It’s been a fun ride for the last four weeks—enormously flattering to be the center of so much smart commentary, a bit nerve-wracking to see how others have construed my words, and occasionally flummoxing to navigate the mostly-new-to-me world of blogging (both “tool” and “troll” sent me straight to google for updated definitions.) I’ve laughed a bit and learned a lot. So first of all, thank you—to Notorious Ph.D., Historiann, Tenured Radical, and Another Damned Medievalist for hosting this blogfest, and to the dozens of you who have responded with insightful comments of your own. I am very, very grateful.
Now, thanks to Notorious Ph.D.’s willingness to host me, it’s my turn. Three topics stand out for me as worth more discussion in this our last week. I hope you’ll agree.
1. THE POLITICS OF FEMINIST HISTORY
To be honest, I was going to let this part of our discussions stand without comment, as I’ve had my say fully enough in History Matters. But John Hope Franklin died this past week and an NPR remembrance had a clip from a 2005 interview in which he said, in the context of African American history, what I think about women’s and gender history. He said, “We have to confront history. We have to face it down, to be certain that it won’t haunt us again.” It’s easy to agree with this statement, isn’t it? Then, why are we so often so uncomfortable with applying the same aspiration—to face down the past so it doesn’t haunt us—in the case of feminist history?
2. MY GENERATION
I’ve been struck by how often our conversations have constructed an age gap between readers (younger) and myself (older). Sometimes this generational divide was adduced to explain my seemingly “retro” arguments; sometimes it seemed a source of tension, as if the critiques in History Matters were especially aimed at younger scholars. This generational divide was something I certainly never intended or, indeed, imagined.
- Not really so old: I’m 58, for the record, not really all that old, especially in a profession in which most of us don’t get going until 30 or so, and many of us now carry on into our 70s. Also, I’m not old enough to have participated in the earliest struggles to establish women’s history in the 1960s and 70s. I came of intellectual age after that beginning, so my professional worldview was formed from a position of awe in relation to older-than-me scholars who had forged the way—scholars such as Gerda Lerner, Linda Gordon, and Alice Kessler-Harris in U.S. History; Joan Scott and Louise Tilly in modern European history; Joan Kelly, Jo Ann McNamara, Susan Mosher Stuard, and Natalie Zemon Davis in medieval and early modern history. These and others were the pioneers; my generation (doing doctorates in the late 1970s) followed in their big footsteps.
- Not grumbling about young'uns: My anxieties about the depoliticization of women’s history long predate the work of scholars now in their 20s, 30s, and 40s. I first noticed the waning of feminist discourse in women’s history in the mid-1980s when I was in my early 30s. I felt too vulnerable to articulate my concerns until tenure, but as soon as I had that brass ring in hand, I fired my first salvo—aimed at the waning feminist content of history being written by historians in my generation and those older. To put this another way, those of you who are in your 20s, 30s, and 40s did not create the problem of waning feminist engagement in women’s and gender history that I first articulated in 1989—it was a pre-existing condition by the time you came on board. I very much regret that anyone can read History Matters as a critique leveled at younger scholars by an older scholar. My hands are not clean; the hands of my generation are not clean; I hope that all of us might acknowledge and cope with the challenges that depoliticization presents.
- Not nostalgic: I have been horrified to realize that History Matters can be read as evoking a golden age of 1970s feminism. I do, indeed, wish we could recover some of the feminist forthrightness of that era, but I have no illusions about either the feminist politics of that decade or the quality of some of the history it produced. I offered caveats on both scores in History Matters, but I must not have offered them sufficiently clearly or emphatically. So, I ask your indulgence and help. If you ever find yourself thinking “Oh, that Judith Bennett, she’s just built her own golden age of feminist history back in the 1970s,” please reread what I said towards the bottom of pages 4 and 65.
- Not divisive: I sought in History Matters to provoke conversation among historians of women and gender. We are, of course, a diverse group, but as I explained on pages 3-4, I believe we should make strategic common cause. In talking together, it is important, of course, to recognize our differences, but it is also important not to let those differences become a reason for dismissal or non-engagement. Yes, indeed, I am older than most people who talk in the blogging world; yes, indeed, my intellectual formation was different from those who went to graduate school in the 1980s or after. But this is just one difference among many (e.g., I’m a lesbian, too, but that seems to have generated no cause for division in our discussion . . .), and in any case, I hope we can speak across such divides, rather than letting them obstruct our conversation.
What do you think? Have I protested too much? Can we indeed put generational issues aside? Am I just hopelessly out-of-touch? Does my inadvertent offense in this regard nevertheless offend?
3. PATRIARCHAL EQUILIBRIUM
If I am ever to contribute something enduringly useful to women’s and gender history, I hope it will be the idea of “patriarchal equilibrium.” Until ADM’s hosting this past week, the term had not, I think, come up at all in postings or comments. I’ve been delighted by the discussion this past week (and also by the discussions at Magistra et Mater), so I thought I might try to move it along a bit more.
To indulge in the weird pleasure of summarizing myself . . . I contend in chapter 4 that a hard look at the past suggests a “dynamically stable” pattern in the story of women’s oppression: lots of small changes, but rarely (perhaps never) a transformation in the status of women vis-à-vis men. This is what I call “patriarchal equilibrium.” I’m a bit hesitant to offer this, but I think a couple of graphic representations might provoke discussion.
What I’m trying to suggest with this graph is that there is lots of dynamic change in women’s status—hence, the constant ups and downs. There are lots of differences too. The different colors—of which there could be many more—represent both different ways of measuring status (legal, economic, political, etc.) and the diverse experiences of different women (considered by race, class, sexuality, marital status, etc.). So, yes, there is change, and yes, there are differences among women too, but there’s also a self-adjusting equilibrium that seems to keep that change and diversity within a set range.
Now, here’s another way to schematize patriarchal equilibrium:
This graph shows a narrower range of movement at any moment. It also shows the possibility of times of substantive change, albeit within a limited range.
I’m not sure which graph might be better to think with . . . maybe both are useful. In any case, I think we need more research to figure if either graph works or if something else would do a better job.
I’m also not sure about the upper and lower limits of a patriarchal equilibrium. In both these schematizations, I’ve shown women’s status ranging from roughly 20 to 80 percent of “full humanity,” but that’s arbitrary. If I had to pick a range right now, I’d likely revert to what I know from wage data—and use a range of roughly 50-80 percent. But it would be madness to base the range on one index alone, and so I’ve opted here for a more expansive one. All told, I think it’s too early to be talking about firm limits, high or low.
So, there’s a lot of uncertainty and arbitrariness here, but I think that the patriarchal equilibrium of History Matters might look something like one of these two graphs, and if so, this graphing might help us to recognize patriarchal equilibrium, study it, and eventually explain it.
[Please don’t over-interpret these graphs. I am a poor artist with an unsteady hand.]
[Also, please note this caveat: Attainment of “full humanity” (by which I mean something like the ability to fully exercise all the potential of the human condition) might be achieved only by men, but it is not achieved by all men. Only men privileged by class, race, sexuality, religion, and the like can enjoy full humanity. I’m not sure how I would graph men’s approach toward full humanity over time, but it would certainly vary by race, class, sexuality, and the like. And there would be some men—such as slaves—whose experiences would fall by some measures within (or even below) the range I’m showing for women.]
In any case, both of these graphs imagine the history of women’s status relative to men as moving differently from schemas that were dominant when I started studying history and are, I think, still dominant today. One of those schemas—linked to liberal feminism specifically and whiggish history generally—sees an upward movement. The other—linked to socialist feminism—sees a downward one. What I’ve graphed here has ideological roots that are closer to radical feminism.
What I’ve graphed here is also dangerous, as it can seem to play into antifeminist arguments that male dominance is “natural” or “right” just because it has always been . . . and therefore that it is rooted either in biological differences (e.g., women must stay in their place because they bear children) or functional imperatives (e.g., societies work best when women stay in their place). I see this continuity differently. I see it was as showing how difficult and challenging—and, indeed, how radical—must be solutions to the problem of women’s oppression.
So. Might these graphs help us talk about patriarchal equilibrium in new and deeper ways?
There we have it! Happy Women's History Month! And (in the immortal words of Maurice Sednak) let the wild rumpus start!