Who indeed is afraid of the distant past (and who says it's distant, anyway)? A call to arms.

bennetthistorymatters1Part II of Judith Bennett’s “History Matters” Women’s History Month book club.  If you haven’t seen it already, go read Part I here.

When my copy of Judith Bennett’s History Matters:  Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism (2006) arrived on the doorstep earlier this winter, I sat down and devoured it.  Yes, it was my constant companion, and even bedtime reading.  At times in the initial chapters, it read like a feminist version of Peter Novick’s That Noble Dream,with bits of gossip dropped here and there (although, frustratingly, I wished that Bennett had dished more than she does–she doesn’t always provide citations when she suggests that people wrote or did something she disapproves of.  However, if you’d like to know what a complete tool Lawrence Stone was, I can direct your attention to p. 14, footnote 36.  The cited condescending book review is available by subscription only on-line, but you can get some of the flava by reading Joan Scott’s angry response here.)  I love Bennett’s passionate, informed conviction that as women’s history has become more institutionalized and thus more distant from the women’s movement, it has lost something vital.

Last week over at Notorious Ph.D., Girl Scholar, several of us got into a discussion about the generational angle of Bennett’s book.  In History Matters, Bennett writes about the excitement of being a graduate student in Toronto in the 1970s at the height of the modern women’s movement, coming out as a lesbian, and helping to invent women’s history all at the same time.  She also writes about her keen disappointment that succeeding generations of women’s historians have lost the founders’ zeal–and although she doesn’t say specifically, my guess is that Generation X women like me are a big part of her disappointment.  We went to college in the 1980s and grad school in the 1980s and 1990s as beneficiaries of the feminist movement who didn’t necessarily think we needed to call ourselves feminists.  We were convinced that all of the major battles were won, and that we could therefore study whatever we wanted, and have careers and wonderful lives as the first post-feminist generation free of the oppressive legal and economic structures and  cultural and religious beliefs that ensnared women for centuries–until now!  Weren’t we lucky?  (For the record:  I was generationally unfashionable in that I always considered myself a feminist and embraced the label, but I was tragically naive until my late 20s about my generation’s ability to escape the bonds that have governed women’s lives for millennia.  In the previous discussion, Belle pointed out that dividing up historians into generations isn’t so neat and clean–for the record, “my generation” means mostly my grad school generation, in that I think it’s when people trained that’s most relevant here.)  Perhaps my thoughts here are too much informed by my generational identity, but I think that a greater appreciation for what Bennett calls “the distant past” in chapter 3, and therefore a better sense of what she calls “patriarchal equilibrium” in chapter 4, would have tempered my youthful arrogance that the rules for women and men had changed completely and that I could just enjoy the benefits without having to continue the fight.

Bennett’s insists that the ancient and medieval past is still relevant to history and to feminism, and she is concerned that women’s history has become almost by definition a modern history field.  Bennett’s research in chapter 3 demonstrating the mad rush to modern history in the historical profession in general, as well as in women’s history conferences and journals in particular, provides conclusive proof of the abandonment of pre-modern and even early modern history (at least by comparison to their presence in the infancy of women’s history in the 1970s).  As someone whose publications are in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century history, I’m poised in-between medievalists like Bennett and the majority of women’s historians, whose work is in twentieth century history, but I’m more sympathetic to the view that the so-called “distant past” is valuable (perhaps, admittedly, out of self-interest.)

One major reason women’s historians have gravitated to modern history I think is that most of us want to write books with happy endings.  As feminist readers and writers, students and professors, we want to think that the women’s movements of the past 230 years have borne some fruit.  This yearning for happy endings is something I see all of the time in the classroom.  Anyone who has taught women’s history across four centuries (as I have in the past) knows that students are demonstrably giddy once we get to around 1800, and can finally talk about feminism through the writings of Olympe de Gouges, Judith Sargent Murray, and Mary Wollstonecraft.  The students who enroll in women’s history courses are largely sympathetic to feminist values, and once we get to modern history’s rapid pace of apparent change, and events (in American history) like the abolition of couverture and slavery, women’s suffrage, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and Sandra Day O’Connor, they’re looking forward to a happy ending that conforms with the Whig takeaway message of their U.S. history survey classes:  American history is all about the spread of liberty, and everyone is getting freer and freer all of the time. 

I now teach American women’s history up to 1800 only, and I can tell that my students think the course is a major bummer.  From the start, it’s a horror show of starvation, disease, exploitation, enslavement, and rape, and then we conclude with the consensus view among early American historians that the Age of Revolutions not only does nothing for women as women, but that there is conclusive evidence that the eighteenth century is dramatically regressive for Native American, African American, and Euro-American women.  (I had a complaint on my course evaluations last term that “we learned a lot about oppressed women, but not much about the majority of women.”  Oh, how I wish I could teach that course, where the “majority” of women in the Americas from 1492 to 1800 weren’t “oppressed!”  The problem is that it would have to be taught as science fiction, not as a history course!)

Bennett notes that while women’s history has become shallower in its focus on modern history, it has become broader with the inclusion of more women’s history outside of the U.S., Canada, and Europe.  She (rightly) suggests that “[t]his is not an either/or situation; we need both more non-Western history and more early history (and sometimes, of course, we get both at once.)  If the former has expanded at the expense of the latter, neither is to blame; instead, the elephant in the room looks to be the history of the modern West whose dominance over both seems to have yielded little ground, if any,” 41.  Bennett’s demand here for more attention to pre-modern history is nothing short of a call for us to return to the longue durée of the Annales school, and is intimately connected to her demand that women’s historians embrace the fact that women’s history is more about continuity than change.  This is a radically counter-cultural idea in the historical profession, which is all about the study of change over time.  But, as Bennett points out, looking for change over time makes sense in some sub-fields, but perhaps not in others, and anyone working in women’s and gender history and the history of sexuality knows in hir bones that our fields are marked much more by depressing, confounding continuity rather than change.  I can’t help but think there’s a generational angle to this, too–with a suggestion that social history (rather than cultural history, which is what all of the kids are into these days) is more useful for developing comparative studies of women across the centuries.  (Bennett offers just such a case study with crunchy, raw social historical data in chapter 5, which examines the durabilty of the wage gap over the past 600+ years.)

Bennett reminds us that women’s history was radically counter-cultural–the mere suggestion that women’s lives were appropriate subjects of historical inquiry was a radical feminist idea back in the day!–and if we lose that urgency that we need to change history, then what’s the point of doing women’s history?  We shouldn’t back away, or deny that we’re involved in a political project–history is always political, so why should we be more defensive (or worse, apologetic) about our work than any other historians?  The whig narrative–and my students’ insistence that American history courses should always have happy endings–is extremely political, and much less grounded in evidence and reason than any women’ s history I’ve ever read.  Don’t we take it for granted that the political position of Ethnic Studies departments is anti-racism (hardly a controversial position, by the way)?  Don’t we simply assume that most environmental historians probably have a dog in the fights about environmental policy today?  The comments to many of my posts on this blog attest to Generation X’s and now Generation Y’s discovery that the academy and its values have changed very little even after 40 years of feminist scholarship and activism inside and outside the sacred groves of academe–maybe we need to go a few decades or centuries back before 1964 to figure it all out.  The fight continues–we didn’t pick it, but it’s our responsibility now.  To the barricades, mes amies!  Aux armes, citoyennes–la jour de gloire n’est pas arrivée. 

P.S.:  Don’t miss next week’s installment over at Tenured Radical, and the March 23 edition by Another Damned Medievalist at Blogenspiel!  And stay tuned for announcements for our last installment, still in the works.

And now, over to you, my esteemed colleagues of the commentariat. . .

121 thoughts on “Who indeed is afraid of the distant past (and who says it's distant, anyway)? A call to arms.

  1. I’d be interested if anybody has access to the latter data. Because our required gen. ed./service course has about 57-60% women registered in sections on a consistent basis, reflecting the overall enrollment ratio at the U.. But our majors and students in courses voluntarily appear to break close to 63%/65% male, based on a limited but substantial number of sample class rosters that I’ve sampled, going back to (as it happens, because of a change in e-system vendors) 2000. ** It’s never seemed to me that this could be explained by clear cultural factors, such as: aeronautical engineering always attracts more men. So what is the deal, then?

    ** Eyeball correlation of the apparent gender of surnames, of course, is at best a rough methodology


  2. On statistics, I can add a bit for the UK (I don’t know whether anyone has stats for non-Anglo countries). Overall, women outnumber men on history courses (54% details. At postgraduate level for ‘historical and philosophical studies’ (I can’t find a more specific breakdown), women make up the majority of taught postgrads (53%), but only 42% of postgraduate researchers. And they’re now 28% of history teachers in HE. So here, it looks like what we have is the common ‘leaky pipeline’ situation, in which women are more likely to fall by the wayside along the way to an academic career than men are.


  3. Indyanna, take a look at PhD in History (http://phdinhistory.blogspot.com/) who has crunched numbers for history. He’s always enlightening and sometimes really depressing.

    There is hope, however, for women in history faculty. Not a lot, and we’re consistently underpaid (who isn’t?) but chez nous women make up about 55% of our A&S faculty and 50% of the history department. Our students think that’s normal.


  4. This discussion to me is better than chocolate. Can’t wait to read Bennett’s book; i saw excerpts and liked them. I have been protesting the passing-over that women’s history is getting in Women’s Studies for some time now, especially anything more than a century or two ago, and it’s great to hear from other women historians who understand the importance of the subject.

    On the other blog, now closed, Notorious PhD wrote:
    “I now see the study of women in particular as a way of uncovering information and introducing perspectives that can in turn be used to reshape the master narrative itself.”

    And in fact it has done that. We’re not all the way there, not by a long shot, but we have won, finally, acknowledgment (from many quarters, at least) that a study that ignores women is inadequate, pure and simple. It’s finally hitting them in their reputations, and that makes the recalcitrant sit up and take notice. Of course many have welcomed the inclusion as well.

    I like the comments that were made about how women’s history strengthened the hand of social history, and would add that the same is true for interdisciplinarity. Not only because of feminists studies, of course, but also Africana and all the other intersecting subjects whose scholars understood the necessity of reweaving knowledge from all the humanities to get a broader picture.

    What concerns me is the way that the theoretical turn in women’s studies has led to near-abandonment of the field of history. Claims seem to require no substantial documentation. Earlier there was discussion of whether there was a “golden age” of women’s history. I don’t have such a rosy view as that, for reasons i won’t go into now, but there was at least a strong sense of solidarity in common enterprise, on an uphill climb, and most importantly, a deep interest in what women’s analysis would look like. Hearing women theorize about what all the data meant, and especially about the patterns.

    What i saw happen somewhere in the 90s was an elevation of male theorists and masculine prestige. Foucault, Derrida, even Freud. Somer Broddrib and Tania Modleisky called it. At the same time, the feminist theory that had been done so far, and especailly words like patriarchy, acquired a heavy stigma. It’s one thing to generalize about The Patriarchy at every turn, as has been noted here, and another altogether to shrink from ever using the term–or male supremacy, or male dominance, or similar descriptors. Sometimes you need a word that spells it out. I understand the reasons for timidity; there are real costs. But this goes directly to what you can say–or what you are not saying because of those consequences.

    Gotta go. More later.


  5. I enjoyed the discussion of the stampede toward Agency, a development that dismayed me insofar as 1) the feminist historians i respect did not minimize agency to begin with. 2) it’s crucial to acknowledge the very real barriers women face/d. 3) the way “negotiation” got elevated (typically) bypassed realistically accounting for inequalities, severe constraints, and outright violence. 4) “we don’t want to be victims” often turned into “we don’t want to see victims,” or as i would rather put it, oppression. Whatever its complexities…

    However! the “good continuities” that Notorious PhD flags are important. Yes, absolutely, even within those very bleak timescapes. My women’s history looks for resistance and solidarity and female spheres of power within patriarchal societies. One rich area I’ve been mining for years is women’s spiritual leadership and sodalities. These bridge across all kinds of social systems from the most patriarchal where they are prohibited or repressed, to more egalitarian systems which have formal female offices and organizations–and all the other societies which fall between those extremes. I’m thinking Beguines and beatas, Henan sworn sisterhoods maintained via the Nüshu women’s script, Iroquois gantowisas and Cherokee Beloved Women, Chewa women’s sodalities and female eldership posts, Brazilian maes de santo as socio-political forces, and the medicine women who led indigenous resistance movements in California, Uganda, Somalia, and other colonized countries. Even the Thesmophoria, in spite of “negotiations” that forced it into compliance with masculine state goals, as has been noted. We have to look at patterns of collective female power, without missing how that may be cut into or mediated by male dominance–or whacked down. Further, how it is situated in terms of class and ethnicity, and all the complex interactions that make history.

    In my experience, the more local and particular we get, the more interesting stuff surfaces. Folk religion is a very rich vein, and oral tradition, including that written down by colonials like Sahagún.

    Or even the inquisitorial archives in Friuli that Ginzburg studied. The benandante (that’s not a typo, but the female plural) are an instructive case, because we can see how a regional folk culture was riven along gender lines, by outside forces and then from within. The male benandanti turned into witch-finders, and the female benandante became the accused, via the torture trials of the late 16th and early 17th century. But before that? the depositions show a female allegiance to the benandante that persisted, even under duress. We aren’t going to get the same level of detail beyond the written record, of course.

    But we do get glimpses from the witch trials of women like Gabrina degl’Albetti and Jeanne de Brigue and Scudder of Scotland who dealt in sexual politics, battery and desertion and things of great concern to women in their communities. It’s not all victims, resistors are visible there too, even if they end up going to the stake, or like Gabrina have their tongues cut out.

    Looking forward to the next installment.


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