Historically Speaking . . .

"Every generation" says historian Judith Allen, professor of women's studies and history,"rewrites the past in its own image." Allen notes that coming to terms with the history of feminism has proved no easy matter, particularly when past advocates for women's rights seem to have so little in common with contemporary feminist sensitivities and agendas. In her recent book Rose Scott: Vision and Revision in Feminism, Allen--who previously held Australia's first Chair of Women's Studies at Griffith University, Brisbane and now serves as Director of the Women's Studies Program at Indiana University Bloomington--explores how the life and work of a nineteenth-century Australian advocate for women's rights illuminates current debates about periodizing, characterizing, and defining feminism.

Despite the credit they deserved for battles well fought, Allen writes that to "third-wave" feminists, early women's rights advocates from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries--those who participated in what are commonly referred to as the first and second waves of the women's movement--seemed to have more in common with the antifeminist activists of the 1970s than with current feminist agendas.

The Women's Liberation Movement of the late 1960s unleashed great interest in the history of women's resistance to male domination. The earliest investigations of foremothers caused serious unease. Since many members of the Women's Liberation Movement began their political lives in the New Left and libertarian student movements of the time, earlier feminists could not fail to disappoint. No wonder women's liberation was needed, some concluded. The forebears had failed badly. They had tackled all the wrong questions. Imagine their thinking that suffrage would change the world. They were prudes and puritans, offensively moralistic on everything. Free abortion on demand, twenty-four-hour child care, free contraception, orgasmic equality, free love, and open relationships seemed to be nowhere on the agenda of these mainly Protestant, bourgeois, teetotal, race-blind dinosaurs.

Allen's own political and intellectual development followed a course similar to the one she describes above. As a young feminist in the 1970s, she was interested in the emerging field of women's history and feminist historiography. As a university student during the sexual revolution era, she wrote her undergraduate honor's thesis on Rose Scott's life and work. "But I couldn't work out," Allen says, "how this person who led an incredibly embattled public life on behalf of women and children and was a founder of the Women's Suffrage Society could be a feminist and say that the problems in the world grow out of men's lust and vice and the seduction of women, etc. It all seemed profoundly antisexual and repressive."

This problem eventually led Allen to a study of crimes involving women and their sexual relationships with men. Sex and Secrets: Crimes Involving Australian Women Since 1880 applies feminist analyses to criminal acts involving women-- many of which were never prosecuted--in the interest of investigating how crimes such as infanticide, prostitution, abortion, domestic violence, and rape served as part of secret negotiations between men and women. The book investigates how the history of such crimes offers insights into women's survival options.

Allen's current book project, Corporeal Contracts, analyzes the interfaces between sexuality, population, and feminism as reflected in the lives and work of five key American scholars and writers: historian Frederick Jackson Turner (1861-1932), zoologist and sexologist Alfred Charles Kinsey (1891-1956), birth control and sex education advocate Mary Steichen Calderone (1904-), feminist writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935), and Professor of Marriage and Guidance Counseling, Emily Hartshorne Mudd (1906-). Allen's approach incorporates the history of gender, rather than merely focusing on women's history, because she believes that specifying and interrogating the masculine aspects of history is often as subversive an activity as specifying and investigating the feminine. Allen notes that feminists have not been "entirely correct" in saying that what we had before the development of women's historiography and the growth of women's studies programs was men's history. "I don't think the corpus of mainstream history equals the history of men as a sex," she says. "Feminist analysis and methodologies have made it possible to ask questions about men as a sex and to investigate the phallocentric nature of our academic discourses. The work being done on one sex throws into high relief work being done on another."

As a historian, Allen explains that she is interested in continuities and comparisons: one studies these things because they serve to illuminate contemporary concerns. As Director of IU's Women's Studies Program, Allen focuses on those continuities that support critical analyses of gender issues across the academic disciplines. Such continuities productively illuminate the present agenda for feminist research and scholarship.

--Susan Moke