(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!