Making history, and reclaiming it

Almost 50 years ago, when students Beth Garfield, Susan Heck, and Cynthia Russell, along with Professor Myra Strober, founded Stanford’s Center for Research on Women (CROW), they were not only making history but reclaiming it. Founded in 1974, CROW was one of the first academic centers for research on women. Clayman Institute Senior Scholars Edith Gelles and Karen Offen recall what it was like to engage in early gender research and shift their academic field, history, to focus on the lives of women. 

“There was so little written about women,” Gelles says. “We had to go into the archives and dig it out.” The study of history mainly focused on men in power, with issues such as family and child-rearing rarely considered worthy of study. Gelles spent years of meticulous research, scouring microfilm of the unpublished and not yet transcribed correspondence of Abigail Adams; today’s researchers have many searchable online archives at their disposal. “It was work, it was luck, it was a calling—it was just wonderful to be working on a project that was creating a new field,” Gelles says. 

What would the emerging field of gender research look like? It was an open question. From the start, CROW embraced an interdisciplinary approach. “I cannot emphasize sufficiently how important and unique it was to be ‘interdisciplinary’ in that era,” Gelles explains. “Since the beginning of the 20th century, disciplines had been narrowing and separating and defining themselves distinctively.”

There was so little written about women. We had to go into the archives and dig it out... It was work, it was luck, it was a calling—it was just wonderful to be working on a project that was creating a new field.

Central to these efforts was the Visiting and Affiliated Scholars program at CROW, which created a home and a community for research on women. In addition to convening faculty, staging events, offering lecture series, and other activities, CROW assembled a diverse group of researchers for the scholars program. It offered a “lifeline” and “an innovative, interdisciplinary scholarly community” for newly minted women PhDs, still vastly underrepresented in the academy, according to Offen. Visiting scholars, from a wide variety of institutions both in the U.S. and abroad, joined forces to learn as much as they could about the lives of women in history and across borders. 

Among their first publications was Victorian Women: A Documentary Account of Women’s Lives in Nineteenth-Century England, France, and the United States, the collaborative effort of a six-person team. Offen describes it as “foundational” for courses taught at many universities as scholarship on women expanded.  “The history of marriage, or child-raising, those weren't on the map,” Offen says. “To put those on the map was a revolution.”

Into the early 2000s, Offen said, “affiliated and visiting scholars produced major scholarship in women’s history, women’s studies, and more broadly, and some of us continue to do so.” Gelles met Susan Faludi and brought her to the Institute, where she served as a visiting scholar while working on her groundbreaking book Backlash. Marilyn Yalom and Susan Groag Bell led an effort to produce biographies of women, which often were workshopped within the scholars program. While the Clayman Institute offered a Visiting Scholars and Affiliated Scholars program through the early 2000s, various administrative changes meant the program was discontinued. Some researchers who wanted to continue their affiliation became Senior Scholars, including Offen and Gelles.

Karen Offen publishes on the history of Modern Europe, especially France and its global influence; Western thought and politics with reference to family, gender, and the relative status of women; historiography; women's history; national, regional and global histories of feminism; comparative history, and the sexual politics of knowledge. She has been affiliated with the Clayman Institute since 1977. Edith Gelles is a historian of early America and women's history who has been affiliated with the Clayman Institute since 1983. She chaired the bi-weekly meetings of the Visiting and Affiliated Scholars for more than 20 years. She has written biographies of Abigail Adams and, most recently, edited the Library of America's Letters of Abigail Adams