The Women’s Historian and West Point, Part III: On Being Cast as the Token “Where are the Women?” Person

(Click to view Part I and Part II in this series)

As we concluded our staff ride of Gettysburg about halfway through the seminar, the program leaders asked us each to share how we thought the staff ride experiences could help us in our teaching and research. When it was my turn, I broke it into two parts: as an American historian, I said, I thought there were a lot of things I could incorporate into my teaching, whether in surveys or upper-level classes. I think that this intensive study of a specific battle adds something to the experience of learning about big wars in American history.

But as a women’s historian, I continued, the staff ride experience had seemed utterly useless. After all, we dealt with only combatants’ experiences – and unless you want to talk about cross-dressing women serving as soldiers, then we’re essentially dealing with male experiences in the staff ride environment. All of the women were either in Gettysburg or behind the Confederate and Union lines as camp followers – and those were experiences we largely ignored, aside from a brief discussion of the impact of the battle on the local Gettysburg environs and people (in the aftermath).

I was pretty blunt. Note that I did not say that I found the experience completely useless – simply that from a women’s history perspective, the staff ride (as it had been conducted) was useless. Sure, I was going for impact with that statement. My main point was that gender was never a category of analysis during the staff ride, despite what I saw as a number of opportunities we had to discuss gender – not to mention the fact that when you’re talking about combat, gender analysis is always a useful tool (in my opinion).

(For example, at the top of the observation tower on Culp’s Hill, there was a brief discussion of soldier motivations – what motivates a soldier to keep moving forward in battle in the face of almost-certain death or bodily harm? Someone suggested that mid-19th century ideals of gentlemanly honor– I forget the exact wording – were reasons behind such motivations. In another example, there were several assigned roles for historical actors where it would have been absolutely fascinating to spend some time analyzing gender relations  and attitudes on the battlefield.)

If I had it to do over again, I’d make the same comment  – although a do-over, I would also have more time to think through my comments and add a little more to it. One of the instructors commented something along the lines of, “wouldn’t it be possible to engage with the absence of women on the battlefield as a topic?” And yes, absolutely – but we didn’t. And the civilian experience was out of the picture until the end, more or less, and was little more than a token mention.

This was probably my vocal high point. I’d also venture to say it’s probably the most memorable of my contributions in the minds of the other fellows.

What I realized by that weekend was that the topic of gender and women in particular made people fairly uncomfortable.

In many ways, I shouldn’t have been surprised to learn this. After all, I’m one of about two or three graduate students in my department who study gender seriously. It’s not like I’ve never encountered hostility to my subject matter before. But after five years in my department, a place where I know every grad student and they all know me fairly well, it’s become a bit of a comfort zone. Sure, I may be the token “where are the women” person (in other people’s words, not mine) – but at my institution, I’ve earned some respect in that position. It’s quite different to find yourself cast as that person in a group where you’re an unknown entity, where everyone brings in their own preconceived notions about various things – including the application of gender as a category of analysis.

I was mostly frustrated and bothered by what I saw as a complete sidestepping of gender as an issue. Obviously, gender – and women’s experiences in particular – is central to my own dissertation project: I tend not to read anything related to my dissertation without applying gender analysis to it – how is it relevant to my dissertation, etc. And that’s how I approached much of the reading for the Summer Seminar.  Perhaps, in part, then, my frustration stems from being unable to understand why anyone would purposely ignore or avoid a methodology that could offer very rich possibilities for historical study.

As I wrote this entry, a really interesting discussion and topic has emerged over at Historiann’s blog regarding methodology. It started as a discussion about a new biography on Betsy Ross, but here’s the part of the post I found most interesting:

As far as I can tell, the most innovative histories of the past decade have been written by historians who leave no archive unvisited, no book unopened, and no legend unexplored.  The promiscuity of possible sources and methods for reading and using them makes history very exciting to read and to write these days.  I don’t get the impression that there are too many historians out there who say, “you can’t do that” any more.  (I could be wrong–but those nay-sayers would be even more wrong, in my opinion.)

I think I may have found what seems to be the fundamental difference between me and a lot of the military historians I encountered at the West Point Seminar. Then again, this may be the difference between me and many graduate students I know. One of the beauties of women’s history as a field, in my opinion, is this very idea of openness towards being “promiscuous” when it comes to sources, of being creative about your approach to history.

I’ve never felt bound by disciplinary lines. My dissertation is predominantly women’s history, but I draw on policy history, military history, labor history – and several other types of history I’m sure I’m leaving out off the top of my head. I can’t write my dissertation effectively if I ignore these approaches. In fact, my dissertation has become only more inclusive of diverse methodologies since I began: I had no intentions, originally, to conduct oral history – and now oral history is highly important to my work.

This, then, is the perspective I brought with me to West Point – the idea that a scholar need not be bound by “fields”. I’m not advocating that we all embrace every methodology willy-nilly just because we can – purpose is certainly important. Yet every generation of historians adds something new to the study of history in both approach and subject matter (at least in theory). Why should we be afraid of embracing new methodologies or ideas when they can be the very things that help us perform better analysis and writer better history?

As I argued in Part II, I believe that this is the very solution that will make military history better and more robust, and give it the means to move into the twenty-first century and beyond. I don’t think that “traditional” military history is entirely dead, but I think it’s as good as dead if practitioners can’t begin to understand the role new approaches, techniques, and previously ignored sources can play in writing military history effectively.

For me, obviously, gender – and women’s history in particular – is one of those new essential approaches. I think that military historians who ignore gender as a category of analysis, whether they deal with operational or social histories of the military, do so at their own peril.

(I could perhaps acknowledge that there may, in fact, be instances when it would not make sense to engage with gender analysis. Operational military history – focusing on events, for example – often leaves little room to consider human experience and influence. Then again, John Keegan handled human experience quite nicely in The Face of Battle.)

At this moment, women comprise more than 14% of the United States military. We have active commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as engagements in other parts of the world. Now, perhaps more than ever, gender is an important issue in the military. The debates over Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell remind us constantly that social ideals about gender roles and expectations – in particular, the notion of who is fit to perform in combat and who is not – are particularly salient issues. (And even further, what does it mean when women are disproportionately discharged under this policy?)

Then, too, there are ongoing discussions of sexual assault in the military – and stories like the Fort Bragg Murders, where military men are suspects in the murders of military women and wives, should raise many questions about gender expectations in the armed forces and the culture that the military fosters in terms of sexual relations.

That doesn’t even mention the issue of sexual assault, which has been a highly public issue since at least the 1991 Tailhook scandal. (For more, see this article and this article.) Or the predominance of servicewomen’s reproductive health issues in the past half year, including General Cucolo’s announcement that pregnant women in the Iraq war zone could face court-martial; the early 2010 shift to provide Plan B contraceptives in military pharmacies worldwide; and ongoing efforts to expand servicewomen’s access to abortion services (for contraceptives and abortion, see this article).

Obviously, these are examples of the state of the current U.S. military and reasons why I think it’s vitally important for the armed forces to take a good, hard look at its history of gender relations, the integration of women, and the role that masculinity plays in creating military culture (yes, I’m looking at that recent McCrystal piece in Rolling Stone and responses to it– but I’d also recommend Christian Appy’s book on working-class soldiers in the Vietnam War, among other similar sources). However, just because I focus on more current issues doesn’t make gender and women’s history irrelevant to military history in older contexts. Rather, I think our new awareness of the relevance of gender relations in military operations should be exactly what leads military historians to rethink their attitudes towards gender history.

It’s been more than 100 years since the United States military first began to admit women to its ranks. In that time, the armed forces have never adequately dealt with gender head-on. We are perhaps more aware now than ever before of the roles that gender and sexuality play in our day-to-day lives, society, and our institutions (such as the military). Why not capitalize on this awareness to ask new questions about the topics and events that have previously only been explored through traditional military history?

From where I’m sitting, I’d say it’s high time to use that power knowledge for good.

3 thoughts on “The Women’s Historian and West Point, Part III: On Being Cast as the Token “Where are the Women?” Person

  1. Thanks for the shout-out, Tonya. While I’m the last person to leave a “Whig of Illusory Progress”-type comment and tell you that your colleagues in the West Point seminar were outliers, I think that there are at least a few younger military historians who agree with you. My book has been reviewed more by military historians than by women’s historians–perhaps because the word “war” precedes rather than follows the word “gender” in my subtitle, so let that be a lesson on the importance of book titles–but they’ve all “gotten” what I was trying to accomplish and they’ve all praised the work and said that it should be read widely and taken seriously by other military historians. I’m gratified that my work is reaching an audience I really wasn’t writing for at all.

    Thanks for sharing some of your experiences in the seminar at my blog. I’ll look forward to catching up with parts I and II. Enjoy the rest of your summer!

  2. Pingback: Women’s historian attends West Point Summer Seminar! (Alert the MPs.) : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

  3. Thanks for sharing this series; I’ve enjoyed it very much. Coming out of a program with a heavy influx of military men (and yes, all our military grad students are men) has made me fairly cynical about their field. That may not be entirely fair, but I’ve seen the way they pass over women’s history, treat it as a pointless exercise, etc. and it truly makes me worried. I study the Civil War (well, technically the sectional crisis during the antebellum period) and I’ve always felt out of place among military historians. In my experience they are starting to become more welcoming of social history at its broadest, but even if they don’t say it in so many words, women’s experiences just don’t matter to them. It’s one thing to not be interested in women’s history on a personal level (we all have our pet projects), but it’s another issue altogether when you act as if that history is superfluous or tangential to the *real* history.

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