OAH wrap-up, Part II: Gender and Sexuality in Early American History

oahorbust2Here are some more highlights from Saturday, March 28 at the Organization of American Historians’ annual meeting in Seattle.  (In case you missed it, Part I of my wrap-up is here.)  As I was pulling myself together for my 8:30 a.m. session, I ran into Tenured Radical, who confessed that she was feeling a mite queasy.  (Was she ever!  Poor thing.)  But, the show must go on, and I was looking forward to hearing Mary P. Ryan’s comments at the women’s lunch at noon.  My next post will cover Ryan’s comments at lunch–please allow me to indulge in some in-depth reporting on the “State of the Field” roundtable I was on, as I think some of the issues raised there may be of interest to many of you, because we’ve chewed over some of these questions here before.

State of the Field:  Gender and Sexuality in Early American History featured Carol Karlsen, Jennifer Spear, Todd Romero, Historiann, and Susan Juster serving as chair and moderator.  Kirsten Fischer organized this panel, and it was co-sponsored by the Steven J.  Schochet Endowment for GLBT Studies and Campus Life, although she was unable to be with us because she is on leave this year and out of the country.

  • Karlsen offered what she called “the long view” of these topics and said there wasn’t much historiography to speak of until the mid-1990s, but that what has appeared since then has revolutionized our view of early American history with insights about the intersectionality of race and gender, the idea that urban environments are spaces for negotiation, the importance of masculinity as well as examining women’s gender roles, and the notion that the sexual conquest of women of color was central to the colonization of the Americas. 
  • Historiann argued that we’re losing women’s history because of the turn from social history and archival research to cultural history and textual analyses, and the corresponding flight from the colonial period into the early Republic with its studies of print culture and Habermassian public spheres.  She stated that she worries about the prospect of histories of gender and sexuality without women in them–especially when there are so many discoveries that await us in the archives.
  • Romero noted the power of gender history to contribute to a continental or borderlands vision of early American history, and suggested that focusing on cross-cultural analyses, religion, and material culture were innovative ways to help integrate gender history into the larger narrative of American history. 
  • Finally, Spear too urged historians to return to the archives to learn more about the history of sexuality, because she sees a demographically-based determinist explanation gaining ground over cultural explanations of differences in the comparative study of the colonization of the Americas.   She worries that the demographic explanation doesn’t take sexuality seriously, nor the histories of women of color. 
  • The discussion was lively, mostly revolving around the connections between feminism and the histories of women, gender, and sexuality, and questions about where gay or lesbian-like history fit into all of these sub-fields.  A man unknown to me noted that there was only one man on our roundtable and asked why that was, implying that this might have something to do with the fears that many of us have about the dwindling of women’s history.  At first, I thought his question was kind of obnoxious, because he seemed to imply that this had something to do with women’s history being hostile to men (oh, please!), but then later I thought he raised an important question:  Native American and African American history have moved from the margins to the center of American history in recent decades in large part because there are plenty of white scholars who take these fields seriously, and who are themselves researchers in these fields, whereas women’s history (for the most part) is the province of women scholars–but I would argue that that’s not because men aren’t welcome.  I think it’s because the majority of male historians don’t in fact believe that women’s history is important, which is why they don’t research it themselves.  (Plus, girls are icky and have cooties and everything they touch decreases its prestige–and that must resonate in a profession that has a great deal of status anxiety as it is.)  
  • Juster was a great chair and moderator, and offered several brilliant bons mots of her own.  For example, she said that the shift from gender history to the history of sexuality (in terms of developments and fashions) has been much more vexed than the shift from women’s history to gender history for feminist scholars because 1) sexuality isn’t about women necessarily, and 2) it’s harder to imagine what a feminist history of sexuality looks like than it is to imagine a feminist history of gender.  Regina Kunzel spoke up to disagree with Juster, saying that feminism is inadequate for understanding sexuality, but that sex is indeed a vector of power to manage bodies and people (by which I think she meant that sexuality functions like gender in that it too is about the distribution and exercise of power.)  Kunzel also noted how different the history of sexuality in early America looks compared to modern histories of sexuality, because of the centrality of race in early American histories of sexuality, whereas she doesn’t see the same centrality of race in modern studies.
  • Bethel Saler wondered if the categories for LGBTQ don’t really fit for early American history–I replied (and others nodded in agreement) that this is why Judith Bennett’s “lesbian-like” history or queer history concepts are useful to consider–not so much because we’re interested in finding the same categories in early America as today, but as a strategy for challenging what we think we know about “straight” history.  (That is, we use the same language–“marriage” and “heterosexuality”–to talk about straight relationships in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but then we get all up in arms about “lesbian-like” or “queer”–why is that?  Shouldn’t we be equally cautious about imposing modern categories on apparently “straight” relations between the sexes as we are in same-sex relationships?)

Well, folks–this post is already waaaay too long, so more on Mary Ryan’s comments at lunch later.  In the meantime, if you really can’t wait, you can see video of her speech in its entirety hereHNN has put up a handy page with lots of meeting highlights here, for those of you who want to venture beyond the confines of this blog.)

0 thoughts on “OAH wrap-up, Part II: Gender and Sexuality in Early American History

  1. Pingback: OAH wrap-up, part I: Borderlands, Oysters, Strangers, and–who invited Norovirus? : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

  2. In regards to the question of (homo)sexuality in Early America, while there has clearly been some work done that most readers of this blog will know already (Godbeer, Lyons, Foster, and Foster’s anthology, Long Before Stonewall [NYU Press] that contains all those essays and others) I also wanted to alert Historiann Fans to a forthcoming essay by Jennifer Manion of Connecticut College that will appear in one of the next few volumes of SIGNS: “Historic Heteroessentialism and Other Orderings in Early America,” a state of the field consideration of sexuality in Early America.


  3. Thanks for this summary, Historiann, and H.A. thanks for the heads up on the article — I spoke with Manion a bit after the SHEAR panel on same-sex history last summer and she seemed frustrated by the limitations of the discussion there, so I bet she’ll have really interesting things to say.

    I’m going to be working up a second, revised version of a grad seminar on Gender and Sexuality in Early America for next spring, but I’m finding it more and more difficult to frame the class — trying to do a little bit each of women’s history, gender history, and the history of sexuality means that I don’t really get to do any one of those in the depth I’d like, and the students, who are mostly novices wrt. these issues and who are much more comfortable with social than cultural history (at least in its more theoretical incarnations), get very confused. That said, I’m excited because so much new has appeared that was at best only available in article form the last time I taught the class (including Abraham in Arms, and the book versions of Bloch, Lyons, and Foster). I’d welcome advice & discussion from folks who have taught a similar course.

    Finally, one of Kunzel’s points seems particularly interesting to me, and this may be why I find that the history of sexuality sits uneasily in the course I’m trying to frame — from the summary here I kind of take her to be making a Foucauldian point like the one Bruce Burgett makes in his somewhat critical review of Godbeer, that sexuality is a category that gets invented and reshaped over time as a way of organizing and controlling behaviors and bodies by grouping them together and giving them a name/category through which power (via a whole variety of discourses) can operate. In the history of gender, it’s masculinity and femininity or manhood and womanhood that undergo this process, not so much the very notion of gender itself. It seems like even though they’re clearly related in very important ways, the categories don’t exactly match up — they’re of different orders, and demand different theoretical and methodological approaches.


  4. JJO–good luck with your grad class–it sounds great. I think it’s really hard to find anything published since the early 90s that’s “just” women’s history–most of it is about gender as well as women qua women, and in the past 15 years now there’s a lot of the history of sexuality all over the place. I’d strongly recommend teaching Sharond Block’s and Clare Lyons’s books consecutively, because they’re both such radically different articulations of the history of sexuality, as well as such dramatically different stories about essentially the same period.

    Credit where credit is due: Jennifer Spear said this on Saturday morning, and I heartily concur. I’ve done this in two u/g classes in the past few years, and it’s fascinating to see how the class breaks down as to which author they find more persuasive. So far in my classes Block has emerged as the author the students think is more correct (albeit they are depressed to admit it because of her focus on sex as power.) I will be interested to hear what your students decide, since I think I may have an (unwitting) thumb on the scale because I find Block’s version of events more convincing than Lyons’s. That said, I really like and admire Lyons’s book–I just don’t think there was a sexual revolution for women in the late 18th C.


  5. Pingback: Art, history, colonialism, and violence: my weekend in the O.C. : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

  6. Pingback: “What about Women in Early American History?” In which Historiann and friends get up on their high horses and rope ‘em up good : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

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