Advanced Seminars in US History

Women's and Gender History

Course Description

One hundred plus years ago, women could not vote and the vogue fashion for the upper class was a corset that put 20 lbs of pressure per square inch on the torso region. At the same time, men were constrained under the pressure of being the only acceptable breadwinners in the household and yet those upper class men who worked in the newly created managerial positions were often diagnosed with effemia and neuresthenia...two psychological diseases that suggested men were becoming weak and effeminate because they no longer did outdoor, manual, and "skilled" labor. To help cope with this crisis in masculinity, a group of elite men founded the Boy Scouts of America to get young boys immersed in the hearty outdoor life. Today, the Boys Scouts have taken a strong stance against one of the more heated current debates about gender, the legalization of gay marriage. Seventy years ago women were encouraged to leave the domestic sphere and go to work to support men who were drafted, because of their gender, to fight and die in World War II. Not long after, women were expected to vacate those jobs and return to the home corseted to the lone male breadwinner. Forty years ago, female activists burned their bras to symbolically protest the yoke of patriarchy as men continued to die in war. Young men dared grow their hair long and attempted to adjust to another shift in masculine ideals. Just 20 years ago, Madonna took the world by storm by singing about virginity and interracial relationships while conservative men, under the leadership of Bill McCartney, began organizations such as Promise Keepers and Focus on the Family to reassert traditional male authority in the home and to teach men how to be "godly men in a time of temptation." In each of these historical moments, the cultural and political conversation turned toward a debate about the best way to be male and and female. But all that seems so long ago...and as we all know, things change.

In this particular case, however, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Every day we are all confronted with our gender. Daily we literally wear this history on our bodies. This course will attempt to overview (from the perspective of 5 topics) the ideological debates and the lived reality of women's and men's lives in the United States from the colonial era to the present from the perspective of gender. We will learn some little known moments of history (those that are usually left out of traditional history courses) while also reviewing more well known historical episodes through the prism of gender. We will utilize the idea of America as utopia to provide a framework for our studies. "The Woman Question" and the best "relations between the sexes" have long obsessed Americans and still do to this day. Over time, many have asserted their beliefs about how society should be best ordered based on presumptions about both masculinity and feminity. These ideas have never been static and, like all socially constructed ideas, have changed depending on place and time. We will investigate these ideas and then dream of our own utopia.


Image to the left : Women's Liberation poster from the 1960s.

Course Expectations

You can expect to work very hard in this course and to have a lot of fun! You must come to every class prepared to analyze, memorize, and synthesize. You should also be willing come to class ready to think about new ideas and to be eager to consider the myriad perspectives that inform the lives of historical actors.  We will utilize primary and secondary sources, including films and other visual sources.  The course will be reading and writing intensive and will be based largely in discussion so you MUST come to class prepared to analyze and synthesize the sources we've read for the day! We will also be investigating some difficult and sensitive material. If you are not willing to be respectful toward others' views and if you are not willing to be open and honest about your own opinon, please reconsider taking the course. There is an expectation that ALL viewpoints are important and (as long as they are not aggressively hurtful to someone in the class) are expected to be brought to bear on our historical investigations.

Learning Objectives

Our primary learning objectives are threefold:

1) To become more sophisticated readers, writers, and thinkers. We will do this by reading academic articles, writing in-depth expository and argumentative essays, and having vivid, well-supported class discussions.

2) To become historical thinkers. To think like a historian is a very important and very precise skill. We will use primary sources to learn how to investigate the past and how to use documentary evidence to support our conclusions. Learning these skills will help us to begin to figure out what it means to live in a present suffused by the past and it will help us decide who we are and how we can best live meaningful lives devoted to goodness and justice.

3) To learn how to be more collaborative in our academic work and how to be better communicators (in general). To do this, we will work in concert to create 2 projects that we hope will be useful to our school community now and in the future.


Men's Liberation Protest

From the archives at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Men's Liberation Rally, ca 1970