Women’s and gender history has menstrual blood smeared all over it. If you read this post, you too will be contaminated.

George Catlin, “Comanche Village, Women Dressing Robes and Drying Meat,” 1834-35

UPDATED BELOW

I am so tired of reading “new” histories of the North American borderlands and “new” conceptualizations of “empire” that read  just like anything that Francis Parkman or Frederick Jackson Turner ever wrote, except minus the racism.  Now, that “minus the racism” part is important, don’t get me wrong.  But is it really an intervention for which modern historians should be congratulated when we assume that historical Native Americans were rational and had their own politics?

Having read a whack of recent histories that address the Great Basin and Great Plains in the past few years, a region whose economy was based in large part on the trade in bodies and the labor of female slaves from the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries, I want to hear more about these captive women and less about the men who lead those raids and profit from stealing, raping, exploiting, and/or reselling those women.  Every author alive today makes this point in his book–and yet, that’s just about the extent of his analysis.  I want books written from the perspective of these women and girls, not more books written from the perspective of the dudes on the horses, whether those dudes are European, Euro-American, or Native American.  Didn’t we get enough of those books about the manly exploits of armed and mounted men in the nineteenth century?

I just spent all day Tuesday reading Pekka Hämäläinen’s The Comanche Empire, an elegant, fascinating, and provocative book that made for a terrific conversation in my graduate seminar yesterday.  But:  the author devoted about 10 pages of a 500 page book devoted to Comanche women and female slaves, the people whose bodies were the objects of violent raids, and whose bodies and labor were central to the borderlands economy.  Also:  when women come up, it’s usually in the passing expression “women and children.”  Womenenchildren–the passive objects of history, never the subjects.  Like I said:  Parkman and Turner except written from the Comanche perspective.

Here’s something I’ve been discussing with some other women proffies over e-mail as well as with my graduate students:  white women have been much more successful in infiltrating the American historical profession than non-white scholars of either sex.  And yet, the study of race and ethnicity both as subjects and analytical perspectives appear to me to be much more institutionalized than the study of women or the analytical perspective of gender and sexuality, which suggests that the white, male majority of professional historians are on board with race and ethnicity as important historical subjects and analytical perspectives, but not so much with women and gender.  For example, it is nearly unimaginable that a scholar in my field would write an article that doesn’t address race or ethnicity questions at all, and yet there is a thriving market for essays and books that either entirely overlook or largely ignore women’s history and/or avoid a gendered analysis.

To be clear:  this is not an argument for doing less with ethnicity and race!  (In fact, this blog has argued in the past that the decline in interest in women’s history is particularly lamentable because it has happened well before we have a critical mass of studies on the lives and experiences of women of color in North American history, and women in early North America most particularly.)  I merely want  us to consider a set of questions:  why haven’t women’s and gender historians been as effective in pushing their subject and analytical framework for understanding history?  Are we “too nice” when reviewing work that ignores women and gender but is otherwise meritorious?  (Why don’t we insist that an article or book couldn’t possibly be meritorious if it utterly ignores women’s and gender history?  I’m sick to death of reading articles whose interests clearly intersect with the women’s and gender historiography but which ignore it entirely.)  Why does women’s history seem like yesterday’s news, whereas race and ethnicity continue to be viewed as fresh perspectives?  Why have straight,  white male scholars thrown themselves into the study of race, while they keep their distance from (or even disparage) women’s history and gender studies?  (At least in my subjective experience, the male historians I know who write about women’s and gender history and take them just as seriously as I do are out gay men.)

The segregation of women’s and gender history is reminiscent of Native American traditions around blood rituals:  in order to avoid  contamination, most male historians prefer to segregate women’s and gender history into an intellectual menstrual hut, and to keep women away (as both authors of relevant books and as historical subjects as well) while they write about the masculine blood rituals of warfare and hunting, resisting slavery, building canals and railroads, enforcing or fighting Jim Crow laws, etc.

Well, I won’t segregate myself or my intellectual agenda. It’s time to get angry about this.  Bloody or not, here I come!

UPDATE, 8/30/2012 at 2:30 p.m. MDT:  In clearing out my e-mailbox today, I found an e-mail from Martha Nell Smith and Janet Golden alerting me to the fact that the Woodrow Wilson Foundation has decided to cancel its Women’s Studies Dissertation Fellowship Program.  Smith and Golden serve–or thought they served–on the final selection committee for the dissertation fellowship.  According to Golden, the WWF made this decision “without consulting any of the final selection folks, without a plan to build up the endowment and return the fellowship program to action and without asking for help from the women’s studies community, . . . in what I regard as a genuine rebuff to women’s studies  scholars in all disciplines and to their students.”  Sign the petition here.

65 thoughts on “Women’s and gender history has menstrual blood smeared all over it. If you read this post, you too will be contaminated.

  1. Wow–thanks so much, Squadrato. This is exactly the kind of synergy (or structural homology) I was getting at in my post, but your examples really flesh this out. I was also thinking about the ignoring/erasure of the feminist historiography by any other than feminist scholars, too, but I’m not at all surprised to hear about the real world consequences for hiring practices. (Couldn’t you have just pointed out that the second job candidate you mention was an a$$hole to several people on the regular faculty? Seems like that would be a disqualifying item regardless of the misogyny, but of course, the misogyny frosts the cupcake.)

    I hope your trip & professional engagements are going well! Safe travels.

    Trudy–I hope your students get something out of this conversation, and please let them know they are welcome to join in the comments, too.

    And on the Gen X pol point: I guess Sarah Palin is going down the GOP memory hole, after George W. Bush. It’s not like it was all that difficult to grasp her age & generational status–after all she had just given birth earlier in 2008! So obs. not a boomer, the youngest of whom would have been about 46 or 47 in 2008.

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  2. Right on. It’s disturbing how male subjectivity still rules the writing of history.

    (And aside from being sexist, it’s also heterocentric. Not all women were “wives,” and not all men had wives.

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  3. Pingback: Great Men and Famous Deeds, plus trucknutz. : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

  4. I think we have spent too many time policing scholars’ attention to women and gender in their research and writing. We now need to start pointing accusing fingers and policing publishers who allow such lopsided publications.

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  5. Pingback: Contamination history | Chinesenamesea

  6. I agree that women’s perspectives have been glossed over in the study of Native history, but I feel that your use of the “menstrual hut” as a metaphor is judgmental and reductive. If you have a personal beef with this practice, which was not used by all North American Plains tribes, that’s your perspective; however, it’s these kinds of judgmental screeds that have othered us for centuries and made it so much easier for historians to remove nuance from their records when the histories of our cultures are studied.

    While I respect your scholarship, I question your use of such language as “But is it really an intervention for which modern historians should be congratulated when we assume that historical Native Americans were rational and had their own politics?” Living in societies of any kind is in itself political organization, and I’m wondering what constitutes “rational,” and if rationality can be measured scientifically and applied as a quantitative measurement rather than thrown about in a gleeful, racist manner as you chose to do in this particular sentence. Perhaps you were using hyperbole; regardless, there are female American Indian graduate students and professors doing amazing work in this field, who you could have found by doing a Google search and consulted before making sweeping generalizations about a broad swath of the country with cultural practices that vary significantly from nation to nation. Perhaps their studies might have uncovered some of the answers to the questions you ask in your post.

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  7. “regardless, there are female American Indian graduate students and professors doing amazing work in this field, who you could have found by doing a Google search and consulted before making sweeping generalizations about a broad swath of the country with cultural practices that vary significantly from nation to nation. Perhaps their studies might have uncovered some of the answers to the questions you ask in your post.”

    Right on. That’s who I’m using and citing in MY research. But this post doesn’t claim that this work isn’t being done or doesn’t exist. It claims that this research isn’t being recognized, rewarded, or cited the way that big studies of “empire” or “the early American West” are.

    BTW, I didn’t make the claim that Natives on the great plains and great basin engaged in menstrual seclusion. That comes out of my research on the Wabanaki, whose gender segregation traditions are very well documented. I’ve also read studies that suggest that menstrual seclusion was practiced by the Cherokee, and may still be in some Cherokee communities. I just thought that the practice of menstrual seclusion by some historical Native communities was too perfect a metaphor to pass up. But I can see your point that it may have suggested a universal practice that was in fact local and situational.

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  8. Pingback: Too many d00dly nutsacks: I want out. : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

  9. Pingback: Woodrow Wilson Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship in Women’s Studies: an update : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

  10. Pingback: Woodrow Wilson Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship in Women’s Studies: an update | Historiann

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  12. Pingback: Great Men and Famous Deeds, plus trucknutz. | Historiann

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