Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Fox and the Hedgehog, part 3: Should Feminist Scholars be Hedgehogs?

(point of irony: Blogger's spell-check function does not recognize the possessive "women's".)

When I began to post about the fox and hedgehog thing, it was a post that had been brewing for a few months, but that was most proximately inspired by this post at Historiann's. I mentioned this before, but never explained why.

Historiann asks, among other things, whether anyone would notice if women's history stopped being written. My passive voice formulation is intentional here, because "if women's historians stopped writing women's history" is circular and confusing and possibly tautological. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Authorial intent aside (we're all postmodernists now - wheee!), my reading of this post suggested two implications: the importance to the profession of doing women's history, and the fact that those with a vested interest in women's history (particularly but not exclusively feminist historians) should keep on keepin' on because -- lip service and an occasional grad seminar book aside -- no one else is going to step up and do it. Likely the same can be said for queer history, though I know less about that field's dynamics.

Each of these implications is fairly clear, but when viewed through the lens of my recent protestations about personal choice on the whole fox/hedgehog thing, combined with the recent post by Tenured Radical on the gendered dimensions of setting boundaries in our jobs, I end up in a nasty double-bind: we all choose whether to be foxes or hedgehogs, but women's/gender/feminist(/queer/?) historians who want to be foxes may feel that there is a moral obligation to be a hedgehog. If we don't do this very important work, who will?

!!TWEEEET!! Time Out: Let's all pause for a moment and think about that last sentence: what a girl thing to say. "Yes, we all agree that it's important, and I understand that no one else wants to do it, and I have written about it in the past, after all, so sure, I'll do it, even though I'd like to be moving in different directions, just like the rest of you. Better I give up on that ambition that anyone else."

Now, I know that there are plenty of women's historians (and in other fields too, of course) out there who are joyful hedgehogs by choice; we owe them a great deal as both scholars and feminists. And I also know that women's history is a subfield big enough that you can be a fox within it. But I'm not talking about them -- I'm talking about the feminist fox who feels pressured to be a hedgehog, to continue working in a field that is politically and/or personally important to her, when she'd rather be off writing about municipal institutions or poison or siege techniques of the Hundred-Years' War.

So, about a year too late, here's my "Lesson for Girls (academic version)": Just because you can, doesn't mean you have to. You're not a bad feminist if you write about stuff other than women. You're not a bad feminist if you selfishly follow your own scholarly interests of the moment. You may actually be committing a real feminist action by refusing to let yourself be defined by others' expectations, especially when those expectations allow your more misogynist colleagues to safely ignore or dismiss you. You can support woman-focused studies by buying the books, and assigning them in your classes, not just as tokenism, but as a way of teaching what you were taught: that the study of women fucking transformed the profession. You may choose to be a hedgehog because you have a career's worth of questions about women or gender in your field -- hedgehog away, sister! But that needs to be your choice, and if you choose to be a fox, it's really okay that you let yourself walk off and play somewhere else for a while. The boys get to do it, after all.


squadratomagico said...

I also think there is something to be said for historians of women, or queer folk, or any other group that's underrepresented in the historical literature becoming foxes because I suspect they will be foxy in a different way. Historians who have been trained to look for subtle cues about gender may also notice different things when they turn their attention to other issues -- methodologically, the training that women's historians acquire orients their reading and interpretive practices in a different way. As a result, their interventions may end up highlighting more heterogeneity within even "mainstream" topics -- and I think that's all for the good.
The trouble with hedgehoggy women's historians is that it seems voluntarily ghettoizing to me. One must have the freedom to produce the scholarship that matters most to oneself, whatever it may be.

squadratomagico said...

Addendum: I should have added that of course there is nothing wrong with writing only women's history, if that's where one's interests, over the course of a career, consistently lead. But it sounds constraining to me to declare that, once a women's historian, always a women's historian, or else you're letting people down. That last sentiment is the troublesome one.

clio's disciple said...

I think I'm a hedgehog, and I've been feeling a bit under-represented in these comments. I'm still early enough in my career that I may be wrong--maybe I'll want to change directions in the future. But right now I come up with scholarly questions that all revolve around a thematic core; that just seems to be how my mind and interests work.

I'm all in favor of people working on whatever they choose. But I hate to see foxes criticizing hedgehogs just as much as I dislike seeing hedgehogs criticizing foxes. If the quality of the work is good, it shouldn't matter whether the scholar has always worked on that topic or not.

squadratomagico said...

Clio, I apologize -- I added the addendum to my initial post because I realized how critical it sounded. I phrased my thoughts very poorly in the initial post, and I'm sincerely sorry I wrote it that way. I meant the second thing -- that one shouldn't have to feel *obligated* to write about a particular topic -- not the first thing, where I criticized historians, rather than the entailments and obligations. Sorry for the sloppiness.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Absolutely, Clio. I think that those of us who are coming to realize we are (for now, at least) foxes are feeling a bit defensive. And sometimes defense morphs into unwarranted (or unintended) offense.

But without hedgehogs, where would we foxes be? It's nice, for example, to know that if I need to know something about topic X, I can make a really good show of it by consulting the copious and thoughtful works of Professor Y, who has spent decades of working on aspects of this topic.

clio's disciple said...

No hard feelings whatsoever--I was responding not to you particularly, squadrato, but because I had just re-read the comments on all three posts.

I am a little curious as to where the foxish defensiveness is coming from. My own graduate mentor has had a rather foxish career, so I suppose I never had hedgehog-ism held up to me as THE way to do scholarship, but perhaps others have?

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Interesting! I've read your former advisor's books, as you know, and I've always considered him more of a hedgehog (at least until his most recent book). The obvious conclusion here seems to be that it's a matter of degree and perception. Either that, or I'm missing some key writing.

But to your point: perhaps it is based on one's own mentors and models. Remember that I was (academically) raised by Men of a Certain Generation, and that may have led to a message being telegraphed. Even if my own advisor never said anything explicitly to that effect, we all wanted to know as much as he did -- about anything.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

But without hedgehogs, where would we foxes be?

We'd be totally fucken fucked.

Coyote Rose said...

This is a little off the point you are making, but i'm going to say it anyways.

Having just finished my masters in history, i found that there seemed to be a little bit of a push for the female grad students to be women and gender historians. I'm not sure proffies intended this. But when people asked about my interests they almost always assumed i was doing something about women or sex. I felt even a little pushed towards doing those topics at some points. Why is it that if you are female everyone assumes you are doing gender/women/sexual history?

Is it so rare to see a female military or political historian? Are those topic reserved for men only?

Digger said...

Squadrado wrote "Historians who have been trained to look for subtle cues about gender may also notice different things when they turn their attention to other issues -- methodologically, the training that women's historians acquire orients their reading and interpretive practices in a different way."

This is exactly what I was thinking about this topic yesterday. Even if I'm not studying a "lady topic" directly, I will still be Remembering The Ladies, and I will still be a feminist.

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

Coyote Rose: I have a colleague who seems to believe that I am a feminist lit scholar, or at least am well up on feminist critical theory, or at least that's the line she used when she was trying to get me to join a dissertation committee I was not remotely suited to be on. I don't know what gave her that impression, unless it was simply projection.

Jonathan Jarrett said...

Comments from the other side, which as usual can be reasonably disregarded as I'm not subject to all the same pressures, but:

Is it so rare to see a female military or political historian? Are those topic reserved for men only?

Yes, I think it is. I know of no female military historians but a deal of male ones, and have seen the field referred to as 'boy history', by, indeed, a female and feminist literary historian, albeit a fairly junior one. There's an extent to which that is ironic observation rather than gender-typing I think.

And I suppose the same is true of this:

!!TWEEEET!! Time Out: Let's all pause for a moment and think about that last sentence: what a girl thing to say. "Yes, we all agree that it's important, and I understand that no one else wants to do it, and I have written about it in the past, after all, so sure, I'll do it, even though I'd like to be moving in different directions, just like the rest of you. Better I give up on that ambition that anyone else."

That just reminds me of how I feel about housework in house-shares where the others are lazy, to be honest, albeit nothing like as annoyed. I don't think that's a "girl" thing so much as a "thing of those with greater than average social conscience". If that's gendered, or seems it from where you are—and I suppose from where I am I could look at the mostly-female composition of the Greenham Common protests and even the British marches against the Iraq war and say, it does seem that way sometimes doesn't it—then surely this is not just the Academy. Which is why it's that much more political, of course.

Historiann said...

Late to this conversation--and I apologize. But, yesterday was the Day from Hell: a family member needed stiches first thing in the a.m., and then my car's brakes failed halfway to Denver on a trip with some out of town guests. So--no blogtime for me!


Notorious, I disagree with you that women's history has changed the historical profession. I think it's been an important innovation, but the point of my original post was just that I don't think non-women and non-feminist historians would really notice or care if we all stopped writing women's history. But in any case, it wasn't a post telling other people what they could and couldn't write--it was more a statement about the profession and its imperviousness to change than it was a prescription for what other historians should write.

I agree with Squadrato that people need to follow their bliss, and that it's likely that people trained in women's and gender history will likely see things that other historians wouldn't, even in topics that aren't obviously women's or gender topics. I was just reflecting on the difference that race has made, which I think is real and lasting. There are thousands of white scholars (in an overwhelmingly white profession) who write about race and who see it as their primary field of inquiry--whereas there aren't thousands of men (in a majority-male profession) writing women's history.

squadratomagico said...

Historiann's last comment reminds me of a debate that went on in my department several years ago, when we filled an FTE for a women's historian in a particular time/place. The leading candidate had written an award-winning dissertation and had given a wonderful talk, but her work centered chiefly upon middle-to-upper-class white women. The topic itself dictated this: it dealt with a particular trend among the privileged leisure classes of that time/place. Anyway, there was a huge debate over whether she should be hired, the main strike against her being that she did not engage with the category of race.
On the other hand, I never, ever, in the history of my teaching here, have seen a job candidate criticized for writing only about men, and failing to engage with the category of sex/gender.
So, yes: I think H'ann is definitely on to something. But I would point out two other things:
First, I would have to say that the people in my department who work primarily on the history of race relations and categories are more aggressive about making sure their interests are well represented than the women's historians are. They raise and pursue issues of representation regularly, whereas the women's historians simply do not demand that the department take sex/gender into account in a systematic way.
And Second, I was struck by the fact that this debate happened in the precise way it did, in a women's history search. I'm not sure what to make of it, but it almost seemed like there was a sense that someone who "does" sex/gender" also had a much stronger set of expectations to "do" race: women's history is invalid unless it takes account of all groups, social strata, and races, whereas the same demand is never placed upon other sub-fields. It was as if researching a topic in Women's HIstory was seen as requiring the candidate to be more of a generalist than other research topics. I cannot imagine a parallel discussion having happened in any of our other searches -- as, indeed, it has not.

Historiann said...

Wow. That's a really revealing anecdote. I've observed on my blog that it's only womanist/feminist blogs who feel the need to acknowledge all other identities and oppressions in addition to or even *before* they discuss feminist issues. I think there's something to the notion that being a women's/gender scholar isn't important enough in its own right.

It's almost as though feminism isn't recognized as a social justice movement in and of itself! Imagine that. So perhaps it's no wonder that women's and gender historians are just grateful to be hired and invited to faculty meetings, and hesitate to insist that the rest of a history department recognize that women are people too.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Whew! Go to sleep for 8 hours and wake up to a full comment thread! I just want to step in here with a few observations & clarifications:

@ Rose & Dame Eleanor: I originally started a field in women's history as a grad student because I figured that people would do just what they'd done to you -- assume I did it because I was female -- and so I figured that I should learn something about it. And then I discovered that I really liked it.

@ Jonathan: "Boy History" was actually me, a sardonic label that I use to refer to "those fields that dominated the profession before women got involved." More importantly, these fields (military history; political history) have been the ones that have been most resistant to working with the methodologies from women's history. And I stand by my implication that self-sacrifice is a gendered trait, even if men do practice it, and women don't always. "Gendered" = "coded female."

@ Historiann: I *do* think we changed the profession. Perhaps the fact that gender history is not itself adopted by non-gender-historians does mean that departments have gender historians for window-dressing. But the practice of women's history in its formative period forced a reconsideration of what history *was*, and that opened the kind of questions that historians asked. My own field (medieval studies) was slower to change than most, but it did change.

That's it for me for the moment, folks: I've actually written all that *before* coffee, which is never a good thing. I'll check back in later.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

...on the other hand (and now that I've caffeinated myself), I see what you (Historiann) mean by your last sentence there, comparing scholarship on race or ethnicity with scholarship on gender.

And at some point, we're gonna have to get together and have a roundtable on masculinity studies: who does it, why, is it an offshoot of feminism, etc...

Batocchio said...

Wow. That's a really revealing anecdote. I've observed on my blog that it's only womanist/feminist blogs who feel the need to acknowledge all other identities and oppressions in addition to or even *before* they discuss feminist issues. I think there's something to the notion that being a women's/gender scholar isn't important enough in its own right.

I think you're onto something there. Per squadratomagico's anecdote, I do think it makes some sense that someone who's cognizant of one marginalized group will be aware of cultural power dynamics in general and thus cognizant of other marginalized groups. However, saying that particular candidate should have discussed race seems silly and unfair given the focus of her work. I suppose it's asking her to be both a hedgehog on one issue and a fox on others – or a hedgehog on two issues.

In the case of your blog, I would think there's value in considering one's audience and providing a framework for discussion – some people might need a few disclaimers and explanations while I imagine your regulars don't. However, I think you're both right about an unfair standard. Perhaps it's an unconscious premise by one group that "we cover the traditional stuff, and this one person should cover all that diversity stuff we don't cover." Perhaps talking about sex/gender makes them think about race as well, whereas they usually don't think about either. But then, do they think of sex/gender when someone else discusses race? I'm guessing not as much, but I don't know. You know your departments and blog readers much better than I do. Anyway, thanks for a thoughtful post series and comment thread, and I'm all for Follow Your Bliss.

Adam said...


As a lurker, I think the masculinity studies discussion would be great. The only couple of students I've had/met in masculinity studies did both come from feminist studies initially. Perhaps it's because "boy" history wouldn't take masculinity any more seriously that it takes women's history.
Anyway...I await some cool posts.

(finally, I do have to admit to a certain disappointment in just how interested my male students are in battles and court intrigue.)

rawkus said...

Late to the conversation... As a queer historian writing primarily about non-queer masculinity, my political investment is feminist. I analogize it to whiteness studies in that I'm trying to mark the usually unmarked.

My work is very much marginalized by the boy's club of IMPORTANT HISTORY about IMPORTANT SUBJECTS. Interestingly, many women's historians and the Women's Studies program at my uni, who I would have thought would be my allies, are pretty hesitant to get behind my work. Some feel that masculinity studies is just old-school men's history with a new label. I like to think that I'm trying to do what Historiann says has not heretofore happened in her initial blog post: using the lessons of women's history to transform the discipline, writ large.

This tension has left me feeling pretty professionally isolated as an Assistant Prof. I'm a fox anyway, but hope to do more "mainstream" queer history (if that's not an oxymoron) on my next book project to at least have a sub-disciplinary home.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Adam & Rawkus, count me among the feminist scholars who think that masculinity studies are an application of feminist scholarship -- what you say about marking unmarked categories makes perfect sense to me.

Susan said...

Sorry to be so late to this fascinating thread... I've been away and off line for the last week! Anyway, as a fox of the first order (I can see a unity in my work, but almost no one else can) I've found this intriguing. My first book was on women and gender directly, and although my second book was much broader and more explicitly about race, gender was there. I've also written about manhood. I think gender will always be part of hte picture, even if I'm not writing about women per se.

And the thing about people asking you to review, or talk about, things from prior work -- it keeps me connected to a range of discussions.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Hi Susan, and welcome back!

I really like your final point there -- sort of like keeping up to date on a language you learned in college but haven't actively worked with since. I like the idea that if people ask us to review books or chair panels or the like on our early areas of specialty, it will keep that part of the mind active and working.

Jonathan Jarrett said...

"Boy History" was actually me

It may have been! But I was thinking of someone else, so it wasn't only you. (I don't think of you as 'fairly junior'!)

Coyote Rose said...

This whole convo makes the wonder. I very rarely ever see an African-American Historian who is white, or a feminist historian who is male. Do we gravitate to society thinks we should study?

That being said there were only 3 females in my graduate program (there were others i took class with who were getting Masters in Education or teaching) and we were all white. But none of the three of us did women's history. Girl 1 did Slavery and economics in Virgina and Barbados; Girl 2 studied sexual and art history in the age of Hadrian. And i studied Anglo-German Diplomacy from 1904-1914. I wonder if women are starting to break out of the "girl" history roles.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Rose, your example and question are the perfect illustration of the double-bind that historians who are also feminists find themselves in. On the one hand, feminists value choice and personal sovereignty for all women; that may be the only point that all feminisms agree on. On the other hand, Historiann's post (and several commenters here and over there) point out that, if feminists don't do women's history, it's likely that no one will.