A young, dissertating historian of the integration of the U.S. military, Tanya L. Roth, attended the West Point Summer Seminar in Military History this year, and has written a three-part series in which she describes some of her experiences, and discusses the tensions between “traditional” (e.g. strategy/operations/tactics) historians, and the “war and society”-types. In part III, she offers some thoughts on being what she calls the “token ‘Where are the Women?’ person.” One of the West Point Seminar’s great features is that the students get out of the classroom and take some tours of Eastern battlefields:
As we concluded our staff ride of Gettysburg about halfway through the seminar, the program leaders asked us each to share how we thought the staff ride experiences could help us in our teaching and research. When it was my turn, I broke it into two parts: as an American historian, I said, I thought there were a lot of things I could incorporate into my teaching, whether in surveys or upper-level classes. I think that this intensive study of a specific battle adds something to the experience of learning about big wars in American history.
But as a women’s historian, I continued, the staff ride experience had seemed utterly useless. After all, we dealt with only combatants’ experiences – and unless you want to talk about cross-dressing women serving as soldiers, then we’re essentially dealing with male experiences in the staff ride environment. All of the women were either in Gettysburg or behind the Confederate and Union lines as camp followers – and those were experiences we largely ignored, aside from a brief discussion of the impact of the battle on the local Gettysburg environs and people (in the aftermath).
I was pretty blunt. Note that I did not say that I found the experience completely useless – simply that from a women’s history perspective, the staff ride (as it had been conducted) was useless. Sure, I was going for impact with that statement. My main point was that gender was never a category of analysis during the staff ride, despite what I saw as a number of opportunities we had to discuss gender – not to mention the fact that when you’re talking about combat, gender analysis is always a useful tool (in my opinion).
What I realized by that weekend was that the topic of gender and women in particular made people fairly uncomfortable.
In many ways, I shouldn’t have been surprised to learn this. After all, I’m one of about two or three graduate students in my department who study gender seriously. It’s not like I’ve never encountered hostility to my subject matter before. But after five years in my department, a place where I know every grad student and they all know me fairly well, it’s become a bit of a comfort zone. Sure, I may be the token “where are the women” person (in other people’s words, not mine) – but at my institution, I’ve earned some respect in that position. It’s quite different to find yourself cast as that person in a group where you’re an unknown entity, where everyone brings in their own preconceived notions about various things – including the application of gender as a category of analysis.
I was mostly frustrated and bothered by what I saw as a complete sidestepping of gender as an issue. Obviously, gender – and women’s experiences in particular – is central to my own dissertation project: I tend not to read anything related to my dissertation without applying gender analysis to it – how is it relevant to my dissertation, etc. And that’s how I approached much of the reading for the Summer Seminar. Perhaps, in part, then, my frustration stems from being unable to understand why anyone would purposely ignore or avoid a methodology that could offer very rich possibilities for historical study.
Now, I’m not going to offer a Whig interpretation of history here and reassure Roth that “things are bound to get better! You just keep researching and writing, and eventually military history and women’s history won’t seem like such an odd pairing!” In fact, I think it’s worse now than it was at the beginning of my career (about 15 years ago.) At least in the 1990s with the Kulturkampf raging, people would argue with you. For example, I remember being lectured in a job interview about how I needed to read Abigail Adams’s letters, because she loved her husband, and her letters proved that patriarchy was a benign force in the eighteenth century. Never mind that I was writing about the seventeenth century at the time–according to this d00d’s brain stem, Abigail Adams proved that patriarchy wasn’t ever historically a problem because one woman loved her husband. (Did I mention that I didn’t get offered that job?)
Nowadays, I think women’s historians just get politely heard and then are just as politely ignored. I participated in a seminar last year in which I was the “token ‘Where are the women?'” person. At one point, I gave a comment that went something like this: “The colonization of the Americas is built on the exploitation of the labor and bodies of black and brown women! Rape! Torture! Abuse! That’s how these clinical terms like “creolization” and “hybridization” happen in most places! Wake up!!!” (And then I did my best Howard Dean impression, and ended with a frightening yawp!)
Well, not really. Everyone nodded politely, and then went back to talking about what they wanted to talk about. (And it wasn’t the rape and exploitation of women, that’s for sure.)
What do the rest of you think? Is it getting easier, or more difficult, to continue to talk about women and/or gender? Do some of you find yourselves reduced to tokens because of your intellectual interests?
(A note on the poster above: Yes, I know it’s a Navy recruitment poster, and I know the difference between Annapolis and West Point. But, this is one I have in my office, and I just find the woman in the sailor suit adorable!)