Ruth Rosen Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The Women's Movement in Historical Perspective: Conversation with Ruth Rosen, historian and columnist; 12/5/01 by Harry Kreisler.
Photo by Jane Scherr

Page 2 of 7

Becoming an Historian

In the introduction to your book on the women's movement, you describe seeing a sign about a women's meeting to discuss women's issues. Tell us a little about that, and how that changed the course of your thinking about what you might study and be interested in, both in terms of activism and in academic research.

I was in the History Department, and I was editing a magazine, as a journalist, on this campus. I saw this little three-by-five card in the student union. It said, "women's group forming -- all welcome." I thought, being older, being a graduate student, being a journalist, "Well, this is a good story." So I thought I'd go and I'd write a story. I was accustomed already to thinking of myself of somewhat special -- I was the only woman in all my graduate seminars. I was used to having a certain amount of success and not seeing ... I mean, I would not have thought of myself as discriminated against because of gender, though I've been in the movement and, in fact, had been discriminated against a lot. But I hadn't thought about it. It seemed normal. Everything seemed normal.

At that meeting, they said, "You can write a story, but you have to participate." And in two hours, the kinds of questions that people raised, they raised very simple questions like, "What in your life would you have done differently had you been a boy?" You know, "What toys would you have played with that were different?" And, "What big decision got derailed because you were a girl?" I actually had answers to those, which I had never thought about, and they were funny and they were amusing; but they were profound, and in some ways they were paths I had not taken because I was a girl, and ways in which my parents had treated me differently because I was a daughter rather than a son. And I had never thought about that.

So I began to ask questions, of course, being in the History Department. "Hmm, what's the history of women? I mean, how have women reacted to such discrimination? And what's been the history of women?" I just became fascinated by all those questions. That led to me starting -- I [was] among people who were spread all over the country -- introducing gender into historical studies.

What was your dissertation on?

My dissertation was on prostitution. I was very interested in the experience of poor women. I was interested in urban history. I was interested in social history. And I was particularly interested in sexuality and gender. So it seemed like the ideal dissertation, finding out that there is actually history to prostitution that hasn't always been the same.

What was innovative or unique in the way you cut into this problem because of this emerging change in your consciousness?

I think what was different about it was I was not only studying how the United States at the beginning of the twentieth century had made prostitution illegal, but I was looking at how the prostitutes themselves responded to it, how they viewed it. I was also paying close attention to the fact that middle-class women had been instrumental in ending legal prostitution, or the fact they tolerated prostitution, and that their perspective was quite different than the working class women and poor women who were the prostitutes. So it was a class analysis, it was a gender analysis, and it was also an ethnographic study of the prostitutes -- their humor, their culture, and how they viewed their own work. I think probably most innovative, from a feminist point of view, which now is an "ah-ha, of course," but it was a big deal at that moment, was to think of prostitution as a form of work, something that allows you to survive. We saw rape and we saw prostitution only in their sexual dimensions, but we didn't see prostitution as work. We didn't see rape as a physical assault as well as a sexual act.

Now, you mentioned that you were a journalist in graduate school, so this is another strand that we haven't picked up in your life. That is, the scribe who gives us an account of ongoing story, and, on the other hand, the historian who looks at the back-stories, so to speak, or the story that comes before what we know. Talk to us a little about those different ways of seeing the world.

When I was at Berkeley working as a journalist, I considered pursuing a career as a journalist. But it was the excavation of women's past experience that was so intellectually exciting. It was such a mind-boggling experience to rethink all of history by thinking about half the population that hadn't been talked about that it became, in some ways, a no-brainer for me. I decided, "No, I'm going to become a historian and study women's past." In some ways, I veered off into history, but up until that moment, they were really competing careers for me. I found it extremely interesting to write as a cultural critic, to write about the war, to write about the antiwar movement, to chronicle what was happening, to analyze what was happening. But history has a claim on my heart. I mean, I love history. I still do.

I want to talk a little about this most recent book, which is a history of the women's movement and how it changed the United States and, implicitly, how it is changing the world or will change it. Not to say there hadn't been women's movements elsewhere, but it succeeded here in a way that was quite distinct, not without struggle. In doing this history, you are an implicit actor in the history that's being told. So what you are describing is not how women were changed in the past, but how they were changed during a period when you were changing. Tell me a little about that problem. Is it a problem or does it make the work more satisfying?

It has its advantages and its disadvantages. As a historian, if you have to leap into a past when you weren't alive, you have to imagine it in such a profound and evocative way. You have the advantage of distance, but you have the disadvantage of not knowing the texture of how it felt. The advantage of having lived through it is you know when you have evoked something and it feels right. The disadvantage is that you may not have the analytical distance. I knew that I had the advantage of knowing how to evoke the texture, if I could figure out how to write about it.

What I began to realize was that my analytical skill and, I suppose in some ways, having been part of it, gave me some perspective on it. I began to realize this book was really about how American political culture had shaped the women's movement and how, in turn, the women's movement had affected American political culture. Once I realized that, then I felt like the analytical schema was in place. Now I had to figure out where the stories that I know would fit into that.

It took me years to realize that the women's movement came out of this culture, this society. It didn't spring out of something that doesn't exist. I had to explain that. Once I realized that, then it was a matter of telling stories, in some ways as a journalist. My proximity to those experiences gave me some advantages. But on the other hand, I had to go into the archives. I had to interview hundreds of people in order to know what I was talking about, because I'm only one person, I only experienced one movement in one particular locality, and this was the whole country and many generations.

Next page: The Modern Women's Movement: The Younger Generation

© Copyright 2001, Regents of the University of California