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?