Professor Robyn Rosen
Dr. Rosen is the author of Reproductive Heath, Reproductive Rights: Reformers and the Politics of
Maternal Welfare (Ohio State University Press, 2003) and the editor of Women’s Studies in the Academy:
Origin and Impact (Prentice Hall, 2004). Her scholarly work has also appeared in Journal of Women’s
History and Gender & History. The recipient of the 2005 Board of Trustees Teaching Award, Dr. Rosen
regularly teaches U.S. Women’s History, American History II, and special-topics courses including History
of American Manhood.
Q: How did you first become interested in history and women’s studies?
A: I love telling this story! I took a U.S. Women’s History class my sophomore year at Brandeis. I was an
American Studies major who showed up at college having taken AP U.S. History. I thought I know a little
something about the subject. In this women’s history class I was exposed to people, movements, events, and ideas that I had never heard of. Not only was I fascinated by all the new information and ideas coming at me, but I was realizing how limited my education had been.
I was shocked that I had never before thought to ask the simple question, “what were women doing when all of this ‘important’ stuff was happening”? The whole issue of bias in the curriculum hit me like a ton of bricks and I was forever changed. It was a real moment of consciousness raising from which I could never go back. I declared a Women’s Studies minor, joined the feminist group on campus, and decided to become a historian of women.
Q: You frequently team-teach courses. What do you value about this approach?
A: I have co-taught courses in U.S. Women’s History and in History of the Vietnam War with my colleagues in the history department, in Constitutional Law with a political scientist, and in Feminist Speculative Fiction with a literary scholar. My students learn a lot from these kinds of exchanges, and so do I--not just information from other fields and other areas of history, but pedagogical things too. I pay more attention to my own goals and assessments and I believe it makes me a more reflective and creative teacher. Plus, it’s just plain fun to work with and learn from such smart and talented people.
Q: Your scholarly work has always centered on movements for maternal welfare and reproductive rights. What are you working on right now?
A: My earlier work focused on the early days of these movements--the 1910s to the 1940s. Right now I am interested in the examining the later decades--particularly the 1960s and 1970s. The question I am seeking to answer is: How did the mainstream birth control movement come to embrace abortion rights as part of its larger health and welfare agenda in the years immediately before and after Roe vs. Wade? In its earliest incarnation the movement pitched contraception as a safer alternative to abortion. However, by the 1960s feminists, liberal physicians and lawyers were leading the charge for the legalization of abortion. How did organizations like Planned Parenthood, which did as much as it could to position itself as a mainstream health care provider, deal with this new reality? Were they leaders or followers? Was there much internal debates about abortion or did it seem like a natural corollary to birth control?
This is a project I have just started and it is great to get back into the archives again. I found an incredible document just this week -- a statement written by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and read by his wife upon his acceptance of the Margaret Sanger Award in Human Rights at the 50th anniversary dinner of the International Planned Parenthood Federation. Who knew? I have never read anything about Dr. King’s involvement with the birth control movement! You never know what you are going to stumble across at the archives. This is one of the best things about being a historian.
Q: Women’s studies as a field has been around for several decades now. Are students still interested in exploring questions related to gender?
Absolutely. Last semester, for example, I developed the History of American Manhood course in response to my own and my students’ shared interest in investigating masculinity as well as femininity. As a mother of three sons, I am fascinated by the pressures and pitfalls of masculinity in our culture and as a historian, I love being able to discover where all these crazy ideas came from and the impact they have had on American history.
I learned a lot teaching that class that I will bring to my American history and women’s history classes. In fact, students responded so enthusiastically to one of the books that I now plan to use it in my American History II class. It’s very rewarding to engage in this kind of give-and-take with equally passionate students.