What They're Famous ForLinda Gordon has specialized in examining the historical roots of contemporary social policy debates, particularly as they concern gender and family issues. Her first book was a documentary history of working women in the US (America's Working Women, orig. 1976, revised ed. 1995). She then turned her attention to the history of birth control; her book on that topic, Woman's Body, Woman's Right: The History of Birth Control in America, was a runner-up for the National Book Award in 1976 and was re-issued in an up-to-date revision in 1990. Her 1988 book, Heroes of Their Own Lives: The History and Politics of Family Violence, winner of the Joan Kelly prize of the American Historical Association, examined the history of child abuse, child sexual abuse and wife-beating.
As a domestic violence expert, she serves on the Departments of Justice/Health and Human Services Advisory Council on Violence Against Women. More recently she turned her attention to the history of welfare. Her Pitied But Not Entitled: Single Mothers and the History of Welfare (1994), winner of the Berkshire Prize and Gustavus Myers Human Rights Award, explains how we ended up with a welfare program detested by recipients and non-recipients alike.
Her 1999 book, The Great Arizona Orphan Abduction (Harvard University Press) uses a narrative about a 1904 white vigilante action against the Mexican American foster parents of white children to illustrate how family values and racism can interact. It was the winner of the Bancroft prize for best book in American history. A more recent book, Dear Sisters, edited with Ros Baxandall (Basic Books, 2000), offers an historical introduction to the women's movement of the 1970s through essays and documents.
I was lucky enough to be studying history when the ground was shifting beneath the older definitions of the field. The changes began for me with the French social history I read in college at Swarthmore from Paul Beik, and the Russian social history I read in graduate school at Yale from Firuz Kazemzadeh. I did not at the time register that these subjects and the methods of approaching them were new. But although I was already a"social" historian--my dissertation focused largely on runaway serfs--still the idea that historical questions could be framed and researched about women, let alone a new-to-me concept like gender, did not reach me until 1969. And then it arrived not through academic channels but through a social movement.
In 1969 I was teaching at the University of Massachusetts/Boston where I was hired in the field of my dissertation and PhD, Russian history. But the women's movement had gripped me, as so many others, and I was a participant in an informal group of scholars who had the idea to examine what historical research might yield on questions of gender. We thought we were pioneers. We thought we were inventing new ideas. But then I went to Harvard's library and began to browse. To my surprise I found a few superb books–deeply researched, intellectually both analytic and synthetic. One example is Alice Clark's The Working Life of Women in the Seventeenth Century, published in London in 1919. From this work I learned more than from any other my understanding of gender as a material, not just a cultural, practice.
The I looked at the library check-out slip pasted to the inside back cover. Clark's book had not been checked out since the 1930s. I soon found others equally dusty and forgotten.
I found this ominous. How could such a good book have been so neglected? History-writing was supposed to progress, and to do so by standing on the shoulders of previous scholars, incorporating or challenging their work and moving beyond it. Soon the new women's-history scholars would learn that the number of female historians and university professors declined between 1920 and 1960. Their work was all but lost for five decades, and entirely lost in the training of new historians in this period.
I hope my generation of scholars examining gender, and those that followed, through their prodigious publishing and teaching of the past three decades, have made a more lasting impact, but I don't take anything for granted any more. When I wrote a book on the history of birth control politics, published now 30 years ago, I assumed that reproduction control was an aspect of modernity and women's emancipation, a practice here to stay. How wrong I was. History must always struggle for independence from the present. And our resistance is needed not only against scholars defending"tradition." Sometimes we have to contest the interpretations of our allies. I remember being criticized by some activists in the movement against violence against women because they saw my emphasis on the"agency" of domestic violence victims as a form of blaming the victim.
I was lucky in another regard: there were plenty of jobs when I finished graduate school. I enjoyed the fruits of a public and private welfare state, however modest, that paid for my undergraduate and graduate education (the National Merit Scholarship and National Defense Education Act programs) and supported the universities at which I taught (the universities of Massachusetts and Wisconsin). The economy was strong, taxation was less regressive than it is today, deindustrialization was not yet a largescale phenomenon, and Cold War competition was stimulating education spending. And because there were academic jobs, I could take the risk of changing my field of concentration, from early modern Russian borderlands to 19 th and 20th century US gender, labor, and social policy. I do not need to tell HNN readers how many extremely talented history scholars lack these opportunities today, but it is worth pointing out that we are all the losers for the mistreatment of this talent and dedication.
By Linda Gordon
It is not always easy to recognize progress when we see it, because it is human to look forward, focusing on the distance yet to go, rather than backwards. But if we don't see what we have accomplished we cannot accurately gauge the remaining tasks and, worse, we may lose confidence in the possibility of change.
Once we recognize change, we must also understand how it took place, who brought it about, or we may slip into thinking that it just happened, forgetting the people who made it happen, ignoring the many failures they experienced along with their victories, and, worst of all, misunderstanding how hard we need to work for change today. Delegitimating the once common parental prerogative to batter children and the patriarchal privilege to assault women did not just"happen" as an inevitable part of progress. It took protracted political struggle to criminalize such abuse. I would like to explain this process and to give these activists their due, to recognize the bravery, ingenuity, and perseverance not only of reformers but also of women and children often seen only as victims. -- Linda Gordon in a Speech,"The History and Politics of Family Violence," Louisville, March 8, 2000
The nature of a state cannot be measured linearly, from small to large. A more accurate generalization about Progressives points to their conviction that government should rely on expertise. Expertise, I suppose, is what you get when you combine higher education with the notion of impartiality--that is, the idea of rising above politics. The symbol and the most influential application of this faith in expertise was the development of the modern social survey, notably by WEB Du Bois and Florence Kelley. Whether they were studying poverty, fertilizer, or prostitution, what was distinctively Progressive in this vision of expertise was the idea that the data thus collected and presented should form the basis of public policy--in fact, that expertise could resolve seemingly unresolvable political stalemates. Not only convinced that the social sciences could exclude bias, Progressives also thought that experts were more honest and less corruptible than politicians. Experts were to extend their responsibility not only to making recommendations and writing legislation and judicial decisions, but then to agitating for these policies. One mark of their success is the way that Congressional investigations and reports of Congressional Committees or special Commissions have become a standard part of our political process. Historians, of course, were much less able to show the necessity of their expertise to government, but they nevertheless absorbed the notion of expert impartiality into their scholarship.
Some of the increasing reliance on expertise derived from the goal of securing the public welfare. The practice recognized that industrial and technological development left consumers and workers defenseless without expert protection. How could the buyer know if the milk was adulterated when she was no longer in direct contact with the dairy farmer? How could the copper miner know that the hard-rock dust was giving him silicosis? And if they suspected these dangers, as many lay people did, how could they get their concerns onto the political agenda? By their very professional self-aggrandizement, experts not only built careers for themselves but made themselves political players who could generate legislation and legal decisions. Public health experts, armed with germ theory, proved that typhoid and diphtheria could not be confined to the slums and used this proof to agitate for public sewers and water treatment. It took engineering expertise to make sure that those who worked in the new taller buildings could be protected from fire and structural collapse, or that those who walked the sidewalks outside could still feel some sun and air. We all benefit from the work of scientists demonstrating the link between tobacco and cancer. We all benefit from the work of social and biological scientists who have demonstrated that empowering women works better than population control programs to lower birth rates, that condoms can prevent HIV transmission.
But the meanings and consequences of the use of expertise in government are themselves conflicting. Many Progressives--including both those we might today call liberal and those we might call conservative-- tended to view both the working class and the corporate owning class as corrupt, and as a solution sought to empower middle-class experts as super-citizens whose recommendations would supersede those of ordinary citizens. Many attempted to combat the corruption of partisan politics by moving large sectors of government outside the political arena, for example through hiring town managers rather than electing mayors. But not all Americans were equally able to become qualified as experts or to get experts to listen. In class, race and gender terms, Progressive expertise contributed not only to growing inequality but also to the decline of participatory politics even among white men.
Further complicating the story, it is not always easy to distinguish"good" from"bad" expertise."Americanization" agents taught immigrant women to get their newborns immediately onto regular feeding schedules, never to feed them on demand; just as they also taught that babies shouldn't be fed spoiled cows' milk. Progressives did not always seek out ways to integrate expertise into democracy, and in fact many called on expertise to delegitimate democratic decision-making. The Progressive faith in supposedly nonpartisan professionals was often paired with deep-seated distrust of the uneducated, hard-drinking, allegedly easily corruptible immigrant or black or Mexican worker. But of course the uneducated are by no means always ignorant. In fact, miners did know that the hard-rock dust was making them ill, while the experts were still insisting that the disease was TB caused by the miners' own unhygienic living conditions; but the miners could not get their knowledge respected until the expert Alice Hamilton actually went down into the mines to sample the dust.
Yet at the same time Progressivism was characterized by extremely high levels of grassroots activism.... -- Linda Gordon,"Progressive Expertise: an Oxymoron?", for conference of the Association for the Study of Law, Culture and the Humanities, March 2002, published as"If the Progressives were Advising Us Today, Should We Listen?" Journal of Gilded Age and Progressive Era, April 2002.
Payne also wrote of the civil-rights organizers he studied," courage is the least of their gifts." Knowing their extraordinary perseverance in the face of power water hoses, aggressive dogs, police beatings, southern jails and marauding, sadistic killers, I found this an odd thing to say. Payne's comment is the essence of the book's argument, however: its insistence that social movements and their leaders are not"natural" eruptions of discontent, not expressions of an instinctive human drive for freedom and dignity, but rather complex intellectual projects, great political achievements.
Charles Payne's book reminds us that historians are underdeveloped in analyzing social movements and social-movement leadership. Sociologists have made a field of social movements and developed a large body of work analyzing, categorizing, defining them. By neglecting this project, historians have been derelict in a public duty. Although university tenure committees do not always agree, historians have a responsibility to the citizens of their countries, even of the world. Historians produce our collective memory. We are of course just as fallible and subjective as memory but no one else is going to do it better. Preserving, interpreting and communicating our legacy of movements for social change is vital to us all--even more vital to the younger among us. It is important because, first, we must honor those to whom we are indebted for the dignity and decencies we enjoy, even when we think we have far to go. Second, because failure to acknowledge these debts is a suppression of history and therefore of what we can learn from it. Third, failing to understand how we got to our present will certainly prevent us from understanding the present fully enough to change it. About a decade ago a Polish Solidarity activist friend visiting in the US heard a teenager say, dismissively,"Oh that's history, mother." When he learned the meaning of the slang, our friend was shocked because he knew that to Poles"that's history" would mean"that is of the utmost importance." This slang use of"history" is not a mere accident: American culture, of course, promotes this ahistorical perspective. -- Linda Gordon, Social Movements, Leadership and Democracy: Toward More Utopian Mistakes," keynote lecture, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, 2000, Monday, May 22, 1933, Washington, DC
In his first two hours on the job May 22, he spent $5.3 million ($65 million in 2001 dollars). By the time he left work that night, he had hired a staff, instructed 48 governors what they needed to do to get emergency relief, and sent out relief checks to Colorado, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Mississippi, Ohio, and Texas. The Washington Post headlined"MONEY FLIES."
Hopkins ignored accusations of hurried, slapdash decision-making."People don't eat in the long run," Hopkins snapped to critics,"they eat every day."...
The press, unaccustomed to such governmental activism, immediately began to badger Hopkins, searching for corruption and/or boondoggling. Hopkins snarled back,"I'm not going to last six months here, so I’ll do as I please." In fact Hopkins' own operation was run on the smallest possible budget. At year's end, when a billion-and-a-half dollars had been distributed to 17 million people, the FERA's 121-person payroll was still just $22,000 a month....
Despite the best efforts of Hopkins and his staff, race and sex prejudice permeated the distribution of FERA aid. Direct grants went disproportionately to southern and western states, because they were poorer but also because they were more tight- fisted than midwestern and northeastern states when it came to helping the poor. Some, like Virginia, never contributed a single dollar to relief programs. These state administrations regularly excluded or short-changed people of color, principally African Americans, Mexican Americans, American Indians, Asian Americans. Everywhere relief discriminated against women. Everywhere politicians, Democrats as much as Republicans, used the money to enhance their own political power through patronage.*** So the FERA"feds," led by the squeaky clean Hopkins, were continually clashing with the state relief administrations, sometimes winning, often losing.
At the same time the FERA battled a conservative social work establishment convinced that the poor needed moral supervision and surveillance lest welfare encourage them in laziness and dependence. This establishment included the major private charities, child-saving agencies, religious aid groups, as well as many state and local governmental agencies administering public assistance. By contrast Hopkins' logic, and that of the group of administrators he was rapidly recruiting, was that the moral character of its recipients was no more suspect than that of the rich or of those lucky enough to be in work. FERA policy was to distribute aid without humiliating and infantilizing surveillance. Why was it FERA's business if an aid recipient had a boyfriend or drank beer in a saloon? -- Linda Gordon in"Harry Hopkins Brings Relief," in"Days of Destiny," ed. McPherson and Brinkley (NY: Agincourt Press for the Society of American Historians, 2001).
The difference talk I examine here developed in two streams within feminism: Difference I, gender difference, and Difference II, differences (racial/ethnic/religious/class/sexual) among women, the latter also called diversity. They are opposite meanings in some ways: the more we emphasize differences between men and women, the more we implicitly erase differences among women and among men. Yet the very strength of the first contributed to the development of second....
Worse, in both Difference I and Difference II the new multicultural feminism sometimes falls into an uncritical discourse of pluralism, a celebration of diversity. Political pluralism as a concept developed as a way of distinguishing democracy from totalitarianism; the argument was that interest groups and other civic associations were important to check state power. After World War II pluralism became an often smug legitimation of American anticommunism and as a result evoked scathing critique. Theorists such as Herbert Marcuse and C. Wright Mills exposed the ideological functions of the concept: masking power through the fiction of formal equality where there was no substantive equality. There's nothing wrong, of course, with an appreciation of multiple identities and civic associations, but we need to be wary of pluralist fictions about conflict among interest groups who begin from theoretically equal positions on a theoretically level playing field. Feminists should be the last to be taken in by the notion that scholarship, like society, is an open competitive field, a"free marketplace" of ideas. -- Linda Gordon in"On Difference," Genders, Spring 1991, and"The Trouble with Difference," Dissent, spring 1999
About Linda Gordon
Gordon begins with a prehistory of birth control-describing how Jewish women on the Lower East Side of New York City one hundred years ago tried to abort themselves by sitting over a pot of steam from stewed onions-and moves on through Victorian prudery and its reaction, the 1870s voluntary motherhood ideology, which had its roots in the early women?s rights movement. It?s sometimes difficult to follow the players-suffragists, moral reformers, free-love members, eugenists, socialists, sex radicals, the medical community-without a scorecard, but Gordon does a good job of pulling up blood-and-flesh examples of each. Ezra Heywood, for example, a free-love patriarch, endorsed male continence, a form of abstinence.
The social history moves chronologically; a large section is devoted to Margaret Sanger and the background of what was to become Planned Parenthood. Gordon, a professor of history at New York University, and author of The Great Arizona Orphan Abduction, which received the Bancroft Prize in 1989, has extensively researched her subject, so she is often able to throw out hard-to-believe information; for example, during the Depression, one enthusiastic soul proposed by law to limit families to two children. -- ForeWord Magazine reviewing"The Moral Property of Women: A History of Birth Control Politics in America"
From the"discovery" of family violence in the 1870s--when it was first identified as a social, rather than a personal, problem--to the women's and civil rights movements of the twentieth century, Heroes of Their Own Lives illustrates how public perceptions of marriage, poverty, alcoholism, mental illness, and responsibility worked for and against the victims of family violence.
Powerful, moving, and tightly argued, Heroes of Their Own Lives shows family violence to be an indicator of larger social problems. Examining its sources as well as its treatment, Gordon offers both an honest understanding of the problem and an unromantic view of the difficulties in stopping it. Originally published in 1988, when it received the Berkshire Prize and the Gustavus Myers Award, Heroes of Their Own Lives remains the most extensive and important history of family violence in America. --
University of Massachusetts, Boston, instructor, 1968-69, assistant professor, 1970-75, associate professor, 1975-81, professor of history, 1981-84;
University of Wisconsin, Madison, professor of history, 1984-90, Florence Kelley Professor of History, 1990-2000, Vilas Distinguished Research Professor, 1993-2000;
New York University, New York, NY, professor of history, 2000--.
Scholar in residence, Stanford University, summer, 1979, Dickinson College, summer, 1987;
Bunting Institute fellow, Radcliffe College, 1983-84;
visiting professor, University of Amsterdam, 1984;
Bird Memorial Lecturer, University of Maine, 1986;
invited residency, Bellagio Center, Italy, 1992;
Swarthmore College, Eugene Lang Visiting Professor, 2001;
Princeton University, Lawrence Stone Visiting Professor, 2004.
Area of Research:
Twentieth-century U.S. social, political, and social policy history; women and gender; family; U.S. Southwest.
Swarthmore College, B.A. (magna cum laude), 1961;
Yale University, M.A., 1963, Ph.D. (with distinction), 1970.
Editor, Contributor, Joint Author:
Awards and Grants:
National Book Award in History nomination, 1976, for Woman's Body, Woman's
Right: A Social History of Birth Control in America, and 1988, for Heroes of Their
Own Lives: The Politics and History of Family Violence, Boston, 1880- 1960;
National Institute of Mental Health grant, 1979-82;
National Endowment for Humanities fellow, 1979; American Council of Learned Societies travel grant, 1980;
Outstanding Achievement Award, University of Massachusetts, 1982-83;
Antonovych Prize, 1983, for Cossack Rebellions: Social Turmoil in the Sixteenth- Century Ukraine; Guggenheim fellowship, 1983-84, 1987;
American Council of Learned Societies/ Ford Foundation fellowship, 1985;
University of Wisconsin graduate school research awards, 1985-95;
Joan Kelley Prize for best book in women's history or theory of the American Historical Association; Wisconsin Library Association Award, 1988, for Heroes of Their Own Lives: The Politics and History of Family Violence, Boston, 1880-1960;
American Philosophical Society Research Award, 1988-89;
Chicago Women in Publishing award, 1990, for Women, the State, and Welfare;
Berkshire Prize for best book in women's history, and Gustavus Myers Award, both 1995, both for Pitied but Not Entitled: Single Mothers and the Origins of Welfare;
Bancroft and Beveridge Prize, 1999, and Banta Award, Wisconsin Library Association, 2000, both for The Great Arizona Orphan Abduction.
Gordon has given numerous academic lectures, presented papers, and participated in conferences
and annual meetings throughout the world; manuscript and proposal referee for many
national organizations and presses, including National Endowment for the Humanities,
Temple University Press, Columbia University Press, University of California Press,
Northeastern University Press, University of Illinois Press, Oxford University Press,
American Council of Learned Societies, National Humanities Center, Woodrow Wilson Center,
Harvard University Press, Yale University Press, Princeton University Press,
university presses of California, Cambridge, Chicago, Columbia, Kentucky, Illinois,
Indiana, Northeastern, Ohio, Oxford, Temple, Canadian Social Science Research Council,
and U.K. Social Science Research Council.
Lecturer at numerous universities and colleges. Consultant/adviser to numerous local, civic, academic, media, and government organizations.
Gordon has contributed to many anthologies and encyclopedias, including Encyclopedia of the American Left, Encyclopedia of American Women's History, and Encyclopedia of American History. Contributor of articles and reviews to numerous periodicals and newspapers, including New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, Dissent, Chronicle of Higher Education, Against the Current, and Nation. Member of editorial board, American Historical Review, 1990-93, Contemporary Sociology, 1994--, Journal of American History and Journal of Policy History, both 1994-97, and of Signs, Feminist Studies, Journal of Women's History, Contention, and Gender and History; referee for many scholarly journals.
Gordon has also worked as a consultant and historian for television production and videotape productions, including Spare the Rod: the Politics of Child Abuse, Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), 1988; War on Poverty, 1994-95, PBS; The Roots of Roe, Connecticut Public Television, 1994; The Troubled American Family, 1996; Family in Crisis, 1996; Children of the Great Depression, American History Project; Barbie!, KCTS-TV; History of Birth Control, Perini Productions; A Century of Woman, Paramount Studios; History Matters Web site; and Encyclopaedia Britannica Web site on women's history, 1998. Also guest on numerous television and radio programs, including those on PBS and National Public Radio (NPR).
comments powered by Disqus
John Gary Maxwell - 6/3/2009
To what extent was the phenomenon of widowed women taking in single male boarders a socially acceptable mode of co-habitation in the 19th century? Have there been any studies of this as a sociological evolution or as a significant economic change during that period?
- Clinton-Trump Debate Expected to Be Rare Draw in a Polarized Age
- Obama hails opening of the African American Museum
- Palestinians' Abbas seeks British apology for 1917 Jewish homeland declaration
- Anger as Churchill's home turned into Hitler HQ for Transformers 5
- CIA: “Pinochet personally ordered” Letelier bombing
- Karl Dietrich Bracher, German Historian of Nazi Era, Dies at 94
- Allan Lichtman predicts Trump will win
- Doris Kearns Goodwin scores an interview with Barack Obama
- Art historian Kellie Jones wins a MacArthur Foundation “Genius” grant
- Historians note that prisoners have been treated inhumanely throughout American history