Bold Academic Movement Draws Top Scholars to New Brunswick Campus
Historian Judith Surkis taught at Harvard for nearly a decade. But in her search for the ideal academic milieu, she left the rarified world of Cambridge for the "banks of the old Raritan” in New Brunswick.
“I wanted to come to a department that had a real strength in women’s and gender history,” Surkis said. “At Rutgers, it’s close to half the (history) department faculty—it’s dramatic.”
Indeed, the Department of History in the School of Arts and Sciences—ranked No. 1 by U.S. News and World Report for women’s and gender history—has more than 25 scholars currently working in the specialization.
Rutgers was among the first in the nation, if not the world, to recognize and advance the study of women’s history.
And over the course of decades, the university has refined and revitalized the field, adding bold new scholars to its ranks.
Surkis is among a cluster of professors that the history department—with the support of SAS—recruited over the last two years. The group also includes Rachel Devlin, Leah DeVun, Chie Ikeya, and Johanna Schoen.
Collectively, their scholarship spans the globe, covering topics ranging from the treatment of sexual differences in medieval times to the role of women in the Civil Rights movement to France’s handing of marriage and family laws as a reaction to a growing Muslim community.
The new scholars will help keep the department at the top of the rankings for decades to come, says Bonnie Smith, a Board of Governors professor and a widely-recognized scholar and pioneer in women’s history.
“We are in the fifth decade of doing women’s history at Rutgers, and the cutting edge is still very much present,” she said.
Smith traced the tradition back to 1973 when the venerable Berkshire Conference of Women Historians held an academic conference at Douglass College. The conference, in which Rutgers scholars Mary Hartman and Lois Banner played a prominent role, shook up the academic world.
“It was a bombshell,” Smith said. “It showed the diversity of scholarship going on in women’s history.”
Striking a Nerve
The early scholars shared a common understanding that remains a foundation to this day: “The first thing that women’s history does is to say that women have a historical presence,” Smith said. “When you are not in history, it’s almost as if you don’t exist.”
That proposition fuels the work of the new professors, who ask provocative questions, challenge long-held assumptions, and generate new ideas and narratives.
“I’m really interested in touching topics nobody else wants to talk about,” Schoen declared.
Schoen helped expose a dark chapter in American history when she gained access to the files of the North Carolina Eugenics Board. More than 7,000 people had been sterilized between the 1920s and 1970s. Schoen's findings led to widespread media coverage and an official apology from the governor.
Her next book is sure to strike another nerve: an exploration of how the abortion battles since Roe v. Wade have affected the delivery of reproductive services to women in the U.S.
“In the early 1970s, women could look at abortion as a procedure that allowed them to control their lives,” she said. “And today we all have these images of dead fetuses.”
Mystics, Alchemists and Hermaphrodites
DeVun is a medieval scholar whose work expands the conversation over cutting-edge contemporary issues such as intersex, which refers to individuals who don’t fit within societal definitions of male or female.
“Looking at the history of how we perceive and define humanity might offer some solutions or some ways of thinking differently about the kinds of questions that we have now,” DeVun said.
In her study The Jesus Hermaphrodite: Science and Sex Difference in Pre-modern Europe, DeVun takes a penetrating look into mystical alchemical texts and finds representations of Christ as a hermaphrodite—a redemptive ideal both divine and human; feminine and masculine.
Such treatments suggest pre-modern thinkers saw the world in ways that defy categorization, she said.
“When we see differences in the past in the ways people conceive of sex and even the number of sexes available, it suggests that in the future there may be new ways of thinking about sex, and how people belong to a sex,” she said. “And that gives me a lot of optimism.”
A New Narrative for the Civil Rights era
One of the hallmarks of women’s and gender history is its ability to find new meaning in events that may seem like settled history.
Devlin’s latest work, for example, is the first to detail the prominent role that girls played as plaintiffs in the movement to desegregate all-white school across the country, from the late 1940s through the early 1960s.
She unearthed this buried history during the course of another project in which she was reviewing articles in the black popular press.
Her curiosity piqued, she then reviewed the original court cases, perusing the archives of groups like the NAACP. Finally, she traveled the country seeking out and interviewing the women and collecting oral history.
“These women have thought a lot about their desegregation experiences and have a lot of wisdom to share,” she said of the forthcoming Girls on the Front Line: Gender and the Battle to Desegregate Public Schools in the United States, 1945-1968.
Understanding the Dynamics of Power
Similarly, Surkis, who specializes in modern European history, peeled away the media hoopla to cast a critical eye on France’s handing of family law in response to a growing Muslim community.
Her forthcoming book, Scandalous Subjects: Intimacy and Indecency in France and French Algeria, 1830-1930, provides a new view of the entanglement of French and Muslim law, and fresh context for understanding the current controversies.
“For me, women’s and gender history has to do with the radically different way of understanding historical subjects and events,” Surkis said. “Thinking through things with a gender focus recasts our understanding of politics, and the dynamics of power.”
That’s an apt description of Ikeya’s work, which examines Southeast Asia through a powerful lens that takes in such issues as colonial politics, gender and race relations, and consumerism.
Her most recent book, Refiguring Women, Colonialism, and Modernity in Burma, was fueled by her discovery of popular press content that showed how Burma’s intelligentsia was obsessed with women’s fashion while the country was under British rule, and also during the Japanese occupation.
The book tracks the shifting dynamics—including a collective crisis of masculinity—in a country under colonial rule and also confronting modern consumer culture.
“I wanted to give serious consideration to something dismissed as 'fashion' in order to examine the connection between gender relations and colonialism, modernization, and nationalism,” she said.
She said the project was particularly satisfying for its use of popular sources: “The key for me was to stop privileging what a select and almost exclusively male group of historical actors did and said, and write a history that included a wider range of historical actors, debates, and sources."