“Women Have Always Been There”: Professor Allison Rodriguez Speaks on Importance of Contextualizing History

6 min read

Nick Cimillo ’26

Staff Writer

Growing up, Allison Rodriguez most likely wouldn’t have seen herself becoming a professor of history that emphasizes gender in her teachings. “Where and when I grew up,” she recounts, “which is central Florida in the 90s, ‘feminist’ was a bad word… [Back then, I thought] feminism was supposed to be… [thinking] women were better; you’re angry at the world and you don’t like men at all.” In her undergraduate career at Cornell University, she studied English and history, still carrying a hesitancy towards the study of gender. “I remember talking to one of my good friends, who’s also a woman, as we’re getting ready to graduate and go to grad school; we [thought] ‘We’re not going to do women’s history just because we’re women.’ It felt like it was putting us in a ghetto; there was history, and then there’s women’s history… which is to the side, supplemental.”

Upon the start of her graduate career at University of North Carolina Chapel Hill for history, her adviser recommended her to take a course on women’s history in Europe, a course which, funnily enough, he did not recommend to male students. “Me and a male [student] came in together as his new advisees,” Rodriguez recalls. “He didn’t tell men to take the women and gender course. Men took the other course that was offered by a male professor. He told me to take the women and gender course, and I had no interest in that at the time.” She was adamant in her disinterest in the topic from the very first day of the class. “I told [the professor] straight out… ‘I’m in this course, but I’m not going to do gender. I’m not going to teach it and I’m not going to use it.’” The professor’s response? “‘Okay, we’ll see.’”

Indeed, by the end of the course, her perspective on the value of women’s history had completely changed. “What I love about teaching gender is that it makes you question what you think is natural, question what you think is obvious… It really was that course, and subsequent courses with [that professor] that… [made me realize I] see the world in a certain color, and then it kind of twists a little bit. The world is still the same, but you start to question why… Why is it that men are supposed to do this and women are supposed to do this?” That sense of curiosity is something that has stayed with her, and is something she emphasizes in her own courses here at Trinity. “Once that happens, you can’t unlearn that; you can’t unsee that. And so then it starts to affect how you read everything… I like giving students the master narrative of history, but including women. What I’m trying to prove is that women have always been there.”

Rodriguez came to Trinity as a history professor in 2012. One of her courses, War and Gender, looks at European history in the early 20th century, specifically when the continent was caught between the First and Second World Wars. “I like that I’m able to give students this really interesting history of Europe from 1914 to 1945,” she said. “That’s the basic range of the course. I think that they’re used to that, what I call the ‘master narrative’: the political… the major arcs of history.” Off of this groundwork of the basic history, though, Rodriguz works in issues that students may not have previously considered about wartime and post-war Europe: “Things like pronatalism after World War I. I think that there are some fraught political debates that we have, especially right now about access to abortion and reproductive rights and reproductive care, that I think… when you take it out of the 2024 American context and look at it in France in 1920, it’s almost easier to talk about and ask: ‘Why are these women seeking abortion care and reproductive rights in this different geographical and temporal context?’”

To Rodriguez, an understanding of context is vital to the understanding of history. This does not just mean adding context to previous understandings of history to get a fuller picture, but also seeing how history can be applied in a modern context. “There are a lot of students coming into [my] courses that only have American history backgrounds… they come in and [say] ‘We never learned this, we didn’t know this in school.’ Well then, why? Why do you think you didn’t [know]? What aspects of history are being underplayed and how can we bring them to the surface? And what do we gain from bringing them to the surface?”

Even in her courses other than War and Gender, Rodriguez aims to incorporate a teaching of the past that recontextualizes modern day issues. “Next spring, I’ll be teaching Interwar Europe,” she said. “I’m going to spend a lot of time on issues like totalitarianism… that is largely influenced by what’s happening in current American and global politics. It’s going to have a large gender aspect, too, because a lot of these totalitarian movements had very clear ideas of what a gender divide should be. I think these topics are easier for students to approach… when they’re in a different geographic and temporal context.”

Above all, Rodriguez wants her students to come away from her classes with a better ability to question why things are as they are, and why they were taught as such. “I think a lot of students think of history as the Department of Facts,” she concludes, “but really we’re the Department of Questions: who, what, where [and] when. You do need to know these, because it gives you important context. But the really interesting part of history, the questions that drive it, are the ‘how’ and ‘why’. That’s what I want my students to gain from my classes — the confidence and curiosity to ask ‘how’ and ‘why,’ not just about history, but the larger world around them.”

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