History professor Gerda Lerner, one of the major forces behind the field of women’s history. (Credit: University of Wisconsin-Madison)
Women’s history is a relatively new academic branch, so finding the right resources when you’re pursuing good research paper topics in the field can be important. Whether you’re researching famous women in history, famous black women or women of color, or are focused on an aspect of more general topics such as women’s suffrage, you want to be sure that your resources are relevant. To help celebrate Women’s History Month (March), here are some tips for finding good research paper topics in women’s history, and following up those ideas with solid research.
The field of women’s history didn’t really begin as an academic discipline until the 1960s. At the forefront of the movement to not only represent women’s stories in history but to focus on the impact women have made—a topic previously ignored in most history classes—was Gerda Lerner. Writing in the “Introduction” of U. S. History as Women’s History: New Feminist Essays, Linda K. Kerber and her co-editors explain that the wave of feminism in the 1960s encouraged scholars to begin exploring the personal as political: “If the personal and the private had political implications, then the significance of women, even positioned as private and apolitical beings, also had substantive political implications,” Kerber et. al. explained. According to Kerber, Lerner, who died in 2013, “demanded changes in the way we wrote history and in the way the profession treated women.”
Carol Faulkner, writing on the topic in “Pathfinder for women’s history” for the National Archives, noted, “Both the feminist movement and the new study of social history contributed to the development of women’s history. Because of these connections, women’s history generally expounds a certain political viewpoint and focuses on a specific type of history (social history is ‘history from below’).”
Exploring the beginning of the field is in itself a worthy research paper topic, and Lerner’s biography is a fascinating one. Due to her recent death, an overview of her life is available through obituaries published in major news sources, including the New York Times. Her impact on the field is mentioned in many texts about women’s history.
Finding a research paper topic
But suppose you’re looking for a topic with greater political than biographical implications. Where do you start? A good beginning resource is at Questia‘s women’s history page. While there are several pages dedicated to famous women, including fictional woman Rosie the Riveter and her role as a recruitment image in World War II, there are also several more general topics, including:
Seneca Falls Convention, where the first serious proposal for women’s suffrage in the U.S. took place
Women in specific time periods and places, including the Middle Ages, the Holocaust, and Ancient Greece and Rome
Women’s suffrage in the U.S.
Once you’ve selected a general topic, be sure to narrow it appropriately, with tips provided by Claire Moore, in “Writing process tips: How to narrow your research paper ideas” on the Questia blog. You could limit by location, choosing to pursue research on women in a specific location, such as Chicago, IL. The Chicago Metro History Education Center offers a number of topics about Chicago women in the reprinted essay “Women’s history” by Dr. Rima Lunin Schultz and Adele Hast. The full book from which the essay is taken, according to the site, “is available at every branch of the Chicago Public Library,” making it easy for local researchers to access deeper information on their chosen topics.
Determining good resources
Because women’s history is still a young field, there may be more limited resources on topics within the discipline than on, say, classical Roman history, which has been studied for centuries. Luckily, there are many government sponsored websites that compile useful resource repositories.
The National Women’s History Project [http://www.nwhp.org/] offers a number of originally created essays on topics in women’s history, from encounters between European and Native American women in the early days in the United States to resources on the Women’s Rights Movement. Although geared primarily for a K-12 audience, the links section collects resources by state as well as recommended resources on topics including women in aviation, peace and war, and African-American women.
Edsitement: The best of the humanities on the web [http://edsitement.neh.gov/feature/womens-history-month], managed by the National Endowment for the Humanities, features short excerpts on topics for Women’s History Month, primarily the role of women during American wars, with links to resources embedded in the descriptions. A series of reviewed websites is also linked at the bottom of the page.
The official page for Women’s History Month [http://womenshistorymonth.gov/] includes a number of original articles, as well as an excellent resource page under the link “For Teachers.” These resources include direct links to topics inside the Library of Congress, the National Archives (including primary sources), the National Gallery of Art, and the National Park Service.
Smith College’s Sophia Smith Collection [http://www.smith.edu/libraries/libs/ssc/wmhistlinks.html] offers a page on recommended resources for researching topics in women’s history, including links to many early documents and primary sources.
What resources would you recommend in women’s history? Tell us in the comments, and find out more about women’s history on Questia.