Is women's history necessarily feminist history?

I know this sounds like a dumb question.  Most of us have been answering this for at least a decade, with the rejoinder “of course not!”  For the past twenty years, we’ve seen a complex de-coupling going on between women’s history and feminism.  (This was of course one of the laments in Judith Bennett’s wide-ranging evaluation of the relationship between history and femnism in History Matters.)  Women’s history is a large and rich enough field that there are histories of women that aren’t particularly feminist, just as the history of women has expanded far beyond the history of just feminist women to include the histories of women who lived before the invention of feminism as a political movement as well as women who weren’t feminists or even worked actively against feminism.  (As an outsider to modern U.S. women’s history, it seems to me that histories of right wing women’s activism have been particularly hot in the past decade.  Those of you who work in the field should feel free to correct my impressions if necessary, and add your own thoughts about recent work in your field.)

But, I was wondering today about women’s history.  What would happen if we just stopped writing it?  Who in the larger historical profession would notice, or care, or complain?  As a colleague in my field remarked to me last year, there are a number of women’s historians in my generation who wrote their first books in women’s or gender history, but then have written (or are writing) something definitely not women’s or gender history for their second books.

Feminists are the ones who would care if women’s history ceased production.  Whether or not they’re women’s historians, feminist historians would notice.  I also think that women historians would notice and care much more than the majority historians, who are men.  Whereas I think my overwhelmingly white profession would notice a lot faster and care a lot more if all historians stopped writing about race, and I think my overwhelmingly middle- and upper-middle-class profession would react with alarm if we all ditched class analysis.  (But I’m not sure the profession would react as quickly in the case of slavery–so questions of race and class are also complicated.)  So, maybe writing women’s history is essentially still–sadly!–a feminist act, even if one’s topic or analysis isn’t particular feminist.

Maybe I’m not being fair to my fellow historians, but that’s how it looks from here.  What do you think?

32 thoughts on “Is women's history necessarily feminist history?

  1. Count me as one of those who wrote a women’s history from a very feminist perspective for her first book, but is doing something else for her second book. It’s not that I don’t think the project is worth doing any more; I just feel like I’ve said what I need to say on it — for now. And that “for now” is a big caveat, because chances are I’ll come back to it at some point in my career.

    But here’s the thing for me: the project of working on a feminist women’s history project has had a profound impact on how I position myself as a researcher and writer (not to mention as a teacher, which is a whole ‘nuther post). My next book probably won’t deal directly with women, but I will be coming at *everything* with the habits of mind I formed as a feminist scholar.


  2. I like the distinction Notorious makes about being a feminist scholar, even if one is not engaging in an explicitly feminist analysis. This is a topic I’ve been thinking about quite a lot lately, oddly enough.

    I’ve been asked to write a 10 page “history of women” in my area of specialization in the physical sciences. Yeah, I know, 10 pages, but I hope to make the most of them. I’ve never written anything like this before and my work on the manuscript thus far is definitely different than it would have been, and I think better than it would have been, because I read History Matters (after reading the conversation about it here; thanks Historiann!).

    As recently as 40 years ago you can count the number of women publishing in my field on one hand yet when I look carefully, I see women peeking in around the edges for the last century or more. They were severely constrained by the social rules of their times: women as assistants to husbands and thus not in the author list; female students who become secretaries to their former advisers; but they were there. I think if I can write about this as women making the most of the opportunities available to them, it will be more thought-provoking for the reader than if I just write about women’s limited options in the “olden days.” I mean, there are some pretty quotable displays of sexism from the 1940’s to 60’s, but I’m not sure what they are good for. Nobody says that sort of stuff on the record any more and on the surface, the contrast seems to validate the idea that everything is better now. Yet we do still have an immense gender imbalance.

    Anyway, I don’t think this paper would be very useful if it was just a history of some women in a particular scientific field. But it might be useful if it’s written with a feminist sensibility.


  3. I think the question is, what constitutes feminist history? History where gender is a category of analysis? Where we study feminist ideas? Where we pay attention to the ways in which power is distributed, and women’s access to it? Or maybe the question is “What women’s history is NOT feminist?” If it accepts patriarchy as OK?

    I think my history will always be feminist, but not always about women directly. That is, gender is always a category of analysis, I’m always interested in patriarcy, and I just keep asking the questions.

    That said, I’m nervous about saying that some women’s history is feminist and some isn’t. The first time I went to the Berks (1978, Mt Holyoke)there were even fewer papers on pre-19th c stuff than there are now. One session included a couple of probably 50-ish women from (as I recall) a religious SLAC somewhere in rural nowhere. They gave papers on “women worthies”, which were not very analytical. But they were trying to do this new thing — and we were all making it up. There were maybe 5 of us in the audience. Some one more senior to me (she had a job, and I was but a lowly pre-diss grad student) made a really snarky comment about how just because it was about women it didn’t make it feminist, and really, we need to be writing about the history of feminism. Since then I’ve been very nervous about this one.


  4. Pingback: Aaron Hill’s Notes on History

  5. Yeah, I don’t know what to make of that. I suppose I should be flattered that I’m so dangerous! ZOMG!!!11!!! As if.

    S’il vous plait de ne nourrez pas les nains.

    (Does anyone have a better French translation for “troll” than “nain,” which actually means something like “dwarf?” Perhaps “lutin?”)


  6. I can see how this blog might be perceived as “peculiar” by someone who is suffering with their own blinkered sensibilities, but “little”? When I read it on my computer, it looks the same size as all the other blogs I read.


  7. A good friend of mine once said of me that I was a Little, but that there was nothing little about me. (And I took it as the compliment it was intended to be.)

    Now: anyone else think I’m selling historians short? Would non-women and non-feminist historians notice the absence of women’s history and think it’s a problem?


  8. Women’s history, maybe not, but I’m getting the sense that gender and sexuality analyses have gained slightly more purchase among historians who might not identify themselves as feminist. However, that could just be specific to my field.


  9. I know your comment policy requests that if one is to comment, one should contribute to the conversation. I don’t have much to say about the topic at hand that would not require a lot of thought other than there is always a need for feminists as historians. As far as the link above, it is such a case of a transparent motive. Although anyone who reads here regularly could put two and two together and come up with a name and a place where you supposedly teach, many of us would not. At least I wouldn’t. If I do not have a need to contact you and discuss something professionally then why would I expend such efforts to expose your name and other info? His/her little post (if you can even call it that) is clearly a whistle to the little creeps who may utilize such information for various nefarious reasons. Or at the very least, a flex to intimidate and let you know that he/she put a little bit of information together, so you had better watch your step and maintain that feminist stuff to a suitable degree.

    What a pathetic display of gotcha.


  10. I’m afraid you are right, Historiann. Here in the UK, I can say with some certainty that 70% of my colleagues would not care if women’s history – or gender history for that matter – died out. They certainly make no attempt to incorporate it into their teaching.

    I am not – at the moment – a historian of women (but have always been a feminist historian), but am thinking of something on women’s history for my next project. I have to say that the thought fills me with equal parts of excitement and trepidation, largely because I know how marginal such topics are in the eyes of both colleagues and publishers.

    At the end of the day, if men thought the history of women was important, they would write it themselves – and with a few notable exceptions, this is not the case.


  11. I think associating creeps like Aaron Hill with dwarfs is demeaning to Little People!

    Seriously, great post Historiann. Susan makes a good point — simply finding women worthy of study and historical analysis is certainly a step in the right direction. The problem comes when one fails to acknowledge the social structures that prevented most women from being “worthy” or “notable” as well as the constraints that limited the careers of notable women.

    I’m going to raise a related question — how does one convince feminist scholars outside of the discipline of history that a historical analysis is important both to our work and theirs?


  12. This is a good question. I would say in my field, gender history, at least, is pretty well-established. Off the top of my head, many of the most important books of the last 15 years have used some form of gender analysis. Not all, but a lot, have been about women.

    I am a non-U.S. historian.


  13. Thanks for all of your comments. There’s a lot to chew on here. I should just say to Dickens Reader that my real life identity and name are posted on the website under “About Historiann” in the top left corner, so my identity is hardly a secret. Anyone is free to look up my academic work and write about it–although one would hope that people would read past the article abstract before making any comments about it. But, that’s the difference between scholarship and the world wide non-peer reviewed internets! Some of us have standards, and things like evidence on our side. Others–not so much. But, the purpose of this blog is not to rant about the fact that someone somewhere on the internets has a different opinion than I, so let’s move on.

    I think thefrogprincess is right that gender and sexuality are far likelier to be subjects of inquiry for non-feminist and non-women scholars than the history of women. There is of course a lively and aggressive antifeminist history of masculinity and gender that emerged in the 1990s, much of it written by men who like to deny that gender was also about power, but much of which was written by women, too.

    Knitting Clio raises another important question about the value of historical analysis in feminist politics and issues, in the academy and outside. This was one of the important questions that Judith Bennett discussed in History Matters–not just the narrowing of focus among women’s historians to very recent history, but the relative decline in the role that history played in women’s studies and feminist activism. She made the point that history has important lessons about “patriarchal equilibrium” and the absence of change over time w/r/t women’s status relative to men that seems to characterize women’s history. The problem is that that message–with which I am in hearty agreement–is opposed both to the basic thrust of history (as the study of change over time) and the inclinations of feminist activism, which wants to believe that transformational change is possible. Contemporary historians and feminists are trapped in the Whig paradigm alike–for understandable reasons. Who DOESN’T want to believe that the bad old days are behind us forever? Who doesn’t want to be reassured that the modern democratic state offers the best possible existence for the most people? (I’d love to believe that, too, and for the most part I probably do believe it.)

    So, women’s historians, or at least those of us who want to talk about the lack of change over time, are pretty much the wet blankets that no one wants around. We don’t have a message that anyone wants to hear. No wonder no one would miss us if we all disappeared or stopped writing!


  14. So, when Aaron Hill says Esther Wheelwright was one of your mentors, what does that mean? I’ve seen you, and you do NOT look that old. Did you have to use a Ouija board at your dissertation defense?


  15. Yeah–I don’t know what that all means. The whole post was rather confused Three-hundred year old Ursulines are dangerously radical feminist “mentors?” Modern feminism is dangerous to long-dead French nuns?

    To borrow a phrase from Hunter S. Thompson, maybe all of the feminism over here put the zap on his brain.


  16. re: French words for troll…

    I figured I would identify a French version of The Three Billy-Goats Gruff and see what they used. And here is what I found:

    Percy, Graham, and Peter Christen Asbjørnsen. Le troll et les trois Boucs. Contes illustrés. Barcelona: Peralt Montagut, 1980.

    “Le troll”? Surely not! I will keep looking.


  17. You know, I think you’re right – if we stopped studying race, people would react, but women’s history? Hm. I had a discussion with another West Point fellow recently in which he told me that he thought gender history was great, but wasn’t so interested in women’s history. But didn’t we get gender history out of women’s history? I don’t think you can have one without the other – and if you try it, you just end up with dead white guy history.

    During my second year of grad school, my advisor remarked (in a class) that studying women’s history was by definition a political thing. And I had never heard that or thought of it, but it’s resonated with me ever since. I also find it interesting that becoming a women’s historian is what made me a feminist.


  18. Mark K.–great idea! I came across “le troll” myself, but rejected it as base Franglish. Maybe it is after all (as they say) le mot juste!

    Tanya: I had hoped that twenty years after starting grad school (1990) that we’d be over the concept that women’s history is essentially political. Little whig that I was, I assumed that everything was getting better and better, and surely we’d be in a dramatically different place in 2010 than in 1990 But, we’re not. That is to say, the American historical profession has not assimilated the concept that history is illegitimate if it doesn’t include women.


  19. I’m not a historian but I think similar things happen in other disciplines. One thing I noticed a couple of years ago in relation to a senior political science scholar I knew was that he was quite sympathetic and even supportive of those who studied women in politics and even feminist politics. But when it came to hiring, those were always treated as an “extra”. You’d never advertise for such a specialist. Nor would you consider someone qualified if that was all she did.

    I wondered at the time if this was a generational thing, since the first generation of women scholars who studies women (in history, politics, or wherever) would have been trained in a recognizable field within the discipline and then have veered off into women/feminism. (That’s put somewhat crudely but I hope you get the idea.)

    What I wondered about was what seemed to be happening to the students of that first generation. The women whose PhD supervisors were women’s historians or feminist historians. Whose dissertation project was a women’s history project.

    And, sadly, I think mostly what happens confirms your view that the historical profession per se (and similar things apply in political science and sociology) has not assimilated the idea that it must include women.


  20. I’ve done my training as an Americanist in a very small program, and for several cohorts before and after me (at least) I don’t think it was possible for any student to escape a class with at least 1, if not 2, specialists in women’s/gender history, of rather different scholarly generations. Everyone I took classes with had to read historical works that took women/gender seriously as categories of analysis. Because of the structure of our general exams, I think it would have been very difficult for anyone to get through without reading (at a minimum) 10-20 books on women/gender/sexuality. I’m only just beginning to understand how unusual that is.

    This experience, like my undergrad education, has been wonderful, but it’s apparently given me a skewed sense of what “the profession” as a whole takes seriously. (Silly me, thinking about history as if women’s lives mattered….)


  21. I have to agree with you completely here. The field of Labor and Working Class History trained Joan Scott but she quickly lost a place in the scholarship when she kept on talking about gender as a category of analysis. My colleagues are still plugging away at reminding us about class, and I could point out too many examples than I care to remember of how prioritizing “importance of class as an analytical category” is really used as an excuse to forget about gender (and sometimes even race, too). We’re taught in graduate seminars about doing it all- class, race, gender, religion, empire, the body– but then on our proposal defenses we’re told to cut everything back and just focus on a couple of things.


  22. I’m advised by a colleague who knows a lot more French than I do (not a hard circumstance to find yourself in, I should say) that the French term of choice for “troll” is, in fact, “troll,” although she’s not sure that it’s yet migrated to metaphorical usage in the blogosphere.


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