Lawrence Stone: classy, classy guy!

1985In case any of you doubted my judgment of Lawrence Stone as a complete tool, you can decide for yourself.  Close your eyes, and imagine it’s 1985.  You’re wearing a tube skirt and tights and an oversized sweater (or, if you’re really lucky, a big leather jacket like the one Molly Ringwald wore in The Breakfast Club.)  You’re listening to Madonna’s latest hit single, reading about her upcoming wedding to Sean Penn, and wondering if Boris Becker really has a shot at the Wimbledon men’s singles championship at age 17.  Then, you open up your latest copy of the New York Review of Books–what can I say?  You were a precocious teenager, right?–and you see this review of The Weaker Vessel by Antonia Fraser and Women in English Society, 1500–1800, a collection of essays edited by Mary Prior.  Stone begins his review like this:

Before beginning a discussion of the books under review, I must first set out the ten commandments which should, in my opinion, govern the writing of women’s history at any time and in any place:

1. Thou shalt not write about women except in relation to men and children. Women are not a distinct caste, and their history is a story of complex interactions;

2. 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;

3. Thou shalt not forget that in the past nearly all women paid at least lip service to the idea that they were in all respects inferior to men, as ordained by God. The only area in which they were thought to be clearly stronger was in their sexual voracity, their capacity to have multiple orgasms, but this was more a source of shame and temptation than of pride;

4. Thou shalt not confuse prescriptive norms with social reality;

5. Thou shalt exercise subtlety in recognizing diversity, ambivalence, and ambiguity concerning the relative strength of love, sex, money, birth, parental authority, and brute force in determining the choice of a spouse;

6. Thou shalt not assume the ubiquity in the past of modern emotional patterns—neither premarital love, nor conjugal affection, nor maternal devotion to infants. Circumstances and culture are often stronger than natural instincts;

7. Thou shalt not exaggerate the importance in the past of gender over that of power, status, and wealth, even if all women experienced the same biological destiny;

8. Thou shalt not use the biographies of a handful of exceptional (usually upper-class) ladies to describe the experience of the majority of (necessarily lower-class) women;

9. Thou shalt be clear about what constitutes real change in the experience and treatment of women;

10. Thou shalt not omit to analyze with care the structural constraints on women created by values, religion, customs, laws, and the nature of the economy.

When Joan Scott wrote in the following month to ask, rhetorically, “[a]bout what other subject would even as consistently audacious a scholar as Professor Stone presume he could speak as God?” Stone feigned incomprehension.  He wrote these Ten Commandments, he claims, “never imagining for a moment that anyone would suspect me to be claiming to speak for God or Moses, or indeed anyone but myself.” 

Stone’s intentions are of minor importance, although the rest of his reply reads like one of those non-apology fake apologies that go something like, “I’m sorry if anyone was offended by what I wrote. . . ”  My estimation is that at least ten out of ten of these commandments are either pointless because they apply to all historians, or insufficient, or just plain wrong.  Discuss!

61 thoughts on “Lawrence Stone: classy, classy guy!

  1. It’s interesting to me that, rather than listening and replying to the post, so many male commenters here felt more comfortable deploying silencing techniques like policing the “tone” a woman chooses to use, or raising the all important question of whether a given woman likes men enough.

    Because of the patriarchal culture we live in, Lawrence Stone was able to wield significant rhetorical power with his “tone” in his article; it was all there for him, ready made as a man. He was even given a large, respectable forum to do it in via the NYTBR. But what’s more important than his easy marshaling of those forces against women who were struggling to create a historical voice for themselves is the fact that, twenty-odd years later, a woman calls him a “tool” on a blog.

    Magnificent derailing skills.


  2. To be fair, not everyone here complaining was a man–there was a woman in the previous thread, and I’ve seen other complaints from women, too.

    Oh! I see. My bad.

    But, yes: for some reason, it’s very important to discipline my speech and writing!

    Well, the “tone” argument is a classic in feminist and anti-racist derailing, from what I’ve seen. The best theory I’ve seen is that people with privilege (whites, men, etc.) have the tools (no pun intended?) to do verbal violence without seeming to lift a finger in anger, so that a woman/person of color who calls out “that hurt, you jerk!” ends up seeming like the attacking party, the angry one. We’re acculturated to notice and be offended by minutia, while privileged people can say things that create an oppressive atmosphere, that work toward silencing without seeming angry to others or experiencing much (any?) emotional turmoil themselves.

    Getting back on topic. Whether or not Stone intended to contribute to diminishing women’s contributions to history or not, I can’t say. But I believe it’s the responsibility of people with social capital to first, recognize the power they have, and second make sure they’re not abusing it. The fact that it probably didn’t occur to him to do either of those things–and that he was cocooned in a publishing industry that didn’t call him on what he said–does make it pretty obvious how widespread the misogyny was, that someone could be participating in it without perhaps even meaning to.


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  5. Graham Cumberland on 11 Mar 2009 at 12:53 pm #
    If Stone was still alive and well enough to defend himself, such criticism might be acceptable in the rough and tumble of open debate. However objectionable you feel his views to have been, this discussion has gone too far.

    Snort. At first I thought it was satire of ridiculous old white guy who cannot believe A Woman Is Speaking On the Internet but it is in fact an actual ridiculous white dude. As a sexist tool he is so offended at criticism for another for being a tool we must STFU. I love the Internet. I love that these asinine use of privilege just do not work here.

    Graham brought his penis out to tell use not to call the other penis a tool. And you did not STFU. How dare you! Do you not know that Graham is the Most Feminist Dude He Knows. And that when he lectures (his untenured or student) female colleagues about being a lady they all just *adore* him. No one dares calls him a tool. Bad Ladies.

    Snort snort snort.


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