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!


Knitting Clio said...

Great post. I would add that feminists need to be historical in order to counteract myth-making and add historical nuance. Monica Green has an excellent article in the area of medieval women and medicine that shows the fallacies of Barbara Ehrenreich and Deidre English's work.

clio's disciple said...

Great questions. The thing that resonates most deeply with me from teh big is the idea that feminists need the longer perspective of history to be effective feminists.

Of course, that's also the part that doesn't require me to change my behavior at all, since I'm already a historian. As for the other half, I don't think I hide the feminist perspective of my work, but I'm not sure I put it front and center, either...

Profane said...

What a wonderful post to read on the first day of spring break - especially when I am beginning to think seriously about my fall senior seminar on 'Femininity and Masculinity in the Middle Ages'. Here are some raw reactions to your three ideas.

'1. It makes us seem old-fashioned.'

Maybe so, but so what? As medievalists are we not always going to seem old-fashioned in some sense? Gendered interpretations, including use of the P word, are a shoe that fits for many aspects of the middle ages, so we cannot be afraid to wear it.

'2. It makes us seem unprofessional.'

Rigorous agenda-driven scholarship is still rigorous scholarship. It is as easy to distinguish it from non-rigorous, doctrinaire scholarship in Women's Studies as it is in any other field.

'3. It scares the men. Or at least, we fear it will.'

It will scare SOME of the men (but certainly not this one, and perhaps the ones who get scared need scaring 8-). I have argued before, elsewhere, that a fundamental generational shift has occurred. Historians trained from the 1990s onwards, even white, male, church-going, libertarians like myself, take gendered interpretations seriously as a matter of course, and occasionally offer courses in Women's Studies majors/minors, even if that is not our focus. As an interpretational framework, it is now _de rigeuer_. (This is not to say, of course, that there are not non-feminist historians trained before the 1990s who take gendered approaches seriously).

'Wouldn’t it be better to find some less confrontational way of saying this so as not to alienate my readers?'

If that was not a rhetorical questions. . .NO!

Gayle K. Brunelle said...

I'd like to throw another question (molotov cocktail?) into the the debate:
If "history does matter" (and I believe it does even though most of my work is in another barely relevant field, early modern) and we especially want fields like women's history to matter in a political as well as an intellectual way, why do so many of us write history in a manner that almost guarantees no one except a dozen colleagues and the more hardy (or loving) of our relatives will read it? How can history "matter", or at least the history we write, which presumably is better researched and more deeply conceptualized than "popular histories," often the work of non-historians, if we can't write it in a way that will reach a broad audience. And how can the "politics" of history matter in a democracy if most people are unaware of what historians are doing? Tragically, feminist history, far too often jargon-filled in how it's written, suffers particularly from this "irrelevancy through language," as I will call it for the moment. How do we bridge that divide between the need to communicate ideas for an academic audience in order to advance in the profession and the reality that the more academic a book is, the less likely these days even our students in our classes will read it, let alone a broader audience. And if hardly anyone reads those works, how do you make history "matter"?

historiann said...

Thanks for your thoughts, Notorious, and for those of the commenters so far. It strikes me that Bennett's book appeared at a time (18 months ago) when many other people started talking about a general sense of a loss of mission in women's history. This is in part why the 2008 Berkshire Conference invited panels, roundtables, and papers that invited reflection on "40 years of women's history," and too sessions that considered not just a particular chunk of time but the "longue duree." (Interestingly, I think we were fairly successful at getting things on the program that addressed the former problem, but not so much the latter!)

I appreciate Profane's call to embrace the radical promise of women's history--and I think that Bennett would agree with him wholeheartedly. To use an example from American history (humor me!), African American historians don't feel the need to couch their scholarship or to suggest that it's somehow not necessarily anti-racist, or that there's still a debate among educated, civilized people about racism. I think we all take for granted that African American history's essential position is anti-racist. Women's historians should just take the plunge and admit that what we're doing is feminist and feminism, and get over any sense that we may feel that we have to apologize for that.

Finally--just a quick response to Gayle Brunelle--I really think the "historians don't write well" argument is outdated. Perhaps that was true of some very theoretically-influenced work in the early and mid-1990s, but I don't think it is true today. I think the larger problem is that the publishing industry doesn't perceive that there's a mass market for openly feminist interpretations of history or for women's history--although the best-selling, prize-winning books by people like Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Linda Gordon, and Natalie Zemon Davis would seem to contradict that. I don't know who you're reading whose writing is so dense or turgid that it couldn't find a wider audience, if it were published by Knopf with a full-color book jacket and heavily promoted by a publisher, but I assure you that there are many people who are writing for a wider audience.

susurro said...

"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."

When I credentialed, history was fact, objective with capital O. And I do think doing feminist and critical race history shifted that paradigm. So while I worry about making being political the goal of history (as if it is not always political) I do think returning to a more public feminist agenda in history would have new and exciting impact just like it did back then.

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed this book, and its good old fashioned feminist story telling.
Call me an old fashioned feminist, but I still believe we have to fully discover the past of women, and we do need to be blunt about how patriarchy works through time.

I don't care if we scare men. That's as silly as African American historians worrying about scaring white people.

We need to tell the story, get it right, be excited in connecting the distant past to the present. I believe academics sometimes don't realize that the large general public is starving for good history. It is starving for a good story, and women need this passionate anchor.

I know I was amazed to read about how women's pay differentials remain unchanged since the middle ages; we do need to know this, or we won't know how to dismantle patriarchy -- male supremacy, the idea that men can control the assets, have more power and comnpletely disregard women.

We need to be proudly feminist, and perhaps younger scholars don't have the guts to take on the patriarchy and BE feminist. That is a mistake. We need our pride as women who want to know all about the power of women throughout time.

Belle said...

As a feminist, I bring that to my studies and the classes I teach. My research (I hope) benefits from a broad range of perspectives, feminist being one of those perspectives. I do know that I approach my sources much differently than my colleagues who accept (too frequently IMHO) the dominant culture of the period - that of the privileged male elite.

Like Clio's Disciple, I don't hide that feminist perspective in my work, but I do not put it front and center. And now I'm wondering why.

Anonymous said...

Belle, I believe you don't put feminism front and center because you are afraid of backlash. Women need to be front and center with feminism now more than ever!! If we don't push on harder, and we back down because we don't horror or horrors "want to be labeled" then patriarchy and male supremacy, which is drummed into women will win.

White men have a clear agenda-- they get to take up entire societies, and pretend like no one else matters. Indians living in America, well boring... not until WHITE MEN arrived did they get written about negatively by white European male 'observers."

All of history is contamined with HIS, and we need to know this, and combat it in every classroom, at every conference, and in every dusty library until we know the truth of women's lives throughout time. Now is not the time to be timid, because those rapist boys and their grants and power will always be there to steamroll women. We need to push back as herstorical actors on the radical feminist stage. It means quite simply, I am no longer interested in what men do. I want to know everything about what women have done in 1300, 1523 or October 15, 1668!

Historiann said...

Re: Belle's and clio's disciple's comments: I wonder if to a large extent that the Bennett's complaint is a generational one: she identifies herself as a second-waver who is disappointed by the turns the field has taken since her grad school days. We could perhaps reasonably see this as yet another complaint from a Baby-Boomer that Gen X and Gen Y aren't sufficiently radical, but it's only fairly recently that a few Gen X women's historians have risen to positions of power and authority in the profession (editing journals, organizing conferences, etc.). The bulk of gatekeeper positions are held by Boomer/2nd Wave women.

I raise this as a question--not as an accusation. I'm not sure that I think there's a clear distinction myself between Baby Boomer/2nd wavers and Gen X/3rd Wavers myself. (And I ask this ias a Gen Xer myself who has been thinking a lot of surprisingly cranky things about "kids these days..!"

Anonymous said...

I think whether your are a second wave feminist or a Gen X woman rising in the academy, the issue is the same. How courageous will women have to be to become fully documented throughout history as actors and not the acted upon?

I do get the impression that once the radical battered down the door, then the settlers moved in-- women can't afford to cease being radical pioneers because we are up against the monumental -- the complete contempt men have had throughout time for the accomplishments of women. It is the very idea that HIS story is a HIS, and that men don't give a damn about the intellectual gifts women bring to the world.

Women have to care about women. Women have to put feminist ideals front and center and be courageous.
Men will always be in the way of women's full herstorical agency, that's a given. It is up to women to claim what is theirs and let the patriarchs of academy be damned to hell!

Susan said...

I take it for granted that ALL history is political. And my feminism shapes all my work, even when it's not explicitly about women. I think the structures of hierarchy and power are central historical questions because I am a feminist. And I think that one of the great things about the book is precisely the way Bennett reminds us of this.

That said, I'm NOT convinced that using the "P" word is always helpful. My take on it is this: is there something that talking about patriarchy helps explain better? Then use the term. But there may be times when talking about patriarchy gets in the way. That is, I don't equate being feminist in my work (and I think pretty much everyone knows I am a feminist) with talking about patriarchy. As an early modernist, in part that's because patriarchalism is a particular strand of political thought, and I don't want to confuse people. But also -- well, I don't think my work would necessarily have been strengthened by discussing it. I would add that I'm generally fairly light on theory -- I demonstrate rather than tell people what I'm thinking about.

(Having said that, I'm working on something now where I think it may be relevant to talk about patriarchy -- to talk about the system.)

I do think Historiann is on to something with the generational piece: I am definitely part of Bennett's generation, and those of use who survived that do have a sense of outrage occasionally about what is taken for granted. Pace Profane, only a month ago I had to do my "Maybe you want to take gender into account" speech when a colleague said that social relations=class; and a younger female colleague said she couldn't do gender in world history. In theory we've made it, but if this is making it, well. . .

Anyway, I have lots more to say about the book, which I both loved and argued with, but it's much too late, and it's not relevant to this discussion.

squadratomagico said...

I don't care for the term "The Patriarchy" for the same reason that I try to avoid reifying any broad collective term, including "The Church," "The Inquisition," "Society" etc., as an actual historical actor. Sometimes these terms are useful, but I always find it un-illuminating when they are used as subjects of verbs -- that always seems like a facile shortcut to me. Such terms obscure actual historical actors by subsuming individuals under an extremely broad, collective abstraction with no specificity. It's much like a passive verb: these abstract, collective nouns provide action without actors.

As a professional historian, I value specificity. I find it far more useful to say, "Gregory IX appointed the first papal inquisitors in the 1230s" rather than "The Church decided to persecute heretics through The Inquisition." Likewise, I find it far more useful to say, "Albertus Magnus, quoting Aristotle, wrote that women were misbegotton men," rather than stating, "The Patriarchy considered women to be misbegotton men."

That having been said, I do use most of these formations in adjectival form (patriarchal, clerical, social, &c.) just not as abstract nouns.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Hi all!

Glad this is going so well, esp. since M/T are super-busy days at work, so I haven't had time to comment myself (and won't 'till tonight). But I just wanted to step in at SquadratoM's comment, and note that there appear to be two different ways of using "Patriarchy" -- and I think that Bennett would agree with your sentiments, though would opt for a different definition/connotation, rather than junking the term altogether. She has some pocket definitions that she's using, but I'm at the office until 10 pm and unable to get to my copy. Anyone out there with the book handy can come up with it? I think it's in the first or second chapter...

clio's disciple said...

I suppose I would fall into the Gen-X category, and I'd like to clarify that I do identify as a feminist.

I suppose to some extent it seems very well established to me that (most) medieval power structures are patriarchal. For example, I work on religious women, and it is clear that nuns operate in a context largely defined and supervised by men. Much of my work takes that as a given, and what interests me is how women navigate the options that are open to them. My research is therefore clearly informed by feminism, and yet is not explicitly about "the patriarchy."

squadratomagico said...

I believe Bennett's definition is on p. 55. It's a good description of medieval society (among others), but I stand by my objection to the reification of the term as the subject of a verb and historical actor. In fact, as a feminist I think we have a duty to identify specific historical actors and thinkers who perform actions, or articulate ideas, that produce and reproduce female subordination. I believe in naming names, as it were, rather than blaming The Patriarchy as some sort of covert cabal.

Anonymous said...

Would African American studies departments not want to use "racism" when describing whites in America?

I believe we need a lot of variety in how we decribe, decode and hopefully destroy patriarchy, male supremacy, male aggression, and male tyranny. I love Mary Daly's Wikidary for this very reason, it has hundreds of words to describe the attrocities that men commit against women HIS-storically and otherwise.

We need not shrink from the reality that men don't consider women's work worthy of compensation at all, or that no large groups of men march in the streets outraged at how women are treated in the academy, for example.

Feminism, by its very nature names the enemy and doesn't shrink from fighting back, or describing how women have resisted patriarchy, male supremacy, and rape throughout time. We cheat ourselves by pussyfooting around this issue.

Nothing less than the full human agency of women is at stake. Or are we becoming fearful and watered down?

Cameron Blevins said...

I'm interested in the first point, and would love to get more specifics about Historiann's discussion of generations of women's historians - could I get a couple examples? I know "generations" are rather broad and fluid, but I'm just curious which historians would be considered "second-wave" or "Gen X," for instance...
Great post!

Belle said...

Okay, in response to the generational aspect - I'm a Boomer, a feminist via experience vs theory or training, and issues of power (and its ab/use) are central to my research. When, in the context of my stuff, I choose to use 'the patriarchal values' it's much broader than men vs women. The perception of certain elite men of their right to run the world also subordinates non elite men, elites of the other powers, etc. These men were (are) patronizing and patriarchal, and I am astonished that critical male readers accept their own subordination within those 'traditional' structures. The second level of patriarchy?

Susan said...

In response to Cameron's question, like Belle (and Judith Bennett) I am a second waver: that means that I attended college before women's history was a normal part of any curriculum; when I went to graduate school and wanted to work on women's history, my advisor basically asked me to show him why it was important. In many ways, I created women's history in my little subfield.

Because of the time when I went to graduate school (late 70s-early 80s), the dominant methods were social history methods (we did computer stuff, but it involved coding lots of census data, etc.). When we read theory, we read Marx and worked on connecting Marxist and feminist ideas. We saw power expressed in social formations, structures, etc. THis was pre-Novick, too, so "objectivity" was not in quotation marks!

The generation that entered grad school 10-15 years after me(and some of you should speak up) were much more influenced by the cultural turn; Marx was pretty much sidelined. Postmodern theory was more influential. I would occasionally hear contemptuous comments about old fashioned social history, where we cared about people and not just ideas. (Oops, my own biases creep out :))

I think the generational issues are also codes for the tensions between social and cultural history. My own take is that they can be fruitfully connected, but they often live in separate places.

But the other thing about the generations has to do with the battles we had to fight. I don't think a grad student today would be asked to justify working on women or gender issues. Many of us were hired as one of the first women in a department. Many of us have been instituttion builders in various contexts. (think women's studies programs, sexual harrassment policies, affirmative action plans)

Don't know if that helps at all, and I realize that it involves lots of generalizations which make me nervous. Like Squadrato, I like to be specific. So I hope someone (preferably from a later generation) corrects me.

Historiann said...

Thanks, Susan, for your great comment! (And she is not exaggerating when she says she was present at the creation of women's history in her subfield.) As someone about 10-15 years younger who started grad school in 1990, I completely concur with your analysis of generational difference among women historians and/or women's historians, and between social and cultural history in the profession at large.

Perhaps I agree with Susan too, because while I enjoyed and benefited from "the cultural turn," and see myself as a cultural historian, I also pride myself on having not just "texts" but lots and lots of data to back up my scholarship. So perhaps although a Gen Xer, I may be too much of an old fogey because of my attachment to archival research (rather than just working from published texts) and to the notion that historians should generate new knowledge.

How does this all relate to women's history? Well, although I am someone who was trained in cultural studies in the 1990s, I am concerned about what I see as cultural history's abandonment of the archives and its flight to studies of print culture (and in my field, for example) Habermassian studies of the public sphere in the early Republic. The effect of this interest in print culture and the public sphere (and politics, yes, again) is that women and women's history are marginalized. I see good old-fashioned social history as something that can address this drift away from women's history and women's lives in history. And if we're talking about the histories of women who were themselves reduced to numbers in an inventory or a balance sheet--like enslaved women and many other plebian women--then it's essential if we're going to tell their stories at all.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Hey there!

Boy, I'm really enjoying the turn that this discussion is taking. The last two comments (Susan and Historiann) especially have gotten me thinking about how trends in larger history have a HUGE impact on the degree to which we can really write women's history. Ironic, since the turn to women's history in the late 70s and early 80s helped to open up social and cultural history: If women *are* a part of history, then our idea of what history is has to broaden.

One of my areas of expertise (if you can call it that) is law -- a boy history field if there ever was one. In the Middle Ages, lawyers and lawmakers were exclusively male. But women's history and legal history have been influencing each other in the study of legal culture -- how does law operate? Why do people litigate? How do relations between laypeople interact with broader legal ideas about women? Can women influence legal culture, and if so, how?

This is all to say that we, as women's historians, have had an impact on the way history is practiced, and we can continue to do so, even as trends in the larger field throw challenges in our way. It sharpens our own scholarship, and challenges others to keep up, or get left behind.

Go, team!

Indyanna said...

On the question of generations, might check out Devoney Looser and E. Ann Kaplan. eds., _Generations: Academic Feminists in Dialogue_ (u. minnesota press, 1997), esp. the essay by Looser, "Gen X Feminists? Youthism, Careerism and the Third Wave."

Belle said...

I'm a bit troubled by our generalizations of generations, and would prefer some kind of concrete line of which scholars/writers each of us encountered. While I'm a boomer by birth, my graduate experiences were in the late 1990s, and thus I find myself (and my life experiences) lost in this conversation about who did what & when. Which is kind of odd, for historians.

In the late 1990s, in my R1, women's studies were 'over there' and rarely came into the seminar room. When gender was raised in the seminar, it was greeted with derision by some and welcomed by others. Yet it was always 'over there'. Feminist critiques were subsumed by Saidian critiques of power structures. To be taken seriously by our committees [outside the women's studies field] our references had to be linked to Said et al. That was particularly important in seminars conducted by the single woman on my committee.

Let us not assume that chronological boomers/Gen Xers received their professional training at the 'chronologically proper' time, but investigate where & what informs our feminism. That, it seems, is key to how we fit ourselves and our scholarly work into the broader framework.

Historiann said...

Belle--I agree that it's probably more important when you were trained than your chronological age. I am younger than you, but perhaps more comfortable methodologically with social history than many people my age who were trained about the same time.

That said, I think that Susan's and Judith Bennett's generation is unique in that they were part of a political movement and a major shift in the practice of history that were clearly interrelated and which nourished each other. This is what I took as one of the major messages of Bennett's book--that the widening gap between academic feminism (particularly feminist historians) and activist feminism has been bad for both activist feminism and feminist history. And I think we can learn a lot from these "old heads" who were part of the scene ca. 1968-1980 or so. Some may dismiss Bennett's book as a jeremiad like so many others, written by someone who fears that their community has lost the zeal and spark of the founding generation. They would be wise to heed Bennett, since her book also suggests that there have been many points in human history when feminists have thought they had the system beat and it was all going to get better and better for women--equal education for girls and boys! the end of coverture! the franchise! The Civil Rights Act of 1964! Yay! It's all going to be beer and skittles now that it's 1820/1850/1920/1964!!!

History is like the famous Peanuts gag, only this time it's Charlie Brown holding the football and Lucy believing yet again that he's actually going to let her kick it this time. One of the reasons I liked Bennett's book so much is that she reminds us liberated, modern women that we're really not that smart, and in fact, we might be rather naive.

Susan said...

I was thinking of Belle, actually, when I made my note about generations. So Belle has life experiences very like mine, but her professional experiences are different.

When you train shapes your intellectual formation; but your age shapes much else.

I think Historiann is right that my generation of feminist historians did assume (early on)that it was about street politics as well. When we argued about the relationship between socialism and feminism, it was not just an academic arguments, but how you did things. In many ways we were much less professionalized than students are today...

Equally, feminist institutions back in the day were supported by all sorts of money (CETA, anyone) that is long gone from the universe.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Wow -- I will have to think on much of this. I feel like I'm positioned very much in the middle of things, perhaps because generationally, I'm at the end of the Boom, but my Doktorvater was born in the first year of the Boom! And his advisor was a woman (my academic genealogy is woman-heavy -- Thrupp and Power). And I'm in that weird generation, grad-school wise, of second-wave meets third.

So while I'm a feminist, I'm not a feminist historian. And I don't even see myself as a women's historian, although my current research focuses on women. Yet I'm certain that my own feminism frames some of the questions I work on, and also some of the things that I teach and the ways in which I teach them.

I suppose my first thoughts are along the lines of squadratomagico's -- as an historian, I do not like to frame things in terms of a reified Patriarchy. That the world I study is in some ways implicitly patriarchal is something I assume, but frankly, I think that there's too much we don't know to think that patriarchy or patriarchical values have the same function or influence in my period as they do in, for example, Susan's.

I'm also noodling something in the back of my head about how feminist historians of Susan and Bennett's professional generation related their own feminism and feminist scholarship to their positions on their campuses.

I've not got as much a handle as I'd like, and will get back when I'm done marking a stack of papers and taking a guest speaker around. But it goes something like this: Feminist scholars of Bennett's generation were probably more politicized in general, and their allegiances were more visible overall, in the classroom, in their scholarship, and in their service on their campuses. At this point, when gender issues are much more implicitly, if not explicitly, accepted as not only valid but also necessary to understanding a period, the connection between our own feminism as scholars and our work is less clearly articulated, and sometimes even disregarded. (see above re: I study women, but am not necessarily a women's historian, frex)

BUT ... this has me wondering: does the blurring of those connections have a wider effect on our lives on our campuses? I know that my own interactions on committees have been much better on campuses where the 'political' sort of feminist scholarship is still more obvious.

Historiann said...

ADM, I'm curious: why do you think that doing women's history doesn't necessarily make you a women's historian?

I'm not trained in the history of religious women or in the history of New France, but the book I'm writing now is about a woman religious in 18th C Quebec. Yet I don't deny that I'm becoming (in addition to a colonial Anglo-American historian, a women's historian, and a borderlands historian) a historian of Catholic religous orders and of New France. So, how can you avoid being a women's historian if you're writing a book about women in history?

Matthew Gabriele said...

Historiann, to be devil's advocate, isn't the point of this that you're just doing history when you talk about women? Doesn't suggesting that you do women's history tend to ghettoize yourself and your subject?

Historiann said...

How on earth is women's history ghettoizing, Matthew, in a way that (for example) identifying as an environmental historian, a Chicano/a historian, political or Church historian isn't? It's quite typical for all historians to identify with one if not several other sub-fields--are you suggesting that women's history might be more "ghettoizing" than other sub-fields?

Anonymous said...

I think it's important to accurately label an historical discipline. So I say, if the course is all about men, then label it "men's History" or "Men's Studies" or "White Male thought in 18th Century France."

That way, we're at least being honest, and women don't get marginalized and singled out by being other than "default' male. So a course in "19th Century American History" that is only populated by "great men" is not really generic history, it's course about men of that period.

There seems to be a big fear of younger women being "labeled" but hey, when I'm shopping, I DO want to know what is on the label before I sign up for the class.

My standard joke about getting a degree in "Men's Studies" stands decades later. Men give me a funny look when I say this, and I smile and say, "Oh I believe you guys call it history." They are usually not amused, but I think it's quite funny :-)

Anonymous said...

Historiann, I too wonder about the proper use of the word "ghettoizing." Seems like it's a kind of veiled insult aimed at "Non-default" subjects. Why would the story of half the human race be ghettoizing?

And why is women's history still a ghetto? You can't have it both ways, otherwise everything that white men have done historically would be about their ghetto.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Historiann, I think part of it is what Matt says, but more it's that I have enough of a hard time seeing myself as a social historian or institutional historian (and honestly, I don't know that you can really separate them if you study what I do), and so 'women's historian' seems even more of a pigeonhole. I especially don't see myself as having a particularly good background in women's history as a subfield. Also, I tend to think of any 'X history' as needing to come at it from a certain POV, or at least a certain framework that other others also understand.

So even though my current project is on women, I may also be digging through a ton of laws to see if they can explain the changes I'm seeing. But I'm also not a legal historian in the sense that Notorious, PhD is -- I don't have that background and concentrated focus, either. Does that make sense?

Historiann said...

ADM--you can call yourself whatever you like and what makes sense to you, but your explanation doesn't make sense to me. (I am hampered by not knowing what your project is about precisely, though.) But, this is what Bennett's book is all about (in part)--about what she sees as the reluctance of younger generations of historians to embrace women's history and to see it as necessarily linked to political feminism.

I understand that you may not feel that you were really trained in women's history, but if you're writing about women, it seems like it's a scholarly obligation of yours to be familiar with the historiography and to position your work in the field--which, in my opinion, would make you a women's historian, whether you like it or not! That's not an identity that any of us wear exclusively--the rest of us all claim several labels, and many of us wear more than one hat in our departments--but that doesn't make us less women's historians. I categorically reject that being a women's historian is "ghettoizing"--as anonymous above suggests, that's a label that's only put on subfields of history that haven't been privileged in the way that other subfields have been. (And quite frankly, the use of the term "ghettoize" seems really to be a poke in the eye to anyone who has read Bennett, whose book is the topic of this thread.)

Notorious Ph.D. said...

I want to step in at this point with a remark on the "ghettoizing" thread taking shape here. I think there is some genuine cause for concern here. One only has to look at many mainstream history textbooks (though they are getting better) and see what I like to call the "chick box" -- you know, those little marginal vignettes about remarkable women, or women in general? What I see here is women's history quite literally being marginalized. What this says to a reader is "This is extra -- and what's not in the box is Real History."

One of the things that initially prevented me from identifying as a women's historian (even though the study of women in history interested me) was a purely ideological stance that came from a feminist perspective: If we have a special "Women's History," doesn't that imply somehow that it's separate from Real History?

I've changed my thinking since then: I now see the study of women in particular as a way of uncovering information and introducing perspectives that can in turn be used to reshape the master narrative itself. This is another point that Bennett's book brought up, and one that I would have loved to address in the main post, if there had been world enough and time. But I don't think that new perspective in any way invalidates my original concern. If women's historians were to stop where we are, we would be consigning ourselves to the margins. Perhaps it shouldn't be that way: as the commenter above points out, people who identify as political or cultural historians don't have the same anxieties. But perhaps it's because, as women who have experienced shabby treatment for not toeing the patriarchal (there, I said it!) line, we've got more cause to worry. Our own personal histories matter, too.

I ain't sayin' it's right. And I work hard not to cave in to my own anxieties. But for me, they are there.

Anonymous said...

I think that's why I liked the Bennett book so much -- she made a compelling argument that we really won't understand the past at all, until we have as much information about everyone back then.

Since the past has been littered with male narcissim, the idea that women were actors on the world stage, and that the position of women changes with time, and doesn't change is a huge thing to know.

The term "ghettoize" is simply used to scare women from having solidarity with each other. It is a tool of male supremacy to keep women from striking out and building up this huge discipline called history-- the other half of the story.

If women are still afraid of their own story front and center, then men have won.

I think we have to call the men's club a ghetto, and ask men why they ghettoize themselves all the time in history. We do need to counterattack. Or perhaps what they fear is being irrelevant and having their own research look dated and sexist. Think of poor Harold Bloom and his hatred of feminist research. He's got his lecture notes, and he doesn't want to read anything new (that is feminist), so he just attacks women's writing as inferior to men's, for example.

Charging ahead with the discipline of what the other half did in the world is forward thinking. The past is about "great men." The future is what we can learn, like Bennett says, about women's distant past, and how this informs us today.

Belle said...

We've only been doing this a week, and already it's changing the way I teach & think about my class materials. So thank you all.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Historiann and Anonymous -- I think you missed my point about how I don't identify myself as any sort of historian -- maybe an Annaliste, I suppose? but nothing else. It's not to do with ghettoizing, it's about making sure that the fuzzy grey areas don't turn into hard black lines.

Historiann, I started out working with one particular set of documents and using them, and a very few narratives, to see what I could say about royal administration under one set of kings in one area. So it's institutional history, right? Except if you work in the geographical area I do, there's a ton of prosopographical and onomastic work to do, and that leads into reconstruction of families. So it's institutional, but it's also social. And it's men and women, because family connections are cognate in many cases.

I also thought about how we can use my collection of documents and others like them to trace how the elite families moved and shifted their power bases over the same period -- or indeed, how they broke up and re-formed into several smaller, but important, families. More prosopography and family reconstruction and figuring out when cognate relationships are important and when and where agnatic relationships take precedent (that's ongoing and lots of people work on related things in different areas). So ... is that institutional? family? social? or even women's?

The project I'm just getting into does focus on women and a particular set of functions that they perform in my documents -- and how those functions change over time. It is going to use everything I've done before, plus digging through lots of Germanic law codes and charters and capitularies -- and to do it well, I need to broaden the scope to include a couple of other areas and their documents. So I'm focusing on women now, but the paper I'm working on for the Really Scary Panel this summer is going to focus on something I realised while I was reading my Berks paper last year -- in focusing on the women, I'd neglected to look for any sort of parallel trends for men. And on this summer's panel, I've been identified to some extent as a 'charter person'.

Basically, I think I'm pretty typical of someone in my field -- the evidence we have is relatively sparse compared to what even historians of the High and later Middle Ages have available to them. And the historiographical approaches are very different depending on where the research comes from -- the German stuff I work with is far different from the French (there isn't much of that) and English. So people in my field tend to use whatever we can as best we can. The top people really are experts in multiple subfields/approaches, but most of us don't have the kind of academic positions that allow us to be more than conversant.

But basically, I *don't* see this project as being connected to feminism, political or otherwise. To me, it's simply a really cool thing that I get to do because women have been ignored in the historiography. I'm possibly more interested in it because I'm a woman and a feminist, but I think the attraction is more that no one else is working on it.

BUT ... were you to ask me about teaching, you'd get an entirely different answer. Because there, feminist politics come into play much more clearly. When I'm teaching, I consider it absolutely necessary to discuss gender and race *because* students need to be exposed to history that doesn't exclude those things. But then, my teaching and my research are hardly ever connected.

Knitting Clio said...

I received my copy of the book the other day and read the first few chapters. It seems to me that Bennett is operating from a very narrow vision of what constitutes feminist history. I also think she's unfair to Caroline Bynum, whose work I adore even though I'm not trained in medieval history. At the same time she praises the sloppy historical research of Deidre English and Barbara Ehrenreich -- whose work has been debunked by Monica Green and other historians of medicine.

Anonymous said...

i think the bottom line of all of this, is what is the best way to make sure everyone knows the dramatic contributions of women throughout history.

Who decides what the past is creates the future. I regard all discourse as highly political, and assume there are different interests involved.

We fool ourselves thinking that the average woman out there over the age of 50 has had anything but a completely male centric education, and this lack of knowledge of what women have done, prevents us from moving even faster toward a society in which women create the laws, protect themselves (without male guardians hovering around), and also illuminate what a society would look like free from male rule and bias throughout time.

It seems that this would be a priority, every time you read about what women have to do to bring their rapists to justice, for example. Every time a girl is raped by a male relative, every time women have to deal with male bosses in a work place.

What we need to know from the past is what made women the most powerful? How were women the most successful at garnering rights, and what eras were the kindest to women. We don't know a lot of this for sure, but I believe we can focus on the power of it all. That would be dramatic and exciting!

Notorious Ph.D. said...

@ Clio -- I read Bennett's encomiums (encomia?) of English and Ehrenreich as praising their contributions at a time when no one was really talking about what they were. Remember that she's writing about how gripping these books were when she first read them, several decades ago. At that time (the time when Bennett was beginning work on her doctorate), the feminist history project was simply to convince people that women were historically important. We've moved on since then, naturally, and you're absolutely right that Monica Green's work on women and medieval medicine has long since rendered that earlier work obsolete, and even a bit quaint. But for its time (and I can't say for sure, being one of those Gen-X historians) it was surely pathbreaking.

As for Bynum, I think you'll see in later chapters that Bennett gives her work on female spirituality full credit, not just for exposing women's piety, but for thereby expanding what we think about medieval piety in general.

Knitting Clio said...

Thanks. I've read further and see what her point is regarding English and Ehrenreich.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

@Anonymous -- (and btw, it would be nice if you gave yourself some sort of name, because there's always the possibility of more than one anonymous person chiming in) --

I think you and I have very different ideas of the historian's job. This goes back to what Notorious says in her post about the whole 'wie es eigentlich gewesen ist' thing. I think that who we are and our political leanings do guide our interests and the things we choose to write about. But I also see my job as to keep those things out of the research and out of the finished product as much as I can.

I'm far less successful than that in the classroom, and least successful in my survey classes, where I tend more to look at race, gender and the role of the individual in government much more, because it may be the only class in which the students are exposed to those things in historical context.

But I also pretty much reject the idea that history is there so we can learn from the past, as if the 'lessons of history' are always directly relevant.

Anonymous said...

Well actually, I have learned a lot of lessons from the past. I've learned that when confronting an oppressor, you hit them full bore and you don't placate them, for example.

We can look back 30 years or more and carp at the "methodology", but then again, that's like talking to a 13 year old who can easily explain the theory of evolution-- easily now, not so easy when Darwin was "discovering it."

I can easily spot male bias in all male written historical texts. It's pretty glaringly obvious, just jump to the index in the back and see the complete absense of women quoted, referred to or cited.
To read male history, you'd think that women weren't ever involved in wars, for example. Men were charging the shores of Normandy, male soldiers were raping women left and right...
Kind of like when male movie reviewers point out the rare movie that has no men in it. But there are many movies where no women were in them, and this was not a topic of the men reviewing these movies at the time, for example.
Think of "The Great Escape" when it first came out. Think of the reviews of the movie version of "Sex and the City."

I don't know what the academics are up to in classrooms today. I am a serious reader of history, and I want to know as much as possible about every lesbian in America who was out of the closet in 1956, for example. I read their biographies and autobiographies and learn from this past. It is essential to my sense of a larger self in the world.

Maybe I'd find women's studies disappointing now, compared to how dramatic and exciting it once was in the early 70s classes. Who knows?

We need to keep in mind that the most inspiring women's history was created not by academics a lot of the time, but by activists and artists like Judy Chicago.

-Satsuma -- can't seem to get a name activated here, sorry.

Janice said...

Argh! Blogger ate my comment. (This is not a "bummet" as my word verification suggests, but a bummer.)

Still, I very much think that politics should be historically informed and Bennett does an excellent job of showing how shallow the historical perspective can be. (I would say that most of my modernist colleagues don't believe those old canards about affectionless parenting in the Middle Ages and so forth, though.)

Popular politics abuses history mightily. Think of conservatives haring to a golden age in the past. Think of how some conservatives are liberally rewriting the history of the Great Depression to suggest it was caused by the liberals!

To suggest that history is not political is naive. It's very much a political act -- the narratives that we use in the classroom or construct in our own writing have political implications that can't be ignored. To suggest that only feminist history needs to muzzle itself for fear of being unseemly to the rest of the historical world is insulting -- I'm glad that Bennett's not letting that sit unchallenged. As how to best make the feminist histories resonate for the current generations in the classrooms and academic groves, though? That's still not fully addressed (but it's not something that any one scholar can help us to figure out, I fear!)

Anonymous said...

I wish I could remember the source, but long ago a survey found that students were most bored by history--high school students. They sensed the political agenda behind the history.

To me, the history of women serves two purposes: it illuminates what half the human race has done, thus negating the common male assumption that they are the only viable actors on the stage of say 1647. The second purpose of women's studies from a feminist perspective is to provide women with a dynamic and exciting past.

To take the "males only" label off the history train, I think is the most powerful act women in history have to deal with. I find the danger to women's studies, it that it will be too focused on promotion and career track, and less focused on the power of women throughout time. When feminism goes "malestream" it becomes cowardly.

I notice this "modulated" voice a lot in new historical works about women of the past, or the history of women in general, and it's a danger.

It's the kind of careerism that disconnects women from the struggle to get to these places in the first place. Where once we had the heroic notion that women were storming the academy or bringing rapists to justice, or even forcing the U.N. to declare rape in war as a war crime in 2000, now we are seeing this timidity.

When the professors are timid, women students aren't being served. I believe students can sense the sell outs a mile away, and I would hope that women's studies don't sink to this apolitical level. We don't need to duplicate male scholastic methods, we can forge a new world that serves women.


Anonymous said...

P.S. Is anyone going to bring up Bennett's entire chapter on lesbians of the past, and how to find these women throughout time?

Any radical lesbians on this blog?

Notorious Ph.D. said...

@ Satsuma --

I both agree and disagree with your comments immediately above. Agree, because I think that you're right about a "males-only" (and mostly white, privileged males) history being dull, primarily because it offers so few opportunities for the vast majority of students to see themselves as important parts of history. I recall reading, many years ago, some conservative reaction to women's history/social history, in which she said something like "You can't tell me that some woman carrying water jugs at Gettysburg was just as important as Abraham Lincoln." Maybe, but there were a hell of a lot more of her than there were of him. MLK Jr. and Rosa Parks were important, but would not have been so without the tens of thousands of people who were part of the movement that he came to symbolize. So yes, we need to hear more of the stories of women, both extraordinary and ordinary.

That said, I don't think that any of us are interested in "going malestream," as you put it. What we are interested in doing is using these stories we uncover to fundamentally transform the so-called master narrative (and I'm smiling ruefully, but sympathetically, as I feel how much you will likely bristle at this term of art).

If I may go on a bit longer: think of coverage of women in history textbooks. I've just pulled down three from my shelf, with publication dates of 1978, 1998, and 2004. The first mentions women almost not at all -- the index entry lists them as appearing on precisely 11 pages of a 623-page text covering over 100o years of history. The second (1998) makes a point of including women's stories, but almost always in that odious little "box" that tells readers that this is just supplementary stuff. The third does a better job, weaving women into the narrative itself. I think that that's what many women's historians are striving for now: to break women's stories out of the box they've been quarantined in.

It's still a rough slog, because we've been conditioned to imagine a male actor even when books use a gender-neutral term ("workers," "monarchs," "pioneers," etc). And putting women front and center, as you suggest, will help that process. But we're working at it.

And as for Bennett's "lesbian-like" chapter that urges us to dismantle the heteronormative bias in historical writing, I think that that will be taken up in future posts. Remember, this is only the first of four. So stay tuned!

Anonymous said...

Notorious PhD-- that was a fascinating tidbit about women in HIStory textbooks in 1978, 1998 and 2004. It doesn't look good.

As a radical lesbian feminist, I'm not interested in being a part of any "master" narrative, but I do respect the work of my more careerist heterosexual feminist sisters who are "slogging" it out as you say.

Me, I'm interested in reading about the herstory of women, and uncovering everything that women have done throughout time. I'm also interested in putting lesbian agency front and center as a primary force of resistence to men and patriarchy in general. The marriage resisters of China, the Beguines, and of course lesbian rebellion throughout time.

Maybe the "textbook" is not really a viable option, as the most dynamic herstory seems to be the passion of individual women who make great discoveries of the past.
Think of the electrifying work of Marija Gimbutas, for example, or the epic work of Jeanette Howard Foster (great bio on this incredible pioneer-- a must read).
Call me old school :-), but I feel that women even talking about herstory with mixed gender classes is a complete waste of time. The purpose of women's studies is to put women front and center, to teach the greatness of women, and reveal the tactics of past and present that will help women overthrow male centric "master narratives" and "master" anything, for that matter.

Women who encourage and unleash this power will also unleash the truth of history itself. And while men built there men's club, women had a completely different conversation going on throughout time. The twain will never meet.

I don't think men have the passion or the dedication to face the fact that they may just be the obstacles to women's progress generally on a good day, and rapists and erasers on a bad day.

So it's interesting to me to read the words of working herstorians here, and see what women academics are saying. I had this sinking feeling that women in academy are becoming more conservative and dulled down "placating" men, when a whole new generation of young women has no idea of the fight that is ahead.

The evil system of patriarchy adapts to the push of women's independent moral agency over time. It is adaptable, deceptive and condescending. You have to know this going into the fray, or you'll settle for "master." Since the radical lesbian mind and soul thinks all "masters" need to be kicked out of women's freedom and narrative power, perhaps we just have to push harder out there. Or egad, we'll turn into mindless childbearing "married" lesbians in the suburbs! Blah :-)

I am of course jumping ahead several Bennett chapters I guess. Since I almost never discuss lesbian herstory with straight women, I'll be curious to see how you react to Bennett's chapter on "Lesbian-like." Cheers :-) Satsuma.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Okay, when the discussion has degenerated into thinly-veiled insults and baseless assumptions about other people's sexuality, it's time to call it a day, no? Also, I don't want to detract from the next post in the roundtable. So let's see what Historiann has on tap tomorrow...