Publication Date

November 1, 1994

Perspectives Section

AHA Activities

December 1994 marks the 10th anniversary of the Joan Kelly Memorial Prize in Women's History. Ten years is recent enough for many historians of women to remember how eagerly we sought the establishment of a prize sponsored by the American Historical Association not only to honor Joan Kelly but as a statement of the coming of age of the field of women's history. Ten years is also far enough in the past for a new generation of historians to perceive both the prize and the field of women's history as a fait accompli hardly worthy of celebration. After all, why draw special attention to an area of scholarship now so deeply embedded in every aspect of social, cultural, and even political history? Why do we have a prize named after Joan Kelly? Who was she and what does her spirit mean for us today?

Trained as a Renaissance historian at Columbia University and touched by the women's movements of the late 1960s, Joan Kelly began to explore the field of women's history in the early 1970s. In collaboration with Gerda Lerner, she set up the first M.A. degree program in women's history in the United States at Sarah Lawrence College. The investigations on which she then embarked, Catharine Stimpson has noted, "altered the history of the Renaissance and shaped that of women." Kelly introduced into a still nascent field the idea that seeing from the vantage point of women would enable historians to revision and reinterpret the past. She refused the distinction between public and private, becoming one of the first historians to insist on exploring linkages rather than disjunctures in the relations between men and women. She relied on an increasingly sophisticated and expansive theoretical apparatus (first Marxist, then feminist) to offer new interpretations of widely accepted aspects of historical change. Above all, Kelly's work demonstrated how understanding the roots of consciousness and its power to effect social and political change could link the world of ideas to the active pursuit of social change to which she was passionately committed.

When Joan died in the summer of 1982, we missed her bold and inspiring stance—her sense that women's history opened "an entire world of learning." For Kelly, women's history was an intellectual adventure. In the preface to her posthumously published collection of essays, Women, History, and Theory, Kelly described the moment of engagement with women’s history as “a profoundly frightening feeling of all coherence gone, followed by restoration, if not of a new order, at least of a new direction.”

How would we continue to work in that spirit without her? A prize seemed like a perfect answer. The idea came from women who, like her, had opened up the field, and like her, had grown and renewed the profession as they learned together. The Coordinating Committee of Women in the Historical Profession, of which she was a founding member and in which she remained active, took the lead. With the enthusiastic support of the AHA Research Division and the Council, the idea became a reality. This was a prize that would recognize not only the emergence of a new field, but its continuing salience. This was a prize that would not only memorialize Joan Kelly, but, by drawing attention to the vitality and creativity of the changing and expanding field of women's history, would continually remind us to engage with the past in our own ways.

The winners of the Joan Kelly Prize include Rosalind Petchesky, Abortion and Woman's Choice: The State, Sexuality, and the Conditions of Reproductive Freedom; Claire G. Moses, French Feminism in the Nineteenth Century; Gerda Lerner, The Creation of Patriarchy; Ruth Milkman, Gender at Work: The Dynamics of Job Segregation by Sex during World War II; Linda Gordon, Heroes of Their Own Lives: The Politics and History of Family Violence, 1880–1960; Joan Wallach Scott, Gender and the Politics of History; Mary H. Blewett, Women and Work: Class, Gender, and Protest in the New England Shoe Factory, 1780–1910; Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard Based on Her Diary, 1785–1812; Susan Glenn, Daughters of the Shtetl: Life and Labor in the Immigrant Generation; Victoria de Grazia, How Fascism Ruled Women: Italy, 1922–45; and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Righteous Discontent: The Women's Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880–1920. This distinguished list reflects the energy and creativity that continue to infuse the field of women’s history as it opens new terrain for exploration.

As we enter the second decade of the Joan Kelly Memorial Prize we can expect that its recipients will pay increasing attention to issues Joan Kelly could only have anticipated. The complex field of women's history now involves the use of such generative categories as gender theory, global feminism, and alternative narratives. In these and other uncharted arenas lie the connecting links between the traditional work we admire and a new enterprise that expands the boundaries of the entire discipline. To honor this effort, to continue to offer a prize commensurate with the important ideas it rewards, requires that the fund be regularly replenished. Like all endowed funds, this one has suffered from a decline in interest rates. Supporting it now recommits us all to an active search for new ways of understanding our past.

—Alice Kessler-Harris teaches history and is director of the Women Studies Program at Rutgers University. Amy Swerdlow taught history at Sarah Lawrence University until her retirement in January.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Attribution must provide author name, article title, Perspectives on History, date of publication, and a link to this page. This license applies only to the article, not to text or images used here by permission.