Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States has as its major theme the injection into the study of American history those events and people who have been neglected in more conventional recitations of this subject. Most histories, Zinn argues, are written from a certain perspective: that of...
Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States has as its major theme the injection into the study of American history those events and people who have been neglected in more conventional recitations of this subject. Most histories, Zinn argues, are written from a certain perspective: that of the white conquerors who “founded” and built the United States of America. Elementary and high school–level history books in particular tend to tread very lightly or ignore altogether some of the more negative consequences of the historical developments they depict. Students, Zinn suggests, are not being presented with the full story of the origins and evolution of their country. While slavery is discussed, there is little or no discussion of the genocidal treatment of the native tribes who populated the continent prior to Columbus’s arrival. While the effects of World War II mobilization are discussed, there is little or no discussion of the treatment of Japanese Americans, who were uprooted from their homes and incarcerated in internment camps because of racism and exaggerated fears of saboteurs.
So is the case with chapter 6 of A People’s History. Titled “The Intimately Oppressed,” this chapter focuses on the contributions of women to American history.
By the time the reader has reached chapter 6 of A People’s History of the United States, they will have already been exposed to those areas of history Zinn most wanted to illuminate. Early in this chapter, the author writes, regarding the absence of women in conventional histories of the United States and the inferior treatment to which they have been subjected:
In this invisibility they were something like black slaves (and thus slave women faced a double oppression). The biological uniqueness of women, like skin color and facial characteristics for Negroes, became a basis for treating them as inferiors.
The theme of chapter 6, therefore, is the underreported and underappreciated role played by women in the nation’s history. Women, Zinn points out, were treated as biologically inferior beings who needed to be protected and repressed. What transpires, then, is a history of the women’s suffragette movement, the long struggle for some measure of equality, at least within the framework of electoral politics. In addition to the protracted struggle for the simple right to vote—a right only finally confirmed with ratification, in 1920, of the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution—Zinn recounts the difficulties women encountered entering many professions, especially the field of medicine, where gender can play an especially important role with respect to female patients.
Zinn, in “The Intimately Oppressed,” seeks to ensure that students will know the difficulties, due solely to prejudices on the part of men, experienced by women during most of the country’s history.