Gender, history and biography

From “The Kennedys:  A Fumbled Handoff of the Torch,” by Sam Tanenhaus:

In 1963, shortly after her husband was murdered, Mrs. Kennedy granted an interview with Mr. White, who had covered the Kennedy election and then written his classic account, “The Making of the President, 1960.”

“Once, the more I read of history the more bitter I got,” Mrs. Kennedy reflected. Her husband, who in childhood had devoured romantic history books, viewed it very differently. “For Jack, history was full of heroes. And if it made him this way — if it made him see the heroes — maybe other boys will see.”

“Maybe other boys will see?”  That seems to sum it all up, doesn’t it?  History is about heroes, heroes are men, and heroes are meant to inspire boys.  This is not a criticism of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis–she experienced reading history as alienating or even embittering, rather than inspiring, and that’s the fault of historians.  I think her comments about the gendering of history are accurate even today, 45 years later. 

This is why I’m interested in women’s biography right now–for a long time I’ve worried that my biography of Esther Wheelwright won’t be perceived as theoretically sophisticated enough, or cool enough.  But women’s history is still such a relatively new field, with many discoveries to be made.  Discovering new women’s biographies may in fact be a much more radical undertaking than it appears to be on the surface.  I’ve argued all along that what may seem to be the most traditional and staid of all historical genres might in fact be dramatically subversive both for history and biography when a little girl and/or a woman is at the center of inquiry. 

Biography insists that its subject is of paramount importance to history.  Biography is powerful:  Cataloging the lives of the saints worked pretty well in popularizing Roman Catholicism and moving it from the margins to the center of European history and culture.  If more women’s biographies are written, read, and incorporated into school curricula, then the argument about who and what is important in history will be won.  We don’t have to write “sheroic” history–that is too flat and old-hat for me, not to mention an approach that usually privileges the overly privileged and stories that conform to the old Whig trajectory.  We must simply write about women’s lives unapologetically, and with specificity, nuance, and telling detail that puts them at the center of history rather than at the margins. 

History isn’t therapy–or at least, it doesn’t function very efficiently as therapy.  It is, however, ideology, and from my perspective, women’s history hasn’t begun to make a dent on what most people see as “History.”

0 thoughts on “Gender, history and biography

  1. Bravo, Historiann. I made some of these points–infinitely less eloquently or articulatedly, I should say–over a glass of spilled wine after an old PCEAS seminar at Swarthmore College a way lot of years ago. Well, slap my face, you should have seen the glare of incredulous disrecognition I got. “Why bi-oooog-raphy,” ze said–no, she said–that’s about the last thing we need for women’s history. I was pretty too-new to the project of trying to recover the complexity of the life of an obscure woman to have much hope of a snappy comeback, much less the rationale you articulate here. (Plus, there was the matter of the various shoes and the zinfandel cascade!). But I haven’t changed my view, and it would have been nice to have had some of this stuff to throw in, esp. the “lives of the saints” move. I think if you look at some of the stuff coming off of Paula Backscheider’s ongoing seminar in the last two decades you’d see that a beachhead has been at least established. Would especially recommend a book whose title is escaping me, by Mary-Jo Kietzman, on a Restoration Era identity-rebel in London and the plantations. (How could EW be “not cool?”)


  2. Thanks for your vote of confidence, Indyanna. EW is so not cool–not in this Protestant Anglophone country, or among the Anglophones in the Great White North. (And now there are so few nuns left in most Western countries that most people today don’t have any ideas about nuns, let alone know anything about the mysterious pull they had over Catholic school girls before 1970. Nuns are just not interesting to anyone but feminist scholars–but I’m doing my best with what I’ve got. I’m working on my portrait of EW as a really cool, determined, and driven little girl.

    You’ll have to tell me off-line who it was whose shoes you ruined.


  3. Brilliant! Fascinating quote from Jackie Kennedy! Women’s biography is about my heroines, and I have read every biography possible on the lives of women. Jeanette Howard Foster, Mary Daly, Audre Lord, Robin Morgan, Abigail Adams, Susan B. Anthony, Edna St. Vincent Millay,Romaine Brooks, The Rose Sisters, everything ever written about Virginia Woolf, Vita Sackville-West, Getrude and Alice… I see these biographies and autobiographies as fuel for the life of the female soul.

    These heroines are like my personal advisors and inspirers. I apply Mary Daly’s theories to the business world– amazing results. Recently, I discovered Vita Sackville-West — she actually recorded her poem “The Land” on a record, and it was on You Tube of all places.

    Biography for women is essential so that we can balance the patriarchal indoctrination of our youth. Jackie Kennedy’s anger at history is intriguing, what was she trying to tell us? I think of the pain and suffering of all the women betrayed in the marriages to sexist men like JFK, I feel outrage over Coretta Scott King’s suffering, and I feel elated at the radical lesbians who broke such incredible ground in the 19th and early 20th century.

    You can hear Virginia Woolf’s voice on YouTube as well, by the way.

    How I wish we could get CDs or other recordings of lectures from Mary Daly– her words of wisdom spoken and recorded for the world’s women to hear!! We also need film biographies of so many great women who are still alive, and still powerful feminist voices. We need film biographies of every living feminist who was great — all the lesbian priests and clerics, we need them all!

    Historiann, thank you for writing this! In a world that tries to deny women our essential heroines, feminist biography is not only inherently subversive, it is essential. Women have more control of the content of books than just about any other media. Books provide THE most accurate portrayal of lesbians in history and today!
    But still, believe it or not, women all over the U.S. don’t even know a powerful radical feminist movement even existed in Britain and America in the 19th century. Women are still starving for the truth of their lives, and I view academic feminists also as true sources of heroism — be sure to get out in the trenches with your scholarship, because we need your wisdom now more than ever!!


  4. I was really interested in the point about not being theoretically sophisticated enough — because that is one of the pressures affecting a lot of us who do recovery work, whether biographical or not. That’s where tenure comes in. Shouldn’t we be able to do our work without looking in the rear-view mirror to be attacked by some Zizekian discipline enjoying his or her symptom?

    And I suspect the Heroes have something to do with it. In literary studies, it went like this. Right when people started doing more work on women writers, Latino writers, Af-Am novels, Asian-Am history, the postructuralist attack undercut the subject, the novel, literature, etc. Derrida went after the archive before we could even get in there to find the migrant archives that had escaped those searching for heroes. Do I sound paranoid or is the pressure of theory really the man’s voice?

    More Sheroes!!


  5. I’m pretty sure we should hesitate to see hagiography as a variety of biography: especially, as I suspect the “heroic biography” mode often works in the (secular) hagiographic mode: that is, it’s possibly part of the problem, rather than the solution. Maybe some of Historicann’s other medieval commentators who know more about hagiography could weigh in on the “lives of Saints” move?


  6. Satsuma and Rad, thanks for your encouragement and support.

    Rad’s comment about the undercutting of the subject right at the moment when more than a few token studies of writers who are not white males emerged is really thought-provoking. I think there were two parallel moves going on in History at the same time (or perhaps a few years later): one was the rise in cultural history in the early 1990s, which took historians out of the archives and away from social history and encouraged us to focus on textual evidence. The other was the call for the “return to narrative,” also in the early to mid-1990s, which scolded academic historians for talking only to each other in jargon-laden prose, instead of writing thrilling and sweeping master narratives that would engage a broader audience.

    Both of these maneuvers had the same effect as Rad’s description of the Derridian revolution in literary studies. (Indeed, it’s false to separate literature and history in these years, because together they collaborated in the “cultural studies” juggernaut.) Cultural history is not ideologically conservative, and I consider myself a cultural historian for the most part. It is, however, if practiced to the exclusion of social history, methodologically conservative. There are two generations now of grad students and new Ph.D.s who really believe they can “read into” a text like, say, Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia” to know everything worth knowing about late colonial and Revolutionary Virginia. Meanwhile, people and things in the archives await discovery–the people and things who couldn’t write their own master narratives 200+ years ago, that is (enslaved people, plebian women and men, children, etc.)

    The “return to narrative” was I think wedded to the start to more ideologically conservative goals. It could more reasonably be called the “run from complexity,” or the “flight from unpleasantness,” since narrative histories still privilege the stories and people we’ve heard endlessly all about in this discipline: politics and privileged men. In order to appeal to a broader audience of readers (or, more importantly, to the book-buying public), most narrative histories stick to a whiggish narrative of progress without all of those messy details of what we’re progressing away from: slavery, racial prejudice, the exploitation of labor, the disenfranchisement of women, etc. White men can be cast as the heroes who led the struggle, instead of the oppressors who benefited from it all those long centuries. Hurray!

    Only one thing, Rad: I’m not writing a “sheroic” biography. Esther Wheelwright was very much a woman of her times, and someone who benefited from colonial power. There may be a gap between modern and pre-modern lives, in that there are very few pre-modern lives that can be cast as unambiguously “heroic.” (This is all related to modern history’s problematic whig obsessions, which don’t weigh as heavily on those of us doing pre-1700 or pre-1800 history.)


  7. I’m not convinced that biography is still seen as something less that “real” history. In 2007 there was a fascinating summer seminar at the Schlesinger Library on “Writing Past Lives: Biography as History,” that focused on women historians and biographers and their subjects. I only attended the morning panels and lectures, but there was plenty of theory, historiography, and related issues that were fully part of the discussion. A brief report on the seminar appeared in the AHA newsletter, see


  8. Kathie–good to hear from you again. Biography is back, and women’s biography in particular has a lot of adherents (we had several sessions at the Berks last year on this topic, and not because I solicited them!) But, it is a very old genre of historical writing–and it more often reinscribes the prejudices of history rather than challenging them. Thanks for the link to the Schlesinger seminar–wish I could have been there!

    And, Tom: I’d love to hear more about hagiography from the experts. My problem with traditional biography is that it functions so frequently as “secular hagiography,” as you point out. My point about The Lives of the Saints is that they were very effective tools in the writing of Christian history. So, I was speaking more to their PR power than their content, which I assume most feminist biographers would improve on greatly.

    On this point: I was just reading a selection from the Jesuit Relations in class in which a young “savage” woman was praised for her interest in sacred biography in 1694:

    She has taken for her special patronesses the Christian Ladies who have sanctified themselves in the state of matrimony, — namely, St. Paula, St. Frances, St. Margaret, St. Elizabeth, and St. Bridget, whom she invokes many times during the day saying things to them that one would not believe from a young savage,” JR 64:211.

    That’s some damn fine PR, and an excellent investment, don’t you think? Imagine what could happen with feminist biography. (This is not to say that hagiography of women saints didn’t inspire feminist action–just to suggest what might happen if actual feminist biography got as wide a reading and hearing as the Lives of the Saints.)


  9. In my lower level course, the books I assigned were all biographies, because I thought those were more accessible. As a girl I read biographies voraciously — I think I read every biography in my elementary school library — and when I write I do want to bring the life of the people I’m writing about alive in some similar way, even if I am writing social/cultural history. So go biography. And I am sure you will be incredibly sophisticated, even if the sophistication is just in the background.

    But I was thinking of you this weekend at a conference where I had to do my “You know, talking about these issues would be much easier if you’d actually think about gender and it really isn’t news guys” rant; I thought “Historiann would have had the snappy comeback and they would have paid attention to her.”


  10. I’m nourished by biographies of Barbara Stanwyck — not because her politics were consonant with mine, and not because her way of living was applicable to the postmodern challenges of women.

    It was because she was alone for so much of her life, despite her marriages, unwed to any one studio (which in a way made her a career-long scab), and yet she managed to create a solid body of creative work. Her endurance was the marvel, from BABY FACE to THORN BIRDS.


  11. There have been at least three NEH seminars that I can think of in the past fifteen years on biography. One, led by Paula Backscheider in London in 1992 and 1994 (the latter of which I was involved in); one at the Newberry Library in Chicago I think in 1997, led by James Grossman and Elliot Gorn; and the one referenced by Kathie above (maybe not an NEH seminar?). Grossman and Gorn, as I recall, made the at least rhetorically useful point that the lived life is perhaps the only common unit of experience or category of analysis shared by all persons in all times. Probably why biographies sell so well. I never quite got why they were ever considered as at best a sub-species of history either.


  12. I am a high-school history teacher in a girl’s school. Each term I have my students give presentations on art of the century we’re discussing, and women who lived during the time period. The short presentations expose my students to more than the name-dropping of the textbooks and a broader variety of women’s experiences, roles, challenges, sucesses, etc. Overall the presentations have been very sucessful in getting the girls to notice how diverse women’s experiences were and are. Linking biography with course content helps add depth of understanding, and breaks away from a “listing facts” style of history.

    This is my first year with the course, and the comments along with your post are giving me some ideas about how I can improve the assignment next year.


  13. I have taught an undergrad seminar on biography and autobiography twice now, and it was a frustrating experience. If anything, the class was frustrating because biography is such an exceptional genre. The students generally had a hard time reading the books critically; it was especially difficult to push them to evaluate the subject’s position in his/her place in time. (As in, what does the life of X teach us about lived experience the era of the American Revolution? Did everyone’s lives change during this “revolutionary” moment? etc.)

    Interestingly, I also found class as important a dividing line as gender in terms of biography and identification. The gender dividing lines were what I expected; the women in the class were far more successful at finding ways to access biographies of men than vice versa. (This did produce perhaps the most lively moment in the class. When one male student declared _A Midwife’s Tale_ “boring!”, a female student informed him that this is much of what women do all day, and that perhaps he should think about how “boring” it was for someone to clean his poopy diapers help him blow his nose when he was growing up.)

    Maybe this reflects the population of students I had, but they seemed most interested in life stories that foregrounded class and the aspirations of “ordinary” working people. They were very, very taken with Al Young’s _Shoemaker and the Tea Party_, particularly the way that an ordinary laborer could throw off the habits of deference and assert himself. As one female student put it, she could relate to the “little guy” even though she wasn’t a guy.

    As I said, the class was frustrating. I hope if I teach it again I will develop a better strategy for getting them to engage the books more critically. But the students certainly found the books more “readable,” by and large, than they have other readings I have given in other classes.


  14. Thanks for all of your comments, Susan, cgeye, Indyanna, Ramblin’ Rabbit, and John S. (And thanks for thinking that I’d have a snappy comment and get listened to Susan–would that it were so!)

    I too have taught classes based on biographies and autobiographies, and I’ve faced the same opportunities and limitations that RR and John S. mention. John S.’s comment gets to the question as to why biography is so ideologically powerful: because the historian/biographer focuses hir story on a single subject, with a single, defined lifespan, it’s much easier to craft a narrative and settle on a story arc than if the book is a social or cultural history of a more complex phenomenon. We (and I bet, most of our students) can recognize those Lives of the Saints as so much hokum in the service of building up the Roman Catholic church, but how many of our students–or the history buffs in the general public–want to believe that Joseph Ellis’s or David McCullough’s treatments of various “founding fathers” are just as full of hokum in the service of American exceptionalism and the herioc vision of America’s origins?

    How frustrating that all of the students can see the value of George Robert Twelves Hughes (the protagonist of The Shoemaker and the Tea Party), but that the male students can’t see a bio of Martha Ballard (of A Midwife’s Tale) in the same way. I still think that more feminist biographies can cure that, eventually, but that it will be a 100-year cure, if that speedy.


  15. Pingback: Feminist Law Professors » Blog Archive » “Gender, history and biography”

  16. Thanks for this post! Good historical biography is inherently theoretically sophisticated because good biography must skillfully engage and deploy a number of intersecting interdisciplinary approaches. For example, the biography I’m writing requires me to move between social and cultural history of the C19, the history of woman suffrage, the history of the trans-Mississippi west, women’s journalism history & literary studies, Native American studies, etc.–and all this requires me to be able to move between these intersecting fields while also keeping in mind the theoretical issues raised by my subject’s status as a woman, as well as her shifting subject positions in terms of class and other statuses throughout her life. And then the challenge is to come up with a narrative that lassoes all of this to tell an important story in an interesting and engaging way. Some days when I’m sitting at my computer surrounded by piles of notes and photocopies from archives I wonder what I’ve gotten myself into!

    As a result, biography as a form of historical recovery work (especially on women) is totally subversive–it gets us back to basics and back into the archives to take a fresh look at larger historical events through the unexplored lived experiences of real lives–and at the same time, forces us to grapple with the always messy loose ends of those real lives who don’t always fit neatly into our established theoretical categories. And in doing so, we learn more about ourselves and how we got to where we are. Exploring how women do or don’t or might partially fit in one or more categories is both the beauty and the challenge of biography–and that’s what makes it subversive in its power to get us to take a second look at those categories that have become too rigid. And this is good historical work.

    But then this discussion also makes me think that the folks who pooh-pooh biography–especially women’s biography–are really afraid of the complex, difficult project that it is–and also afraid of how it might ultimately force them to take a second look at some of their long-held assumptions . . . and, God forbid, maybe change them.


  17. Biography is such a powerful genre. The revelations of the subject’s life, it’s context in time and enviornment, the subject’s effect (or lack of) on the things contemparary to them and after. Of course, much is revealed about the author (especiialy in autobiography). One can also read between the lines and learn much about the author and what was in their minds by the way they relate facts, the language, words, inclusions and exclusions, etc.. The biography of women should, and will be, as extensive as can be. As an undereducated male, I look forward to knowing the WHOLE story of our history, not just the spin. Great post and THANKS for your illuminating snappiness!


  18. Thanks, Prof. Zero and Robert for your comments. Little Midwestern College’s comment encapsulates my thoughts exactly. When researching the life of a “non-traditional” biographical subject–i.e. someone who doesn’t leave boxes of letters or shelves of papers behind–the task of biography is more complex and raises questions about the art of biography that better-documented subjects don’t raise. The complexity is, I think, infinitely more interesting.

    My favorite biographies are not obvious subjects of biography, where the author had to go and dig up a lot of stuff that wasn’t obviously connected in order to fashion a life. Nell Painter’s bio of Sojourner Truth is wonderful. I like Camilla Townsend’s book on Malintzin, too, and there was a great book on Tituba by Elaine Breslaw. None of these women read or wrote–and yet, through ingenuity and hard work, these authors made their lives recoverable in some fashion.

    I think women’s biography, and the biography of non-traditional subjects in general, should raise questions about the knowability of any biographical subject. Do authors of traditional biographical subjects–statesmen, explorers, religious leaders, generals, etc.–have a false sense of knowability because of the bounty of their subjects’ papers and letters? Maybe so.


  19. Ahhh, Historiann–the last question is the jackpot. My second book is going to be a biography of sorts–telling the life story of an enslaved man looking “through” the sources of the plantation he lived on. The project has inherent limits on it and will require me to make some interpretive leaps. But I have been frustrated when presenting this material that there are always members of the audience who are willing to throw their hands up and declare that since enslaved men and women didn’t leave the records that Jefferson, Washington, Landon Carter, or John Tayloe did then we can’t try to write their life stories. The abundance of papers does seem to lead to a false sense of(historians’) security. This makes no sense to me. Were we waiting for that magic bullet letter from TJ talking about his affair with Sally Hemings? Did we really think that since he didn’t write about it directly–that we know of–it didn’t happen?

    I think the question of empathy here is crucial. I don’t mean to suggest that historians are unfeeling, but rather than they feel more comfortable trying to make interpretive leaps along certain lines; John Demos admitted as much in his _Unredeemed Captive_ book. This is true even for some women’s bios: _A Midwife’s Tale_ would not look as it does if Laurel Ulrich didn’t identify strongly with Martha Ballard. I think this is somewhat inevitable, but I also think that we shouldn’t let this tendency discourage us from narrating a wider range of life stories.

    Ultimately, I see the issue in democratic (small d) terms: the number of non-founding fathers vastly outnumbered the number of founding fathers in early America. As one of my professors told me when he found out I wanted to write a biography of an enslaved man: “Good. The slave owners have had enough damn books written about them!” (Historiann: I will let you guess which professor it was who made such gruff, Puritanical pronouncements on such matters.)


  20. Chuckle. Good one, that last sentence…

    I’m being astonished lately how much the electronic availability of source materials of all sorts is changing the boundaries of what you can think about and imagine, much what less you can do, in uncovering the lives of the traditionally obscure. Google Books is the obvious but almost the least of it, with electronic catalogues, occasional troves of actual scanned documents, etc. The cross-referencing capabilities are really dense and exciting. It requires a certain tenacity, and willingness to be more intuitive and perhaps less categorical about what you’re “lookinf for.” This is not specifically limited to biographical subjects, but it certainly pertains to them.


  21. Who is the future subject of your bio, John S.? It sounds great.

    Empathy is important–we only choose our subjects because of empathy, because of the conviction that someone’s life was important. (Personally, I don’t have a lot of empathy for John Adams, but YMMV.) Demos was a little too empathetic with John and Stephen Williams, in my judgment. That book has very modern assumptions about how 18th C Anglo-American families operated. It’s a great book–but it’s so not about the unredeemed captive, and all about the two men listed above.


  22. And, yes–Indyanna. The technology of historical research has shifted dramatically from when I completed my first book research (2002) and when I began in earnest the research for my second book (2006-07). And it seems to be changing every day. I can’t believe how much 18th C history I can find on the web. It’s certainly going to make my senior research seminar a heck of a lot easier for my students.


  23. I would very much like to read your biography as an old Ursuline interested in the history of the order
    Best wishes
    Australian Ursuline


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