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.