Original Zins: Little thoughts on biography and women's history

dame-desprit.jpgAs in other history subfields, there is a great deal of contemporary interest in biography among women’s historians.  At the Berkshire Conference on the History of Women this year, we have two panels, a workshop, and a seminar on women’s biography and feminist autobiography, with a total of 32 scholars presenting their work or commenting on the proceedings (program available here).  When we announced that a seminar on women’s history and biography would be led by Judith Zinsser, co-author (with Bonnie Anderson) of the two-volume foundational work in European women’s history, A History of Their Own (1988, rev. 2000), and most recently the author of La Dame d’Esprit:  A Biography of the Marquise du Chatelet (Viking/Penguin, 2006), we were deluged with applications.  So, clearly biography is hot, and I expect that these sessions will attract throngs of other women’s historians who are working on biographies of their own.

But, are women’s history and biography compatable genres?  After all, biography is a genre of history that argues implicitly, if not explicitly, that men of action and vision are the great actors on history’s stage.  (See for example this thread over at Edge of the American West asking for names of heretofore obscure people who have changed American history.  When Historiann wrote in with women’s names, her suggestions were greeted by…a chorus of chirping crickets!  There were other women’s names tossed in later, but all of them–Lucy Stone, Margaret Sanger, Rachel Carson, the Grimke sisters–have had at least one biographer, and their places are assured in the women’s history cannon.)  So historians, who are prisoners of the text anyway, end up writing biographies of elite men who enjoyed the privilege of literacy, the time to record their thoughts in journals and letters, and the means to ensure that their papers didn’t end up lining shoes or at the bottom of a privy after their deaths.  (This is especially true of biographies of people who lived before 1800, when the politics of American literacy guaranteed that very few female, brown, and/or working-class people had either the education or the time for writing.) 


Zinsser is a pathbreaking scholar who has written frankly and compellingly about the challenges of feminist biography, and how the subjectivity of the author and her times inevitably and unavoidably influence her scholarship.  She was a guest blogger over at the Penguin Group blog last month–click here to read her reflections on her life and the life of Emilie du Chatelet, the great mathematician, Enlightenment salonniere, and the translator of the authoritative French version of Newton’s Principia.  (Zinsser’s book is now available in paperback as Emilie du Chatelet:  Daring Genius of the Enlightenment, shown here.)  Let us–Judith Zinsser and Historiann–know what you think in the comments.  Does women’s history demand a reconceptualization of biography?  Is there a difference between feminist biography and women’s biography?  What are some of the best women’s biographies that you have read, and why do you think they were successful?  If you are contemplating or writing a biography of a woman now, what are your challenges?  How do literacy politics and power play into the period and region of the world you work in, and how do they shape your agenda as a scholar?

"Fasten your seatbelts…

margo-channing2.jpg…it’s going to be a bumpy night.”  Well, I’ll be up late tonight watching the returns from the Florida Republican primary.  (Here’s hoping that primary season ends with a bang a week from today.)

I once taught a four year-old to say that line with pitch-perfect Margo Channing delivery, after she tossed back apple juice from a martini glass.  It was almost as funny as re-enacting with her the scene at the end of Chinatown where Faye Dunaway gets slapped by Jack Nicholson as she cries, “She’s my sister! *slap* She’s my daughter! *slap* She’s my sister AND my daughter!”

We need a new metaphor: fixing "leaky pipes" won't cut it

leaky-pipe-jpeg.JPGHistoriann rolled out of bed on the wrong side, late, and with bad hair this morning, so here’s a suitably cranky Monday post to get the rest of you amped up as you trudge off to do the dumb things you gotta do today.  Leslie Madsen-Brooks over at BlogHer picks up on the “leaky pipline” experience of women in academe with a multidisciplinary round-up of current commentary called “How the University (Doesn’t) Work (Esp. for Women):  Labor Relations in Higher Ed.” She points us to a forthcoming article in the spring 2008 Hypatia by MIT philosopher Sally Haslanger called “Changing the Ideology and Culture of Philosophy:  Not by Reason (Alone)” (click the link for the full text.) 

Haslanger’s paper offers insight into the one humanities discipline that remains overwhelmingly white and male (instead of just mostly white and male).  In addition to several disturbing stories from her career, she offers several data points to support her analysis, including a count of the numbers of men and women who have published in the top philosophy journals from 2002-07, the numbers of men and women editors and associate editors at those journals, and the sex ratios of the top 20 philosophy departments in the U.S.  Her analysis of the current state of the field sounds somewhat like where history was perhaps 20 or 25 years ago as recounted by Nancy Hewitt at the AHA and on this blog earlier this month

The other links that Madsen-Brooks provides suggest however that even if we fix the leaks, men and women live in different plumbing systems, as it were.  She points us to our friends over at How the University Works, who have some recent posts on the gendered division of labor in the university as a whole, with women found mostly in the humanities and in non-tenure track positions, and men dominating administration and high-status, higher paid fields like engineeering and business.  Thus, much like the gendering of medicine sub-specialties that Historiann cited, universities have accomodated women only by permitting them a foothold in the lowest-paying, lowest-prestige positions.  How the University Works also has a recent post on the gendering of law both in private firms and law schools, found recently at Feminist Law Professors, where Ann Bartow and hew crew have done a bang-up job posting on questions of gender equity in academia overall as well as in the law in particular.  (See especially their recent post on how double-blind reviews magically increase the numbers of women who get published in a scholarly journal.)

Barack and Roll

Barack Obama is a happy, happy man today.  He trounced his rivals for the Democratic nomination yesterday in South Carolina, and has the wind at his back as the rest of us all trudge toward Super Tuesday.

wonka_gold_ticket3.jpgTenured Radical has a post up that notes Caroline Kennedy’s endorsement of Obama this morning in the New York Times.  The Radical one writes, “If the Kennedy family hits the campaign trail for Obama, it’s all over but the shouting, friends.”  If the whole family–Senator Edward M., Congressman Patrick, and Lieutenant Governor Kathleen–you know, the Kennedys who are actually in politics–hits the trail for one candidate, that would make a statement.  But, seriously:  does anyone really care who Caroline Kennedy thinks should be the next President?  (I suppose the title of CK’s op-ed piece should clue us in as to why her opinion should matter:  “A President Like My Father.”)  But, is being (tragically) the only survivor of your birth family something that should make your opinion matter?  (It may matter to baby boomers and older people, but I don’t think she matter to my generation, or certainly to anyone under 30.)

Obama’s campaign benefits from the notion that he represents a break with the past, and from the tedious royalism of Bush-Clinton, Bush-Clinton that looms with the prospect of a Hillary Clinton presidency.  Hauling out the genealogical blessing of Caroline Kennedy is trying to have it both ways (although it may be a canny maneuver because Clinton’s support tends to come from those who are 45 and older).  But I thought that the Republican party was the party that celebrated and naturalized unearned privilege.  Shouldn’t Democrats get over this worship of blood and family?  Allons, enfants de la patrie…

UPDATE:  Tenured Radical has a new post up noting that Senator Kennedy’s endorsement of Obama is confirmed, and she comments on Paul Krugman’s column this morning in which he comments on the lessons of 1992 for any Democrat elected president this year.  Personally, I’ve never believed that Obama actually believes that he is a uniquely non-divisive person who can “unite the country.”  This has always seemed like a shrewd way to differentiate himself from Senator Clinton, but I think (I hope?) he’s too smart to fall for his own rhetoric.  Bill and Hillary Clinton were not divisive, their “sin” was that they won–in 1992, and again in 1996, and again in the failed impeachment of 1999.  If he is elected, he and Michelle will be Public Enemies #1 and #2 in the right-wing playbook anyway, and Krugman’s column reminds us all that any new Democratic president had better understand that and be ready to swing for the fences on progressive policy.

Six degrees of separation in American history, law, literature, and art

Alfred Brophy has a fun post up at Legal History Blog called “Kyra Sedgwick, Catharine Sedgwick, and Landscape Art.”  I won’t spoil the surprise of all the connections he’s found in the talented Sedgwick family, but it’s a great post that gets at the serendipity of the intellecutal life, and the pleasures of interdisciplinarity.  He illustrates his post with a nice Thomas Cole landscape painting, the likes of which is mentioned in passing in a Catharine Sedgwick novel that he’s reading now.

To return the favor, here’s an intriguing painting by Thomas Cole, “The Architect’s Dream” (1840),  in the Toledo Museum of Art.  It’s got it all–Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Gothic, and Neoclassiscal architecture.


Here’s another interesting connection (considerably lower-brow than Professor Brophy’s):  Thomas Cole was part of  the Hudson River school of landscape painters.  Kyra Sedgwick plays a homocide detective on The Closer.  There are a suspiciously large number of homocide victims and perps who were/are affiliated with Hudson University.  (And you thought that your job–or lack of job–was bad!  Trust me, you do not want a job at Hudson, no matter what the teaching load is, or how badly you want to live in New York, or how hunky you think Detective Green is.)  Have a great weekend, everyone, and don’t spend too much of it on bloggy badness, or watching L&O reruns.

Resigning Women, or, should you tell them what you really think?

burning-bridge.jpgA great friend of Historiann’s in feminist studies has left academia for good.  While this was a huge loss to her students and her discipline, she was treated so poorly by her department and the institution she worked for that it’s been nothing but a tremendous relief to her.  In addition to resigning her academic position, she left the city that she has lived in for the past decade, moved 2,000 miles away, and has gone into a new line of work where she is succeeding admirably.  For the first time in nine years, she is respected, valued, and is getting positive feedback on her work.  She’s elated by the fact that her new colleagues are no longer abusing her, and she feels almost bewildered by the praise and generous reception she has received in her new position. 

Although (as Historiann says) living well is the best revenge, sometimes (in my friend’s words) “revenge is the best revenge.”  I resent the fact that when a department or institution succeeds in driving someone out, the institution then gets to tell the story about how the outcast really wasn’t fitting in, or wasn’t all that successful, or was really a very difficult person to work with, or was too big for her britches and who the hell did she think she was, or all of the above, and then some.  So, in the name of speaking truth to power, I’m supportive of my friend sending a letter to all of the people she worked with spelling out very clearly the circumstances she worked in for more than a year, and which ultimately forced her to resign.  It’s heavy on the facts, and rather light on the invective, all things considered.  Because she has left the profession and doesn’t need letters of recommendation from them, she is beyond their reach entirely (although because her major adversaries are not high-status people in academia, its unlikely that their opinion would be terribly meaningful anyway.)  This will embarass her former colleagues, although I’m sure they’ll just tout the letter as proof that she was just a crazy bee-yatch all along.  But, I also think that her story will ring true to many of its recipients.  And although I don’t think her former institution is going to snap-to and reform itself and its practices once it sees her letter, it’s the institution that wins if she doesn’t speak out.  Institutions count on untenured people to be poor, weak, driven by fear, and to remain silent when attacked.  (An observational aside:  why is it that most of the faculty I’ve known who were treated this way were single women, and therefore more economically vulnerable?  Is it just a coincidence?)

I want to hear what you think.  What advice would you give my friend?  Should she send the letter? 


cu-527.JPGI didn’t start this blog to write about Hillary Clinton every day.  But this is really, really sad, people.  At the right is a logo for a group with a really clever acronym (thanks to the TPM Media Borg for the reportage.)  T-shirts with this logo are for sale at $25 each.   Something tells me that this tactic might not be so smart.  Is the “moustache rides 25 cents” t-shirt crowd even old enough to vote, let alone together enough to get registered and get out of the house on election day?

Keep it up, boys.  Your mom is on her way home, and man, is she pissed.