Uncovering Women’s Voices
U-Idaho Alumna Karen Stedtfeld Offen Receives Kappa Kappa Gamma Alumnae Achievement Award
By Naomi Ratner, Syracuse
This article first appeared in the spring 2012 issue of The Key
Reprinted with permission
With a passion for history and a flair for solving mysteries, Dr. Karen Stedtfeld Offen, Idaho, brings a feminist perspective to the past, helping to transform our understanding of European history. Illuminating the field of French women’s history through her research, she documents the strength and persistence of women throughout Europe and helps to better define feminism.
“I like to discover the truly remarkable things some women have achieved in the past . . . despite the many obstacles thrown in their way,” Karen says. “The personalities I’ve encountered and the battles they’ve fought inspire me.”
That inspiration drove Karen to explore whether there had been a true women’s movement in France. Studying history at the University of Idaho - graduating Phi Beta Kappa with high honors—and receiving a master’s and doctorate in modern European history at Stanford University after a Fulbright fellowship in France, Karen sensed that something was missing from the malefocused history she had studied. She refused to believe the skeptics, who in the 1970s asserted that no sources were available for documenting the history of women and that researching it was a passing fad. Calling on her inner Nancy Drew, Karen hunted down the sources—and the more she looked, the more she found.
Digging through newspaper clippings and other buried sources of information about 19th-century women, Karen discovered that indeed there had been a significant campaign for women’s emancipation in France—before the French Revolution. Her curiosity and determination propelled a lifelong quest to uncover the untold stories of women’s history in France and throughout Europe.
“I was always asking questions,” Karen says. “I think it’s important for all people—and especially women—to know where they’ve come from collectively, and what obstacles they have surmounted (or not), in order to navigate their futures.”
Through her pursuit of women’s past and the history of feminisms (the study of various forms of feminism and of global politics through feminist lenses), Karen addressed a range of issues that go well beyond the vote. From objections to discriminatory marriage laws, educational impoverishment, economic disempowerment, and concern about declining birthrates in 19th-century France to European-wide campaigns against the sex trafficking of women and children, statesponsored prostitution, and against male violence and war itself, women were actively contesting their subordination and claiming a voice in decision-making. Karen’s reinterpretation of the past has given voice—not only to earlier activists, but also to the long-silenced majority of women.
There has long been a “politics” of knowledge, Karen asserts: “… In the course of our research, we feminist historians have contributed to uncovering and challenging the previously dominant masculine perspective. I am one of many who have contributed to ‘gendering’ our collective past.”
An insight for Karen’s later work in “gendering” history began as a freshman at the University of Idaho when she joined Kappa. Karen served as Scholarship Chairman for two years, and found that the strong sisterhood within Beta Kappa and its dedication to excellence fed her understanding of the importance of women’s communities.
One of the first scholars to focus on the differences between European and American feminisms, she developed a new vocabulary for understanding feminisms internationally. She has written and co-edited seven books and more than 50 journal articles published in a variety of languages besides English. Karen also has helped to develop a worldwide network of historians of women, the International Federation for Research in Women’s History (www.ifrwh.com).
Currently a senior scholar at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University, Karen also has served on the board of directors for the International Museum of Women (www.imow.org) and continues her work online, blogging for the museum in “Clio Talks Back” (http://imowblog.blogspot. com). Karen aims to promote intellectual curiosity among a younger audience via Clio (the Greek muse of history) who, tired of serving merely as muse to male historians, as Karen puts it, has decided to have her say by telling tales of fascinating women in various time periods. Karen is also an active member of Kappa’s Palo Alto Alumnae Association.
Everyone can appreciate that access to this new, more balanced historical knowledge can empower women in particular and, by promoting gender equity, make our world a better place.