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A People's History of the United States

by Howard Zinn
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What is the theme of the chapter entitled "The Intimately Oppressed" in A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn? 

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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...

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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.

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In Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States, the chapter titled "The Intimately Oppressed" traces the history of oppression of women from colonial America through the nineteenth century. Zinn brings an intersectional analysis to this chapter as he describes the compounding nature of oppression that enslaved black women faced as they experienced both racial and gender-based oppression. Zinn notes the differences in the ways in which women were treated in more egalitarian indigenous societies of North America, versus the incredibly oppressive and repressive European models of gender roles and expectations.

Zinn describes how women were treated as child-bearers who were not encouraged or legally allowed to be involved in the political structure of the nation. For enslaved black women, this label of "child-bearer" meant experiencing repeated rape and the loss of their children as their babies were sold to other plantations and households. This chapter remarks on the Victorian Era–ideals of womanhood that demanded that middle- and upper-class white women embody purity, obedience, and subservience in every manner. White women who were of the working class and living on the western frontier had a bit more social mobility, as they had to also perform manual labor for their family's survival. The chapter concludes by summarizing nineteenth-century women's rights social struggles.

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The predominate theme of this chapter of A People's History is the same as the rest of the book. Zinn traces the history of women's roles from the colonial period to the Civil War, arguing that women were one of many groups in the United States, along with ordinary whites, African-Americans, and Native Americans, that suffered oppression during this period. He claims that women were assigned a "special status...something akin to that of a house slave." Yet because women were deemed so important to the family, and particularly in the raising and socialization of children, they also received a "special patronization...which could slip over into treatment as an equal." He observes that Native American societies frequently afforded women more active roles than their European counterparts, and emphasizes the obedience and deference demanded of women in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, particularly as part of the so-called "cult of domesticity, or "true womanhood." He narrates the struggles of women who attempted to break into the professional world and their involvement in, even leadership of, the numerous reform movements of the nineteenth century. He concludes with the words of the Declaration of Sentiments from the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 as well as the famous "Ain't I a Woman?" speech by Sojourner Truth to emphasize both the depth of the oppression that women faced as well as the courage of their struggles against it. So this chapter, overall, is another account of the oppression of one group of people by what Zinn will later call the "establishment."

Source: Zinn, A People's History of the United States, 102-123.

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