I am so tired of reading “new” histories of the North American borderlands and “new” conceptualizations of “empire” that read just like anything that Francis Parkman or Frederick Jackson Turner ever wrote, except minus the racism. Now, that “minus the racism” part is important, don’t get me wrong. But is it really an intervention for which modern historians should be congratulated when we assume that historical Native Americans were rational and had their own politics?
Having read a whack of recent histories that address the Great Basin and Great Plains in the past few years, a region whose economy was based in large part on the trade in bodies and the labor of female slaves from the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries, I want to hear more about these captive women and less about the men who lead those raids and profit from stealing, raping, exploiting, and/or reselling those women. Every author alive today makes this point in his book–and yet, that’s just about the extent of his analysis. I want books written from the perspective of these women and girls, not more books written from the perspective of the dudes on the horses, whether those dudes are European, Euro-American, or Native American. Didn’t we get enough of those books about the manly exploits of armed and mounted men in the nineteenth century?
I just spent all day Tuesday reading Pekka Hämäläinen’s The Comanche Empire, an elegant, fascinating, and provocative book that made for a terrific conversation in my graduate seminar yesterday. But: the author devoted about 10 pages of a 500 page book devoted to Comanche women and female slaves, the people whose bodies were the objects of violent raids, and whose bodies and labor were central to the borderlands economy. Also: when women come up, it’s usually in the passing expression “women and children.” Womenenchildren–the passive objects of history, never the subjects. Like I said: Parkman and Turner except written from the Comanche perspective.
Here’s something I’ve been discussing with some other women proffies over e-mail as well as with my graduate students: white women have been much more successful in infiltrating the American historical profession than non-white scholars of either sex. And yet, the study of race and ethnicity both as subjects and analytical perspectives appear to me to be much more institutionalized than the study of women or the analytical perspective of gender and sexuality, which suggests that the white, male majority of professional historians are on board with race and ethnicity as important historical subjects and analytical perspectives, but not so much with women and gender. For example, it is nearly unimaginable that a scholar in my field would write an article that doesn’t address race or ethnicity questions at all, and yet there is a thriving market for essays and books that either entirely overlook or largely ignore women’s history and/or avoid a gendered analysis.
To be clear: this is not an argument for doing less with ethnicity and race! (In fact, this blog has argued in the past that the decline in interest in women’s history is particularly lamentable because it has happened well before we have a critical mass of studies on the lives and experiences of women of color in North American history, and women in early North America most particularly.) I merely want us to consider a set of questions: why haven’t women’s and gender historians been as effective in pushing their subject and analytical framework for understanding history? Are we “too nice” when reviewing work that ignores women and gender but is otherwise meritorious? (Why don’t we insist that an article or book couldn’t possibly be meritorious if it utterly ignores women’s and gender history? I’m sick to death of reading articles whose interests clearly intersect with the women’s and gender historiography but which ignore it entirely.) Why does women’s history seem like yesterday’s news, whereas race and ethnicity continue to be viewed as fresh perspectives? Why have straight, white male scholars thrown themselves into the study of race, while they keep their distance from (or even disparage) women’s history and gender studies? (At least in my subjective experience, the male historians I know who write about women’s and gender history and take them just as seriously as I do are out gay men.)
The segregation of women’s and gender history is reminiscent of Native American traditions around blood rituals: in order to avoid contamination, most male historians prefer to segregate women’s and gender history into an intellectual menstrual hut, and to keep women away (as both authors of relevant books and as historical subjects as well) while they write about the masculine blood rituals of warfare and hunting, resisting slavery, building canals and railroads, enforcing or fighting Jim Crow laws, etc.
Well, I won’t segregate myself or my intellectual agenda. It’s time to get angry about this. Bloody or not, here I come!
UPDATE, 8/30/2012 at 2:30 p.m. MDT: In clearing out my e-mailbox today, I found an e-mail from Martha Nell Smith and Janet Golden alerting me to the fact that the Woodrow Wilson Foundation has decided to cancel its Women’s Studies Dissertation Fellowship Program. Smith and Golden serve–or thought they served–on the final selection committee for the dissertation fellowship. According to Golden, the WWF made this decision “without consulting any of the final selection folks, without a plan to build up the endowment and return the fellowship program to action and without asking for help from the women’s studies community, . . . in what I regard as a genuine rebuff to women’s studies scholars in all disciplines and to their students.” Sign the petition here.