Recording Parallel Lives: Historian Identifies Challenges and Milestones of Women’s History Since Neolithic Times

Wednesday, March 4 2009


March 4, 2009

Media Note: March is Women’s History Month

Written by Donna Emert

VITERBO, Italy – The history available in most text books is predominately a record of the accomplishments of powerful men. Women’s history has traditionally been lower profile, and often defined in terms of the struggle to achieve equality with men.

“Those who choose to write about men’s history as “The” history simply make that history available,” said Ellen Kittlell, professor of history at University of Idaho. “Those women whose lives escaped investigation still had their own history. It is our responsibility to recover it.” Her expertise is in women’s history, with focus on the Medieval and Renaissance periods.

“Women’s history is not all about struggling to compare well with men,” she added. “If so, we are lost before we begin, for we can never accomplish that. Rather, women’s history should be about women. Unfortunately, while studies in women’s everyday experiences abound, companion studies of men are rare. Until men’s studies catch up with women’s studies, women’s history will be about how women will never catch up to men, because, after all, they aren’t men.”

This semester, Kittell is teaching on exchange for the University Study Abroad Consortium, a multi-university partnership offering education and cultural immersion in 25 countries. She is teaching The Renaissance History of Italy in the birthplace of the Renaissance: her classroom is in Viterbo, Italy, about two hours outside of Rome.

She originated the Women in European History course at the University of Idaho and has taught a readings course on Medieval Women. She holds several awards for excellence in teaching, including four Alumni Awards for Teaching, two Helping Hand awards, and acknowledgement in Who’s Who Among American Teachers (1996). She is a former Fulbright fellow. Her research has been published in the Journal of Social History, The Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies, and other notable publications. She holds a Ph.D. in history from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Throughout March, which is Women’s History Month, Kittell is available to speak to the media about the lesser known but distinctive events that shaped history, clarify women’s role in it and provide greater insight into the human story.

Kittell offers the following examples of profound, if lesser known, moments and movements in history:

Early matriarchal societies: “The Neolithic Revolution is notable era of change,” said Kittell. “In the hunting and gathering group, women gathered. They moved more slowly, had the more dependable food supply and were surrounded by other women and children. Men, hunters, could come and go, but were not necessarily tied to a particular woman. In other words, their closest females were not necessarily the one they slept with or had children with, but rather the one they spent their childhoods with—their mother and sisters. Property was matrilineal rather than patrilineal, since one always knew who their mother was. Once agriculture came in, men stayed put, accumulated property, and began to worry over whether it would go to an heir of their body. At that point men began to put constraints on women’s sexuality.”

The Church’s statement against forced marriage: “The early Christian Church’s statement that women and men were equal in the sight of God and that a marriage did not happen unless both partners freely agreed to it has been a powerful theory,” said Kittell. “Although it was quite common for the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches to pay only lip service to this belief, it did not go away. It remains a radical idea even to this day.”

The introduction of reliable contraception: The diaphragm was invented by German gynecologist C. Haase in the 1880s and soon became available worldwide. “This liberated women’s sexuality form her reproductive capacity,” noted Kittell. Planned parenthood allowed both sexes greater control over their lives and careers.

The first vote granted to all citizens: The right to vote, regardless of gender, came to New Zealand in 1893. “It set up a model for the rest of the world to follow,” said Kittell.

One step back for self-determination: The Social Purity movement of the late 19th century was formed in opposition to the legalization and regulation of prostitution. It soon spread to incorporate control of many other sex-related issues such as setting the age of consent, sexually segregating prisons, opposing contraception and regulating pornography. The Social Purity movement imposed sexual and social strictures for women and to a lesser degree, men.

The movement toward recognition and inclusion of women, by women, across ethnic and socioeconomic bounds: The moving speech, “Ain’t I a Woman,” was delivered in 1851 by Sojourner Truth at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention, and helped propel the women’s movement out of the tea parlors of the wealthy and into all levels of society. “It is now a staple of speech classes, women’s history classes, and American history classes,” said Kittell. Sojourner Truth, a black American slave woman, also was photographed a number of times, Kittell noted, “thus giving a face to the words that still resound.”

For more information and insights on women’s history, contact Kittell at kittell@uidaho.edu. For information on the University of Idaho Department of History and its programs, visit www.class.uidaho.edu.

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About the University of Idaho
Founded in 1889, the University of Idaho is the state’s flagship higher-education institution and its principal graduate education and research university, bringing insight and innovation to the state, the nation and the world. University researchers attract nearly $100 million in research grants and contracts each year; the University of Idaho is the only institution in the state to earn the prestigious Carnegie Foundation ranking for high research activity. The university’s student population includes first-generation college students and ethnically diverse scholars. Offering more than 150 degree options in 10 colleges, the university combines the strengths of a large university with the intimacy of small learning communities. For information, visit www.uidaho.edu

Media Contact: Tania Thompson, University Communications, (208) 885-6567, taniat@uidaho.edu



About the University of Idaho
The University of Idaho helps students to succeed and become leaders. Its land-grant mission furthers innovative scholarly and creative research to grow Idaho's economy and serve a statewide community. From its main campus in Moscow, Idaho, to 70 research and academic locations statewide, U-Idaho emphasizes real-world application as part of its student experience. U-Idaho combines the strength of a large university with the intimacy of small learning communities. It is home to the Vandals, and competes in the Western Athletic Conference. For information, visit www.uidaho.edu.