THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
“I attribute a lot of my success not to me, but to the world which was changing around me.”
Interviewed by Rebecca Lubetkin, VFA Board, December 2021
RL: Welcome to the Pioneer Histories Archive of the Veteran Feminists of America. My name is Rebecca Lubetkin, and today I will be interviewing historian Alice Kessler-Harris, Emerita Professor of American History at Columbia University. Dr. Kessler-Harris is the recipient of just about every award and honor in her field, author of dozens of books and articles, invited lecturer at venues all over the world. And there’s a lot more. I want to say welcome, Alice. And before we begin, I want to note that today is December 13, 2021. Would you please tell us your name and where and when you were born?
AKH: I was born Alice Agnes Kessler in Leicester, England, in 1941. I’m 80 years old as we speak. I was born during the war and I was told I was born in a hospital that was being bombed as I was being born.
RL: Your parents had been there in Leicester for a while?
AKH: No. My parents were refugees. They were living in Prague right before the second world war. When the Germans entered, they left. They were lucky enough to have Czech passports so were admitted to Britain. I was born in England by accident, I suppose.
RL: Talking about your early life, when you think of that time, is there anything that might have foreshadowed your future as a pioneer and feminist scholarship?
AKH: I guess there are two kinds of answers to that. The larger answer is that I was born into a refugee family. We were a refugee family through the war until after the war, when my parents were allowed to stay. But my childhood was marked by the fact that we were in fact not British, although we were living in England and then in Wales.
In some sense, I absorbed the kind of liminal, slightly marginal outside existence that most feminists have and feel about the culture they’re in. That is, being the child of a refugee made me conscious of what it was like to be a little bit outside the normal run of things. And I think women are, in fact or have in fact, been outside the traditional run of things in the sense that they’ve been allowed in, but can see inside from the outside.
RL: Part of being an outsider. And I noticed that you chose a women’s college. First you had to get here. Then you chose Goucher. Is that right?
AKH: It is true that I went to Goucher, but I didn’t choose it. I got here a year or so before I was ready to go to college. I didn’t know anything, and my family didn’t know anything about the American college system. Goucher was chosen for me by the vice principal of the high school I attended in Trenton, New Jersey. She was Sarah Christie, and she took me under her wing. I suppose this is another piece of why I’m a feminist.
It was she who, when it came time for me to decide where to go to college or even to apply to college, convinced my very Central European father that it was really okay to send me to college. It was she who thought a girl’s school would be the ideal place to convince my father that it was really safe and comfortable. And it was she who actually drove my father and me to Goucher one fall day and made an appointment for me with the Dean of Admissions and an appointment for my father with the Dean of Students. Sarah Christie was a vice principal of Trenton Central High and a really remarkable woman. I suppose Sarah Christie should go into the pantheon of veteran feminists, even though I don’t know that she would have called herself one.
RL: How wonderful that was. Before you devoted yourself to the researching and presenting the stories of those who had been left out, do you know what propelled you, aside from the outsider sense that you grew up with? Was there something in a women’s college that moved you that way?
AKH: It could have been something in a women’s college, although I do have to say that for the first years of my early 20’s, I hardly imagined myself a feminist. I was married when I was 19; I grew up, you might say, wanting to be married. In other words, I was a 1950’s kid in that I really wanted the traditional lifestyle. My daughter was born when I was barely 23 years old, and just three and a half years after we’d been married.
RL: Were you in school at that time?
AKH: Yes, I married between my junior and senior years of college, and then I taught for a year because my then-husband was in medical school. After he finished medical school, I decided to go back to graduate school, mainly so I could teach. I went back to graduate school not because I was committed to a career, but because I thought I needed to have something to fall back on, as it were.
RL: You were really a 50’s person.
AKH: I was really a 50’s person, and that’s part of the story of how I became a feminist. And I had married somebody who wanted a 50’s wife.
RL: You did everything right. Everything that our parents told us to do.
AKH: Exactly, and then it turned out all wrong. Because by the time I got my master’s degree, I discovered that I loved graduate school, so I decided to stay there. My then-husband was not happy with that choice because he had married a 50’s wife. When I finished my degree in ’68, I decided I could get a job, and there were jobs available in those days, and he was even less happy with that.
RL: Was he supporting the family 100% at the time?
AKH: Absolutely. He was a medical resident, so we didn’t have a lot of money. But yes, he was responsible for family support. It turned out that when I decided I really wanted to go back to work, it wasn’t about my making money or not making money. It was about the fact that I would not be there in the house for him. By then we had a three-year-old child. And when I decided to move in the direction of a career, the marriage ended in a divorce.
But I always say this is my responsibility because I was no longer the 50’s kid who he had married. I became a feminist; I changed; I joined the women’s movement. Put it any way you want it. The change happened in me, and I think mostly in response to what was going on in the world around me: the woman’s movement that was just beginning.
RL: Were you the primary caregiver to your daughter?
AKH: Absolutely. After the divorce, yes, absolutely.
RL: You were doing that at the same time?
AKH: Yes. I was a single parent and remained a single parent for about nine years. Then I remarried. But for a long time, I was the single parent and the caregiver and I don’t know whether it’s relevant to feminism, but I have to say that while I was a mother with a husband providing for me, I felt rather guilty about working. But once I was on my own and I knew I had to work to support the family, the guilt disappeared, and I could pour myself into my work in a way that I hadn’t been able to before.
RL: Because you were doing it for the family, not in opposition to the family.
AKH: Exactly right.
RL: When you first entered academia, not just in graduate school, but when you got your first job, what was academia like when you first recognized the absence of women and others in historical research and discourse? Did you become immediately aware?
AKH: Yes. I became aware. I couldn’t avoid it in graduate school. I got pregnant in my second year; the fellowship I was on was taken away. I was told that since I had become pregnant, it was clear that I wasn’t a serious student. I had to struggle because although my husband could support the family, he insisted that if I were going to go to graduate school, I had to pay for the babysitting. The fellowship was necessary to do that.
I got myself a teaching assistantship and I ended up just a harried and harassed young mother of an infant child, needing to work part-time, but also needing to take care of the household and a husband. It was quite clear to me in that period, that women were not treated in the same way as men were.
RL: By the institution.
AKH: The institution, of course, removed that fellowship. They thought they were perfectly justified in doing so because I was not a serious person. And that was a good lesson for me in graduate school. When I got my first job, which was at Hofstra University in 1968, I was the first woman hired by the History Department. I remained, in fact, the only full-time woman in the History Department for the 20 years that I taught at Hofstra. When I first got there, everybody was very nice on a superficial level. But it was clear that I was not part of the boy’s club that had previously existed.
There were jokes about whether I would make the coffee? And they wondered out loud about who would be brave enough to ask me to make the coffee? There were comments about why I’d been hired. Somebody told me the rumor was that I was hired because I had good legs. Of course, that was a major slap in the face. I thought I’d been hired because I had a good degree and was a smart young woman. I was humiliated by the thought that it might have been otherwise.
I think that still goes on, although I think people are more afraid to say it out loud now. In those days, it could be said. And in those days, what we now call sexual harassment was routine. It didn’t often take the form of rape and sexual assault, but it very often took the form of teasing or hugs when they weren’t desired or the kind of touching or expectations of care that we now would see immediately as sexual harassment. In those days, we expected that kind of behavior, and most of us dismissed it with humor, because if you paid attention to it, you were doomed. You would do nothing else.
RL: Exactly. It was an obstacle course that you just took for granted, and there wasn’t a term for it. And if there’s no term for it, it doesn’t exist.
AKH: Exactly right. You fended it off with humor mostly. You would tease a person out of it by saying, oh, come on, George or whoever, just a joke, laugh it off. And that was okay. Most men would take that and the disparagement only became troublesome when it became serious.
RL: We, as students, didn’t know that our professors were experiencing the same thing. We thought that on the day that we got there, everything would be so much better.
AKH: Right. And of course, it wasn’t better. Since the male professors had the prestige, the female students and young faculty gravitated towards the male professors, because that’s where the prestige was, that’s where the fellowships were and the invitations to conferences and more.
RL: But when you think about after Hofstra, you taught in many colleges and universities. Have you found that there was a difference in support and reception, for instance, between public and private, or between small and large or between women’s colleges and other colleges?
AKH: I think the answer to that is no. Negative behavior between men and women within academia is pretty general, I think. Academia supports negative behavior and competitive ways of being. But I think public universities may offer more opportunities to both men and women than private universities. I say this with limited experience: I taught for ten years at Rutgers, a major public University, and then at Columbia for 18 or 19 years.
In the end, every experience is individual. For example, when I taught at Sarah Lawrence, then an all-girls institution, I experienced a heavy-handed male leadership creating some very discouraging dynamics among the faculty. Although I have to say that there were some remarkable, strong, female faculty members there, and they made daily life a lot happier, easier.
RL: You had a lot of success in moving from one institution to another in getting the positions that you wanted. But that must have been a really difficult thing in your field.
AKH: The truth is that the first 20 years when I stayed at Hofstra, I didn’t try to move anywhere. At first, I had a daughter whose father lived in New York, so it didn’t seem fair to take her away. Then when I remarried, we had three kids between us who were all attached to the city. When the youngest child was ready to go off to college, then it seemed that I could be free to look around. At that point, I did have a lot of success. But don’t forget, I’d been in the field then for 20 years. I had something of a reputation by then, whereas most young women with three children who try to move have a different scenario and background.
RL: You lived through a period when we assume that there was greater receptivity toward including women and toward acknowledging the absence of women. You lived from one period to another, right through your academic positions. Did you notice that on a personal level, that your scholarship was becoming more acceptable?
AKH: Yes. And I say this all the time – timing is everything. Sometimes I think I was the luckiest person in the world because I finished graduate school and my dissertation, which had nothing to do with women in 1968. I woke up to a burgeoning women’s movement, just beginning. I joined a consciousness raising group because I could. Jobs were offered to me because people were looking for women. As at Hofstra, every institution to hire women.
It wasn’t like today. In 1969-1970, there were support groups of all kinds for women in academia. I can’t speak to the rest of the world, but I know that academia was among the places where those support groups were very strong and very powerful and made a huge difference in my life. And those support groups (in some of which I participated), changed the profession. I have to say that I attribute a lot of my success not to me, but to the world that was changing around me. I was part of a much larger change. I hope I helped move things forward. But I can’t say that I initiated change.
RL: You were going with the flow, but you were also a leader.
AKH: Well, both. Yes. I suppose I took some risks, and that’s what happens when you do this. But luckily for me, Hofstra is the kind of institution in which it was possible to take risks, because if you became active in the outside world, that added to the prestige of the institution. Nobody really minded that I was asked to be on professional panels or to do professional service. It made the university more visible, which was good for them.
RL: Did it affect your personal relationships, your concentration?
AKH: It was exactly in the period when I got my first job that I also got divorced. So yes, the person to whom I was then married not only didn’t like the fact that I was working, but particularly didn’t like the fact that I was in a consciousness raising group, hanging out with women, talking about discrimination against women and so on. That I think undermined what he expected from a wife and family.
RL: Did it affect your child rearing?
AKH: I can’t answer that question because I don’t know what my child rearing would have been like otherwise. I do know that since I was a happier person after I was on my own, that I probably was a better mother at that point. I do know and can say that I was very close to my daughter. We traveled together. We enjoyed being together. When I went off to give lectures in or outside the country, I often took her with me.
RL: How about in expectations and aspirations for her?
AKH: I can’t answer that question either. You’d have to ask her that question. She is now a 50 something year old psychologist, and I suppose maybe that’s a negative statement about child-bearing. I don’t know. I guess that’s a difficult subject. I suppose what I should say is that I lived my own life and therefore hoped that she would follow suit, buy into living her own life. I’m not sure that happened, but I think you’d really have to talk to her about that. In those days, we weren’t quite as conscious of the child rearing experience as people are now. There was much more a sense that children would grow up to be whatever they were, who they were, that parents didn’t helicopter over their children.
RL: I would like to ask you about something that’s more recent, but fascinating in terms of your contribution to women in history and to whole areas where there has been an absence of interest. And that is the large project that you launched with the New York Historical Society, the Center for Women’s History. I know that you chaired the scholar’s board since the Center was inaugurated. Please tell us about the creation and influence of the Center for Women’s History at the New York Historical Society, and especially about your development of a curriculum in women’s history called Women and the American Story, a curriculum guide.
AKH: Let me start answering that question by saying the following. When I think about my contributions, which is the language that you’ve been using, I think they came partly as a matter of luck, but partly because I was situated where I was at Hofstra, they came in the professional sphere. I became active immediately, beginning in 1969, right after I got my degree, in something called the Coordinating Committee of Women in the Historical Profession, in the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians, and then in the planning of the Berkshire Women’s History Conference, and in the Committee on the Status of Women at the Organization of American History, and the similar committee in the American Historical Association.
In other words, my trajectory in feminism has been a trajectory through these professional organizations, which have both opened up opportunity for many different kinds of women but also opened up the field of women’s history. That commitment to the larger profession went hand in hand with the commitment to doing women’s history, which I became involved in at the same time. I say all that because the Center for Women’s History at the New York Historical Society feels, in some ways like a Capstone. The Center helped to turn the New York Historical Society, formerly a very traditional place, down a new path.
Louise Mirrer, the President of the society, approached me a decade ago – maybe 2011, 2012 – to say that she was interested in starting a Center for Women’s History. She was a very dynamic new president of the NYHS at that point, and I leaped at the idea. I was then in the final days, not yet retired, but still already in the end days of my career at Columbia. I thought, well, what better thing could there be?
What more consistent thing could there be? Starting this Center, which would focus on the history of New York’s women sounded like an ideal way to keep women’s history alive. And though we talked initially about New York City and state, the Center would clearly reach beyond our own region. At the same time it would provide a locale for women historians to gather and be together. It was going to do both. It was going to make women’s history accessible especially to high school students and kids who use the Museum in great numbers. And it would provide a venue to introduce women’s history to a wide public – a venue that would enable the general public and young scholars to meet and talk together.
I give full credit to Louise Mirrer for conceiving of the idea and for finding the financial resources to conduct its activities. And I honor Valerie Paley, who became the Center’s director, for carrying it through with impressive verve and energy. I think Valerie might have been a museum vice president already, but as director of the Center, she has worked closely with me and with our scholarly board to implement a series of bold and imaginative new ideas.
The scholars’ board has rotated its membership over the years; it has generally consisted of New York area scholars in women’s history, though it draws extensively on colleagues from all over the country, including many people engaged in a national women’s history network. These were people I knew well, people I’d worked with, people whose scholarly work I had read and taught in classes.
Members usually serve a three-year term and are occasionally renewed for a second three-year term. The board as a whole has often provoked changes in planned exhibits, asked for modifications in activities, and played a role in the conferences and salons for which the Center is now known. It’s being a remarkably collaborative endeavor.
Among the activities of that Center, the curriculum project that you mentioned, is a big one. It’s not a program that I devised or created. It’s one that grew out of the needs of the Center to provide resources for the teachers and the students who were among the NYHS’ larger public. It was, I think, conceived in some sense by the Gilder Lehrman Society. That society had hardly any women’s history in the material it distributed to teachers. Instead it focused mainly on such traditional subjects as the Revolution, the Civil War and political history. Our effort was to think about how one might integrate women and gender into the history curriculum required of all schools.
That’s what the WAMS project (Women and the American Story) has now done. High schools all over the country now have available materials that enable them to include women without reshaping the curriculum as a whole. That’s a major achievement, and one in which I’ve occasionally given lectures, and that I love. But the ongoing project is the work of a team of hard working young women and men for which I take no credit. It’s almost complete now, and will influence the content that students learn for years.
RL: It’s in use in many of the schools in New York City?
AKH: It’s in use by individual teachers in schools in and throughout New York City, and throughout the country. Elements of it now appear in classes everywhere. So, for example, a teacher of the Civil War might include a bit on the lives of women in wartime or on formerly enslaved women who served the union armies. Students might learn something of Confederate women. What were they doing? Well, they weren’t just staying at home and rolling bandages. They were also out there risking their lives, perhaps acting as spies, sometimes sacrificing the lives of sons as well as sending off husbands to fight. But what did it take to keep a home functioning in this period? What did it take to manage a household when you lost your partner in an age when there were no pensions?
RL: Exactly. And you had to run the farm by yourself.
AKH: Exactly. We now have, and I think this is true of all of the curriculum projects that we’ve developed, a much richer, fuller understanding of U.S. history than we would have had without Women and the American Story.
RL: Also, related to that, but I think more at Columbia, you established the MOOC (massive open online course), Women Have Always Worked. As I understand it, there are four courses, and they’ve been produced in collaboration with Columbia.
AKH: Yes, the New York Historical Society and COlumbia University and the Intelligent Television foundation collaborated in making the MOOC. The idea was sparked by Peter Kaufman, who is executive director of Intelligent Television.
RL: So how did that come about?
AKH: Complete accident. We were celebrating the inauguration of a MOOC of a colleague of mine, and at this celebration I ran into Peter Kaufman, that MOOC’s producer. He asked me if I’d like to collaborate in a similar production on labor history, which is my other hat, if you like. I wasn’t really ready to take on labor history then. That’s a bigger subject. But when I proposed women’s history, he immediately agreed.
Two years and many negotiations later, Columbia’s Center for Media agreed to pay pretty much the full cost of the production. The NYHS contributed a significant chunk of money, and offered to host some of the filming; and we were on the way. I developed the arguments and the lectures with help from some of the graduate students at Columbia, including Nick Juravich, a young man who served as a content director and a major advocate. He knew much more about modern media than I did and acted as fact-checker and interpreter when I said things that he thought needed clarification. Because he was a historian in training, I trusted him to guide the conversation – which he did beautifully.
We filmed the first version in a year. It was pretty awful, so Columbia agreed to pay the cost of a new round of filming. It took another year to complete that round which we did with a new script, new sources, and new actors. We interviewed at least a dozen scholars in women’s history and they’re all on tape. I wasn’t paid at all. But I did insist that the final product be made available free of charge to anyone who wanted to see any piece of it. I am glad I insisted on open access. I didn’t mind working for nothing if the content could be made available to a wide public.
and we did a whole new version with new sources, new actors. We interviewed at least a dozen scholars in women’s history and they’re all on tape. My only requirement was I said I would do this for nothing. But I insisted on open access. If I worked for nothing, it had to be distributed. There was no charge.
RL: It’s called Women Have Always Worked, and how would one get access to it?
AKH: It’s all over YouTube. It’s easy enough if you just want to pull up bits and pieces of it or even look at the whole program with no credit. Just look it up under Women Have Always Worked or under my name, Alice Kessler-Harris. It is also available through edX for credit. EdX charges a very small fee, I think $35, to those who want to register for credit, or for teachers who might want to earn extra credit points.
RL: Looking back now, but also looking forward, what else do you think needs to be done? And where do you see yourself in that? Because you’re still young.
AKH: Well, not so young anymore and not as energetic as I used to be. I guess I would say two things. I’d say that we need to rethink women’s history through the lens of what I call the “so what?” question. In other words, what we’ve done in the past 40, 50 years is to unwrap an enormous amount of knowledge that we didn’t have before, and that’s quite wonderful. I’m not at all knocking that. In fact, I think we couldn’t go further without that knowledge. It makes us much richer than we were before.
What we haven’t yet done is to figure out how women’s history intersects with the history of race, and of class, and of ethnic and religious difference of all kinds. How can the history of women and our knowledge of the changing role of gender help us to understand the political process that we’re now going through at the moment. I think where we are now is on the borderline between dramatically increased knowledge, and deployment of that knowledge. We have gathered our ammunition: we now know a lot more about what women have done in the past, and we can explain why they found themselves in disadvantaged positions. But we haven’t yet figured out how to deploy our ammunition to make change. What changes in social institutions like the family and schools do we want? What about women’s work?—do we know how to aim for equality? And do we need major changes in our political systems to ensure that women are fully represented in a democracy? These are big questions—but without women’s history, we cannot even start to answer them.
The current debate over childcare and tax credits for families with children and paid family leave illuminates how women’s history might help us to understand how to move forward. None of those questions were on the agenda 20 or 30 years ago, and they began to emerge on the agenda only when it became apparent not only that women were entering the workforce in huge numbers, but that they were destined to stay there. When women’s numbers in the workforce equaled and then began to exceed those of men, politicians and the public began to ask such questions as whether the family would survive these changes; how to enable children to thrive; whether men could retain their dignity in the face of women’s new aspirations?
And 20 years ago, we answered those questions individually. You can hire a nanny. You can participate in the global marketplace; find an under-employed family member, and so on. But now we’re answering those questions from a social perspective, or at least we’re trying to. We’re saying, wait a minute, how does the society cope with the changes in men’s and women’s roles? How does it cope with the fact that we now know that over a period of two generations, more mothers have entered the workforce than in the entire period before that? 20 years ago, the idea of a “working mother” drew attention. Now that it has become the norm, how are we re-defining motherhood?
These questions are informed by historians’ discoveries about variations among families; the nature of households; and the changing law of motherhood. Using historical discoveries, all of us have to start asking, what do we do about shifting social norms? How do we foster institutional change? How do we cope with the backlash against the progress of women? How do we change our social policies? How do we change our politics to accommodate these very real changes in family life that have happened?
I think we historians have brought into focus the ongoing nature of gendered change. We’ve provided the ammunition, if you like. Here I go with a military analogy again. But we’ve given ammunition to those who are saying we need political solutions, social solutions to these problems. In a curious way, I think that goes back to the early days of feminism. When I think about the early feminism of the late 1960’s and early 70’s, I think about it as a collective cooperative enterprise in which women weren’t out to get promoted for themselves, in which women believed that their job was to make a more humane world for women as well as for men.
That switched sometime in the 70’s. A lot of women began to focus instead on how do I get a better job? How do I make more money? What field do I have to go in to make sure that I’m given my full worth, my full value? I think that was quite successful for certain classes of women. If you were a reasonably well-educated white woman, you could make it in the world as indeed, I made it in the world.
But the feminist movement as a whole turned from social issues such as how to think about families, instill humane values; share resources to personal success. Now I think we may be moving back there. We may at last have reached a point where we can say, look, our history has demonstrated that we can be successful at doing the “I” thing. But our history has also demonstrated that we had another value system. Women had a more collective, a shared value system. Knowing our history might help push us forward in that direction a little bit. That’s my hope anyway,
RL: I love your optimism. I love your positivity. So many of us of the same vintage are feeling depressed about the fact that we seem to be fighting the same battles that we fought 50 years ago, and that where are we going? And do our grandchildren have to fight the same things again? I appreciate it. And I’m sure it comes from your knowledge and your development and your pioneering and history. It’s given you an optimism that a lot of us could use as well. I do want to ask you as we’re finishing up, are there any questions that you would have liked me to ask that I didn’t ask?
AKH: I suppose I would like you to ask and maybe I’d like you to answer as well, something about young women in this generation. If I were going to be a little dispirited, I’d say, on the one hand, I see young people, young women moving in the direction of environmental change, anti-racism, all kinds of structural changes that I haven’t really seen them move toward before. But I haven’t seen them move quite so quickly in the direction of what you might call household change or family change of rethinking what a family might really look like.
My optimism in part resides in the sense that we all need families. We all want them, but we don’t want the old kinds of families. We want to recreate families that are supportive and loving and change with the changing times. That’s my hope for this younger generation of women, that they will feel free to separate themselves from careerism. I want to move away from consumerism if you like, and turn back to the collective “we.” Women do that so well when they work on local, private issues like zoning laws and school curriculae. Perhaps they can now override divisions among them to seek a more humane world in which fuller democratic participation, clean water, and adequate healthcare are part of a shared search for a better life for all of us.