Yale Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies
Volume 4, Issue 2
spring 2014
Editor, Geetanjali Singh Chanda
Managing Editors, Linda Hase & Craig Canfield
Layout Design, Nick Appleby

Teaching Women in Modern America

by Joanne Meyerowitz


When I give my lecture on the Great Depression, I tell my students about a group of women I interviewed years ago at a union retirement center in Chicago.  In the 1930s, the women had worked at Kuppenheimer, a garment factory, which was, like many factories, in financial trouble.  One week, they said, they opened their pay envelopes and found only a penny inside.  The factory couldn’t afford to pay their wages, and they couldn’t afford to quit.  If they left, they’d be unemployed and, given the economy, unlikely to find work elsewhere, but if they stayed, maybe Kuppenheimer would pay them more the following week.  And so they stuck it out. 

The story is just one among hundreds of anecdotes I could use to illustrate the rippling impact of the Great Depression.  But it’s a story pulled from my own research, from a moment when some women remembered how the prevailing economic crisis—declining production, spiraling wage cuts, and massive unemployment—had directly impinged on everyday life.   These are the kinds of stories I like to share in class, quirky bits of research that helped me—and, I hope, help my students—imagine a past that is both different from and resonant with the lives we lead today. 

When I was in college at the University of Chicago, there were only two courses on women, gender, or sexuality in the entire undergraduate curriculum.  I took them both, and I still recall reading Friedrich Engels on “the origin of the family,” discussing women’s labor force participation, and listening to the stories that the professor, anthropologist Paula Foster, told from her own fieldwork.  But I have to admit, and I’m sorry to say it, that I don’t remember many details. 

I wonder now what my students will remember years after they’ve taken a course with me.  Here’s what I hope:  When the specifics fade, I want my students’ study of history to remind them to analyze the stories told about women, gender, and sexuality—in the present as well as the past.  I want them to continue to look for the long-term trends, hidden and not-so-hidden hierarchies, moments of fracture, and unforeseen contingencies that shape our understandings of the worlds we live in now.
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