Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Our View - Women's historian herself becomes part of history

Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Aug. 13, 2009.

Since 1971, Linda Kerber has been teaching history at the University of Iowa. Throughout that time, she has been working to overturn the once conventional assumption that the historical events that matter most -- the ones that require the most serious historical scholarship -- involve men alone.

Digging into historical sources overlooked in the past by historians who thought them unimportant, Kerber has been able to reconstruct the lives and experiences of previously unsung women and to present those stories in such books as "No Constitutional Right to Be Ladies: Women and the Obligations of Citizenship" (1999).

Now the historian who has made a career out of documenting the lives of other women has been recognized herself as a woman whose story needs to be documented and shared with all Iowans. The Iowa Commission on the Status of Women is inducting Kerber into its Iowa Women's Hall of Fame (for a full list of names, visit www.friendsoficsw.org/4.html).

Kerber said she is accepting the recognition on behalf of the generation of feminist historians who, like her, came to professional maturity in the late 1960s or early 1970s. When Kerber's cohort started looking around for what to write about after finishing their dissertations, they found a growing women's movement hungry for the history they could provide.

"I've only recently come to realize now how incredibly lucky we were," Kerber said. "We found ourselves at a moment in which there was a need for a history that had not been written and that both men and women needed to write."

Kerber said she also has depended immeasurably on the smattering of female historians who came before her generation. Since receiving news of the recognition, Kerber said her thoughts have turned to the late Louise Noun -- a fellow Iowa Women's Hall of Fame member who conceptualized, initiated and endowed the Iowa Women's Archives in 1991 so that future historians would have access to the records.

"(Noun) had to do what she did largely alone," Kerber said. "That's why she became so committed to developing the archive."

Having been at UI for nearly four decades, Kerber still finds herself adjusting to the fact that she is no longer one of the "young ones who didn't follow the rules." She has served as president of the American Historical Association, the Organization of American Historians and the American Studies Association. And her mentoring has inspired at least two more generations of scholars.

"I've been witness to her powerful impact on students at the University of Iowa and elsewhere," said Mary Bennett, who is special collections coordinator for the State Historical Society of Iowa and who studied with Kerber in the 1970s. "She opened the door for many young females in the profession."

In her letter of support for Kerber's nomination, University of Arizona professor Judy Nolte Temple added, "Kerber's national and international reputation brings honor to the state of Iowa, her adopted home. Linda has held many national presidencies and been a visiting scholar in a variety of places, but she returns to Iowa, where she has diligently trained the next generation of scholars who create new knowledge about women."

We agree with Nolte Temple, and we're glad the Iowa Commission on the Status of Women is recognizing this inspiring historian herself for being an important part of Iowa history.

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