Good morning, friends–today’s post is a front line dispatch from my faithful correspondent Classy Claude, who is in Washington, D.C. at the Organization of American Historians’ annual meeting. Yesterday, he attended a star-studded panel, “State of the Field: History of Women/Gender/Sexuality,” and reports that the panel and the audience ended up discussing the question, “are undergraduates interested at all in women’s history these days?” Great question, Claude! Everyone else, read through his report and join in the conversation below.
Classy Claude checking in from the OAH, this year in Washington, DC. First of all, it is HOT here! I arrived yesterday and as the plane was coming in for a landing the pilot informed us that the high was 90 degrees. [Ed. note: Claude–take off the suit and tie!] This unseasonable warmth also seems to have produced a remarkably high pollen count. I went for a run yesterday upon arrival and at the end my eyes were so red and bloodshot that Classy Claude looked more like Cannabis Claude. And the sneezing!
But on to matters historical… Most of my day was filled up with grad school friend reunions but I did make it to one of the OAH’s “state of the field panels,” this one of particular interest both to myself and other Historiann readers: Women/Gender/Sexuality. The panel was moderated by Robert Self and was comprised of Nancy Cott, Nayan Shah, Stephanie McCurry, Regina Kunzel (who was ill and whose comments were delivered by Self), and Brenda Stevenson (Iris Stevenson, a DC attorney, delivered the paper that her sister, recovering from an ankle injury, was unable to give herself).
Brenda Stevenson(channeled by Iris) spoke about African American women’s history, giving a generational historiography that began with black women’s oral histories. She ended by making a number of suggestions for areas where further research was needed, among them black women’s relationships with indigenous women; free women of color; labor and politics in the twentieth century; and black women’s sexuality now that so much had been done to debunk the myth of the hypersexual black women. Nancy Cott began with the question of whether there was still a place for women’s history (as opposed to gender history; she believes so) and also spoke about the phases of the field over the past 30 years. She ended by saying that while the history of gender and sexuality seems to have eclipsed women’s history in recent years she likes to think of the field as being like a mille feuilles, the French pastry composed of many layers; women’s history is the foundation and the other layers may obscure it but they also rely upon it. [Ed. note: This is an interesting but potentially disturbing metaphor that suggests another: is women’s history like all mothers–without her there would be no family, but ultimately she doesn’t get full credit for all of her labors?]
Regina Kunzel’s remarks were primarily about the history of sexuality – and mostly same-sex sexuality – in the twentieth-century U.S. She noted, first of all, that the field is erroneously characterized as narrow when in fact much of the best history of sexuality is completely tied to political and economic history. The perceived narrowness, however, means that it is still remarkably difficult for people to find employment when doing dissertations on sexuality and particularly so if they are LGBT-related. She made a number of suggestions, perhaps the strongest being that people doing queer studies need to talk more to historians and that those doing queer history need to read more interdisciplinary queer studies. The two groups have much to learn from each other. Nayan Shah, speaking of the intersection of transnational, immigrant, and gender/sexuality history prodded historians of women and gender to take lessons from Asian American history about things we all know already: that the nuclear family should not be used as a measuring stick for families and that state documentation of permanence (in the census, for instance) should not be believed. We know that the nuclear family has almost never been the primary familial form and we also know that people have always been far more transient than governmental records would indicate they are.
Finally, Stephanie McCurry spoke about gender history, saying that the category itself is among the most important innovations of the twentieth century but also her fear that undergraduate students don’t much seem to care. As she put it about the use of “gender” as an analytic tool, “I can do gender history in any class – and I do – so long as it’s integrated into the class overall and so long as it’s not in the course title.” Her overall query for the audience was about whether her own experience – that grad students are still interested in women and gender, but that undergrads are not – was shared by the audience.
And it is that discussion that might interest Historiann’s loyal readers. Most of the people teaching at large and elite schools, including Nancy Cott, tended to echo McCurry. A number of others, including Eileen Boris at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said that students, were much more interested in courses on sexuality, that those courses always overenrolled, but that classes on “women” did not. She also noted that students were much more interested in talking about women in the contemporary moment, but getting them to discuss almost anything historically was the problem. One historian at the University of Victoria said that her students told her that no one was interested in women’s history anymore because there was no sexism and so no need. The interesting counterpoint to McCurry’s experience was that of historians at larger public institutions or smaller (and perhaps less well funded?) private ones. John D’Emilio at the University of Illinois at Chicago and another historian whose name I didn’t catch at Marshall University both said that their departments had no trouble filling classes on the history of women, gender, or sexuality. Finally, a historian from Simmons College gave the last – and perhaps most heartening – comment of the panel. Her textbook rep had recently told her that ze was seeing much more demand for a two-part women’s history textbook because increasing numbers of schools were offering a two-part survey instead of the standard all-in-one.
So Historiann readers: are your undergrads signing up for classes in women’s history or only in the history of sexuality? Are these students history majors or Women’s Studies or something else altogether? Do your grad students (if you have them) still find gender interesting? More so than your undergrads?
Thanks, Claude–and thanks for not taking me on that run in Washington with you! Ugh. Believe it or not, people around here are still skiing in the mountains! I can’t wait to hear what la Gallerie des Arachides d’Historiann (the Historiann Peanut Gallery) has to say about your questions.