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. Let me step in on the last point regarding the annoyance of being classified with the stereotype of “because you’re a woman, you study women.” When I was hired here at Northern U, I was hired on the strength of doctoral research into early Tudor humanist religious, legal and social reform texts as well as my ability to teach medieval and early modern history based upon my, again!, very traditional preparation in those fields with a heavy emphasis on intellectual history and codicological studies. I was not, then, even remotely touched by women’s history. (Judith Bennett and I attended the same graduate school only about ten years apart but our experiences were quite, quite different. And I came there after her!)

    In my second year at Northern U, one of my colleagues suggested that I update the correspondence course on women’s history. The only reason he thought I was qualified was because I was a woman. To be honest, at that point, I was about the least qualified to talk about women’s history of my fellow European historians (all male — I was the only woman in the department besides the secretary!) because I had no background in the field at all. That’s a pretty typical taste of how the old-school male networks of history have treated women’s history — as a bone that can be thrown to the women in their department or working in their subfield to satisfy outside demands for the same, but nothing that’s really important or relevant to the males already established in the profession.

    I suspect ADM and I have both worked in environments where simply being the woman has made us, in the eyes of many of the men around us, the “women’s historian”. That shows how some old-school historians dismiss both the subject and women as historians. When I’ve ventured into doing women’s history both in my scholarly research and in the classroom (I actually got angry enough at the cavalier suggestion about writing the correspondence course to set myself a demanding reading list of women’s history, prep to teach the class on campus and then set it up anew as a stronger correspondence course once I figured that these guys wouldn’t do the subject justice!), I’ve done it as a part of my broader identification as an intellectual historian.

    It would be fraudulent of me to identify myself as a women’s historian — I’ve published very little that can fall under this aspect and I don’t make that subject a major focus of my teaching. That would also demean the truly committed women’s historians with whom I work and correspond. I’m no longer the only woman in my department: new colleagues, male and female, carry on the inquiries of women’s history in the classroom and in their publications.

    I’m truly glad that I did take more of an interest in women’s history — feminist theory and an appreciation of women’s history have improved both my scholarship and teaching as well as given me more focus for my own political viewpoints. But I’m not in the same league as my colleagues in the department or spread across the profession who devote so much more of their scholarly efforts to the subject and so I won’t appropriate the label for myself.


  2. ADM–I’m sorry that you find yourself pigeonholed. That is unfortunate–I’m in a department where most of the women are not women’s historians–three of us were trained as such, but there are 6 others who were not. Two of these teach a women’s/gender course out of an interest like Janice’s–they think it’s important and they’re the only person in their field, so they teach it. But, I now have male colleagues who are offering courses on gender, although they are not trained in women’s & gender history.

    That said–I completely understand your point about being shunned in your work environment as though you have cooties. My grad seminar (not a women’s/gender course) last term had 6 women and 2 men–men who were either interested in gender history, and/or had had me before as a prof., whereas the other section of the course was filled with all of the other male grad students. I’m not quite sure what to think about this, except that some students–mostly men, but some women too–do indeed pigeonhole people whose work is in women’s & gender history–as though “that’s all” we do, and we can’t possibly teach a major field in a “broad enough” fashion.


  3. About archives – I’m not saying medieval women’s historians shouldn’t go to the archives (been there, done that, actually sat across the table from Bennett once!). The archives are great. But the funding isn’t always available to get to Europe. I’m not just talking about scraping out of your asst. prof salary to get to the archives; I’m talking about getting funded in grad school, too. When I was going through, getting solid money to spend a year in England was really really hard, because no one who was giving money to go to England cared about old stuff (this was much less the case for the slightly less-studied countries – getting a Fulbright to Spain or the Netherlands was much more manageable than getting one to England). Anyway, I think my point was that the cultural turn wasn’t just an ideological rejection of hard-core archival social history – it’s a function of economics.

    And actually, I will step forward here and say that I do define myself as a gender historian – not because I’m scared the “W” word (????), but because for me, gender is a more satisfying and useful construct for answering the questions that interest me. Knowing what women did or didn’t do only makes sense in the context of knowing what men did or didn’t do – you can’t identify a wage gap, for instance, without knowing what men were paid. That doesn’t mean using women to find out more about men, but that I don’t find talking about women as an isolated group always very helpful.

    And myself, I hope men ARE taking women’s studies classes. They’re an academic endeavor, not a consciousness-raising session, and I WANT men to think about and be concerned with what goes on in Women’s Studies classes. (They’re ABOUT women, not FOR women.)


  4. Pingback: Lawrence Stone: classy, classy guy! : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

  5. Historiann — I think a lot of this goes back to Dr. Crazy’s and GayProf’s posts of last week. Our models of academia are R1s. Most of us don’t teach at R1s. You have about a 2.3x more women in your department than there are people in mine! And my department is twice the size of the departments at the CCs I’ve taught at.

    And the pigeonholing doesn’t last long among students, at least — I teach more students than any of my colleagues do. And I actually do a lot of gender stuff — because it’s important. But it’s a double-edged sword; the more I do on women and gender, the more likely that the 800-lb gorillas on campus, the men in the professional schools and the athletics coaches, find reasons to dismiss me.

    This is in part why I am so adamantly opposed to some of the things that Satsuma calls for. I love my job, and I consider myself lucky to be where I am, because I’m at a campus where I get a lot of support and there are fantastic people. But I am not going to lie and say there is not a lot of entrenched institutionalized sexism and that white male privilege (and actually, male privilege in general) doesn’t exist. It does, and it’s immediate. So my battles, and those of other female historians in small departments in small, traditional colleges, may be a bit different than what most people imagine.


  6. New Kid–I understand, and agree with you on the reasons for the cultural turn. I was just suggesting that travel is less expensive for people whose archives are closer to home.

    In my experience, teaching both women’s/gender and non-women’s and gender courses, men remain fairly resistant to the subject. Men are ususally only a tiny minority in my women’s history classes, and they are sometimes a vocal minority in my class evaluations for my non women’s and gender history courses, complaining that they had to read anything about women and non-white people at all or think about gender in any fashion whatsoever. I always get some version of this in my course evals: “This isn’t an American history course–this course was only about blacks, women, and Indians.”

    As for the women versus gender split: women is a subject, and gender is the analytical framework which can be applied to any subjects, whatever their sex/es.


  7. As much as I want to talk about my love of the archives (mmm… archives…) and my frustrations and minor triumphs at finding (always heavily mediated) women’s stories therein, I’m going to do something crazy and go back to one of the points Historiann raises in her post.

    So, topic: Historical continuities in women’s lives. I think Bennett makes many good points here (and does a nice job illustrating her point with the chapter-length example on the wage gap for women). I could raise a methodological quibble by pointing out the danger of slipping into some transhistorical fallacy that potentially flattens historical differences between women and wage work (or sexuality, or childcare, or whatever continuity you like) in different times and places, but I think the utility of continuity as an analytical framework, at least, makes it worth the risk.

    But here’s the question: What about good continuities? Can we point to important historical continuities in women’s lives that have worked to women’s benefits? Is there, for example, convincing evidence of certain patterns of resistance, solidarity, or independent action from which we can take historical lessons as valuable as those suggested by the more obvious negative continuities? I’ve been searching my brain, and I’m having trouble coming up with anything, but it’s early where I am, and I’m only halfway into my first cup of coffee.


  8. ADM–I hear you, and I’m sorry that you are so embattled. I think institutional and departmental size makes a big difference, because at a university with 27K students, I can just tune out huge swaths of the students and faculty and talk to the people who want to buy what I’m selling. And, I turned 40 last year, and I’ve decided that I just don’t care what people think about me so much any more.

    I had a very nice conversation with Carol Berkin once, who said something like, “I don’t argue with anyone who doesn’t believe that women’s history is significant or important. Life is too short. I just do what I do, and I talk to the people who appreciate it.” I’ve come around to her way of thinking pretty rapidly since then. I do what I do, I am who I am, and I don’t really care what anyone else thinks. But–it’s much easier for me working at a place like Baa Ram U., and it’s much easier for Carol Berkin than most because she’s Carol Berkin (and she’s earned it!).


  9. Notorious–good question. Are there any positive things we can point to across time and space? I think you’ve hit the only one I would suggest, which is that in every place and time there were some women who resisted the given political, economic, and/or patriarchal order. They were always a small minority of women, but that’s true in our own time as well. (And history is rarely moved by the majority of people being in agreement–it’s usually moved by a minority of people who have the energy and resources to force the majority along with them.)


  10. I didn’t like to comment in this thread at Notorious Ph.D.’s, because it seemed like a strategy discussion between members of an army of which I can’t be part. The only man taking part in that discussion got shot down and maybe that was his failing to read the territory before stepping into it. I’ll try to be more careful. I think it’s valid for a man, even if he can’t be a radical lesbian feminist, at least to be aware of the battle and try to avoid being in the opposite force, and so it’s with that intent I pick up on a few points.

    Firstly, and uncontentiously, when Notorious Ph.D. says, “I wonder if there’s something about placing things in a `mid-evil’ past that renders them safely quarantined from our present”, I say, I’m currently reading Kathleen Davis’s Periodization and Sovereignty for review which argues that this is a conscious intent behind the exercise of periodization, and she has many examples of the way people have politically defined the ‘distant past’ of which we’ve spoken here as, basically, the time when they did it wrong compared to our current state of enlightenment. So, yes, I think so, even if I don’t necessarily agree with a lot of the rest of the book.

    Secondly, on the battle of Agency. I plough a particularly old-fashioned furrow of history, the so-called feudal transformation of c. 1000, so I would just like to say that though it is old-fashioned and outdated, the idea that people could and did do things about their circumstances and environment still has power when you’re dealing with either everyone’s oppression by huge quasi-Marxist social forces like economic growth, when you can show them trying to surf the wave of change, or else when you’re dealing with peasants (of either main gender) being oppressed by men (or women) in lordship. I think we need agency to comfort ourselves that we are not powerless in the face of oppression, whoever we are, and the nice thing about that is that we can usually find it. This is partly a political want, but the fact that we can find it reassures me that it is historical to talk about people in the past as agents.

    That’s where I wanted to go next, actually, being historical. It is of course very political how we present the past. I’d actually prefer to keep my politics and my history separate as far as I can, not least because I fear not being hired if my politics are too obvious. As with any part of the great Struggle for Objectivity ™, I don’t think we can succeed but it is important to try. Now when I try and apply this to firstly the question of women’s history and secondly the early Middle Ages, I hit the problem of balance that Ruth mentions above. I would prefer to write history with both men and women in because I deal in social structures in which they both participated: families, agriculture, landholding, memory, identity etc. (Making an index for my first book is reassuring me about this, that I have at least partly escaped the kind of men-only paradigm Satsuma was deriding at Notorious Ph.D.’s.) It is therefore important to me, neither to downplay the genuine contribution, willingness or unwillingness, and position of advantage or disadvantage held by either women or men in society, nor to omit either side in the cause of the other. I want to draw history as it was, as far as I can.

    For the Middle Ages, one can do a reasonable job of showing women in positions of social advantage or equality – a few élite women, here and there, anyway. And I study Spain and there, early on at least, actually women’s position in law is pretty good relatively speaking, that is, still disadvantaged but not as much as in many other places. Women hold property, lead families (where there are no cogenerational men, anyway), and generally have some space of action; but if you actually count up the documents and their actors, women turn up about one in five, and then almost always as part of a couple. (In fact couples appear more than lone men in most areas.) That’s what I’m struggling against, and maybe you too: to put women in the political position the radical agenda would like them in, we have to fight the sources. If we leave out the men, as some would advise here, then we risk marginalising that work as women’s history or gender history and don’t confront feminism’s enemies where we need to for the sake of equality. There is a balance to strike, and especially for me with my stuff it’s not easy.

    Fourthly, I don’t mean this to seem like a snark but it is a correction I suppose: Satsuma, when you say, “Those of you who go to the archives and do original research are to be commended. To actually see the documents inside a French nunnary can yield spectacular insights. If you rely on 19th century antiquarians, you’re going through the male filter yet again”, you must be talking about a period later than mine. In my period, the documents from the nunnery I’ve worked on were written by men. That filter is hard to escape. A nunnery isn’t as female a space as one might hope for that sort of work; there are priests and confessors, instruction on how to live life is still male. And often, as Another Damned Medievalist alludes to, there are also the house patrons to deal with, who probably had purely patrimonial interests (word choice deliberate) in setting up their chosen family woman there. ADM, I think the article you allude to is Régine le Jan’s “Convents, Violence and Competition for Power in Seventh-Century Francia”, transl. Janet L. Nelson in Franz Theuws & Mayke de Jong with Carine van Rhijn (edd.), Topographies of Power in the Early Middle Ages, The Transformation of the Roman World 6 (Leiden 2001), pp. 243-269, in case that cite would be of use to anyone else.)

    So I guess my open question is, does Bennett, do any of us, have a solution to this dilemma to try to study everyone, and cope somehow with the fact that the sources keep hiding the women? Or study women primarily and somehow stay attached to the fact that the society in question almost certainly didn’t respect that agenda? It seems to me that all the stuff about marginalization or not, about lesbianism and ‘lesbian-like’ as historical tools of intepretation, it’s all in that gap, between giving women a history of their own or somehow breaking them into the general one without losing sight of them.

    I really wish this blog system allowed for a preview… Hopefully no offence caused by so long a musing.


  11. ADM,
    as per my comment way up above, yes, Alisoun DOES offer an agency that has nothing to do with the sort of 20th c. identity politics bildungsroman model, where she exerts her unique subjectivity against oppression and prevails in the end. That was my student’s struggle: he was trying to write an essay that criticized her and her society for not allowing that struggle to take place. Which is a totally bad thesis.

    Because what Alisoun offers is utterly outside of that model. She is not criticized or judged in the least–but all the men around her are castigated and punished. That strange possibility and sort of secretive, under the radar agency could the subject of an interesting analysis, and one that would require the student to engage more fully with the text. Because that’s all he–and I, because I teach literature–can do.

    My students have also been protesting, when I mark their “historical” claims as bullshit, that it isn’t fair because I haven’t given them any history to read alongside the Chaucer. And I have to keep saying, “what history do you want to read? There sure is a lot it. And I promise, it’ll raise more questions than it answers.”

    They want to “understand” medieval society, and they think it’s going to be easy. And they think that the poem gives them a window on history. But really, there are FAIRIES in it, for god’s sake. We’re reading make believe!


  12. Jonathan, you are welcome here–there are several men who have commented in this thread, only some of them have ambiugous on-line handles, so don’t make any assumptions. (Also–some people I only know on-line, so who knows who they really are, although they may present as female?) I don’t understand why you found the discussion at Notorious, Ph.D. alienating–when you use language like “it seemed like a strategy discussion between members of an army of which I can’t be part,” it makes you sound like you’re afraid of a “monstrous regiment of women” on the internets.

    I think you raise good questions: “it’s all in that gap, between giving women a history of their own or somehow breaking them into the general one without losing sight of them.” Why can’t it be both, instead of either/or? I think we can have both, and both are important.


  13. This issue of nunneries is exactly what I was talking about in a previous post. One of the points I think Bennett makes is that modernists don’t factor in the medieval experience enough. But I would also argue that when they do, they posit a monolithic “female” experience spanning 1000 years and multiple areas. I’m not questioning what the previous posts have said about certain nunneries, but the ones I study happen to be different-17/23 nunneries founded by women in the 13th century. And they aren’t all widows, and it isn’t because they can’t find a husband and I would categorize these as female spaces. Much different than the ones le Jan studies in the 7th century, or nunneries in late medieval Spain. And wouldn’t we expect that kind of difference across so much time and space? Not to suggest that there aren’t also continuties, but I think its dangerous to get caught up the looking for the long duree when it means under appreciating complexity.


  14. ej–great points. I’ve been rather surprised not to hear from more modern women’s historians–it’s been just colonial Americanists, early modern Europeanists, and medieval Europeanists on this thread (so far!)

    I think this is in part why I raised the “Golden Age” hypothesis–because while it was about medieval women’s history, it was the invention of modern historians whose oversimplifications led to 25+ years of medieval women’s historians feeling like they needed to argue with the “Golden Age” idea. While it would be great for medieval women’s history if more modern historians read and cited you all, on the other hand, you will risk that complexities will inevitably get lost in the translation.


  15. I’ve only read the first few chapters of the book, so don’t feel like I can comment on the work as a whole. Also, as someone who does very recent U.S. history (my current project starts in 1965) I don’t think I’m qualified to talk about the distant past that I last took a course on sometime in the 1980s.

    What I will say is that Bennett, while criticizing historians who presume a premodern “golden age” for women, seems to have constructed a “golden age” model of the development of women’s history as a discipline — i.e. she and her generation were more “authentic” and genuinely feminist than us youngins’. My professors in graduate school (Cornell, late 1980s/early 1990s) came of age around the same time, but also pointed out the methodological flaws and lack of rigor in some of the earliest works in women’s history.


  16. Knitting Clio? Zing! I agree with you that I’m damned suspicious of this golden age of women’s history in the 1970s though more on the issue of what kind of nurturing activist communities were there.

    In 1991, Natalie Davis received one of the honorary doctorates at the UofT history department’s 100th anniversary convocation. She and Veronica Strong-Boag, who introduced her, spoke frankly about the problems they’d faced, trying to do women’s history at UofT in the late 60s and early 70s. I get the impression that they all fought tooth and nail to build any kind of semi-welcoming environment for the field. When I came to study there in the mid-eighties, it wasn’t exactly a bastion of women’s history although there were a few wonderful standouts whom I only knew outside of the classroom and a lot of misogynistic jokes were tossed around in the hallways, right over the heads of women students such as myself and, I presume, women faculty as well.


  17. Janice and KC–I don’t know if you went to the plenary session at the Berks last June on the status of women in the historical profession, but Davis remarked briefly about how back in the day, there was a real excitement and daring about doing women’s history. I can’t remember exactly what she said, but the sense was, “we were BAD, and we knew it!” She said it in a way that suggested that she was nostalgic for the zeal of the new, but also glad in many ways for the institutionalization of women’s history.

    Thanks for stopping by to comment, KC! And I’ll expect to see both of you over at Blogenspiel next Monday, too.


  18. Jonathan Jarett, you are a mAn, and you are the enemy of women! I am a part of lesbian herstorical nation, and our sacred task is the documentation and discovery of what women have done throughout time.

    We had a golden age of women’s studies, it really was the 1970s. We had lecture halls filled with women, and there were no men to stop us. Outside the hall gangs of boys actually spit on us from a balcony.. they hated the idea thAT women would gather to study the herstory of women. Straight women just meekly gave in, but the lesbians took up baseball bats and went after the pigs.

    We are at war with men women! If you don’t know you are at war for your very soul now, you must be utterly blind.

    Yes, the golden age is here when women band together, create our herstory, and begin the dream of a powerful land which women control, create and elevate.

    Us radical lesbians want an end to male HISstory, the wars, the rape, the boredom the cluelessness. We have watched our staight sisterS marry these creeps, placaate them… but now women are getting the majority of PhDs, and Masters, and the majority of undergrad degrees as well. Men are opting out of academy, and like the pigs that they are, they believe they will still rule the world.

    But no, women’s herstorians will reveal the world of women, we will eliminate the dulling boring world of men’s wars and their incompetant governments vis-a-vis women. Women will find their past, erase the male contamination as if it never existed, women Herstorians will celebrate the pure triumph of women. We had the golden age of the male free classes of the 70s, and we can create a world where the minds and brilliance of women will be worshipped, adored and celebrated! And men be damned for all time!! bE DAMNED AND LET THE SUPERIOR INTELLECNCE ARISE NOW!!


  19. Satsuma–I appreciate where you’re coming from, but that’s not where most of us are coming from. Your comments seem to reflect what KC and Janice are skeptical of–that is, the notion that the 1970s were a “Golden Age” for women’s studies.

    Women’s history only got stronger, smarter, and more interesting once women’s historians were able to see beyond the stark and exaggerated divide of all men versus all women, when they started to pay attention to intersectionality (that is, the ways in which other components of identity, primarily race and class, but also other things like sexuality, region, age, work role, etc. are inextricably intertwined with sex). Most of us on this thread, although women’s historians, also think about these things all of the time, too, so your positing of an intellectual world of all men versus all women seems very strange to us.


  20. Pingback: The Van Dykes, and the generation gap among lesbians : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

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  22. Correction, everybody — Next week at TR, the following week at mine!

    Jon, I’ve been thinking a lot about your post, and I have to say two things:

    First, I’ll admit to being a women’s historian if you do! I do admit that, by Bennett’s very wide-reaching definition, we both fit in — we study the history of women, even if it is not our primary focus all the time. I still prefer social-institutional Carolingianist, or some such. But then if I go to St. Andrews this summer, will that make me a monastic historian? (Historiann, I’m not teasing — I re-read Bennett’s definition last night, and can see why we’ve been talking a little at cross-purposes. And by Bennett’s schema, I probably fit in on the Gabrielle Spiegel end of the ‘feminist historian’ spectrum.

    The other is that your take on our job and how we do it really resonates with me and considering our academic genaologies, if you will, I find this really interesting. Your doctoral grandmother is also your undergrad mother — that is, you’ve got one of the big names in our field as a direct and indirect influence, and that same person is one of the three best-known, most influential (Anglophone, at least) scholars of our period.

    I have to go back a bit further, I think — My DV is of your grandmother’s generation, I think (because your DV is younger than me!) But like several of the other medievalists I know, we all are of the Thrupp-Power line. It’s not like there are no ground-breaking women forebears here …


  23. ADM’s most recent post brought up something I’ve wondered about before on this thread: how much does the nature of the job market–particularly the way that tenure lines are defined–shape how we identify ourselves? I can best speak to this with respect to US history, being an early Americanist myself and being married to a 20thc US historian; my points may not be valid for other fields. One of the things that has struck me when I consider job searches I observed as a grad student and now at my current institution is that self-identified “women’s historians” seem to have a better chance getting hired as “generalists” in early American history than they do in modern US history. There are some reasons behind that, I think, one of them being that political history still tends to be the default narrative of more recent US history but no longer is in early America. (And yes, I know that what counts as “political history,” and who self-identifies as a “political historian” is a gendered question, too. This post will be too long if I share all my thoughts on that, however.)

    This makes me wonder about the costs and benefits of self-identification as we’re marketing ourselves on the job market, a commodification process that does distort intellectual categories somewhat. It seems to me that where departments and hiring committees see women’s historians as “specialists” appropriate to particular tenure slots and historians who don’t identify as historians of women as “generalists” appropriate for different tenure slots, that will impact the way that both men and women see themselves as scholars, the training they seek in graduate school (how do you choose your qualifying exam fields?), and the way you frame your research.

    I know this holds true outside of US history to some extent. In my dept we have decided that when (fingers crossed with our budget woes!) we replace a recently retired colleague who could be described as a historian of science/women’s historian/medievalist, we’re going to list the job as “history of science.” That’s the most important “hat” we want the new person to wear. The fact that we’re a big department obviously makes our thinking on this different than what smaller departments do. But I’d be curious to hear what other people think. Am I overstating the impact of the professionalization process and the job market?


  24. I find the ad hominem attack on Lawrence Stone in this blog inappropriate and unhelpful. I followed the links and read both Stone’s book review and Scott’s reply. It struck me that Scott grossly mischaracterized the tone of Stone’s review. Stone had developed a set of ten ‘commandments’ which historians ought to follow when writing women’s history. While I take the point that ‘guidelines’ would have been a better choice than ‘commandments’, I think Scott’s characterization of Stone as envisioning himself as a God-like figure to be absurd. As a graduate student, I’ve encountered a number of professors (both humble and arrogant) who have their own list of self-proclaimed ‘Commandments’ which students/writers ought to follow. Stone’s top-10 list was in this style and I frankly find it mildly slanderous to suggest otherwise. I’ve rarely read a piece as arrogant and apoplectic as Scott’s reply.

    Moving on to p. 14, footnote 36 of Bennett’s book, I found the said ‘toolish’ footnote to merely be a snippet of one of Stone’s ‘commandments’ taken out of context enough to make him sound arrogant. Stone’s second guideline of writing women’s history was “Thou shalt strive not to distort the evidence and the conclusions to support modern feminist ideology: social change is by no means always the product of an activist minority, and all change is relative not absolute”. Bennet changes this to “But many eyebrows are still raised over feminist history, because of the enduring assumption that historians inspired by feminism “distort the evidence and the conclusions to support modern feminist ideology.”” I think there’s a real difference here between Stone’s prescriptive for writing accurate histories, and Bennett’s distorting this guideline so that it reads as an accusation. Many historians warn against letting presentist concerns dictate how one writes history, and I don’t see Stone as doing anything other than this here.

    As a note before Historiann inevitably brands me a fellow chauvinistic tool: I have never met Laurence Stone. I think his own work is interesting, but ultimately problematic. I am not a ‘fan’ of Stone. Neither do I have any axe to grind against women’s history. I have no reasons for defending Stone in this forum other than it irks me when historians take people’s words out of context, as in the case here of Historiann, Scott, and Bennett. Incidentally, I do wonder whether the same words would have invited such a shameful ad hominem attack (‘tool’? what are we, twelve?) had they been spoken by a fellow female historian rather than an elderly male professor. I invite everyone to read Stone and Scott’s work and judge the matter for themselves, rather than following in Historiann’s model and exhibiting an ill-considered reactionary behavior.


  25. I don’t think creating a world where women of intellectual bent can flourish outside malestream discourse is at all a bad idea. After all, history has for the longest time been about men writing about men, men going to conferences to talk about what men of the past have done.

    Even watching the “History” channel is largely WWII and a male obsession with war as “history”, while movements like the feminist movement are largely ignored in talking about liberation in America.

    To me, it is exciting to read about women, and to study with women, and to be a part of women’s organizations. As a radical lesbian I simply don’t find male contributions to my sense of herstory or my sense of self relevent. Perhaps I am free of the contradictions that women face living with men, or having to deal with them as thesis gatekeepers.

    We need to acknowledge that women’s studies grew out of a fierce political movement, that women protested, marched in the streets, and that men harassed early women’s studies classes. We have a right to our own herstory, and this herstory thread has inspired me to contact women’s and lesbian archives nationwide to place my papers there. And I most certainly wouldn’t want my papers mixed in with a “malestream” HIStory department; I want a woman controlled archive that attracts women scholars all over the world. I don’t think it’s too much to ask that I be free of what men do and say routinely to women. HIStory should teach us the lessons of freedom, and is not gained in cooperation with patriarchy ever.


  26. Satsuma — This is Historiann’s blog, and the decision is hers. But I, for one, especially after your screed against a male historian who happens to do very good history, and does work on women, would appreciate it if you would at least try to direct your comments either to Historiann’s post, or to Bennett’s book.

    Having said that, going to Berks was one of the best conference experiences of my life.


  27. Megan L, responding directly about Lawrence Stone might be better suited for that post’s comment thread but I’ll respond here. As I said in my initial reply to that post, I read that review at the time it was published after picking up a copy of the Prior collection (I also nabbed Fraser’s book, but a little later). And my response on reading that list of commandments was not to be amused. Despite Lawrence Stone’s reply to Joan Scott claiming his commandments were “patently facetious”, it didn’t come across that way in print to me and to many other readers. Maybe I’m a humourless feminist, but it struck me as archly dismissive of the whole subfield.

    Whether I’d call him a tool, now, is something different. It’s not a word that’s frequent in my vocabulary! However, I might have muttered something about an “ass” under my breath as I read through the review.

    His reply to Scott’s response seemed disingenuous to me, both in his claims that he was only kidding about those commandments and also when he declared “the moment the field of history was broadened, the idea of writing only about men or women became, and remains, rather absurd.” Was that a joke, too?

    You can argued that Stone sought to live up to his commandments and his declaration about the absurdity of single-gender history in his own work on marital history, for instance, but I still think his review did a disservice to the discipline as a whole and this field in particular. I don’t think he saw women’s history as viable at all, at least not at the time he wrote his review and I really don’t know about any point later than that. And isn’t that all too common? I don’t have to fight for people to give respect to the history of ideas or religious history, but the same can’t be said of women’s history, sadly.


  28. I don’t really think that Bennett should worry about feminism distorting women’s herstory. It seems to be a worry that “history” isn’t objective enough, or that women’s herstory will be biased in some way. Just ask Ken Burns when Latinos were furious at being left out of his series “The War.” And gay and lesbian veterans organizations attacked him for excluding them as well.

    All of history and herstory carries the bias of the questions asked about the past. It’s why some time periods come into fashion, while others go out of fashion. Kind of like the fascination with neo-classicism in the 18th and 19th centuries.

    Just recently, a scholar gave a paper on ancient Greece and its influence on Walt Whitman. When the scholar was quoting Greek laws from the period, and also Roman law, he just said matter of factly, “oh women’s position was awful that that’s that…” I thought he was simply lazy in not trying to find out what the life of ancient Greek women was really all about, and that his only sources were laws on the books. This tells us little about how Greek women of that time prospered or dealt with oppression.

    A lot of what women do is completely outside the male defined social structures of different times and places.

    I would argue a tiny bit that social change of any kind is about majorities. Dedicated minorities do create a visionary agenda. Margaret Snager was not mainstream, neither was Joan of Arc. The majority joins in later as the ideas are fought out on the streets or within reform movements, for example. You have large majorities who really sit around and do nothing in terms of minority or excluded groups’ freedom, until all hell breaks loose.
    I’m thinking of average white communities in say 1953 — they had no contact with black people, they noted that black people were not being treated well, but didn’t care to do anything about it, for example.

    To want change from the status quo is inherently a minority idea. Those excluded from the “official narrative” always see this. Those in the majority often don’t even welcome the minorities into their “clubs” as it were to begin with. And who wants the add women and stirr agenda, or the add lesbians and stir; we want to create an entirely new soup pot to stir of our own accord.

    I’m kind of weary of the “10 commandment” concept in herstorical research. The very word “commandment” just seems, well domineering or coming down from on high.

    It is a trap to fear not being taken seriously by the dominant class. So this is a trap women’s herstorians need to be aware of. The goal is not social acceptance by one’s oppressors or bosses, but the dignity that comes from uncovering the truth about all the work women have done throughout time to be better in the world, to have unique social structures.

    Women’s dramatic herstorical breakthrough of the last 25 some years prove this I think. All the information was just waiting for the women who cared to find it. And also, women need to be aware that we need not reinvent the wheel; women throughout time have done great things, and then the powers that be try to discredit and bury the information. Bennett highlights this very well I think, and so does Sheila Jeffreys, who I am very fond of as well.


  29. P.S. As for the golden age of women’s studies of the 70s, it really is a kind of “you had to be there” to understand this. If you weren’t there you would not know.


  30. Satsuma, it doesn’t seem like you’re really interested in engaging with the rest of us in discussion. ADM has asked you pointedly to do so, and you haven’t in two comments since hers. I’ve also asked you to limit the length of your posts.

    The purpose of comments on my blog is for people to have an informed discussion, and it doesn’t look to me like that’s what you’re up to, so I’m going to ask you not to post here for a little while. Please consult the comments policy in the upper-hand left corner if you have any questions about the comments policy here.


  31. OK, now down to business: Megan L., when you say things like “as a note before Historiann inevitably brands me a fellow chauvinistic tool…,” that kind of baseless accusation makes me think you’re not interested in a serious conversation either. I don’t call people names here as a general rule, and for the record, I called Stone a tool because of the linked review (also please see yesterday’s post on this), and it’s more polite than other words I could think of. If you think his review was entirely appropriate–that’s fine. You could have just said that without the attitude. (Thanks, by the way, for putting me in good company with Joan Scott and Judith Bennett, in our apparent inability to read and interpret text accurately! That’s the nicest thing anyone’s said to me all week long. Scott, Bennett, and Historiann–mmmmmmmm…..)

    Now, I think John S. raises a good question, about marketing oneself and the job market. I think I see what you’re saying, John, although as an early American women’s historian, I’ve gone on exactly one campus interview for a position that was defined as early American and women’s history–one out of seven in my lifetime (so far!) And, I’ve long felt that I’ve had to work extra-hard to explain that I really am a colonial historian although I am yes a women’s historian, or that I really am a women’s historian although yes my work is in the colonial period. Most women’s history spots are de facto modern history spots, and I’ve thought for a long while that most colonial history spots are not-women’s history, and that there are strong preferences for other non-women’s, non-gender subfields. I still think that’s the case–but I can see how it might be harder for modern U.S. women’s historians to make plays for jobs not defined as women’s history. (Then again, there are in fact so many more jobs in U.S. women’s history than in my period or in any other field, European, Asian, Lat Am., African, etc…)

    I’ll be interested to hear what others think about this.


  32. Historiann — I think YAY! I love how the relative lack of sources let me be a historian that does lots of stuff (and love that my DV didn’t think I was crazy to have an outside field in a non-western topic, because let me tell you, that breadth is what gives lots of us Ancient/Medieval specialists a slight advantage in the generalists’ job market)!

    Seriously, though, I wonder if John’s point on my point leads us to a more important issue — even within the field of History on the large scale, it’s hard to negotiate between how we see ourselves and our work, and how our colleagues do. Is it any wonder that the general public sees us and what our jobs are so differently to how we see us?


  33. ADM, a former colleague of mine once said to me, “to most people, you are your first book, no matter what else you write.” He also used to agonize about this, and said, “I just can’t stand it that people might read my first book and think that that’s who I still am as a scholar.”

    He was a little overwrought–but I think his overall point was very valid. We get tracked into job descriptions that were written before we were hired, and that’s how our colleagues think of us no matter how many different/unadvertised/new specialities we may inhabit or develop over the course of our careers.


  34. ADM, I’m so glad you went to the Berks and that it was a good experience. And I think that the vibe of the Berks is shaped by the fact that (a) a great majority of the participants are women and (b) politics is not asked to take a back seat.

    I’m of the generation that came of age intellectually in the mid-1970s, so I can attest to the intellectual excitement of doing women’s history/women’s studies then. It was all open, everything was possible, and we were going to figure it all out. And it was all new, bright and shiny. And it was manageable: you could have a feeling that you could keep up in multiple fields! No one had been talking about these things. So yes, there was a sense of adventure (terror, too, at times). THen, for many of us, getting into the archives taught us some things we had expected, others we hadn’t, and it was all more complicated than we’d thought.

    Actually, (to return to where Historiann started this thread) one of the things that drew me to the study of the distant past was that it was sufficiently distant that I never knew exactly what to think, who was right and who was wrong. I’d have a terrible time as a modern historian, I think. Studying the early modern period has allowed me to explore questions that are of vital importance today — from domestic violence to race and sex — in a context where unexpected things keep showing up. (Sorry, it’s late and it’s been a long day. I’d like to be more articulate on this one.) So it’s not that I think domestic violence, or rape is OK: but I get things about today by the ways that things surrounding them in the 17th C are not what I would expect.

    Another thought: one of the great things Bennett does is remind us of the big questions. I always think a project has a big question that I end up addressing through some small part of it. And I sometimes lose sight of the big issue. Bennett says we shouldn’t lose track of the big questions because that’s why it matters. In that, ironically, she has much in common with Lawrence Stone 🙂


  35. Susan, I’m just glad you invited me! And I think that what draws you to the distant past is what draws me. I really am one of those believers that “the past is another country; they do things differently there.” It’s at the core of who I am as a historian, and it is probably the most driving political force in my classroom work. I love that the distance allows us to cultivate an objectivity we can’t find as easily in the present. But I also believe if we can teach the skills that we historians of the distant past use, we can help people to cultivate that same objectivity when looking at the Other when our own lives come in contact with it, whether it’s race or gender or religion (or whatever) at home, or whether it’s dealing with entire different countries.

    Historiann — Yeah, I’m a little worried about the first book thing, because it’s going to set me up as someone who does a particular kind of technical work, rather than the scholarship I like. After that, my next book (or first ‘real’ monograph) will be on women, though — providing the stuff I started teasing out at Berks is right! But I think it will still be seen as kinship and patronage history as it is women’s history.


  36. Susan wrote, “one of the things that drew me to the study of the distant past was that it was sufficiently distant that I never knew exactly what to think, who was right and who was wrong.”

    On ADM’s comment that “the past is a foreign country,” too: I agree with both of you. But what if the past you research is in fact in another country than your country of origin or citizenship? Conducting research on another country than one’s own can lead to the same thing–a distancing from national/ist politics that is refreshing. U.S. Americans who take a critical view of American history are accused by (mostly) non-professional critics of not “loving America” sufficiently. Crossing borders as well as centuries can be a relief–not that there aren’t nationalist politics in other national histories (I write about Quebec now!), but that somehow you don’t own them or have to answer to them so much.


  37. I do modern, and I can assure you Susan, that I’ve never known who was right, wrong or whatever. What drew me into history? The foreignness of it all, the way I just knew that they were doing and thinking and living very differently that I was, and since I was also doing/thinking/living differently than anybody I knew, I might, just might, find a place. And since my research is on French diplomats, I also deal with power elites (very far from my own experience) who were, by definition men. So I am very much in foreign territory. That difference is, as Historiann notes, a relief. It also sharpens my own awareness of issues of power, privilege, etc in the US and elsewhere. (I started to say ‘my own society’ but haven’t felt the US was ‘mine’ for a very long time).


  38. Belle, thank you for the reminder. I totally get how doing modern French diplomatic history could feel just as distant as a native new yorker working on 17th century English villages! I think for all of us there is something that grabs us at some point, and it can be different things for different folks. And for those like ADM, I might as well be doing current events!

    I think you’ve nailed it better than I did — “they were doing and thinking and living very differently that I was, and since I was also doing/thinking/living differently than anybody I knew”. I love that sense.


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  40. It’s funny, but I was re-reading this chapter in Bennett last night, and it’s really interesting to me that we’ve really been playing out all of the different attitudes and approaches that Bennett talks about, while not actually addressing Bennett’s take. Book comes to life on blog!


  41. Historiann, thankyou for the welcome and a fair point about my assumptions, I’ll be more careful. I didn’t mean to sound the trumpets of the monstrous regiment cliché, but merely that parts of that conversation seemed as if I couldn’t step in without being characterised as the enemy. I think I was attributing too much representativeness to one particularly vocal commentator.

    ADM, firstly, no, I looked up the reference online don’t worry. But knowing I’d read it, I had somewhere easy to look… As to your other point, there is no question but that women have been important in my academic formation all the way up, from a radical feminist older half-sister (now farming in my subject country…) to various teachers at various levels. And I think that’s disinclined me to leave women out of my picture but I tried initially to avoid doing gender work because I saw it as leaving out the bits of society I was principally interested in, which was those who made war and passed laws, I was terribly boy-like then. So when I did the work that made me a women’s historian in Bennett’s terms, it was simply because I was looking at a source repository of incredible detail. In that instance it happened to be Abbess Emma who had caused it all to be, but if it had been an abbot I’d have been just as happy. I did, however, think I had a better chance of getting it published because the lead figure was a woman, and that was rarer and therefore more significant. I’m not sure whether I was right or what it would say about the journal or industry if I was.

    Lastly, I know, don’t feed the troll, and I too doubt that this was the original poster, but when Satsuma says:
    “now women are getting the majority of PhDs, and Masters, and the majority of undergrad degrees as well”, I have to say, `Apparently not in history!‘ Which bothers me.


  42. Jonathan–welcome back, and good point. Women are underrepresented in history at all levels in U.S. universities. I think there is some data the AHA has about this trend accelerating after 9/11/01, although of course there probably is no clear causal link.


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