courtroom, or on the Senate floor. But general prescriptions for women's silence were enforced so emphatically that when Emma Hart Willard, a white woman, addressed the New York legislature in 1819, she remained seated to avoid any suggestion that she was engaged in public speaking.

--Candace West, from "Public Speaking"


Mexican American women workers on the Southern Pacific Railroad during World War II

Racism is an enduring and integral part of U.S. history. From the earliest European incursion to the present, discriminatory practices and ideologies have informed state and institutional structures and have framed national popular consciousness and culture as well as social, economic, and political discourse. . . . Nonetheless, many Americans neither accept nor understand the centrality of race in U.S. history. Indeed, Americans tend to think of race as a residual problem, rather than as a core element of politics, institutions, and culture.

--Dana Takagi, from "Racial Discrimination"

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