Thinking about women’s history

Here’s what I want to know: why are people so afraid/skeptical/hesitant of women’s history?

Since West Point last June, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this question. The things I heard from people at West Point in regards to both women’s history and gender analysis were a little surprising to me at the time. It wasn’t so much that I’d never heard such opposition or distaste – it was that I’d never heard it articulated so strongly.

As a women’s historian, I’m a minority amongst the grad students in my department. For several years, I was the only person studying the subject. Now, we have a few more people with that interest, but for the most part, my experience of grad school has been that I was the solo person in many classes and workshops(not all of them) asking about women’s history and gender analysis.

Nearly 3 years ago, historian Alice Kessler-Harris wrote a piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education entitled “Do we still need women’s history?” (Note: it’s behind a paywall, but if you’re affiliated with a university or college, you can probably access it through your institution’s library as I did.)

What I love about the piece is that she considers the history of women’s history and how it’s changed over the years, then specifically deals with the shift towards gender (rather than women’s history) that began in the 1990s. As one of the first generation of women’s historians in the 1960s-1970s, Kessler-Harris wrote, she and others liked her hoped their work would enrich the historical field. “By illuminating the lives of women, we would enable the historical profession to see more deeply into the psychic and social arrangements that undergirded political decision making and economic and cultural organization.”

But when gender took center stage in the 1990s, Kessler-Harris notes that many women’s historians worried about the effect on women’s history. Studying gender is valuable, Kessler-Harris says – and I agree: it’s about looking at relational systems between men and women and how those shape society, culture, economics, etc. Gender analysis is incredibly important for understanding these things (hence why I’m such a fan of it in military history…). Gender history has gotten us looking at constructions of masculinity and more nuanced analysis of the relationships between men and women and how gendered ideas permeate everything.

And yet, gender history is not necessarily women’s history. In some senses, insistence on gender history over women’s history once again obscures the specific experiences of women and women’s roles in shaping history. Kessler-Harris has a lot to say about how gender history is problematic because it “masks a continuing hostility to the notion” of, essentially, women’s history – more than I can include here. I particularly like the final sentence in her paragraph on gender history vs. women’s history: “Unless gender history challenges the normative view of the world through the eyes of men, unless it continues to build on a growing knowledge of how women thought and acted, it could kill the goose that laid the golden egg.”

I study women’s history for many reasons, including first of all the fact that I’m simply fascinated by the general subject and the possibilities for historical analysis that I see within it. But more than that, I think that women’s history offers a way to look at different types of evidence, ask new questions, and uncover important information and ways of thinking that we do not get through gender analysis alone or through ignoring women’s history altogether. History often looks different when we examine it from women’s perspectives, and those perspectives, in my opinion and experience, can lead historians to understand history in new ways and form new questions and opportunities for study.

At the end of the day, maybe you’ll still be skeptical of what I study because your perception of women’s historians is that they’re all feminists with an agenda that you may or may not like. From where I’m sitting, however, women’s history – like studies of race, empire/imperialism, military history, and so on – is an essential, worthwhile avenue of historical inquiry. I don’t know a single American historian who wouldn’t advocate the importance of race in their research and teaching, yet women’s history gives more scholars pause.

So why all the hostility/skepticism/hesitancy over women’s history? Is it because people still hear “women’s history” and think “feminists!”? Once upon a time, women’s history was a feminist project, but as Historiann pointed out this summer, that correlation no longer necessarily applies: “For the past twenty years, we’ve seen a complex de-coupling going on between women’s history and feminism.”

Of course, if that correlation is part of the problem, that raises the question of why feminism seems like a scary prospect to many. Personally, I suspect that there is some correlation, some cultural assumption of what feminism is and why many Americans seem to fear it. But at the end of the day, I have no answers. Only the basic question.

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8 thoughts on “Thinking about women’s history

  1. I’ve got two theories. First, I think that too few people are exposed, in graduate school, to women’s history as a series of methods: different kinds of sources, different ways of looking at them, different approaches to problems of source scarcity than you’d find in other subfields. Even if one isn’t interested in women’s lives (for whatever reason), I think a lot of graduate students could learn a lot from being told to start their research on X by first reading the writings of women (or African-Americans, or any other non-dominant group). But I don’t get the sense that graduate-level history research is usually taught that way.

    Another possibility: I think that “women’s history” by that name often gets lumped in (by nonspecialists) with various now-unpopular forms of identity politics (and possibly particularly with the separatist movements of the 1970s). Unless one trains with someone who’s learned women’s-history methods, I think it could be particularly easy to stereotype the subfield in ways that don’t do justice to its intellectual diversity.

    • Shane, that all makes a lot of sense. I agree: I don’t think most think of women’s history as a method, which is a shame, and I think the point about women’s history as identity politics is spot on. This is useful to think about, particularly as I look towards teaching my own courses and how I’ll introduce undergrads to women’s history as methodology.

  2. Great post, Tonya. I’m sorry that you feel like such an embattled minority–more than 40+ years after the birth of women’s history. (There are other departments in which women’s history isn’t so marginal.) It seems like women’s history was and is and perhaps will always remain a marginalized field within the American historical profession as a whole, and in that it’s much like the way the larger culture treats feminism: for a while they’re hostile and claim “it goes too far,” then they lecture us that we’re doing it wrong, and then they tell us it’s already been done so why bother now? Never at any point does the larger establishment admit that women’s history or feminism is legitimate, let alone necessary or beneficial to the profession or to the body politic.

    I think the reason many–most?–American historians keep women’s history at arm’s length is due to the fact that feminism is never seen as a human rights movement the way that Civil Rights and now I think gay rights are. Feminism is always portrayed as special pleading, a selfish pursuit. Apparently, we need d00dz for there to be a legitimate liberation movement.

    After all, for a while there was a lot of resistance to African American history, but now the history of race is accepted as a central theme in American history and the majority of historians of slavery and African Americans are white men. Antislavery and Civil Rights are causes that the men can get behind unequivocally. Although these fields were founded around the same time, the trajectory of women’s history has been rather different. For example, the vast majority of women’s historians are still women historians, and no textbook (in my view) has incorporated women’s and gender history into the DNA of its analytical perspective the way some have built their analyses around race.

    Many of us who threw ourselves into gender in the 1990s thought that like the analytical perspective of race, it might be our way of rewriting the standard narratives. But as Kessler-Harris pointed out, it just became a way for people to get credit for talking about gender without including any of the experiences or perspectives of women. Fool me once–won’t get fooled again, as the great Sage of Crawford once said!

    • Last summer, I felt like an embattled minority, but those were partially the circumstances and the group (if any of my former West Point cohorts read this, I’d also note I have great respect for all of them and think they’re great people – just that they could be a bit more open-minded in some areas). I’ll also admit that last summer was what led me to reflect back on my own experiences in my department. Fortunately, I know enough people outside my department who work in women’s history and sexuality studies and gender history – that’s been great to have. And all in all, I think I’ve gained respect from most of my department colleagues over the years. They may not agree with me, and at times I get frustrated with their responses to questions of women’s history and gender analysis (that I raise), but they’re a good group.

      I like your point about how feminism is never seen as a human rights issue in the ways that Civil Rights and gay rights are – this is a really interesting distinction, and something for me to think about. Thank you!

  3. Feminism: a doctrine that advocates equal rights for women

    I think that by claiming that women’s history is not feminist is to do it a disservice. I think that more people need to embrace the fact that they are feminists in order to decouple it from the political pejorative it has all-too-often become in our society.

    While I agree that women’s history has its own methods, and that many historians would benefit from using the sources and methods it has developed over the years, I also think that women’s history needs to broaden the definition of who is ‘doing it’. Work that brings in gender to complicate stories, but doesn’t exclusively focus on women can still tell the story of women and their history. I think the historiography, reactionary by necessity and design in its early years, needs to mature and expand its definitions as the academy is not in danger of throwing out women or women’s history anytime soon (though I am sure there are still some individual reactionaries out there). Embrace a simple definition of feminism and good scholarship will result!

    • I agree with you on your definition of feminism, John, but in my experience, that’s not the definition a lot of people share. as you suggest. In my personal life, the term “feminist” makes many people I know uncomfortable. As an instructor, my students have voiced discomfort with the term (especially men). My sense is that there’s a rather heavy cultural connection between feminism, bra burning, and man hating – IE, people don’t speak in general of the women’s movement in the 1970s, but of the women’s liberation movement, and the impressions people have of “women’s lib” seem fairly negative.

      So – I agree: people DO need to embrace the fact that they are feminists, rather than create and perpetuate antagonism against feminism.

      I also agree that gender can still tell the story of women and their history. What’s problematic, though, is when gender history becomes an excuse for NOT looking at women’s history. I know fabulous scholars who have told me that they like gender history, but distrust/aren’t fond of women’s history. This to me is strange, as I don’t think you can have one without the other. Is it a question of “fairness”? Is it a sense that “gender analysis” is more equitable? I don’t know, but I think it’s interesting to think about.

      • Tonya–don’t you get it? Girls are ICKY and have COOTIES!

        I’d like John to explain what he means when he says that women’s history “needs to mature and expand its definitions.” Then immediately thereafter, he says we need to “[e]mbrace a simple definition of feminism.” So which is it? The expansion and complexity of women’s history today, which I describe in the post Tonya linked to here, or a “simple definition?”

        I guess what I’m trying to suggest here is that 218 years after the invention of feminism, if people don’t understand it’s about women’s and men’s equality and therefore a vital social justice movement in the tradition of the liberal state, then they’re willfully distorting feminism and defining it to suit their own prejudices.

  4. @historiann, I think it is both. More scholars need to embrace a definition of feminism as a foundational part of their work. I completely agree with you that it is a social justice movement, but one that has been hijacked on its way by people trying to discredit it (through the ‘radical femi-nazi’ style, bra-burning rhetoric) and has lost much of its salience. However, dealing in my own work with both ideas of gender and women’s history as part of my larger story, I do not feel a lot of support for doing ‘women’s history’ since it is not the number one focus of the work. Just because it is not the prime unit of analysis does not mean it is not there (my work is primarily on conceptions of nationalism in 20th century Africa, btw). That is what I was trying to get at with the call for women’s history to broaden its acceptance. And I think that by embracing a definition of feminism that is simple, it allows many more voices to come under the umbrella of ‘women’s history’.

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