Saturday, June 7, 2008

California Women: A History

Joan M. Jensen and Gloria Ricci Lothrop wrote this for the blue paperback Golden State Series (Boyd and Fraser Publishing), surveys written for a general audience and students, yet with the research base of solid scholarship. Published in 1987, it remains the only history of women in California. As such, it reflects historical perspective of a time when women's history was in formation. The material is necessarily spotty because so much material had yet to be available. Nonetheless, this is an essential reference for anyone who writes about or studies California.

A notable gap concerns Native American women. Characteristic of the simplistic model developed under anthropologist Alfred Kroeber, the writers describe Indian life as though it never had a history of its own, that there was a classic life style that did not change. Nor is there concern with the great variability in Native California cultures. (A book specific to this topic remains to be written.)

The few pages on Californias also paints broad strokes, with emphasis upon ranchero dwellers. The writers do refer to specific individuals, such as Eulalia de Perez, who had been interviewed late in life. Scholarship since the 1980s has filled in much more about these women and more particularly how historical events forced changes in their lives, even before the change in governing to statehood.

Chapters on the establishment of San Francisco and Los Angeles, the Progressive era movements, the development of women's labor through time, and women gaining a role in governing make up for the pre-1848 weakness. The writers are careful to note the rise of parallel institutions (clubs, social service societies, etc.), such as those of Catholic and African American women, alongside the more visible WASP-based ones. They weave throughout the different opportunities for working and middle-class women. They spotlight notable organizers in many fields. The final chapter on the feminist wave of 1960s-80s discusses divisiveness among women's groups as well as their achievements.

Since this book was completed, a generation of young historians, men as well as women, have published scholarly studies on very specific subtopics of this history. Kevin Starr's series on California history pays homage at times in particular to elite women so significant in the development of cultural institutions or in support of women's causes. His book on World War II also appreciates the complex role of women at home and in the labor force. Yet the major college and high school texts neglect to write a comprehensive history where women are equal participants. Instead, there remains too much "add in" and "afterthought" asides, a "we won't forget the women" compensation of little value. Someone has to write an updated survey that incorporates this new material, because until then it is unlikely the textbook writers will improve their presentation.

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