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.


I’d hoped to post Part III of my West Point series (Parts I and II here, respectively) today, but it’s not quite ready for public consumption. Unpacking this experience in blog form has been incredibly good for me in a lot of ways, so I think it makes sense for me to give Part III – some more specific reflections on being a women’s historian at the seminar – a little more breathing space.

Watch for Part III this week – hopefully Tuesday, but maybe as late as Wednesday.


The Women’s Historian and West Point, Part II: What I Learned About the Field of Military History

(Click here for Part I: Introducing the 2010 Summer Seminar in Military History)

I didn’t acknowledge my proximity to the field of military history until perhaps a year ago. This may seem very strange or shortsighted – after all, I’m writing a dissertation about women in the military. My brief explanation is that I’ve been trained primarily as a social historian. More particularly – as I’ll discuss in Part III of this series – I’m a women’s historian. As I’ve hinted at, there are a number of ways and reasons why women’s history and military history don’t always seem to go together.

So although I study members of the military, I’ve long been acutely aware that what I do is distinct from what I understood to be “military history”. I don’t deal with combatants. I can’t really tell you much about weapons. When I stepped into the Summer Seminar for the first day of classes, I had no idea what the Battle of Agincourt was or why everyone seemed to think it was important. Although I grew up visiting battlefields – three-plus hours at Little Bighorn, for example – tracking troop movements and battle positions was always the hum-drum part of history for me.

The levels of war – strategy, operations, tactics –have always been a central element of military history. It’s a very old field, particularly in comparison to social history. (In the Center of Military History’s A Guide to the Study and Use of Military History, for example, Colonel Thomas Griess dates military history’s origins as a field to at least the early 1800s, beginning with Jomini and Clausewitz (page 27).) The question of how an army fights and wins both battles and wars, and close interrogations of the great men who led those armies – these have long been the dominant areas of analysis for military historians.

These are the things we seem to think of most often when people talk about “military history.” And if you’ve seen some of the articles in the past couple of years, those on the fringes and outside of military history would tell you that military history is a dying field. (For example, in 2006 “Sounding Taps: Why Military History is Being Retired” and in 2009, “Great Caesar’s Ghost! Are Traditional History Courses Vanishing?”. Last November, Historically Speaking ran a forum with several prominent military historians, including Brian Linn, Dennis Showalter, and Robert Citino, all of whom I had the opportunity to hear at West Point last month. Articles available via Project Muse; limited access.)

The problem is that traditional military history is often perceived to be increasingly out of step with the field of history as a whole, at least since the social turn of the 1960s. At least, that tends to be the perspective of non-military historians looking in. That was also the perspective I had walking in to West Point. For my own part, I’ve gotten mixed perspectives from faculty about what my relationship to military history should or should not be.

But it’s not just about traditional military history anymore. These days, there’s also “new military history” – sometimes referred to as “war and society,” a phrase I don’t like for a couple of reasons. Technically, this is where I fall in the realm of military history, because new military history is all about things like the social composition of militaries, civil-military relations, relationships between people in militaries, and so on.

The social turn of history added new possibilities, then, for the field of military history – at least as I see it. What seems to have happened instead is that an intense battle emerged. On the one side, military historians who eschewed the idea of applying social history to military history became perceived as increasingly outdated and irrelevant (hence the articles on the state of the field in recent years). On the other hand, those who wanted to embrace new categories of analysis – like gender – ran the risk of becoming the black sheep in the military history world. Or perhaps just feeling like they’re the black sheep.

In my three weeks at West Point, I felt like I was surrounded by more traditional military history folks than new military history folks. “War and society” seemed, at least early on, to be little more than dirty words. (As one friend and former fellow put it, traditional military historians sometimes seem to think the “society” aspect of “war and society” has sidelined military history too much, which may be why the apparent.)

What I’m beginning to believe more and more is that military history is at a crucial juncture. From where I’m sitting, new military history holds the most promise for the field. Where it was once simply enough to look at levels of war and leadership and command, I don’t think that approach is adequate anymore.

Is the traditional approach to military history outdated and passé? Although it’s not my preferred way of doing military history, I’d say no. There’s still a place for traditional military history – although it may well be that these days, that sort of history is best left to the service academies, ROTC, and the armed forces as a whole. The traditional topics of levels of war, weapons, battles, and military leaders make sense as subjects for those participating directly in the nation’s defense.

Outside of the military, I think it can still be useful to convey many of these ideas and principles to the average college student. The staff rides I went on really helped me understand battles like Antietam and Gettysburg much better than I ever did: there’s a real difference between that sort of hands-on approach and looking at a map with arrows and reading a dry account of General So-and-So moving his left flank to position X. Sure, staff rides aren’t always possible – it helps if you actually live near a battlefield, of course. But the principle of engaging students in the details of a battle, as opposed to simply assigning 45 pages of reading – that’s one of the big takeaways for me. Military historians have an amazing potential to help battlefield history come to life (assuming they choose to use their powers for good, of course).

Perhaps even more importantly, there are ways that military historians think that could be very valuable to the rest of us. The type of analysis and thought processes that go into traditional military history were a very different experience for me, and I think it can be incredibly useful to learn to think and approach problems in new ways.

My own personal opinion, though, is that military history is much richer when it is not limited to the battlefield. New military history – this idea of thinking about the people, at all levels; of moving beyond combat and weapons; and so on –is where I see the most possibility and promise for military history as a field. While my second-year ROTC undergrad may be thrilled to talk about tactics, operation, and strategy, the future veterinarian will want to know why and how any of that has relevance beyond the classroom. My opinion is that, far from dying out or becoming irrelevant, military history should make the most of these newer analytical possibilities and discover where it could go next.

As much as I believe that this blending of new with old is the way to go, it’s an uphill road. There seemed to be little room to maneuver outside of traditional military history at the Summer Seminar.  My ultimate feeling by June 23rd was that to be someone who studies women within the military – someone who engages with questions about not just women, but also gender and the military – marks me as a person apart.

While the US military has moved towards understanding its military force much more thoroughly in the last 60-70 years, it has still only taken baby steps in some way. If the “war and society” aspect of military history is young in comparison with military history as a larger field, then adding gendered analysis to understanding the military is an even younger proposition. (as evidenced partially by the still-quite-small literature set on women in the military.)

What, then, do I do with all of this knowledge and perspective on the field of military history and my relationship to it? I’m still thinking about that, but check back Monday for my thoughts on being cast as the token gender studies person.