News & Ideas

Teaching Controversy

Controversy begets opportunity; to see history in the round is to view both past and present with fresh eyes.

Author By Jane Kamensky, Carl and Lily Pforzheimer Foundation Director Professor, Department of History, Faculty of Arts and Sciences Published 05.21.2018 Share this page on Facebook Share this page on Twitter Share this page on LinkedIn Copy Link

In the beginning, there was controversy. The Schlesinger Library’s founding gift, the Woman’s Rights Collection, donated by Radcliffe alumna Maud Wood Park in 1943, documented the long battle over women’s suffrage. The right of women to vote, which now seems an obvious and inevitable reformation of the American republic, had in fact been the subject of heated debate for more than seven decades before the 19th Amendment joined the Constitution in August 1920.

Like most battles over the role of women in American society, the fight for the vote was often ugly—a multisided, multisited war waged among women as well as between women and men. And no wonder: the very idea of women voting upended ancient understandings of propriety, property, and power.

Contests over American women’s roles and rights neither began nor ended with suffrage. And so the Schlesinger’s vaults have continued to bristle with controversy. Over the past 75 years, as our collections have grown, we have added voices on many sides of issues that lie at the core of society and our democracy, including the long campaigns for and against the Equal Rights Amendment, struggles to guarantee women’s reproductive freedom and to protect fetal personhood, and battles over gender in the workplace from the Progressive Era through #MeToo.

A republican form of government depends on the ability of ordinary citizens to wade into ideological conflict with nuance and civility, often holding multiple and competing ideas in tension. So, too, does a college classroom.

Last fall, with my colleague Janet Halley, the Royall Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, I cotaught a course, Feminisms and Pornography, centered on one of the signal controversies in late-20th-century American women’s history: the conflict among feminists now popularly (and reductively) known as the “sex wars.” The Schlesinger’s collections document it with extraordinary depth. The personal papers of leading intellectuals and activists, including Susan Brownmiller, Andrea Dworkin, and Catharine A. MacKinnon, and of organizations such as Women Against Pornography (WAP), capture the enormous energy, along with the legal and tactical ingenuity, that marked feminist arguments against pornography and efforts to classify exposure to its harms as a civil rights infraction. Women who opposed those efforts—the journalist Ellen Willis, the porn star turned publisher Gloria Leonard, and the prostitutes’ rights group Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics (COYOTE) among them—are also well represented in our vaults.

With the help of the Schlesinger reference librarians Sarah Hutcheon and Jennifer Fauxsmith, students from Harvard College, the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and Harvard Law School—born long after these pitched battles ended, or at least mutated—waded fearlessly into the records of a bruising conflict. Their research, some of which you’ll read about in this issue, yielded new questions, new angles of vision, and new paths forward. Did they find common ground among combatants? Rarely. But plotting compromise between moral absolutes was not their mission. Rather, they learned to recover and respect the reasoning of organizations and individuals who had rarely respected one another. Scouring old wounds, they salvaged new histories.

The students in Feminisms and Pornography did not relitigate an old debate so much as imagine new ones. Controversy begets opportunity; to see history in the round is to view both past and present with fresh eyes. Teaching into the controversy in our collections trains rigorous scholars and engaged citizens. Never have we needed both more.

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