In less than week, I will give a paper at the Newberry Library. This paper in question is not ready. I know it will be, but it is not now. More tinkering to do.
The paper I will give Saturday looks at the Chicago Sisters of Mercy, their charism, and education ministry in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Basically from when they set up shop in Chicago in 1846 to the decade after Amalgamation (1929). I enjoy this period in women’s history and American Catholic history. The nineteenth century proper and the Progressive Era are my history touchstones. Since I took on the Mercy history project, I have found myself in the twentieth century much more. The fifties, sixties, and seventies in particular are exciting decades to study for Catholic women’s history right now, which throws the traditional American women’s history narrative a curve ball. (Did I just use a sports metaphor? I think my students’ writing is getting to me.)
I am teaching a US history survey this semester and over the last couple weeks we have explored the fifties and sixties, first in consumer culture, then Civil Rights Movement, and lately the Student Movement. This week we will tackle second-wave feminism and the women’s liberation movement. Should be interesting. I fear I will spend more time correcting the historical narrative provided by the course textbook. If you need any indication of what I am up against, here’s this little nugget from the textbook:
Betty Friedan, a forty-two-year-old mother of three from Peoria, Illinois, led the mainstream of the women’s movement.
There’s more, but that is enough. There is nothing “wrong” about that sentence, but it is hardly the whole story. Yes, Friedan was from Peoria, but she wasn’t living there when she wrote The Feminine Mystique. Yes, she was a mother of three, but that wasn’t the sum of who she was. Yes, was a leader of the mainstream women’s movement, but she wasn’t the only one. I can see me now, droning on about what is missing from this passage and about the importance of understanding the full context of women’s lives – not just the little snippets we get in the textbook. (I better not go on too much, we are already behind and we are supposed to get to the 1980s before we are all said and done.)
Why does the context and the nuances of history matter? Everyday, there is a story about what we as a society don’t know about the past. My students have holes the size of a Mac Truck in their understanding of American history and one semester won’t do nearly enough to make up for that. (It will help, Gosh Darn it! It has to.) As I think about my presentation on Saturday, I hope that I relate the correct and full history, as I provide just a snippet of the larger whole Chicago Mercy history.
There is more I could say, but really, the tinkering on my paper won’t take care of itself.