Senior Sem Journal: The Past Is a Foreign Country

Last week we shared a student reflection on ch. 2 of John Fea’s Why Study History? — considering how Americans find a “usable past” in history. As she has begun to research how comic books revealed — and perhaps shaped — American attitudes about women’s roles during World War II, Kelly Van Wyk (’15) has encountered the theme of Fea’s third chapter: how historians encounter the past as a “foreign country,” even in their own nation’s relatively recent history. (Kelly has previously written at AC 2nd about her participation on Bethel’s volleyball and model UN teams.)

Since my research project is covering a topic that is found within the context of World War II and wartime America, I initially thought that my findings would be very familiar. However, as I progress through my research, I am finding that the role of women in American history is quite strange, and I even go so far as to say “foreign,” to me.  This both fascinates and bewilders me as I am realizing that even the near past is a foreign country.

Wonder Woman, January 1942
The first cover appearance by Wonder Woman, January 1942 – Wikimedia

I entered into this project with a general understanding of the societal roles of women in the 1940s and how the war created new opportunities for them to go above and beyond those expectations. When I began to examine what primary and secondary sources had to say on the issue, however, I was overwhelmed how American perceptions of women differed so greatly from current views. Before the war, women were expected to remain in the home with children or to work unskilled jobs. As the war opened up what was available and expected of American women was expanding; women were coming to realize how capable they could be in the face of new experiences. I had known this before researching, but I was culturally shocked as I encountered women’s comics and magazines that presented such a weird mix of Rosie the Riveter and June Cleaver.

As I go through these sources, I can’t help but laugh out loud at some of what I’m seeing, because it seems so strange to me! For example, in one 1940s magazine for teenage girls, I read an article encouraging girls to play basketball. I thought to myself, “Wow, I’m impressed that the writers would ever promote a competitive, physical sport for girls,” but then I kept reading. What was the author’s main point in persuading girls to play basketball? The sport would teach them agility so they could be nimble dance partners and attract boys.

My research has been full of moments where I am laughing at these types of inconsistences, but I know that I am laughing because it seems so foreign to me now in the twenty-first century. The frequent number of times when I have laughed while reading my primary sources has brought to my attention just how strange a place the past can be.

What I am looking forward to the most in my project is the chance to bring some of this shock factor to my audience in their understanding of women’s roles through comic literature of the 1940s. I am considering the words of Carlo Ginzburg as I try to “destroy our sense of proximity to the people of the past” and “shock [my readers] with the cultural distance that separates us from them” (quoted in Fea, pp. 53-54). The challenge in navigating this strange world of American history requires what Fea describes as empathy and humility. Though this type of historical thinking is “an unnatural act,” I need to step back from consuming history to fit my needs and aim for walking humbly in the shoes of those who I seek to understand (63).

– Kelly Van Wyk

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