Historians in the United States

by Marsha L. Rozenblit

American Jewish women have been prominent within the historical profession. Indeed, many have been on the cutting edge of historical scholarship since the 1960s. In particular, Jewish women were at the forefront of developments within social history and in the creation of women’s history. While women generally, and Jewish women in particular, rarely made careers as historians in the first half of the twentieth century, Jewish women represented a significant proportion of academic historians both in American and European history as discrimination against Jews and prejudice against women lessened in the decades after World War II. Perhaps because of their sensitivity to the situation of powerless groups, most of them focused their attention not on traditional power elites but rather on those social groups traditionally ignored by academic historians: ordinary people, workers, peasants, minority groups, Jews, and especially women. They helped create, and were influenced by, new trends in historical scholarship that favored the study of such groups.

Many Jewish women became leading social historians as that field developed in the 1960s and 1970s. European historians like Natalie Zemon Davis and Joan Wallach Scott and American historians like Tamara Hareven greatly influenced how historians came to view the lives and relationships of peasants and workers. In a series of groundbreaking articles, published by Stanford University Press in 1975 as Society and Culture in Early Modern France: Eight Essays, Davis presented a breathtaking view of family relationships, daily life, and religion among peasants in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century France. Her ability to use archival material about ordinary people and to tease out of the records the details of everyday life has influenced students during her long and distinguished academic career at Brown University (1959–1963), the University of Toronto (1963–1971), the University of California at Berkeley (1971–1977), and Princeton University from 1978 until her retirement in 1996. Her collaboration as historical adviser to the successful popular film The Return of Martin Guerre brought her insights about peasant life in sixteenth-century France to the general public. She shared the results of her investigation into this court case, and her understanding of sixteenth-century family life, marital relations, and religious views in a 1983 book The Return of Martin Guerre (Harvard University Press).

Both Joan Wallach Scott and Tamara Hareven devoted themselves to understanding the lives of industrial workers. Scott’s first work, The Glassworkers of Carmaux: French Craftsmen and Political Action in a Nineteenth-Century City (Harvard University Press, 1974), studied the lives of the workers themselves and their relationship to those who exercised power over them. Eschewing traditional labor history’s focus on union activities, Scott was more concerned with the role of work and the community of workers. Hareven focused on American workers, in particular mill workers in New England, and on such demographic issues as marriage and family in the nineteenth century. She wrote (with Randolph Langenbach) Amoskeag: Life and Work in an American Factory-City (Pantheon, 1978) and Family Time and Industrial Time: The Relationship between the Family and Work in a New England Industrial Community (Cambridge University Press, 1982). In addition, she edited a large number of books on American social history, most of them about the development of the family, including Anonymous Americans: Explorations in Nineteenth-Century Social History (Prentice-Hall, 1971), Family and Kin in Urban Communities, 1700–1930 (New Viewpoints, 1977), Family and Population in Nineteenth-Century America (with Maris Vinovskis; Princeton University Press, 1978), and Family History at the Crossroads: A Journal of Family History Reader (with Andrejs Plakans; Princeton University Press, 1987).

By the 1970s, many of these social historians helped develop the newly emerging field of women’s history. They were all utterly honest in admitting that their involvement as feminists in the women’s movement had influenced their intellectual focus. Joan Wallach Scott best exemplifies this trend among European historians. Born in Brooklyn in 1941, educated at Brandeis and the University of Wisconsin, Scott began her career studying French workers, but all of her subsequent work, which continues to deal with power relations and hierarchies, has been on women and gender. She began, naturally enough, with a concern for women workers, publishing in 1978 a book with fellow social historian Louise Tilly, titled Women, Work, and Family (Holt, Rinehart and Winston). In the preface to the second edition (Routledge, 1987), the authors declared that feminist debates about women had made them wonder about the impact of the Industrial Revolution and the new forms of women’s work that it created on the role of women within the family. After much research, they concluded that industrial wage work did not change that role, nor did it liberate women from traditional power relations within the family. They called on historians to think of women, work, and family as inseparable and interdependent categories. In other books and articles, Scott continued to deal with women workers, their lives, relationships, and struggles. In a teaching career at the University of Illinois, Chicago Circle (1970–1972), Northwestern (1972–1974), the University of North Carolina (1974–1980), Brown University (1980–1985), and the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, Scott has trained two generations of European women’s historians.

Like Scott, other European women’s historians also understood that their scholarly concerns derived from and could make a contribution to their political interests. That is, they chose to write women’s history because they were active feminists, committed to the struggle for equality for women. In a book edited with Claudia Koonz, Becoming Visible: Women in European History (Houghton Mifflin, 1977), Renate Bridenthal, for example, indicated that her work was born out of the women’s movement. Like other women’s historians, she sought to abandon male models of history and explore the experience of women from a feminist perspective. Similarly, in the introduction to their volume When Biology Became Destiny: Women in Weimar and Nazi Germany (Monthly Review Press, 1984), Renate Bridenthal, Atina Grossmann, and Marion Kaplan made it clear that as activists from the 1960s, they intended their book to be a contribution to the feminist movement. Seeking a usable past and concerned with women as agents and victims of history, they wanted to understand how women’s experience interacted with class and ethnic identity. Unlike most women’s historians with Jewish backgrounds, however, Bridenthal, Grossmann, and Kaplan admitted that their backgrounds as women whose families had to flee Nazi Germany because they were Jews also influenced their choice of scholarly subject. Although the book did not focus on German Jewish women, these historians wanted to understand the world of their parents. Grossmann went on to Reforming Sex: The German Movement for Birth Control and Abortion Reform, 1920–1950 (Oxford University Press, 1995), and Bridenthal has also edited (with Krista O-Donnell and Nancy Reagin) a book on German identity: The Heimat Abroad: The Boundaries of Germanness (University of Michigan Press, 2005). Other European historians who focus on women include Judith Walkowitz, the author of books on prostitution and sexual danger in Victorian England, and Claire Goldberg Moses, who has written on feminism in France.

Many European historians turned to the subject of women as the field grew. Natalie Davis, for example, published Women on the Margins: Three Seventeenth Century Lives (Harvard University Press, 1995), an analysis of the lives of three very different religious women. Similarly Temma Kaplan, who began her career studying anarchists and other radicals in twentieth century Spain (Anarchists of Andalusia, 1868–1903 [Princeton University Press, 1977] and Red City, Blue Period: Social Movements in Picasso’s Barcelona [University of California Press, 1992]), subsequently focused on women in radical movements in Spain, Latin America, the United States, and South Africa, publishing Crazy for Democracy: Women in Grass Roots Movements (Routledge, 1997) and Taking Back the Streets: Women, Youth, and Direct Democracy (University of California Press, 2004).

Among historians of the United States, Jewish women like Alice Kessler-Harris, Nancy Cott, Gerda Lerner, Linda Kerber, Ellen Carol Dubois, and Kathryn Kish Sklar took the lead in developing the new field of women’s history in the 1960s and 1970s. Most of these women have devoted all of their scholarly efforts to understanding the role and status of women in American life. Nancy Cott, for example, wrote an influential book on women in the early American republic, The Bonds of Womanhood: “Women’s Sphere” in New England, 1780–1835 (Yale University Press, 1977; republished 1997), which explored how the “cult of domesticity” and the “cult of true womanhood” related to the actual circumstances and experiences of women. In addition, she has published an important collection of documents, Roots of Bitterness: Documents of the Social History of American Women (Dutton, 1972; Northeastern University Press, 1986, 1996), and edited a great many volumes of significant articles on American women, including A Heritage of Her Own: Toward a New Social History of American Women (Simon and Schuster, 1979); No Small Courage: A History of Women in the United States (Oxford University Press, 2000); and the multivolume History of Women in the United States: Historical Articles on Women’s Lives and Activities, published by K.G. Saur in New York and Munich, twenty volumes of which have appeared since 1992. These volumes cover a wide range of issues, including industrial, agricultural, white-collar, and professional work; household and family; health, law, education, organizational life, religion, sexuality, politics, and war. Cott has also written a history of feminism, The Grounding of Modern Feminism (Yale University Press, 1987); edited the letters of Mary Ritter Beard (Yale, 1991); and analyzed the institution of marriage in Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation (Harvard University Press, 2000).

Like Nancy Cott, Kathryn Kish Sklar’s first work dealt with the “cult of domesticity,” which dominated the lives of middle-class American women in the nineteenth century. Her Catherine Beecher: A Study in American Domesticity (Yale University Press, 1973) greatly influenced the first generation of women’s historians. Sklar has used biography most effectively to explore the lives of individual women and women generally. She has edited the autobiography of American reformer Florence Kelley (1986) and written a biography of the same woman, Florence Kelley and the Nation’s Work: The Rise of Women’s Political Culture, 1830–1900 (Yale University Press, 1995). Like most of her colleagues in women’s history, Sklar has published collections of articles and readers, including (with Thomas Dublin) Women and Power in American History: A Reader (Prentice-Hall, 1991; 2nd ed, 2002); and (with Anja Schüler and Susan Strasser), Social Justice Feminists in the United States and Germany: A Dialogue in Documents, 1885–1933 (Cornell University Press, 1998).

Ellen Carol DuBois pioneered in the study of American feminism, a movement in which she herself was an activist. A professor of history and American Studies at Buffalo from 1972–1988, she teaches American and global women’s history at UCLA. She has written and edited numerous books on the women’s movement. Harriet Stanton Blatch and the Winning of Woman Suffrage (Yale University Press, 1997) won the American Historical Association’s Joan Kelley Prize and the Binkley-Stephenson Award from the Organization of American Historians. She is the author also of Through Women’s Eyes: An American History with Documents (with Lynn Dumenil; St. Martin’s, 2005); Woman Suffrage and Women’s Rights: Essays (New York University Press, 1997); and Feminism and Suffrage: the Emergence of an Independent Women’s Movement in America, 1848–1869 (Cornell University Press, 1978). Her book, Unequal Sisters: A Multicultural Reader in Women’s History (Routledge, 1990, 3rd ed., 2000), co-edited with Vicki Ruiz, has been a widely used textbook in women’s history.

Unlike Cott, Sklar, and DuBois, Linda Kerber did not begin her academic career by writing about women. Her first book was a study of the ideology of the federalists, Federalists in Dissent: Imagery and Ideology in Jeffersonian America (Cornell University Press, 1970). Only later did Kerber, a professor at the University of Iowa since 1971, change her focus to deal with women. Her Women of the Republic: Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America (University of North Carolina Press, 1980) was an important analysis of the role of women in the development of revolutionary and republican America. Primarily an intellectual historian, she has also edited a collection of articles and documents with Jane DeHart Matthews, Women’s America: Refocusing the Past (Oxford University Press, 1982; 6th ed. 2004); with Alice Kessler-Harris and Kathryn Kish Sklar, United States History as Women’s History: New Feminist Essays (University of North Carolina Press, 1995); and Toward an Intellectual History of Women: Essays (University of North Carolina Press, 1997). Turning to law and politics, Kerber wrote No Constitutional Right to be Ladies: Women and the Obligations of Citizenship (Hill and Wang, 1998), which won the Littleton-Griswold Prize as the best book in U.S. legal history and the Joan Kelley Prize as the best book in Women’s History in 1999. Widely recognized as one of the leading historians of her generation, Kerber has served as president of the Organization of American Historians (1996–1997) and as president of the American Historical Association (2006–2007). Blanche Wiesen Cook also began her career as a traditional political historian, but then turned her attention to women. In 1981, she published The Declassified Eisenhower: A Divided Legacy (Doubleday), and in 1992, Eleanor Roosevelt (Viking).

In contrast to Cott, Kerber, and Sklar, who have focused primarily on middle-class women, Alice Kessler-Harris has devoted her scholarship to women workers. A professor at Hofstra University from 1968 to 1988, then at Rutgers, and now R. Gordon Hoxie Professor of American History and chairperson of the History Department at Columbia University, Kessler-Harris is the author of Women Have Always Worked: A Historical Overview (McGraw-Hill, 1981); Out to Work: A History of Wage-Earning Women in the United States (Oxford University Press, 1982); and A Woman’s Wage: Historical Meanings and Social Consequences (University Press of Kentucky, 1990). Her most recent work, In Pursuit of Equity: Women, Men, and the Quest for Economic Citizenship in Twentieth Century America (Oxford University Press, 2001), winner of the 2001 Bancroft Prize in History, explores how gendered ideas became embedded in such twentieth-century U.S. social policies as Social Security, unemployment disbursement, and equal employment opportunity legislation, distorting seemingly neutral social legislation to further limit the freedom and equality of women. Kessler-Harris has also edited several collections of essays and a collection of stories by the Jewish immigrant writer Anzia Yezierska.

Cott, Sklar, Kerber, and Kessler-Harris were all born around 1940 and educated in the 1960s. Gerda Lerner’s life experiences stand in marked contrast to those of these women. Born in Vienna in 1920, she had just completed high school at the time of the Anschluss with Nazi Germany. Although she and her family had the good fortune to be able to immigrate to America, she resumed her education only in the 1960s, obtaining her Ph.D. from Columbia in 1966. Her experiences doubly sensitized her to the experiences of marginalized groups. Her early work focused on black and white women who fought against injustice, in particular against slavery. Her first study, The Grimké Sisters from South Carolina: Rebels Against Slavery (Houghton Mifflin, 1967), dealt with abolitionist women. It has been republished several times, most recently in a revised and expanded edition, The Grimké Sisters from South Carolina: Pioneers for Women’s Rights and Abolition (University of North Carolina Press, 2004). She then went on to publish Black Women in White America: A Documentary History (Pantheon, 1972). A professor at Long Island University (1965–1968), Sarah Lawrence College (1968–1980), and the University of Wisconsin (1980–1991), she has also devoted her prodigious scholarly energy to the study of feminism and gender relations, publishing The Majority Finds Its Past: Placing Women in History (Oxford University Press, 1979), The Creation of Patriarchy (Oxford University Press, 1986), The Creation of Feminist Consciousness: From the Middle Ages to the Eighteenth Century (Oxford University Press, 1993), and several collections of documents. Lerner has also written several books of autobiography and personal reflections, including Why History Matters: Life and Thought (Oxford University Press, 1997) and Fireweed: A Political Autobiography (Temple University Press, 2002).

In the 1970s and early 1980s, most women’s historians concerned themselves with uncovering the experiences of women, both famous and ordinary. By the late 1980s, many of these historians had turned instead to a concern with gender, that is, with the social construction of female (or male) identity. Influenced by developments in literary criticism such as deconstructionism and postmodernism, some women’s historians increasingly turned to theoretical issues. Once again, Joan Wallach Scott was at the forefront of this development. In her Gender and the Politics of History (Columbia University Press, 1988), Scott argued that poststructural theory as developed by Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault offered feminism a powerful analytic tool to explore how gender hierarchies are constructed and legitimized. In a series of articles, she explored the varied and inherently unstable meanings attached to gender. Always interested in power relations, Scott insisted that studying gender as a category provided an excellent way to analyze all hierarchies of difference in society. Scott hoped that her studies of gender would alert people to inequalities, which could then be rectified. Other volumes of essays, including Learning about Women: Gender, Politics and Power, edited with Jill Conway and Susan Bourque (University of Michigan Press, 1989); Feminists Theorize the Political, edited with Judith Butler (Routledge, 1992); Feminism and History (Oxford, 1996); and Going Public: Feminism and the Shifting Boundaries of the Private Sphere, edited with Debra Keates, (University of Illinois Press, 2004), continued these theoretical concerns.

Also a major historian of American women, feminism and gender is Estelle Freedman, The Edgar E. Robinson Professor of U.S. History at Stanford University. Freedman is the author of several books, including No Turning Back: The History of Feminism and the Future of Women (Ballantine, 2002); Maternal Justice: Miriam van Waters and the Female Reform Tradition (University of Chicago Press, 1996); Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America (with John D’Emilio; Harper and Row, 1988; rev. ed. University of Chicago Press, 1997); and Their Sisters’ Keepers: Women’s Prison Reform in America, 1830–1930 (University of Michigan Press, 1981). She has also co-edited several books, including a documentary history of Victorian Women in the United States, France and England, and a collection of essays on lesbians.

Not all Jewish women in the historical profession are women’s historians, of course. Many have pursued traditional fields of scholarship. Gertrude Himmelfarb, an active scholar since the 1950s who taught from 1965 to 1978 at Brooklyn College and at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York from 1978 until her retirement in 1988, has written over ten books on intellectual developments in England in the nineteenth century. Her first book, Lord Acton: A Study in Conscience and Politics (Routledge, 1952), was followed by Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution (Doubleday, 1959) and Victorian Minds (Knopf, 1968). Himmelfarb also wrote a major study of the liberal thinker John Stuart Mill, On Liberty and Liberalism: The Case of John Stuart Mill (Knopf, 1974); edited volumes of works by Mill and Thomas Malthus; and analyzed Victorian attitudes, in such books as The Idea of Poverty: England in the Early Industrial Age (Knopf, 1984), Marriage and Morals Among the Victorians: Essays (Knopf, 1986), and Poverty and Compassion: The Moral Imagination of the Late Victorians (Knopf, 1991). Increasingly upset with new trends in historiography, Himmelfarb has evaluated them in The New History and the Old (Harvard University Press, 1987). Like her husband, neoconservative Irving Kristol, Himmelfarb has herself become a social critic upset with current values. She has written On Looking into the Abyss: Untimely Thoughts on Culture and Society (Knopf, 1984); The De-Moralization of Society: From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values (Knopf, 1995); and One Nation, Two Cultures (Knopf, 1999), which call for return to such Enlightenment values and Victorian virtues as shame, responsibility, and self-reliance.

Adrienne Koch, who served as professor at the University of California at Berkeley and at the University of Maryland, also was a prominent intellectual historian. She wrote many books on the American Enlightenment, including Power, Morals, and the Founding Fathers: Essays on the Interpretation of the American Enlightenment (Cornell University Press, 1961) and The American Enlightenment: The Shaping of the American Experiment (Braziller, 1971), and on the ideologies of the Founding Fathers, including The Philosophy of Thomas Jefferson (Columbia University Press, 1943) and Jefferson and Madison: The Great Collaboration (Oxford University Press, 1950). She also published editions of the writings of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams and John Quincy Adams. Pauline Maier has worked primarily as a political historian. A professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she has authored From Resistance to Revolution: Colonial Radicals and the Development of American Opposition to Britain, 1765–1776 (Knopf, 1972); The Old Revolutionaries: Political Lives in the Age of Samuel Adams (Knopf, 1980); and American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence (Knopf, 1997).

Other historians have continued to write social history, often with a focus on women and gender. Elaine Tyler May, for example, has written several books on the family in America: Great Expectations: Marriage and Divorce in Post-Victorian America (University of Chicago Press, 1980); Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era (Basic Books, 1988; rev. ed., 1999), and Barren in the Promised Land: Childless Americans (Basic Books, 1995). Mary Flug Handlin co-authored with her husband, Harvard professor Oscar Handlin, several books in American political and social history, including studies of the role of government in the economy of Massachusetts before the Civil War, of youth and the family in American history, and of American affluence. Other American social historians include Paula S. Fass, author of The Damned and the Beautiful: American Youth in the 1920s (Oxford University Press, 1977), Outside In: Minorities and the Transformation of American Education (Oxford University Press, 1989), and Kidnapped: Child Abduction in America (Oxford University Press, 1997); Regina Morantz-Sanchez, author of Sympathy and Science (Oxford University Press, 1985) and Conduct Unbecoming a Woman: Medicine on Trial in Turn of the Century Brooklyn (Oxford, 1999), and co-editor of In Her Own Words: Oral Histories of Women Physicians (Greenwood Press, 1982); Sheila Rothman, who has published volumes on women, illness, hospitals, and the poor, including Woman’s Proper Place (Basic Books, 1978), Living in the Shadow of Death: Tuberculosis and the Social Experience of Illness in American History (Basic Books, 1994), and, with her husband David Rothman, Willowbrook Wars (Harper and Row, 1984) and Pursuit of Perfection: The Promise and Perils of Medical Enhancement (Pantheon, 2003); and Sonya Michel, author of Children’s Interests/Mother’s Rights: The Shaping of America’s Child Care Policy (Yale University Press, 1999) and several edited collections of articles on gender and the welfare state.

There are also European historians who have not focused primarily on women. Jan Goldstein at the University of Chicago has worked in intellectual history, writing Console and Classify: The French Psychiatric Profession in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge University Press, 1987) and The Post-Revolutionary Self: Politics and Psyche in France, 1750–1850 (Harvard University Press, 2005), and editing Foucault and the Writing of History (Blackwell, 1994). Jane Caplan has focused on the nature of government administration in Nazi Germany. The author of Government Without Administration: State and Civil Service in Weimar and Nazi Germany (Oxford University Press, 1988), she has also edited (with Thomas Childers) an important collection of essays on the Third Reich, as well as books dealing with how the modern state documents its citizens and on how tattoos have functioned in European and American society. In medieval history, Gabrielle Spiegel of the University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins University has worked on the creation of French vernacular historiography in the twelfth century, and Brigitte Bedos-Rezak of the University of Maryland and New York University has authored books on how medieval seals illustrate the social and cultural worlds of eleventh- and twelfth-century France.

Despite the fact that Jewish women have placed themselves on the leading edge of much of historical scholarship in the past three decades, most of them have not chosen to deal with Jews. Natalie Zemon Davis, however, after a long career dealing with French men and women, is an exception, exploring the life of a German Jewish woman in Women on the Margins: Three Seventeenth-Century Lives (Harvard University Press, 1995). Davis included Glikl bas Judah Leib, generally known as Glückel of Hameln, a prosperous Jewish woman who spent most of her life in Hamburg and Metz, the wife of Jewish merchants and herself a merchant, who wrote a long autobiography to console herself after the death of her first husband. Davis, who mastered the difficult Yiddish text, has placed Glückel squarely within her seventeenth-century milieu, astutely describing the sources of her piety and inner religious life. Davis well understands how Glückel viewed the hostile Christian world around her. Despite the fact that she was on the margins of the dominant society, both as a Jew and as a woman, Glückel, and the Jews generally, created a Jewish world that sustained them and in turn marginalized the Christians.

Jewish women have also been prominent in developing the field of modern Jewish history, many of them in social history and women’s history. Within Jewish history, few women have become prominent in ancient or medieval history, but many have played a leading role in American and modern European Jewish history. Among the earliest women to pursue careers as professional Jewish historians were Naomi W. Cohen, Lucy S. Dawidowicz, and Nora Levin. Cohen studied Jewish history with Salo Baron at Columbia University in the late 1940s, obtaining her Ph.D. there in American and Jewish history. The author of eight books, Cohen concerned herself with traditional historiographic concerns: Jewish politics, Jewish/non-Jewish relations, and the status of Jews in American society. Her first book, A Dual Heritage: The Public Career of Oscar S. Strauss (Jewish Publication Society, 1969), was a study of the first Jew to hold a prominent position in the American government. Cohen, who taught for decades at Hunter College, also wrote monographs on the American Jewish Committee (Not Free to Desist: The American Jewish Committee, 1906–1966, Jewish Publication Society, 1972); on American Jews and Zionism (American Jews and the Zionist Idea, Ktav, 1975, and The Americanization of Zionism, 1897–1948, Brandeis University Press, 2003); on the American response to the riots in Palestine in 1929–1930 (The Year After the Riots: American Responses to the Palestine Crisis of 1929–1930, Wayne State University Press, 1988); and on the Jewish struggle for religious equality (Jews in Christian America, Oxford University Press, 1992). In addition, she published Encounter with Emancipation: The German Jews in the United States, 1830–1914 (Jewish Publication Society, 1984), and Jacob H. Schiff: A Study in American Jewish Leadership (Brandeis University Press, 1999).

Lucy Dawidowicz worked on Eastern European Jews and on the Holocaust. Born in 1915 and educated at Hunter College and Columbia, she spent a year as a fellow in Jewish history at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in Vilna in 1938–1939, a year she movingly describes in her memoir From That Time and Place (Norton, 1989). Like most women of her generation, she did not pursue a straightforward academic career. Instead, during World War II, she worked for the YIVO in New York as Max Weinreich’s scholarly assistant, returning to Columbia at the end of the war to study Jewish history with Salo Baron, and then working for the Joint Distribution Committee with Jewish Holocaust survivors in Europe. While there, she became involved in 1946–1947 in arranging for the transfer of YIVO’s Vilna library, which had been captured by the Germans but was then in the possession of the American army, to YIVO in New York.

Dawidowicz assumed an academic career path only in the late 1960s, when she began to publish books and teach at Yeshiva University. Her first scholarly book was The Golden Tradition: Jewish Life and Thought in Eastern Europe (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1967), a collection of translated documents depicting the literary, religious, and political history of Eastern European Jewry in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Most of Dawidowicz’s scholarship was devoted to the Holocaust. In 1975, she published The War Against the Jews, 1933–1945 (Holt, Rinehart and Winston), which dealt both with the Nazi policy of annihilation and the Jewish response to the Nazis. A year later, she published a collection of documents on the Holocaust, A Holocaust Reader (Behrmann House), and in 1981, The Holocaust and the Historians (Harvard University Press), an attempt to understand how different historians, including those in Germany and those who played down its significance, have treated the Holocaust. Dawidowicz also published on American Jewry (On Equal Terms: Jews in America, 1881–1981, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1982), and several collections of essays on various issues in modern Jewish life.

Like Dawidowicz, Nora Levin did not pursue a standard academic career path. Born in 1916 and trained in library science, she worked as a librarian and a high school teacher before she began to write about the Jews of Eastern Europe and the Holocaust. The author of The Holocaust: The Destruction of European Jewry, 1933–1945 (Crowell, 1968), While Messiah Tarried: Jewish Socialist Movements, 1871–1917 (Schocken, 1977), and The Jews in the Soviet Union Since 1917: Paradox of Survival (New York University Press, 1989), she taught at Gratz College from 1970 until her death in 1989.

As modern Jewish history grew as a field in the 1970s, women came to play an increasingly prominent role within its ranks, publishing pathbreaking works in Jewish social history, including Jewish women’s history, and occupying prominent positions at leading American universities. Many of these women were trained in Jewish history at Columbia University or Brandeis, while others received their original training in related fields of history but chose to work primarily on Jewish life in modern Europe or America.

The career of Paula Hyman most typifies this new generation of Jewish historians. Born in 1946 in Boston, Hyman was educated at Radcliffe and Columbia, receiving her Ph.D. in 1975. She has taught at Columbia University (1974–1981) and the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (1981–1986), where she also served as dean of the Seminary College of Jewish Studies, and has been the Lucy Moses Professor of Modern Jewish History at Yale University since 1986. A social historian of great distinction, Hyman has written three important books on the Jews in France: From Dreyfus to Vichy: The Remaking of French Jewry, 1906–1939 (Columbia University Press, 1979), a study of how the immigration of Eastern European Jews to France in the early twentieth century transformed the Jewish community there; The Emancipation of the Jews of Alsace: Acculturation and Tradition in the Nineteenth Century (Yale University Press, 1991), a work that both revealed the persistence of traditional Jewish economic, social, and religious behavior patterns in Eastern France, despite early legal emancipation, and demonstrated how the economic and social forces of modernity ultimately undercut Jewish traditionalism in the late nineteenth century; and The Jews of Modern France (University of California Press, 1998), a book that synthesizes much of Hyman’s work on the social and historical dynamics of modern French Jewry. An activist in the women’s movement since the 1960s, Hyman has also devoted much scholarly attention to Jewish women, co-authoring with Charlotte Baum and Sonya Michel The Jewish Woman in America (Dial Press, 1976), writing many articles, and also producing the book Gender and Assimilation in Modern Jewish History: The Roles and Representation of Women (University of Washington Press, 1995), a study of the role of gender in Jewish assimilation in Western Europe, Eastern Europe, and the United States. She also edited, helped translate, and wrote an introduction to the English translation of Puah Rakovsky’s memoirs, My Life as a Radical Jewish Woman (Indiana University Press, 2002), which provides insight into the experiences of Jewish women in Zionist and Socialist circles in Poland in the first decades of the twentieth century. In 1997 Hyman collaborated with Deborah Dash Moore as co-editor of Jewish Women in America: A Historical Encyclopedia, a two-volume social history of American Jewish women. She later went on to co-edit, with Dalia Ofer, Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia, an extensive work that captures the feats and achievements as well as the cultural, geographic and religious diversity of Jewish women, from Biblical times to the present. In all of her books and articles, Hyman displays a sensitivity to the unique situation of Jewish women and the role of gender in modern Jewish history.

Within the field of European Jewish history, other Jewish women have also made significant contributions. Marion Kaplan, for example, who has served as professor at Queens College and at New York University, is the leading historian of German Jewish women. She is the author of The Jewish Feminist Movement in Germany: The Campaigns of the Jüdischer Frauenbund, 1904–1938 (Greenwood Press, 1979) and The Making of the Jewish Middle Class: Women, Family, and Identity in Imperial Germany (Oxford University Press, 1991), which showed the crucial role played by women in the development of the bourgeois German Jewish family, a family that facilitated Jewish acculturation to the social mores of the gentile middle classes and also served as the vehicle through which Jews maintained Jewish religious traditions, Jewish social life, and a sense of Jewish ethnic solidarity in Germany. Indeed, after Kaplan’s work, no serious study of Jewish assimilation anywhere could be made without taking gender issues into account. In 1998 Kaplan published Between Dignity and Despair: Jewish Life in Nazi Germany (Oxford University Press), a sensitive analysis of how Nazi persecution affected Jews, Jewish women, and the Jewish family in the 1930s and 1940s. Using published and unpublished memoirs, as she has done in much of her work, Kaplan revealed the gendered nature of Jewish response to the Nazis. Kaplan has also edited works on women and dowries in European history and on women in Weimar and Nazi Germany, as well as Jewish Daily Life in Germany, 1618–1945 (Oxford University Press, 2005).

Other important historians of European Jewry include Frances Malino, professor at Wellesley College, the author of The Sephardic Jews of Bordeaux: Assimilation and Emancipation in Revolutionary and Napoleonic France (University of Alabama Press, 1978) and A Jew in the French Revolution: The Life of Zalkind Hourwitz (Blackwell, 1996); Phyllis Cohen Albert, author of The Modernization of French Jewry: Consistory and Community in the Nineteenth Century (Brandeis University Press, 1977); and Harriet Freidenreich, professor at Temple University, who has written on the Jews of Yugoslavia in the interwar period (The Jews of Yugoslavia: A Quest for Community, Jewish Publication Society, 1979), the Jews of Vienna (Jewish Politics in Vienna, 1918–1938, Indiana University Press, 1991), and Female, Jewish, & Educated: The Lives of Central European University Women (Indiana University Press, 2002). Marsha Rozenblit, professor at the University of Maryland, has written on Jewish assimilation in late Habsburg Vienna: The Jews of Vienna, 1867–1918: Assimilation and Identity (State University of New York Press, 1983), and on the nature of Jewish identity in a multinational state: Reconstructing a National Identity: The Jews of Habsburg Austria during World War I (Oxford University Press, 2001). Vicki Caron, professor at Cornell University, has written Between France and Germany: The Jews of Alsace-Lorraine, 1871–1918 (Stanford University Press, 1988) and Uneasy Asylum: France and the Jewish Refugee Crisis, 1933–1942 (Stanford University Press, 1999). Deborah Hertz, who has taught at the State University of New York (SUNY) Binghamton, Sarah Lawrence College, and the University of California, San Diego, has published Jewish High Society in Old Regime Berlin (Yale University Press, 1988) and a volume of correspondence between Rahel Varnhagen and Rebecca Friedländer. Judith Baskin, professor at the University of Oregon, is the author of Jewish Women in Historical Perspective (Wayne State University Press, 1991; 2nd ed., 1999). Primarily a scholar dealing with images of women and the female in rabbinic texts, she served as president of the Association for Jewish Studies, 2004–2006. In early modern Jewish history, Elisheva Carlebach, professor at Queens College, has written The Pursuit of Heresy: Rabbi Moses Hagiz and the Sabbatean Controversies (Columbia University Press, 1990) and Divided Souls: Converts from Judaism in Germany, 1500–1750 (Yale University Press, 2001); and Miriam Bodian has authored Hebrews of the Portugese Nation: Conversos and Community in Early Modern Amsterdam (Indiana University Press, 1997).

Within American Jewish history, Jewish women have been equally prominent since the 1970s. Deborah Dash Moore, for example, professor at Vassar College and, since 2005 the Frederick G. L. Huetwell Professor of History and Director of the Jean and Samuel Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Michigan, has written such major works as At Home in America: Second Generation New York Jews (Columbia University Press, 1981), a study of the process by which the children of Eastern European Jewish immigrants Americanized and yet still maintained a strong Jewish ethnic identity in New York in the 1920s and 1930s; B’nai B’rith and the Challenge of Ethnic Leadership (State University of New York Press, 1981); To the Golden Cities: Pursuing the American Jewish Dream in Miami and L.A. (Free Press, 1994); and GI Jews: How World War II Changed a Generation (Harvard University Press, 2004), an analysis of how Jewish soldiers experienced their American, Jewish, and masculine identities as soldiers in the American army during the Second World War. Jenna Weissman Joselit, is likewise the author of several important books in American Jewish social history, beginning with Our Gang: Jewish Crime and the New York Jewish Community, 1900–1940 (Indiana University Press, 1983), a study of how both Jewish criminal activity and the response of the organized Jewish community to Jewish crime reflected the successful Americanization of the Eastern European immigrants in the early twentieth century. Joselit has also written a study of modern Orthodoxy, New York’s Jewish Jews: The Orthodox Community in the Interwar Years (Indiana University Press, 1990), and The Wonders of America: Reinventing Jewish Culture 1880–1950 (Hill and Wang, 1994).

Deborah Lipstadt, a professor at Emory University, has focused on the reception of the Holocaust in America in two books: Beyond Belief: The American Press and the Coming of the Holocaust, 1933–1945 (Free Press, 1986) and Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory (Free Press, 1993), which won the 1994 National Jewish Book Honor Award. This work also catapulted her to fame, when David Irving, whom she accused in the book of being a Holocaust denier, sued her and her British publisher for libel. Since the British courts, unlike their American counterparts, place the onus for a libel case on the writer rather than the subject (in the U.S., the subject has to prove that the reference to him/her is false; in Britain, the writer must show that what he/she wrote is unequivocally true), Lipstadt would have to prove that Irving was lying—or conversely, demonstrate that the “events” he claimed never happened had actually occurred. A court case about libel ultimately served to put the truth of the Holocaust on trial. When she won the case, Lipstadt became a highly regarded public figure in the Jewish world; she has spoken to audiences throughout the United States and Israel and written History on Trial: My Day in Court with David Irving (Ecco, 2005) about her ordeal.

Among historians of American Jewish life, Hasia Diner, who has taught at the University of Maryland and New York University, has simultaneously made major contributions to the fields of immigrant history, women’s history, and Jewish history. Her first book, In the Almost Promised Land: American Jews and Blacks, 1915–1935 (Greenwood Press, 1977), was a study of how the Yiddish press viewed the struggle for civil rights of American blacks in the early twentieth century. She then went on to write a pathbreaking study of Irish women in the United States, Erin’s Daughters in America: Irish Immigrant Women in the Nineteenth Century (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983). Returning to Jewish history, Diner provided a completely new understanding of the nineteenth-century Jewish immigrants to America from German-speaking Central Europe in A Time for Gathering: The Second Migration, 1820–1880 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992). Here, Diner argued that although these Jews acculturated and Americanized, they also forged new forms of Jewish identity as a means of preserving Jewish community in America. Diner went on to do an important comparative study of how different American immigrant groups used food to negotiate both Americanization and the preservation of ethnic community: Hungering for America: Italian, Irish, and Jewish Foodways in the Age of Migration (Harvard University Press, 2001). She has also written an evocative book about the pre-eminent Jewish immigrant neighborhood: Lower East Side Memories: A Jewish Place in America (Princeton University Press, 2000); and two synthetic works, one (with Beryl Benderly) on Jewish women: Her Works Praise Her: A History of Jewish Women in America from Colonial Times to the Present (Basic Books, 2002); and the other an excellent one-volume history of the American Jewish community, The Jews of the United States, 1654 to 2000 (University of California Press, 2004). Other historians of Jewish immigrant women include Susan Glenn, Daughters of the (Yiddish) Small-town Jewish community in Eastern Europe.Shtetl: Life and Labor in the Immigrant Community (Cornell University Press, 1990); Sydney Stahl Weinberg, The World of Our Mothers: The Lives of Jewish Immigrant Women (University of North Carolina Press, 1988); and Judith E. Smith, Family Lives: A History of Italian and Jewish Immigrant Lives in Providence 1900–1940 (State University of New York Press, 1985).

Jewish women, uniquely sensitive to the position of minority groups, have thus been in the forefront of new developments within academic history in social history, women’s history, Jewish history, and minority history generally. Products of America in the 1960s and 1970s, they have made a major contribution to many fields of historical inquiry.


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Deborah Lipstadt.
Photograph by Jillian Edelstein, courtesy of Deborah Lipstadt.

How to cite this page

Rozenblit, Marsha L.. "Historians in the United States." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 27 February 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on May 10, 2021) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/historians-in-united-states>.


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