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'Take pride in what was accomplished'
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When Linda Kerber began her career as a young professor at the University of Iowa in 1971, there was one women’s history course being taught through the Free University, the predecessor of Saturday and Evening Classes through the Center for Credit Programs.
She agreed to teach the course in her second year—though her work had mostly been in the political history of the early Republic, she was a feminist hungry to discover more about the history of women in the United States.
Since then Kerber has focused her career on U.S. women’s history, legal history as it relates to the histories of gender and the law, and intellectual history.
Linda Kerber will be honored for her work alongside UI colleagues at this year’s Celebration of Excellence and Achievement Among Women, at 3:30 p.m., Tuesday, April 3, in the Iowa Memorial Union Second Floor Ballroom.
Kerber will receive a 2012 Distinguished Achievement Award. Other honorees include Cathy Solow, associate dean at the College of Dentistry, and Diana Harris, project and communications manager at the College of Engineering.
“I’ve been here for a long time, I’ve taught a whole range of courses, but ever since 1972, when I taught my first women’s history course, I have in one way or another been exploring women’s history in my own work or in the courses I teach,” says Kerber, the May Brodbeck Professor in the Liberal Arts and Sciences, professor of history in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and lecturer in the College of Law.
Kerber, who will retire from teaching at the end of the 2011-2012 academic year, sat down to talk about her work, some little-known facts about U.S. women’s history, and her plans for the future.
How did you become interested in combining women’s history in the United States with legal studies?
Almost every question of asymmetry between men and women that feminists raised —“Why can’t women get credit in their own names?” “Why do women have to take their husbands names when they marry?” “Why do women get easy excuses from jury service?”—tracked back to some legal arrangement of one kind or another. It was very easy to find myself intrigued by the law and the history of the law. The more I worked in women’s history, the more salient legal questions became.
You have researched U.S. women’s history for more than four decades. What are some of the ideas you try to instill in your students?
What I’ve been trying to teach in one way or another has been that in this history men have often had interests that are very different than women’s interests. If women ask, as many do, “Why is it so hard? We’ve worked and worked and worked and there hasn’t been any change. I throw up my hands,” my answer is, "The inequities, the asymmetry, the inequality between men and women are much older than the American Revolution and are embedded in much of our civilization. We didn’t expect to get rid of it in a single blink."
The physics department, the chemistry department, the engineering school—they have selectively forgotten that there was a time when women approaching those majors were told they weren’t right for a girl. And it’s not just at Iowa; it’s all over the country. I have my job because people sat in the president’s office demanding the recognition of women’s issues, because President Sandy Boyd embraced that challenge, and because there were liberal, progressive colleagues in the history department here who were determined to change the gender pattern of the faculty.
We take a lot for granted. There are a lot of fights and struggles that people just don’t have anymore. I don’t think we have taken enough pride in what was accomplished, what has been accomplished in a single generation, which is quite breathtaking. No one tells little girls they can’t do math or engage in sports that make them sweat.
What are some topics within women’s history in the United States that you believe are not widely taught or commonly known?
Over the years, following the legal trail, I am struck by a set of decisions that the founding generation made that I believe is insufficiently appreciated.
The people who wrote the Constitution and all the state constitutions were very radical in many ways. They are breaking with a monarchy, they’re establishing a republic, they’re talking of sovereignty of the people. But, they’re very frightened of their own radicalism.
They stabilize the revolution by sustaining the system of slavery. It doesn’t jibe with people being “created equal” or natural rights, yet they stabilize and actually strengthen slavery.
As they understood the law, slavery was part of what we would call the law of domestic relations—family relations, which starts with the law of husband and wife, parent and child, master and servant, and master and slave. Think of a plantation, where all those people are in the same household. This is a concept they inherit from England, the law of baron and femme—lord and woman. At marriage, the husband got absolute access to the body of his wife; there is no legal concept of marital rape until feminists developed it in the 1970s. It seemed to follow logically that the husband can control her property—the property she brings to the marriage and that she earned during it. When a woman marries, she is covered by her husband’s civil identity as though he’s holding an umbrella over her. Technically, it was called coverture. It’s as though, when she steps under his umbrella, she is not an independent person. He controls her property. He controls her will.
What was the tipping point toward change?
A full generation later, in the era of the great revolutions of 1848, New York legislators angry at dissolute sons-in-law who had speculated foolishly with the gifts that fathers gave their married daughters began to reconsider married women’s control of property. And a new generation of young women, the most remarkable of whom is the 33-year-old Elizabeth Cady Stanton, summon a convention in Seneca Falls, and commit to a “Declaration of Sentiments” attacking the whole system of coverture. It will take more than 150 years to fully undermine the old system; we are still struggling to assure women the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the 14th Amendment.
You retire at the end of this school year. What are your plans?
I am writing two books. One is Stateless in America. Most of my work has been about women and citizenship. The reverse of citizenship is statelessness—not having a nationality. Most of us think statelessness belongs to other people’s histories—Jews in Nazi Germany, Gypsies, Palestinians. But statelessness is part of U.S. history: slaves were stateless, Native Americans for long periods of time were stateless; the rules of coverture were taken to mean that when an American-born woman married a foreign-born man, she lost her citizenship. (Hundreds of American-born women who had married German men had to register as enemy aliens during World War I.)
Americans now contribute fewer stateless people to the vast ocean of the stateless in the world today because of the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of birthright citizenship. The attacks on it that we’ve seen recently are especially frightening to me. If we make children who are born here problematic because their parents’ status is problematic, the result will be people without nationality. Being without a nationality is very dangerous.
The other book is titled Why Diamonds Really Are a Girl’s Best Friend. If you go back to coverture, men get power over a woman’s body, property, and will. What does she get? At his death, the minimum he can leave her is the use of one-third of the real estate, (she has to pass it down to the children unchanged) and full ownership of one-third of the moveable property, even if she brought more into the marriage. If he has debts, the property will be used to pay those before she gets her one-third.
But the last thing that can be taken from her is what was called her paraphernalia—her petticoats, her mattress, her cooking pot, and all the jewelry she has been given. It’s not that they can’t take it, but it’s the last thing they can take. That’s why diamonds are really a girl’s best friend!