Sunday, March 29, 2009

History Matters: The Grand Finale (A Guest Post by Judith Bennett)

Thanks to all commenters and fellow bloggers for making the month of posts on Judith Bennett's History Matters such a success. I think we've had some productive and interesting discussions. As many of you have gathered, the author has been following the discussion, and has written up some reflections, and points for further discussion (and lookee! graphs!), which I've posted below. So read on, and join in the conversation! --NPhD

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.

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?

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.
When all is said and done, though, I have to accept that History Matters has struck some of you as suggesting that my generation had a purer feminism or a more feminist approach to history than those who have come after. This is precisely counter to my hopes for the book, because more than anything else, I want the book to engage younger scholars. After all, the future of women’s and gender history is in their (your?) hands. I regret profoundly the book’s deficiencies in this regard, and I apologize for them. Believe me, these were unintentional and unwanted.

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?

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.

Here goes:
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!

A veritable potpourri of updates and reminders

  • I am on spring break, and will be spending it at a conference, a memorial service, and visiting friends in Grad School Town. I'm leaving Monday, and staying the full week.
  • Sadly, I'm going to be doing this all while sick, though fortunately not as sick as Historiann, Tenured Radical, and practically everyone at the OAH got. Just a run-of-the-mill cold/flu that seems to be following its natural course. At this point (day four) I am segueing from upper respiratory (everything blocked and disgusting) to lower respiratory (chest pressure/dry cough). The cough portion always seems to last the longest with me, but at least I won't be flying with my head all stuffed up (though I'm sure I'll be getting some dirty looks from my fellow travelers when my hacking cough alerts them to their proximity to a plague vector).
  • Don't forget to stop back here tomorrow for our final installment of the History Matters series, where Judith Bennett pops by with a guest post, reflecting on some of the issues raised in our ongoing discussion, and adding new discussion fodder of her own. Not to be missed!
  • Medieval Woman has posted plans for the k'zoo blogger meetup. Head on over to her place, get the info, and RSVP.
  • I've very nearly finished my latest unassigned reading, Laura Miller's The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia. Miller was co-founder of, and has written what I feel to be a nice reflection on the books, their author, their many contexts, and their meanings to those who read them. I'm going to revisit this in future posts.
  • This is my 20th post for the month, officially making this month my most-posted since starting this blog. I said back then, in my first post, that I would try to post something every day. Note to prospective bloggers out there: this is a dumb thing to say.

Friday, March 27, 2009

The Body Knows, Somehow

Last fall, when I was scrambling to get the book done, there was a horrendous flu going around the department. For the two weeks leading up to all my deadlines, I held my breath (metaphorically, mind you), and my mantra was: I will not get sick. I will not get sick. I don't have time to be sick. Sure enough, I got the book MS off (Tuesday), the tenure file submitted (Thursday), and a conference paper delivered (Friday). Saturday, however, the first day that I had everything done, I got sick as a dog for about a week.

And now, here it is, the first day of spring break after a grueling month, and guess what?

Yep: Sick as a dog. Again. Somehow, my body seems to know when the crisis is over, and it waits patiently for me to have time to be done in. I suppose I should be grateful, but I have to travel for a week, beginning Monday. So I'm pushing fluids, eating oranges, taking zinc lozenges, and sleeping as much as possible, because I do not want to fly with a stuffed-up head.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

A confluence of unfortunate circumstances

Circumstance one: Morning class is in a classroom in the center of a building, so no windows, and all doors give on to one of two high-traffic hallways.

Circumstance two: Today was one of many days that that building's erratic climate control system was heating the room to about 76 degrees.

Circumstance three: Today I gave a midterm in morning class, meaning that opening the doors to get (limited) cross-ventilation was impractical, due to distracting hallway noise.

Circumstance four: Pre-spring break stress/lack of sleep/apathy has apparently led some of my students to pay less attention than usual to personal hygiene.

Circumstance five: My morning class is 85% male, mostly in their very early twenties.

Result: Well, you can guess.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

End of the Idyll

No, not spring break -- I still have a week to go before I get to that.

No, here's what it is: for the past hours, I've been caught up on my grading. In two and a half hours, that's all going to change, as a small wave of papers comes in.

Then a stack of bluebooks three hours later.

Then bluebooks again 45 hours after that.

Then 72 hours more to (hopefully) finish it all before spring break actually does begin.

I know this is hardly a unique story (my friend M. told me she just received one hundred and thirty-five three-page papers!), but right now, it seems overwhelming, and I'm having trouble packing up my stuff to leave for work, because I know what's waiting for me once I get there.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Teaching Bennett: Continuity and its Discontents

Hey everyone! Another Damned Medievalist has posted the fourth part of our roundtable discussion on Judith Bennett's History Matters. ADM sums up the discussion very nicely, then focuses some special attention on the pros and cons of teaching women's historical experience as a story of continuity, coming at it from the perspective of undergraduate teaching. Also, for those of you who enjoyed the discussion on Bennett's concept of "lesbian-like" women over at Tenured Radical (and I'd like to point out an interesting dissent on this from someone who studies women's monasticism), ADM gives her perspective on this.

And don't forget to come back right here next week for a special guest post by the author herself!

Sunday, March 22, 2009

To Facebook, or not to Facebook?

Over at Prone to Laughter, Dance has a post about Facebook and its discontents -- specifically, on professors' concerns about keeping up boundaries between personal networking and professional life.

I've had a couple of non-academic friends badgering me to get on the bus, and I've been figuring that sooner or later I'd have to surrender to the inevitable. I've been toying with the idea of doing it over spring break. But I've been reluctant, for two reasons: first, the aforementioned concerns about boundaries, and second, the time-suck potential. So I'd like to solicit opinions out there. What have been your experiences? On the whole, a good thing or a bad thing? Or perhaps a necessary evil? How do you get the benefits without paying too many of the costs?

Friday, March 20, 2009

On Presentations

This past three weeks, I've taken part in three research presentations: one my own, and two others'. I'm not sure how my own went -- I never am. The only indication that it went fairly well was that people had plenty of questions, and none of them were along the lines of: "Well, you have some really interesting stories there, but..." The worst thing is when there are no questions. Then I know that I either a) lost them, or b) bored them. Neither of these is a good thing.

But on to the two other presentations. One (a presenter I invited) went really well, in my opinion. The other (an instructor in our own institution) did not. So, though most of my readers are probably well-practiced in making presentations, I thought I'd offer some observations on what went well and what did not.

1. Know your time limit, and stick to it. When I asked my guest presenter how long s/he'd be speaking for (in a one-hour time slot), s/he said "about 38 minutes." And damned if it wasn't precisely that long. This left plenty of time for questions from the audience. Presenter two, on the other hand, spoke for an hour and ten minutes in a series (one that s/he'd attended before) where speakers routinely speak for 35-50 minutes, leaving the rest of the time for questions. And said speaker only finished three-fourths of the material s/he had outlined.

2. Don't try to cram in more information than you can do justice to. Both speakers were presenting materials from much larger projects (dissertations in both cases, I think). Speaker one spent a bit of time on general background for a non-specialist audience, briefly outlined the larger project and its goals, then spent the bulk of the time on one discrete part of it. Speaker two appeared to be trying to present the entire larger work in capsule form. In the former case, the audience learned one thing, and learned it well; in the latter, we got little tidbits of a lot of things, but no real depth.

3. Define your question near the beginning of the talk, so your audience knows what to focus on as they listen. We were 15 minutes into speaker two's talk before I even really understood the topic, and at the end, I still didn't know what the central question was, much less the argument.

4. Anecdotes do not a talk make. Interesting anecdotes are great -- even essential to holding your audience's attention -- but they need to clearly serve a point. Speaker one did a great job with this, moving smoothly back and forth between introducing a point for analysis, presenting the evidence (stories from the documents), and analysis; speaker two just piled on the anecdotes. Many were interesting, and they got our attention, but if they were supposed to add up to something, we had no idea what it was supposed to be.

I think I may be getting cranky in my near-middle-age, handing out unsolicited advice like this, but perhaps it's of interest. If it saves one audience from a poorly-constructed talk, I'll be happy. And perhaps I'll even revisit this post the next time I have to give a talk, just to remind myself.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

My Dirty Little Secret

Yesterday's post on what not to do in graduate school applications got me reflecting on my own time as a grad school applicant, and my reasons for doing so. When reading applications, we like to see evidence of genuine and reasonably focused intellectual curiosity. "I love literature/history/learning about other cultures" alone just won't cut it. "I want to be a professor" is probably going to come up, but as a primary reason, it sends up red flags.

When I applied to grad school, I really did have an interest in learning more about what seemed to me a neglected corner of my discipline. But that was an underlying reason, not a proximate one, and the time has come, in the spirit of full disclosure, to admit what finally flipped the switch for me and prompted me to start madly researching grad programs (in October!) and sign up for the GRE:

1. Bad breakup that caused me to need a plausible reason to flee town as soon as possible so as not to fall into deep depression (or obsession -- I was in my early twenties, after all) over the ex.

2. Spite. (Did I mention that the ex in question had an advanced degree in my chosen discipline?)

In precisely that order. "Intellectual curiosity" was third, with "I miss talking about ideas" bringing up fourth place.

Fortunately, I found once I got to grad school that I loved it, and had some talent for it. But I definitely went to grad school for all the wrong reasons.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Things NOT To Do in Your Graduate Application

It's that time of year again. Here at Urban University, we have more applications than ever, probably due to the down economy. But proportionally speaking, it's the usual mix of the good, the so-so, and the cringe-inducingly awful. I tend to think that most of the worst mistakes (other than basic grammar and spelling -- come on, people!) are born out of ignorance, rather than stupidity. So, as a service, I present a list of grad school application "don'ts." Sure, it's too late for this year, but perhaps next year will work out better.

When assembling your application, DO NOT, under any circumstances…

  • ...include letters of recommendation from your restaurant manager, coach, or volunteer coordinator (unless, of course, you're going for a degree in hospitality, physical education, or social work). We don't need character references; we want to know if you can do the particular work in the discipline for which you've applied. That usually means that all your references should be from professors, and most of these should be in that chosen field or a closely related one.
  • ...give as one of your primary reasons for coming to our (middling) program the fact that the school (not even the department!) has a decent ranking in US News & World Report survey.
  • ...give as another primary reason the fact that our classes are held at convenient times.
  • ...apply to work in a field for which we have no faculty coverage whatsoever. I'm not talking about you wanting to work on colonial Peru and we only have someone working on colonial Bolivia. I'm talking about something like expressing a desire to work on the pre-exilic Hebrews when the department's one ancient historian specializes in the Augustan age of Rome. Perhaps there was a sliver of an excuse for this back 10+ years ago when you had to go to the library and get microfiche of school catalogs to figure out who worked where, but no more.
  • ...spend more than a sentence in your statement talking about your hard-luck circumstances, unless it's directly relevant ("My long rehabilitation after the accident prompted questions that led me into the field of disability studies" = OK). If your letter writers want to talk about how you got those Dean's List grades while working to support yourself and your two orphaned siblings, fine. I'll be impressed. But your job is to present yourself as a professional.
  • ...turn in a statement of purpose without having a professor go over it. Chances are that you don't understand the genre. Nobody does the first time. Get an insider's opinion so that you don't unintentionally offend anyone, look uninformed, or come off like a pompous jackass. Maybe you're not any of those things, but if your statement makes me never, ever want to meet you, then I'll never, ever know.

Other suggestions?

UPDATE: So many people have been interested in this that I thought I'd also link to this post from over at Historiann's last December, tackling the same topic. Between the two of us (and our commenters), you should have a nice set of cautionary examples.

Why My Electric Bill is So Low

This morning, I wrote the electric company a check for $10.91. That's shockingly low, even by my 520-square-foot apartment standards.

And then I realized: this semester, I'm rarely home. Really: up on campus 6 days a week, 2 of them for 12-13 hours. I should just save myself the rent and set up a cot in my office.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Judith Bennett, Radical Style (and a bonus!)

Hey all!

Sorry I've been a bit late out of the gate getting the toss posted (crazy day here at Urban U!), but for those of you who haven't already, get yer bad selves over to Tenured Radical's place for the third in our series of posts on Judith Bennett's History Matters. For those of you who have been clamoring for one of us to pay some attention to Bennett's "L-Word" chapter (and the concept of "lesbian-like"), TR has it all.


...I'm pleased to announce that the fifth week in our four-part series will take place right back here, with a guest blogger who is Not To Be Missed. Stay tuned...

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Kalamazoo meetup plans (or, Is it really almost May again?)

A message to all the medievalist bloggers who stop by here: Medieval Woman has gotten out ahead of the game and taken on the responsibility of organizing the next blogger meetup at K'zoo. So, if you're a medievalist, you've got a blog, and you're going to be at the Medieval Jamboree, then stop by her place and make yourself known!

Friday, March 13, 2009

On Schadenfreude

At Urban University, there is a certain administrative professional who has, in the past, made the lives of faculty and other staff in his/her administrative unit miserable. S/he is not someone that any of us have to deal with on a daily basis, or even every semester, but there are certain Important Things for which s/he is the only person empowered to process the paperwork. S/he has reconstrued his/her role to be that of a gatekeeper, telling faculty not to waste his/her time by submitting the petitions (for want of a better generic word) that are his/her job to process, and has badmouthed faculty who persisted to their colleagues. S/he has reduced a junior associate in his/her office to tears, through constant abuse.

And last week, it came out that this person was "reassigned", apparently against his/her will. I add this last part because rumor has it that news the reassignment was delivered without warning, and accompanied by the presence of two campus police officers.

It is unseemly how happy I am about this, and I feel a little guilty for feeling this way.

But only a little.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Come hell or high water

This will be the weekend that I get caught up on my grading and class prep.


Monday, March 9, 2009

Part II: The Distant Past

Hey, all! Part II of our History Matters blogging roundtable is up! Historiann picks up some of the dropped threads of the discussion from last week, but focuses her attention on Bennett's call for the usefulness (or essentiality!) of the distant past for women's historians and feminists alike.

Plus, she calls Lawrence Stone a tool.

Party over at Historiann's place!

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Some really great news, and a reminder

First, the really great news: good friend and fellow medievalist Clio's Disciple just landed a tenure-track job! So head on over and give her your congratulations, and bits of random advice (the latter of which she solicits in this later post).

Second, the reminder: Installment two of our History Matters roundtable will be taking place tomorrow (Monday) over at Historiann's place. So do check it out. I'll be there with the jello salad.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

It takes all kinds

...and sometimes all kinds at once.

Today (Saturday) on the campus of Urban University, the following events are taking place:
  • a powwow
  • a debate tournament
  • an interchapter meeting of a gay fraternity
  • something involving the marines
Tomorrow, I swear I won't leave home without my camera.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Oh please, not again.

As if this week weren't going crappily enough... my evil throat infection from exactly one year ago seems to have made a return.

Fortunately, this time I recognize the early symptoms, so I'm going to go to the doctor tomorrow and beg for antibiotics. One encounter with an otolaryngologist is enough for me.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

In Memoriam

I've held off on this for a day because I wanted to give the last post time on the front page, but no longer, please.

Late two nights ago, or perhaps early in the morning, fellow medievalist scholar June Mecham passed away from a long illness, far too young, and far too soon for those of us who knew her.

June earned her Ph.D. only a few years ago, so was a relative newcomer on the scholarly scene. Still, even in that short time, her work on the material culture and performative piety of nuns earned her the respect of eminent scholars in her field.

But that's June's CV, not June herself. Those of us who knew her were blessed by a genuinely kind, warm, and loving friend. She always seemed to have a positive outlook on life, and was always willing to help others. She was the kind of person who you expected to rescue kittens, but she also was the only person I knew who knew what a Jake Brake was. Her work may have inspired us to be better scholars, but her open and genuine personality, devoid of the egoism that often seeps into the academic life, inspired us to be better whole people. Our lives are better for having had her in them, even if it was too short a time.

My love and thoughts are with her husband and daughter.

I will miss her.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Should politics be historical? Should history be political?

(First installment of the March History Matters bloggers' roundtable. Click on the following links for part 2 [Historiann], part 3 [Tenured Radical] and part 4 [Blogenspiel].)

While rereading Judith Bennett's History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism this past week, I found myself thinking about an incident about four years ago, when I was involved in a mildly serious bicycle accident about a quarter of a mile from my home. I remember seeing my front wheel connect with the car door that had opened into my path, then the next thing I remember I was sitting up on the curb in the middle of a conversation with people who had gathered around. I eventually ended up in the emergency room for a CT scan, but by far the worst part of the whole ordeal was looking around me, knowing that I should recognize the street I was on, but for about three terrifying minutes I was a mostly blank slate. There was something that I was supposed to know, and that in turn would tell me where I was supposed to go next, but until I recovered it I was stuck there on that curb.

Judith Bennett is a historian of medieval English women. She is also a feminist who has worked for decades to reconcile her feminism with her love of history – and not just any history, but medieval history, a chronological specialty that can at times breed charges of insularity and irrelevance. Bennett's book is no less than a manifesto, urging feminists to think more historically, and women's historians to consider their work in terms of larger feminist projects. If you've gotten into the book (and I hope you have), you'll have realized that there are dozens of big ideas in there, all of which deserve discussion (hence the "roundtable"). But since I have but one post, I'm going to confine myself here to the two linked questions in the title:

Should (feminist) politics be historical?

That Bennett's answer to this is a clear yes should be a no-brainer. Yet she outlines how women's history, once a driving force in feminism, has been relegated to near-irrelevance. This seems to be especially true for history from before the twentieth century. How can I, as a committed feminist, make my work on the Middle Ages anything more than a curiosity to non-academic feminists, many of whom may assume that there is little to learn from a distant past that is assumed to have been a bleak wasteland of oppression?

But as Bennett points out, a deep historical knowledge gives us a vantage point from which we can see important continuities. I especially like these when I'm teaching. I actually teach a course on women in premodern Europe, and while I suspect that many students sign up expecting to be outraged at the Bad Old Days, I make sure to point out continuities (even broad ones) with our present. That knowledge is like the knowledge that I struggled to regain after my bike accident: until I knew where I was, and what had been going on up to that point, I couldn't know where I was supposed to go next.

Should (professional/academic) history be political?

The answer to this second question is more complex, I think. One of the first things they drum into our heads in graduate school (if not before) is that historical objectivity is a chimera. We can never tell history "the way it actually happened," completely stripped of our own experience, biases, and agendas. As historians, our job is meaning-making: taking the Stuff That Happened, and making sense of it. We aim to be fair, and not decide our conclusions before the evidence is in, but whenever we ask a particular question, choose an analytical framework within which to place it, make critical decisions about what's relevant and what's not, we are making a political decision.

So why are historians who are also feminists (and I number myself among these) so often hesitant to wear their feminism openly in their work? Why the temptation to all but retreat into positivism or antiquarianism, whether in the seminar room, the conference panel, or in our published work? Why, when we care so deeply? I have three half-baked ideas on this score:

1. It makes us seem old-fashioned. By talking about patriarchy, we are rhetorically aligning ourselves with scholarship from three to four decades ago – the last time that a critical mass of academic historians had an openly, unapologetically feminist agenda. We – especially younger scholars – want/need to feel that we are doing something new and exciting.

2. It makes us seem unprofessional. Despite all that time reading Peter Novick in graduate school, we're still allergic to anything that would make our work seem agenda-driven. Academic women especially may still struggle to be taken seriously, and this may be even truer of women studying women's history topics. I myself have tied myself in knots, worrying about whether I was being intellectually rigorous enough. This is not a bad habit to be in in general, but historians (especially female ones) studying women's topics often start out in a defensive posture.

3. It scares the men. Or at least, we fear it will. If I talk about "patriarchy", will male colleagues write off my work? Will potentially sympathetic readers turn away at the first whiff of openly feminist language? Wouldn’t it be better to find some less confrontational way of saying this so as not to alienate my readers?

I've been guilty of all of these. Bennett, on the other hand, encourages us as historians to be "less safe, and more offensive." It's a big step, and there is a certain comfort (again, especially as a medievalist) to burrowing into your documents and living there for a while. But part of the point of feminism is that we not get too comfortable.

There are, of course, many more aspects of this book that I have not hit on, and I'm sure my fellow roundtable members will in the coming week. In the meantime, I hope to have at least gotten the conversation going. Jump into the comment section and share your thoughts.

And don't forget to check in over at Historiann's place next Monday for the next installment!