Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The feminists have infiltrated the academy! Run for your lives!!!

[hat-tip to Tenured Radical]  

[NOTE: There is a troll in the comments. Please do not feed him.]

Okay, the Berks is over, but now there appears to be a post-Berks brouhaha. Hard on the heels of Charlotte Allen's dismissal of the medieval history conference at Kalamazoo, we have an anonymous student of Early Modern Britain who derides women's history and its historians as faddish and marginal. [note: link removed, as the author has once again taken down the post and replaced it with another.]

I'd write this person off as the troll s/he is, except that I was witness to a similar questioning of the project of women's history at Kalamazoo (the now-infamous "Isn't women's history too important to be left to women's historians?" guy – yeah, I was there for that), and the two together have brought home to me the fact that women's history is still seen by some as a fluffy distraction from (or at best, ornamental garnish on) the master narrative. So I'm going to respond – not because I think I will get through to this person in particular.  In fact, I hesitated, because feeding the trolls is generally a bad idea.  On the other hand, there may be some young person with an interest in women's history who needs to hear that her experience isn't irrelevant, or worse, "depressing" (see below).  Also, I don't like the idea of anyone taking my silence for consent.  So here goes.

First, since this blogger keeps deleting and re-posting to prevent anyone getting a permanent link, I'll post some representative quotes (though I think both the author and I would agree that the essay is best read in its entirety), style and grammar left intact :

  • "It is difficult to think of anything more depressing than a conference of female historians or more irrelevant to the future of the discipline of history."
  • "None of these figures [participants in a Berks panel on women and the Atlantic World] has ever appeared in any work on early modern history that I have ever read or is likely to figure on any reading list I see."
  • "Women's history like the histories of gender, sexuality and the family is a transient, ephemeral phenomenon."
  • "Intellectual fashions and fear of contemporary interest groups have led to the traditional focus of the subject being fundamentally altered to appease these interests. It is no surprise that it has been followed by demands for the composition of the profession to be altered too."
  • "I hope to see the tide of women's history, gender history and the history of sexuality recede until it is a tiny creek flowing into the broad river of history. Then we shall have them in proper proportion.

This whole essay makes me sad. It's written from a place of profound ignorance, wherein the author argues vociferously against those who would challenge his/her preconceived notions by simply refusing to listen, and flinging accusations of irrelevance. S/he seems upset that women want to be a part of the profession, and even influence the curriculum. I don't fling the word "misogyny" around lightly, but this essay drips with it. But it is our job to educate, so what do we say to this person?

Dear Person:

First, I'm sorry you're depressed.   Really, depression is a bummer, and since women's history is not going away, this means you're likely to feel this way for a long, long time.   That's got to sting.

When I was an undergraduate, I wondered whether a separate discipline of women's history might not be a bad idea. Did it not just further marginalize women by implying that women's history was somehow different from "real history"?

I soon came to realize that women's history is phase one of a two-phase project (Yes, we do have a nefarious plan! Listen up; I'm about to let you in on it!) to rethink what history means. You see, when we consider history to be the story of Great Men (and one or two women) doing Great Deeds, we get only a very narrow slice of history, mostly having to do with warfare, high culture, and politics. But if we consider history to be the study of the human condition, then warfare, high culture, and politics are only a part of the story. When we look at any event from a woman's perspective (or that of some other non-dominant group), we are forced to see things differently. We have to ask different questions. If we take as our starting point the assumption that women were a part of History, then we must reshape our vision of what history is. Ultimately, our approach to the discipline in general becomes richer, as does our sense of who we are as a society, and how we got here.

I can tell from the tone of your essay that I'm not going to convince you in particular. You have determined that we are irrelevant, so irrelevant we shall always be to you. Not to worry -- to borrow a boy-history metaphor, we will soldier on without the benefit of your scholarly cameraderie.  But consider what
you may be missing.


Notorious  Ph.D.
V.P. in charge of marketing
Feminist Plot to Upset the Applecart


Anonymous said...

viva la revolution, baby.

ortho said...

Hi Notorious Ph.D.! Beautiful post!

medieval woman said...

Total schmuck.

The phallic laser lightshow ended back in the 50s, dude.

Or did it?

Dr. S said...

I have just come back from a conference that was refreshingly free of this kind of nonsense, but I would like to point out that it is increasingly astounding to me that the Great Men doing Great Deeds historical narrative could so totally leave out baby-having as a great deed. I realize that reiteration can make something seem less dramatic or historic, but shit, dude. You wouldn't *be* here if a woman hadn't had you. Ease up.

More enlightened thoughts tomorrow, when I'm not just back from a 4 hour train trip on top of a one-day conference.

Anonymous said...

I think Miss Mary has had more than his 15 minutes of fame from his nasty screed. (And, by the way, he commented on stuff he found at historiann.com without linking directly to me! Not very manly.)

Contrary to many of the commenters here and at Tenured Radical, I don't think that people like Miss Mary are very much of a problem. Their nastiness comes from their disgruntlement of their own marginalization. What's more worrisome are the people who bear no particular animus to women's and gender history, but who don't read in the field and don't think they really need to incorporate it into their teaching or writing in any fashion. As an Americanist, I keep thinking about the amazing insights into American history that scholars of slavery and race have given us. Now while not all American historians deal write about race, many of us have written much better books because of the work of scholars in this field. I can't imagine an Americanist standing up publicly to mourn the fact that race now exists as an important sub-field in history. But, if you're just bitching about women's history, then it's all good, apparently.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

H --

i think you're right about the source of the nastiness. This post reminded me of an undergraduate I had in a number of my classes. He had an encyclopediac knowledge of the minutae of military history, and liked to hold forth in my classes. But suggest to him that a recitation of facts was not the same as doing history, and he gave the blankest stare ever. People like this aren't there to learn; they simply want their imagined brilliance confirmed, and dismiss anything that they don't already know as unimportant.

In spite of this, I think it's still worth engaging with the sad ideas, if not the person. I think that the public face of history (see History Channel) tends to promote the views of the Miss Marys out there, and there needs to be another voice. Plus, it's good for me from time to time to think about why I do what I do.

Anonymous said...

It is the poor quality of the work in women's history, in gender history, etc., that is of as much concern as the extravagant empire-building of its advocates. It promised much and delivered very, very little that was new. The only answers here from Historiann and others are abusive. You know the tide is turning, that the fashion for your kind of history is over and that you have had your day.
Frank Sean

AcadeMama said...

Great post! And I agree with the reasons you mention for the need to respond. I face students all the time who've never even thought of the way history is produced and then transmitted to others. Simply getting them to consider this as a point of inquiry is a light bulb moment that produces amazing responses.

Anyone who isn't self-reflexive enough to question the foundation, history, and progress of their discipline, as well as the importance of the contributions made by *all* of its members, isn't worth the paper on which any degree may be printed. If they think otherwise, let them try publishing those oh so intelligent and entirely original attacks on the quality of women's history.

TA said...

Let's be honest. They're upset because they feel like they're losing control and they are. It's no longer the 1950s. The sad part is there are so many people out here who feel this way. Anyway, excellent post.

Belle said...

Well said, Notorious! It is that very change of perception that the dweebs resist, as it threatens their own perception of the place and importance of dominant groups. And the perpetuation of same.

That said, there's lots of evidence that they aren't fading away as fast as they might. Notice that Anon above calls critics abusive. Sigh.

chris said...

I agree that the historical narrative focuses unduly on the actions of a tiny minority of the population, and that this population skews male. I think there are a few reasons for this bias - the amount of primary information available to work with, the subjective interest people have in the deeds of the "great", and the desire of historians to cobble together sensible narratives that tell a coherent story rather than repeat a series of details that leave the reader confused rather than enlightened. Patriarchy being what it is, women get underserved with this approach, but let us not forget they are not the only ones. Children, the poor, immigrants, minorities, and the great mass of people who live unremarkable lives do as well.

Despite being an educated and reasonably interesting person, I don't expect my life will be regarded in anything more than a statistical fashion by future historians. Even as a white male citizen of the self proclaimed greatest nation ever, I fail to merit a footnote. Should I feel emasculated by this?

When one states they are going to focus on women's history, many people will immediately draw assumptions about them, most of them negative. Trolls will appear in their blogs. I think that as far as stereotypes go, this is a fair conclusion - because they've just proclaimed themselves a gender partisan. A person who flies that flag can expect an uphill battle against skeptics who will disagree with whatever they might say before it is even said. The only parties likely to enjoy the resulting discourse are the ones whom most wish would have the sense or courtesy to keep their mouths shut.

My advice would be to change the focus just a little bit, and focus on the history of the marginalized regardless of their gender. There is plenty of space for women's history in that scope, and you might have a chance to get some of it across without having to become uncivil. But in addition to this pragmatic consideration, don't forget that just because the "history of the great" might be dominated by men, the stories untold are not dominated by women. The great are only a tiny sliver of the population, and singling them out doesn't change that the rest of the population that remains evenly divided between the genders.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Thanks, all. By the way, Tenured Radical has done a great job of deconstructing this all over at her place.

@chris, I don't think anyone is disputing that there are other subaltern groups out there who aren't women. But women are the group we focus on.

And just FYI, many feminists will take umbrage at suggestions that they need to moderate their message in the interests of "civility": the consequences of a lack of decorum is a stick with which women have been beaten for quite some time.

AcadeMama said...

Is it me, or does anyone else think the term "great" needs a bit more re-thinking? Talk about skewed methodology from the start...wtf?

Anonymous said...

Chris, a question. Women comprise roughly half of the marginalized groups that you describe, possibly more than half. Do you really think that there is someone out there who will value a book on *all* factory workers in 1880s Cincinnati, male and female, but will simultaneously believe that a book on women factory workers in 1880s Columbus was not worth writing and should be totally ignored? Because your advice pretty much boils down to pandering to such an individual. Who are these people who respect the history of the marginalized in general, but not the history of women?

Anonymous said...

Precisely, Dance. There's a recent post (Saturday 6/14) over at Blogenspiel that talks about how women's historians, as people who *by definition* are attuned to marginalized subjects, tend also to be much better about integrating class, race, sexuality, etc. into their analyses. Dear Chris, please consult the program for the Berkshire Conference 2008, and count which of the 204 sessions dealt only with gender--I bet you can't find too many, because our sessions were *also* about the history of childhood, poverty, class, slavery, labor and working-class people, GLBTQ history, disability history, etc. And, I'm pleased to say that that's more typical than exceptional, and it has been for at least 20 years.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

I think it's pretty neat that my commentariat is usually smarter and more eloquent than I am. Good points, folks. I'm taking notes. I see a patronizing tone, and my critical faculties shut down.

Anonymous said...

Well, when it's a "guest" in your "living room," you may feel more inclined to politeness. (I know I do--and also that because of it, I've tolerated abusive "guests" for much longer than I should have.) But today--I banned someone before he could write a second o/t weird post, and it felt GREAT!

Chris was on topic and earnest, but I just think 1) he doesn't really know much about women's history, and yet 2) that doesn't seem to be a hindrance when pronouncing on the topic. (See NKOTH's comments over on my blog, for more gossip from the Kalamazoo panels honoring Sue Stuard!)

chris said...

Historiann was correct in the assessment of my lack of history expertise. I didn't realize this discussion was focused on specialists, I thought the scope broader. Please accept my apologies for jumping into shop talk with limited information. Points taken, best wishes all.

The History Enthusiast said...

Well said Notorious!

Belle said...

Chris, don't feel ostracized. Many of Notorious' readers are academics and we tend to be feminists (and a few are historians) so we write that way. I think your post is thoughtful and a valuable contribution.

And I'm pretty sure you don't qualify as trollish ;-)

Anonymous said...

The truth is that, far from being depressed, I have not had so much fun in ages as one feminist after another has reached for her shotgun only to wound herself in the foot. For the world about which you and your sisters are complaining is one that your mothers, grandmothers and greatgrandmothers have made just as much as your male ancestors. It is all too easy to set oneself up as the advocate for one alledgedly oppressed group after another and to blame "men" or "the ruling class" or the "capitalists" and so on for what you perceive to be wrong with this world. This kind of approach just will not wash in history or elsewhere. It involves a failure to recognise that the world cannot be made better by redistributing responsibility for its ills onto the male half of humanity. Very little original work and exceedingly few discoveries have been made by feminist historians as anyone of sense could have predicted over forty years ago. I am sorry that stating this obvious truth upsets you but I am perfectly happy to do so. Perhaps I may be allowed to lend you some cheerfulness. I am your unrepentant servant,

Notorious Ph.D. said...

NOTE: I leave the previous comment up as the very definition of "troll." If anyone else feels that this combination of pompous style and ignorant content is cute, please let this serve as a warning: such comments will henceforth be deleted without delay.

Anonymous said...

Those who criticise others so freely must expect criticism themselves.

Anonymous said...

robinson is not a troll