Historian Elisabeth Griffith is an academic, activist, author, and expert on American women’s history. Her biography of suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, IN HER OWN RIGHT, was hailed by both Oprah and the Wall Street Journal as “one of the five best books on women’s history.” It was the basis of Ken Burns’ documentary on Stanton and Anthony, NOT FOR OURSELVES ALONE, his only film about women’s history.
According to the Los Angeles Times, Betsy’s new book, FORMIDABLE: AMERICAN WOMEN AND THE FIGHT FOR EQUALITY, 1920-2020, is a “thorough and thoughtful” account of the struggles of white and Black women to expand their rights. The New York Times review found FORMIDABLE an “engaging, relevant, sweeping chronicle. [Griffith delivers a] multiracial, inclusive timeline of the struggles and triumphs of both Black and white women. A profoundly illuminating tour de force.”
A graduate of Wellesley College with a doctorate from American University, Betsy has been teaching women’s history for forty years. She marched for women’s rights in the 1970s with the National Women’s Political Caucus, before she led the Women’s Campaign Fund, a forerunner of Emily’s List. Her twenty-two-year tenure as headmistress of the Madeira School, a girls’ boarding and day school in McLean, Virginia, earned the Washington Post’s Distinguished Educational Leadership Award. A member of the Society of American Historians and Veteran Feminists of America, she has been a Kennedy Fellow at Harvard and a Klingenstein Fellow at Columbia.
Take it away, Betsy!
One of the questions I’m fascinated with right now is how biographers name their subjects, particularly when writing about a woman. You briefly discuss that subject in the introduction to Formidable. Where do you come down on the first name/last name question, absent any complicating factors?
When writing about the lives of men, biographers don’t have to worry about what to call their subjects. George Washington advanced from young George to Master George to Lieutenant Washington to General to Mr. President. He was always George Washington. In comparison, his wife was born Martha Dandridge, took her first husband’s name, and became the Widow Custis. When she married George, she was the General’s Lady. After her husband’s election, she was frequently called Lady Washington. The term “First Lady” appeared in 1838 and referred to Martha Washington.
The only name most women keep is their first. They exchange their fathers’ names for that of their husbands. For a married woman to keep her “birth” or “maiden” name was once both illegal and an act of feminist rebellion. Elizabeth Cady Stanton combined her father’s and husband’s names; Lucy Stone refused to take Henry Blackwell’s name. Neither woman vowed to obey their husbands. When Massachusetts granted limited local suffrage to women in 1879, the state insisted that Stone register in her married name. She refused, and never voted.
Francis Perkins, FDR’s Secretary of Labor, was another member of the “Lucy Stone League” of women who kept their birth names. Today, 68.5% of women take their partner’s names, even in 49% of LGBTQ marriages; 22% keep their birth names, and 8.9% use hyphens or create a new surname. The number of women keeping their own names is increasing among highly educated and high earning women, those who marry later, celebrities, and women committed to their personal “brand.” Maybe those women expect to become the subjects of biography.
Biographers of women who adopt married names, possibly more than once, face the naming quandary. Using only their first names, for consistency, seems disrespectful or dismissive once they become adults. To call married women by their married names leads to confusion with their husbands. For clarity in my biography of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, I call my subject Stanton and referred to her husband as Henry.
The more important issue is the act of naming women. “Say Her Name!” was the entreaty and demand of Black activists, that we acknowledge the Black women as well as the men who were victims of police violence. Historians of women want more women to be visible, remembered, respected, incorporated into the canon and included in the curriculum. While more and more notable women are being introduced to students and general readers, there are even more women whose names we will never know.
· Those of Native women whose tribes were by murdered by conquerors or germs or famine and whose descendants’ names were changed in government boarding schools.
· Those who were seized, enslaved, packed into slave ships, auctioned, raped, tortured, forced to give up their children, given the names of their owners, whose descendants fought for their rights for decades, with toilet paper and toothbrushes in their purses, anticipating beatings and jail.
· Women who crossed the plains, whose deaths are still marked by a cairn of stones.
· Women who worked in shoe factories or textile mills whose names only appear in census records or city directories.
· Immigrants whose names were misspelled on ship manifests or at border crossings.
Whether we know their names or not, we need to acknowledge the contributions women made to the creation of our country.
There are too many to name.
Do you think Women’s History Month is important and why?
It started with a week and it was never enough. Not enough time to recover and incorporate the lives and stories of the people ignored by the general narrative. That narrative, like all history, “was written by the winners,” who, in America, were mostly white men: the explorers, exploiters, frontiersmen, military leaders, statesmen, inventors, entrepreneurs, and politicians.
Over time, the American story became more inclusive and accurate as more perspectives were included and more primary sources were uncovered. Some accounts were lost with their original languages. Some were never written down by people forbidden to read or write. Other potential narrators were too poor or overworked to leave a record. Many were purposely ignored or silenced.
American history became more inclusive after the Second World War, when the mostly white beneficiaries of the GI Bill used its benefits to attend college. If they enrolled in history graduate school, these “social historians” wrote about soldiers, immigrants, factory workers, and farmers, still mostly men, but widening the lens.
To recover lost Black voices, Carter G. Woodson founded the Journal of Negro History in 1916. He published articles about slavery and professors from Fisk University collected stories from its survivors. On February 7, 1926, Woodson established Negro History Week. “If a race has no history, it has no worthwhile tradition,” he declared, “it stands in danger of being exterminated.”
Black communities had been honoring Lincoln since his assassination and segregated schools in Washington, DC, dedicated another day in February to teaching about Frederick Douglass. Woodson wanted to honor more than great men. Encouraged by Black churches and newspapers, by 1929 cities and states with sizable Negro populations adopted sundry teaching plans and classroom materials. By the end of the 1960s, Black history was offered more widely. During the 1976 celebration of the Bicentennial, President Gerry Ford recognized the value of Black History Month.
When draft boards denied academic deferments during the Vietnam war, graduate programs admitted more women. If they pursued women’s history, they confronted scarce source material. In 1970, Laura X, who like Malcolm X would not use her “owner’s name,” established the Women’s History Research Center, to collect archival materials and promote women’s history as an academic field. Credited with coining the term “herstory,” she launched a campaign to commemorate women’s history.
In 1978, a California county Commission on the Status of Women organized a Women’s History Week, to correspond with International Women’s Day, March 8. In 1980, President Carter made the week a national celebration. In 1987, the Congress created Women’s History Month. May became Asian-Pacific Islander Month and Jewish American Heritage Month. Hispanic History Month spans September and October, to incorporate what used to be known as Columbus Day and is now Indigenous People Day. Franklin Roosevelt established Columbus Day in 1937, to appeal to Italian American and Catholic voters. Politics has long played a role in how we acknowledge our past. The Daughters of the Confederacy rewrote the history of slavery and the Civil War into a cavalier myth of the Lost Cause.
All of these Americans, all of their stories, positive and negative, deserve more than a few weeks of attention. Our schools need to incorporate these narratives into lesson plans, and confront political pushback with facts. Every American deserves to know our whole history, in its full, rich, diverse, flawed, and glorious complexity.
You have spent your career teaching women’s history at a secondary and college level. What aspects of women’s history surprise your students most? What outrages them?
I’m passionate about teaching women’s history, as the length of my answers to earlier questions might indicate. I find it hard not to add one more fact or footnote.
I’m fortunate to have graduated from a women’s college at the cusp of the revival of the women’s movement in the 1970s. I had no classes in women’s history in any school I attended, although I did write a paper about mid-nineteenth century divorce and custody laws in a British history course. Noted historian Lady Antonia Fraser has expanded on that topic in her latest book, The Case of the Married Woman: Caroline Norton and Her Fight for Women’s Justice (2022).
But the combination of an institution led by women, in which students were challenged to use their brains and their leadership skills, and the energy exploding out of civil rights, anti-war and women’s rights protests fueled my interest in learning more. I moved to Washington, DC, enrolled in graduate school, and volunteered for the National Women’s Political Caucus.
The Caucus has been founded in 1971 as a bipartisan organization to elect more women and ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. Record keeping was casual and recollections were contradictory. In one creation myth, the first meeting of the NWPC was in a chapel on a junior college campus in DC. None of the organizers or the journalists covering it or anyone else knew enough women’s history to recognize the parallel to the first formal women’s rights convention in America, held in a Methodist chapel in Seneca Falls, NY, in July 1848.
I signed on, marched, lobbied, and was shouted at by both Bella Abzug and Betty Friedan. My actual tasks were more mundane. In anticipation of the first NWPC national membership gathering, in January 1973, I was put in charge of creating a backdrop behind the podium. This was long before “pipe and drape” setups or electronic screens displaying an organization’s logo. After I secured an American flag and some ficus trees, the setting still seemed anonymous. I wanted to signal that fighting for women’s rights was not a new proposition.
My search took me to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, where I met the curator of political history, Edie Mayo. She led me into the back rooms where drawers held photographs of the founding feminists. I recognized Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B, Anthony, Lucretia Mott and Sojourner Truth, but not Matilda Jocelyn Gage, Francis Ellen Watkins Harper, Carrie Chapman Catt, Ida B. Wells, Mary Church Terrell, or so many other unacknowledged foremothers.
We reproduced and enlarged the black-and-white photos of these old, wrinkled, care worn, unsmiling women, mostly wearing business black, and shipped them off, to post behind the podium and across the stage. Identifying them became an pop quiz.
Meanwhile, I’d chosen my dissertation topic, a biography of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the principal organizer, with Lucretia Mott, of the 1848 convention. Stanton was the first to demand voting rights for women. In the history department at my university, there were no specialists in American women’s history. The only female, tenured, full professor was an expert on ancient Greece, but she was an ally and served as the only woman on my dissertation committee.
I was also teaching part-time at an independent girls’ high school, because it did not require a teaching certificate. I got the job because the head of the English department, who had been my teacher in public school in Michigan, introduced me to the head of the history department. We were all alumnae of the same women’s college. I was invited to reach a course about US politics, which allowed me to cover women in politics and in the streets. The Congress had passed the Equal Rights Amendment after Martha Griffiths (D-Michigan) freed it from the House Judiciary Committee, where it had been held hostage since 1943. The Supreme Court had decided Roe. Phyllis Schlafly had not yet joined the fray.
My new boss found funding for me attend the Berkshire Women’s History Conference. Founded in 1930 by women who felt marginalized in a profession dominated by white men, the “Berks” began as a series of weekend retreats in the Berkshire Mountains. It was reinvigorated in 1973 at Douglass College, Rutgers University. I returned, inspired if unprepared to teach one of the first women’s history courses at the high school level.
I’ve been teaching women’s history ever since – to diverse audiences, to boys and girls, to men and women, to Girl Scouts, high school students, undergraduates, women running for office, adults in lecture halls and bookstores, at corporate retreats, at dinner tables, with speeches, in books, articles and media appearances. The responses are always the same. “OMG! Who knew?” It’s a challenge, especially for young people, to imagine the lives of women decades or centuries ago – the lack of rights, the physical hardship, the early deaths brought on by exhaustion and childbirth, the lack of opportunity, the constricting clothing and confining laws. People find women’s history engaging, compelling, outraging, and empowering. It is.
A question from Elisabeth: What is the role of political leaders in defining the purpose and content of teaching American history?
In the best of worlds, I believe political leaders should play no role in defining the purpose and content of teaching American history—or any history for that matter. In prior years we left plenty of people out of the historical picture in the classroom, and we were all the worse for it. But that neglect was a result of cultural blindness, not a matter of official policy. Turning curricula into political battlegrounds is not the answer.
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Want to know more about Elisabeth Griffith and her work? Check out her website: https://www.elisabethgriffith.com/
Come back tomorrow for three questions and a answer with historian Susan Ware.