"What about Women in Early American History?" In which Historiann and friends get up on their high horses and rope 'em up good

cowgirl3Howdy, cowgirls and dudes–here’s my long-overdue report on a conversation we had Friday afternoon, June 12 at the Omohundro Institute’s Fifteenth Annual Conference in Salt Lake City.  Called “What about Women in Early America?”it featured Karin Wulf of the College of William and Mary (and the book review editor for the William and Mary Quarterly); Sowande’ Mustakeem of Washington University, St. Louis; Andrea Robertson Cremer of Macalester College; and Historiann (natch.)

Wulf wore two hats as the chair of our roundtable, and as the person who shared e-mailed comments from Terri Snyder of California State University, Fullerton, who was originally supposed to join us on the panel.  (The Cali budget crisis waits for no woman!)  She opened the discussion by saying, “We may have had this conversation before,” and reminded us of previous conversations at the 2002 and 2008 Berkshire Conferences and at the Organization of American Historians’ annual conference in 2009.  (Regular readers here will remember too our discussions of Judith Bennett’s History Matters in March here and at Notorious Ph.D., Girl Scholar, Tenured Radical, Blogenspiel, and the wrap-up featuring Bennett herself, in which we aired a number of questions and anxieties many of us have about the future of women’ s history.) 

Wulf noted that among women’s historians in general, there is a “persistent concern. . . that in expanding [women’s history] there is a diffusion” of interests that is leading us away from a focus on XX chromosome people.  In particular, she said that she perceives a decline in submissions of articles in women’s history at the William and Mary Quarterly and in the numbers of fellowship applications submitted to the Omohundro Institute that relate primarily to women’s history.  Finally, she said that the fashion for large-scale comparative, transnational, or neo-imperial frameworkslike Atlantic World and borderlands histories, with their neo-traditional focus on political and military history, may also play a part in creating these perceptions. 

Snyder’s comments married well with Wulf’s introduction.  She wonders why we have this perception, given that Annette Gordon-Reed’s The Hemingses of Monticello:  An American Family won the 2008 National Book Award for Nonfiction, Juliana Barr’s Peace Came in the Form of a Woman:  Indians and Spaniards in the Texas Borderlands, a predominately eighteenth-century book, won the 2007 Berkshire Conference book prize, and the William and Mary Quarterly now offers the Mary Maples Dunn Prize for women’s and gender history.  She asks, in spite of these successes, “where is the new generation” of early American women’s historians coming from?  She also wondered if the problem wasn’t as much our time period, which is considered marginal if not completely irrelevant by modern historians, as our no-longer-fashionable focus on XX chromosome people.

Fortuntely, we had two members of the new generation on hand to comment, and their reports from the trenches confirmed rather than challenged the jeremiads that us old-timers were singing.  Cremer said that it strikes her that maybe she was part of the problem, because “I always identified myself as a historian of violence, religion, gender, and sexuality,” but not as a women’s historian.  In part, this was because much of her early work was on masculinity, and when she presented this work she was greeted with the ignorant question, “how can you talk about gender when there aren’t any women in your paper.”  Duh.  Men have gender too, EinsteinHistoriann used to hear this too, Andrea–take heart!  Nothing succeeds like published success.  Why the walls around women’s history, when other history sub-fields seem much more permeable?  Cremer said that she sees a parallel problem in her classes, in that courses with “women” in the title will draw only women students, whereas “gender and sexuality” in the billing results in a more even distribution of male and female students.  (Historiann likes to call this the “cooties problem” of women’s history–surely we can’t expect men to study women’s history!  We’d probably make them write with purple ink on pink exam papers, or something.)

Mustakeem talked about her work putting sex, age, and health into our understanding of enslaved bodies in the Middle Passage.  (Too often the modal enslaved African is presumed to be a young, healthy adult man, when actual slave ships were filled with the very young and very old, and with people of both sexes and of very different abilities and disabilities.)  She too reported that she has been aggressively challenged at conferences for daring to talk about individuals and their experiences on slave ships, rather than abstract numbers or “censuses” of slaves.  She has conducted research in 25 different archives in England, New England, and the Southeastern U.S. in order to write about what she calls the “gendered collective,” but because she is a young African American woman, she has been sneeringly challenged by an older and overwhelmingly white historical profession.

Historiann concluded the prepared remarks from the panel by noting that she is especially concerned about the decline of early American women’s history because “we still have only a tiny handful of studies that focus specifically on Native American and African American women’s lives.  Scholars have only just recently begun to generate the beginnings of a critical mass of feminist studies that address the nonwhite majority of women in North America.”  I added that as Mustakeem’s research shows us, young historians need time and money to conduct research in various archives–that’s where the new stories about women in early America will come from, but unfortunately, time and money pressures as well as technology have conspired to make dissertations on “print culture” easier.  Besides all that, we have to keep an eye on what’s being digitized and what isn’t–since it tends to be pretty traditional sources going on-line–and consider that money spent on digitizing yet more letters or papers of a prominent free, white man are not being spent to conserve or preserve archival evidence that speaks to the experiences of women and non-white peoples.  (And I noted again that Snyder’s Berks panel “Researching and Writing the Lives of Unfree Women” offered fantastic evidence about the rich sources that await us in the archives if we would only look there!)

The bulk of our time was spent on a discussion that was primarily directed by our large and enthusiastic audience, which was composed not just of women, and not just of women’s historians, but of early Americanists of all descriptions.  Alice Nash pointed out that most early Americanists are (far too!) limited by the sources we use, which are overwhelmingly English-language sources, and Eric Hinderaker seconded the “source problem” too.  Nash also urged us to look inwards and ask ourselves what we have done that may have alienated people from feminist scholarship–why is it that our students don’t think they need feminism any more?  Laurel Ulrich suggested that the turn to cultural history (and away from social history) may be partly to blame for the marginalization of women’s history, and wondered if historical method alone is sufficient to deal with the “explosive issues” of sexuality and rape, given the reception that Mustakeem reported for her work, and that historians perhaps should look for insights from other disciplines.  Wayne Bodle suggested that evidence and archival research can help us deal with the grim realities of most women’s lives, and suggested that we shouldn’t rely on keyword searches in digital sources alone to recapture the immediacy and violence of the past.  Cathy Kelly wondered if there really is a crisis at all, and said that everyone in her department incorporates women’s history into their teaching unproblematically.

As in Bennett’s book, the question of history’s relationship to other disciplinary approaches to  feminist scholarship had a serious airing.  Erika Gasser agreed with Ulrich’s call for more interdisciplinarity, saying that it was “essential” to her training as a women’s historian, while others like Leslie Tuttle struck a note of caution about interdisciplinary work, saying that many of her graduate students in interdisciplinary classrooms felt that there was hostility from other feminist scholars about history’s commitment to evidence.  Andrew Cayton said that perhaps historians need to look new places for interdisciplinary inspiration–to psychology and science for its insights about gender differences, and Ulrich seconded his recommendation, noting that this may be helpful for the study of sexuality in particular, and that concepts like Bennett’s focus on the continuities of women’s lives really demand an interdisciplinary approach.  Historiann is skeptical about the possibilities for interdisciplinarity with science, in that so much of the so-called science of gender difference seems invested in arguing that there are meaningful, biologically rooted essential differences between women and men.  (Do we accept these arguments when they’re made about race or ethnicity?  Then why should we accept as legitimate these inquiries about gender?)  That said, I’ve taken a look at cognitive development and neuroscience myself lately, and I’ve learned a lot from medicine over the years that has influenced my teaching and may one day be a part of my research.

My recap of the discussion is neceesarily limited here–for example, Wulf said at the outset that we )could have two parallel discussions:  one of the status of women’s history in our field, and the other about the status of women in our field, and this brief discussion has clearly focused on the former and not at all on the latter.  But, many people brought up professional issues as well–Sarah Crabtree for example noticed that once she was hired as “the women’s historian,” her colleagues decided that they could stop teaching it and hand it all over to her.  Others reported seeing the “cootie problem” that Cremer reported–that classes billed as “women’s history” attract women overwhelmingly, whereas their other classes have male majorities.

When our session concluded, we all walked across the lovely University of Utah campus to a plenary session called “Crafting History:  The Work and Influence of Laurel Thatcher Ulrich,” which was held at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts.  Charles Cohen served as session chair, and then four distinguished historians spoke to Ulrich’s career by focusing on four of her contributions.  Fred Anderson spoke of her craft as a writer, Karin Wulf spoke to her work as a feminist historian, Jane Kamensky detailed Ulrich’s contributions to economic history, and Marla Miller talked of her work and influence as a historian of material culture.  I will hope to share more about this session in another post, since these tributes and Ulrich’s fascinating and gracious reply at the end deserve it.

Well, that’s surely enough for you to chew on today–please continue the discussion in the comments below.  Thanks so much to Karin Wulf for putting this session together, and thanks too to our audience for giving us such a spirited discussion.  We’re not looking for one answer or set of answers to these problems, we’re just looking to shake these old horse blankets out and see what they look like in the 2009 sunshine.  I’m off for a day of no sun but lots of fun in the Library of Michigan!  Say howdy if you see my horse roped up to a bike rack outside.

0 thoughts on “"What about Women in Early American History?" In which Historiann and friends get up on their high horses and rope 'em up good

  1. This is a great summary and analysis, Historiann. It’s amazing that you could be both a panelist/presenter and a faithful and nuanced recorder of such a wide ranging discussion. I’m not a hundred percent convinced that practice areas such as Atlantic and borderlands are as “neotraditional” as you suggest, or that the subcategories mentioned (political and military) would inherently preclude the inclusion of women as central actors, but I guess that’s the burden of much of the evidence so far. Hope you had a good run up to (East?) Lansing today and collected a lot of good stuff.


  2. Oh, I wish I had been at the conference! This brings to mind two things for me. I’m switching gears for the new book, writing about culture and power on a slave plantation. Part of the project involves examining contests between slave owner and enslaved men over gender and honor. I circulated a draft of a project proposal to some colleagues in the department, asking for feedback. First comment: where are the women? (NB: it’s not like I am *ignoring* enslaved women here. But for a variety of reasons, including available documentation, I’m focusing on masculinity.)I predicted the critique, and sure enough it came.

    Something else has hit me as I have begun to dive back into this historiography. There’s been a great deal of great work done in the last decade on the history of *slavery*–but not as much on the history of *slaves*. We’ve learned more about the place of unfree labor in the political economy of the imperial Atlantic world than we have about the lived experiences of enslaved peoples.

    This could just be my reading of the literature, of course, but it does speak to Indyanna’s point as well. I’ve never felt that studying colonialism in the Atlantic world is an inherently neotraditional project–I think much of this scholarship is intended to critique or subvert traditional “imperial history” narratives. But the turn towards studying the “systems” does tend to privilege institutional actors (nearly always elite white men) at the expense of the “acted upon.” Just my two cents.


  3. John–are you complaining about the comment “where are the women,” or just passing it along as evidence that it’s not your colleagues who are forgetting to remember the ladies? I think it’s good advice–after all, as Trevor Burnard’s work on Thomas Thistlewood demonstrates, one of the key tools masters and their white striver lackeys have is the ability to exploit petty jealousies, including sexual jealousies, among and between enslaved men and women. (And of course, the master’s/overseer’s complete access to African American as well as European American women’s bodies was a hyooooge means by which men competed for status and control with other men.)

    As to your point and Indyanna’s about whether or not AW/borderlands/transnational frameworks necessarily marginalize women or individuals in general: no, but that’s how they end up working in my experience, because of the tendency (as you say) for the “systems” to eclipse those who are the victims/mere laboring, suffering, and dying bodies. That’s what I was getting at in my comment–sorry to have collapsed it all into one unsophisticated fallen souffle! (I sure as hell think one can do a LOT with gender and political or military history, as I have done myself I think–but we are vox clamantis in deserto.)

    And, THE and Susan–thanks! Why not come on down yourselves next year to Mississippi? I was just talking to Susan Sleeper-Smith at lunch today–if we don’t go, and if we don’t do it, we can’t really b!tch about the lack of presence of women’s history at early American conferences. (Here’s the link for the curious–come on down, one and all!)


  4. Really interesting post & discussion. I don’t work on American history, and in my field women’s history maintains an important place – women historians and historians of women helped shape my field, actually. I still see monographs on women co-existing alongside more cultural studies of sexuality and gender (almost all the work about gender is still on women). So inside my field I don’t experience an absence of women – but outside my field, in history departments, it gets more alarming. I too have noticed again and again the idea that there needs to be only one “women’s historian” and that any woman can perform that role, whether or not she is actually an historian of women simply because she herself is a woman. This is very troubling to me. In my rounds of women’s history classes, I absolutely see the gender divide – but this time I taught a more generic “society and sexes” class and had a much more even gender distribution. I kind of liked it, because I lured all these young men into the class and then gave everybody a pretty straight forward women’s history class, with a little discussion of masculinity thrown in. I also try to integrate women, particularly female authors of primary sources, into ALL my courses, as an attempt to break down the idea that “women have cooties”. Part of the problem is that women are so marginalized in courses – there are women’s history courses and then there is “regular” history in which women basically don’t figure. While I want to preserve women’s history classes, “regular” classes need to integrate as many women as possible, especially as authors (and authors of a broad array of subjects) so that (male) students can see that women *are a part of history*. (I’m guessing that I’m not alone in this effort.) I feel so ambivalently about the HQs!


  5. I was responding to the comment that as evidence that gender = women. I am trying mightily to find as much evidence as I can about enslaved women’s lives on the plantation, but they appear most in the documentation as objects in power struggles between the master and male slaves. The planter in question fancied himself the best doctor around, so medical access to enslaved women’s bodies was a major site of contestation.

    It *appears* that much of this revolved around enslaved men asserting their rights to control the bodies of black women, with the planter challenging that right. (Preliminary analysis.) I have found identifying women’s intentions and agency a difficult task here.

    I suppose this resembles your other post today, in which men get together to make pronouncements from on high about women’s wombs. (Landon Carter would feel at home in a discussion with William Lord Saletan from Slate, I think.)


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