Celebrating Ellen DuBois, transformative women’s historian

LOS ANGELES—Recently retired Columbia University professor of history Eric Foner, an authority on slave and free labor in the United States, keynoted an all-day celebration of the career of Ellen Carol DuBois, retiring professor of history at UCLA, which took place on February 24th at the UCLA Faculty Center. Her writings, he said in his talk “The Integration of Women’s and Gender History into 19th-Century History,” have transformed our understanding of the past. “Her work has affected scholars outside her field into the historical consciousness—the real measure of her legacy as a historian.”

As a graduate student, DuBois was drawn into the women’s liberation movement, which led her to become one of the early pioneers of women’s history. Her doctoral dissertation on the origins of the U.S. woman suffrage movement was published as Feminism and Suffrage: The Emergence of an Independent Women’s Movement, 1848-1869.

After 16 years at the University of Buffalo, DuBois came to UCLA in 1988. This new environment resulted in her collaboration with fellow historian Vicki Ruiz on Unequal Sisters: A Multicultural Reader in U.S. Women’s History, a classroom textbook aiming to rescue the experiences of women of color, immigrants, and lesbians. Another textbook, co-written with Lynn Dumenil, Through Women’s Eyes: An American History with Documents, has become the essential foundational resource in women’s history courses.

A prizewinning second monograph by DuBois was Harriot Stanton Blatch and the Winning of Woman Suffrage, a sensitive portrayal of the career of a woman who was the daughter of the strong-willed women’s rights pioneer Elizabeth Cady Stanton and who was herself a leader.

Currently DuBois is working on several new projects, a transnational history of the U.S., a study of international feminism between the world wars, and a popular history to be published by Simon & Schuster, Suffrage: Women’s Long Road to the Ballot Box.

DuBois’ work has always emphasized the larger vision women held in the struggle for the right to vote. Often deprecated by other historians and even by left-leaning activists as “bourgeois” upper-class women only interested in expanding their own privilege, the masses of women who fought for the vote were struggling for nothing less than access to full citizenship.

The movement served as a launching pad to resist all forms of male domination, for example, the right to earn wages not subject to a woman’s husband—and later the right to equal wages—the right to an education and professional advancement, the right to freely choose a marriage partner, the right to refuse sexual abuse in marriage, unfettered access to reproductive freedom of choice, the right to serve in the armed forces, the right to live unmarried or as a lesbian, access to same-gender marriage, and many other ways society imposed inequality.

As Foner reminded the nearly hundred attendees at DuBois’ celebration, “freedom can expand for some and contract for others—history does not move in a straight line.” The work of DuBois’ generation of historians demonstrates “the power of social movements to catalyze social change.”

Two other keynoters spoke as well, including Nancy Cott of Harvard University, who addressed “The Modern Origins of Women’s History.” Cott emphasized how in the work of the new gender historians, “women are seen as agents of their own history for the first time.” As women’s “consciousness-raising” groups emerged in the 1970s, historians also began asking questions about women’s consciousness in the past. What grievances did women express, what movements did they engage in, what acts did they perform? Going back to the critical participation of women in the 19th-century abolitionist movement, Cott said, anti-slavery activism gave women “power, agency, authority.” She compared that to the way the modern women’s movement arose out of the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s.

The final keynote speaker was Vicki Ruiz from the University of California, Irvine, who reminded the audience of the very first women’s historians who were mostly East Coast, middle-class white women who saw the world through their own prism. They assumed a uniracial model that took no notice of women of color. Other historians, like Ruiz, soon challenged that view. Race, ethnicity and nationality, culture and class are all necessary factors to consider in women’s history. “We learn from each other’s stories,” Ruiz said. The huge worldwide demonstrations supporting the Women’s March in Washington on Jan. 21st, she reminded us, proved that we are hardly living in a “post-feminist” society.

In addition, six former students of DuBois spoke of their current work. Among the most impressive, I found, was independent scholar Sarah Pripas-Kapit, who shared her research on the 19th-century Quaker-sponsored Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, which invited promising students from China, India and other countries to pursue their medical education in America. These women were sometimes recruited from missionary efforts abroad, and then sent back to their home countries as advocates of Western medical practice. Stemming from their universalist spiritual convictions, the missionary movements of the 19th century often fought courageously against American exclusionary laws.

Another who made an important contribution was Chana Kai Lee, from the University of Georgia, author of a biography of civil rights icon Fannie Lou Hamer, who spoke of Juliette Derricotte, born to a sharecropper family, who became a leader of the YWCA and believed in reliving racial suffering through Christianity. By recommendation of scholar W.E.B. DuBois (no relation to Ellen), Derricotte became the dean of women students at Fisk University in Nashville. In a tragic car accident in 1931 on her way home to Athens, Ga., Derricotte was severely injured. Despite the spontaneous assistance of a white couple passing the scene, she was unable to be admitted to a whites-only hospital, and she died the next day. The frequency of such narratives became the subject of an international campaign to shame the South for its brutal Jim Crow policies.

A third former student, Mir Yarfitz, from Wake Forest University, gave a talk “Making Usable Transgender History: Applying Ellen DuBois’ Lessons for Writing and Teaching History.” His attention focused on women in early 20th-century Latin America who cross-dressed and lived, and even married, as men. In a time of enormous changes in the economy, demography, urbanization, the media reflected a widespread feeling of discomfort and uncertainty with the new roles women were starting to assume in traditional society. Where would this lead? Would the man lose his time-honored perch as master of the house and breadwinner? Yarfitz folded into his presentation seven critical lessons he took from DuBois: 1) Fall in love with your subject; 2) Be relevant; 3) Use theory judiciously; 4) Women qua women matter (in other words, whatever else she may do, a woman does not lose this identity); 5) Stay open to new vistas—follow the work to wherever it might lead; 6) Mentor others; and 7) Bring your full self wherever you go.

It is one of history’s many ironies that the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was pushed hard by women circulating petitions in 1864-65. That amendment banished slavery and “involuntary servitude,” and is the subject of 13th,  a 2016 American documentary by director Ava DuVernay that explores race, justice and mass incarceration in the U.S. And yet, some women are still asking, can it also be employed to oppose women’s unremunerated work in the home?

The question illuminates one of Ellen DuBois’ chief principles in her research, which several of her students referred to: Do not be content with the surface meaning of events, but stay alert to “a secondary level of analysis.” DuBois is still writing history, but just as important, her many students have joined her in rewriting history and changing the world.



Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon, People’s World Cultural Editor, wrote a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein and co-authored composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. He has translated all nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, available from International Publishers NY.