Women’s and gender history has menstrual blood smeared all over it. If you read this post, you too will be contaminated.

George Catlin, “Comanche Village, Women Dressing Robes and Drying Meat,” 1834-35


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.

66 thoughts on “Women’s and gender history has menstrual blood smeared all over it. If you read this post, you too will be contaminated.

  1. The “womenenchildren” model always strikes me as quite dangerous. First, of course, it conflates two separate historical experiences. More importantly, though, it once again reinscribes the notion that women can only be understood through their relationships to families. How very, shall we say, nuclear of these scholars. . .

    One wonders what is happening in graduate seminars that produce scholars who can feel okay about ignoring half the population.


  2. Also, curious what you make of Captives and Cousins along these same lines (been a while since I read that, I don’t really remember how much is developed that meets this kind of analysis).


  3. The most common response one gets when complaining about the decline in women’s history is that gender is now integrated into mainstream history; therefore, no need for a separate subfield. So your challenge here is particularly significant. It hasn’t been “integrated” into mainstream history, or at least not to the extent it should. Neither in teaching or publications. Calling folks out for this is an appropriate response. On a happier note I’m very excited to read straight, white, male historian Robert Self’s new book, _All in the Family: The Realignment of American Democracy Since the 1960s_, which places gender and sexuality at the center of the story of the New Right’s ascendency.


  4. Absolutely, Paul–and please invite them to comment as well.

    I have to say that my M.A. students also shared my perspective on the book. (They were particularly disturbed by the description–without any analysis or reflection–of a PUBLIC RAPE of captive women in a New Mexico market. See p. 45. Rape is described as a marketing strategy! There is no acknowledgement of any of the feminist historiography on rape anywhere in the book.) Because they are mostly first-year students, they haven’t been in my clutches long enough for me to have brainwashed them. I don’t think they were sucking up to me–I think they were genuinely puzzled by the absence of attention to women and slaves given their importance to the Comanche economy and culture.

    And I should also add: I don’t mean to pick only on Hamalainen’s book. There are so many books about which I could say the same thing–but his is the book I picked for my grad seminar this year in borderlands history, I sold him 14 or so copies of the book, and it’s won just about every award out there, so I’m sure he and it are tough enough to take it.


  5. The issue with women’s history being sidelined is also a problem in African history. There is a lot of great new research on women, but for the most part it is not being incorporated into more general texts.

    A 2004 publication on Africa since Independence does not even have an index listing for “women.” In the introduction the author apologizes for focusing on politics and therefore not being able to include social history. He recognizes that “many readers may feel that an explicit gender dimension is lacking.” No “gender dimension,” actually almost no women, in a 400 page text of the last 50 years of African political history. Because of course, women don’t do politics, only social history.

    When I checked another textbook in African history, published in a 2007 revised edition, the index entry for “women” simply says “see family structure.”

    We still have a lot of work to do to improve the situation!


  6. widgeon and Kathie–I’m so glad you chimed in with your perspectives from your different respective fields.

    Kathie: what you describe is a perfect little intellectual menstrual hut, isn’t it? “I only wrote about politics as traditionally conceived, so no women here. Sorry! (Not.)”

    This still happens at least in my corner of American history. In a recent forum on comparative history, the authors just admitted up front, “yeah, we didn’t do women or gender here.” It wasn’t an apology–just an acknowledgement that that’s just not something they considered in their analysis. And yet: their article got published!

    That it saw the light of day at all suggests that we need to do a LOT more than just say “if we publish, they can’t ignore us.” They do ignore women’s and gender history, boldly and proudly.


  7. Right on, Historiann! The failure to integrate women’s lives and and gender analysis in “regular history” is a hallmark of too much modern historigraphy. Gender segregation also remains standard in synthetic works. I’ve reviewed three textbook/edited collection manuscripts in the last year, written by mid-career scholars, and every one of them had a “woman chapter” or “woman section” in which the experiences of free and enslaved women of all races, ranks, and nationalities were lumped together and not really discussed elsewhere in the text.


  8. I completely agree; it’s a huge issue. I decided a couple of years ago that all the graduate students taking fields with me *would* have a section on women, gender, and sexuality, they *would* answer a question about it, and failure to chose that question on writtens would guarantee I would ask it at orals. I don’t think anyone should get out of a graduate program without knowing the basics of women’s and gender history of hir respective field. Period. I’m not a women’s historian and I don’t specialize in gender or sexuality, and yet both women and gender analysis figure in my work because it’s impossible to pretend like they aren’t central. I “get” the centrality because I took a field on it in graduate school and I understand something about the field. Anyway, I don’t know what will accomplish in the big scheme of things (my grad training approach) but it helps me sleep at night.


  9. Another intellectual menstrual hut. Thanks for chiming in, Ellen.

    The blogger Echidne of Echidne of the Snakes has a regular feature, in which she switches the sexes and pronouns in a magazine article or blog post to highlight the stupid ways in which people write about women. (Example here.) I’d like to see a synthetic history include a chapter just called “Men,” in which everything about all men of whatever race, class, sexuality, religion, etc. would need to be summarized. I’d like to see that–but of course, a book like that would never pass the peer review process, because the stupidity of it would be self-evident to everyone who read the ms.


  10. I was just asking my women’s studies students today to explain “what is women’s studies” and “do we still need specific women’s studies departments.” One guy mentioned that he took the GE American history survey last semester, which was taught by a woman, and yet they never mentioned or discussed women in any capacity!

    So, yeah, my students decided women’s studies _was_ still necessary. If only I could make *everyone* take it!


  11. I am going to dissent the tiniest bit and throw out the proposition that it is possible to write a valid book/article that doesn’t address women per se. Like, say, a study of a particular male monastic community (or not to be medievally-biased, a military unit in pre-women-in-the-military times. Even though both those groups probably had some contact with women, but I can see why you might leave that out). BUT if you really can argue for why you honestly don’t need to talk about women based on the subject of your book, you really really REALLY need to talk about GENDER. (I mean, they’re all-male communities! You don’t think gender is operating???) Even if you want to say, “Am writing about politics as traditionally conceived, thx, no women here” – well, why the hell AREN’T women in that field? Kills me.

    Also, this may have improved since I was reading medieval history (though I doubt it), but another arena where this drove me nuts was legal history. There was this clear vision in some author’s heads that “legal history” was distinct from “social history,” and (like above) “social” history was where the women were (kinda like the “living” or “society” pages in the newspapers, maybe?). There were quite a few authors doing great work about “women and the law” kinds of topics, but they always had to be construed as “women and the law” – you know, because the law, by default, didn’t involve women. Or gender. (Shannon McSheffrey was working on law in late medieval England stuff, last I knew, and I’m sure her work does NOT do this – but lots of other authors [especially, if I may knock my own national origin, British ones] were really frustrating).

    (As for the race/ethnicity thing – it reminds me of hearing about how devalued women could be in actual civil rights movements in this country [who said something along the lines of, the best place for women in the civil rights movement was prone?].)


  12. Stokeley Carmichael said that: “The only position for women in SNCC is prone.” I agree that studies of male monasticism might not address women–however, as you say, *gender* is something that all historians of monasticism really must address. But even so: I’m reluctant to draw lines around certain kinds of history to say, “it’s OK not to look at women or gender in THIS field,” because isn’t that what all of those old grad advisors of yore told all of our foremothers when they went to grad school? “Well, it’s a great idea, but there were no women/there are no sources/your excuse here.

    For example, I’m just pulling this out of my ass: Don’t male monastics frequently have sisters in convents, or highborn mothers who did stuff, even in the medieval and antique periods? Don’t they also pray to female saints, or participate in local cults to them? What is the role of Marian worship among male monastics of a given time and place? Did monasteries seek donations from wealthy widows in their area?

    If we think women are important, we ask questions that reflect this assumption.


  13. p.s. to Sisyphus, about the woman instructor not talking about women or gender in a U.S. survey course: My graduate students assumed that the author of the book I mention above is a woman, I think because of the suffix that sounds like “ah,” which is popular among girls’ names now in the U.S. (Emma, Hannah, Anna, Sophia, etc.) They were more frustrated by the marginalization of women as a subject when they thought the author was a woman, although I tried to disabuse them of the distinction they made (i.e. that it was still not OK, but perhaps more understandable if the author were a man.)


  14. THANK YOU. I needed to read this today.

    Locally, I’ve sensed hostility to gender history and gender studies from the quarters where I least suspected it, and that’s troubling. I suspect a similar bias when I read comments from article reviewers who say things like “this isn’t really the history of science” about my work on historical women scientists. I definitely see a warmer welcome for my work from women’s historians and women’s history journals than from the historians of science or environmental historians. (That said, I’m grateful for the reviewer who recently not only revealed her identity but told me that the work I’m doing is exactly the direction that history of science should be going. But again, she’s a woman who is a historian, so maybe she’s more likely to get it?)


  15. “Locally, I’ve sensed hostility to gender history and gender studies from the quarters where I least suspected it.”

    What are they afraid of? I wonder.

    There are all kinds of subfields in History that I personally don’t find very interesting or compelling, but I would never express hostility to them. Why, I wonder, do people think they can express this towards women’s and gender history?

    I think we need to push back. And don’t miss an opportunity to forge an alliance with that reviewer who outed herself, Leslie. You may be able to help one another.


  16. I also find it interesting that although there’s been greater inclusion of race in the scholarship there hasn’t been an equivalent growth in people of color historians, and even though there been growth in the number of female historians, we don’t see a proportional inclusion of women’s history. Is it, perhaps, easier to include other perspectives in the scholarship if we don’t have to do so in our department meetings and classrooms? Or perhaps to gain entrance into those meetings and classrooms you have to check your “difference” at the door.

    Btw, I agree that to say we need to include more women in no way means that we include fewer people of color. Not a zero sum game. In both the universities where I’ve worked the Women Studies departments have proportionally more faculty of color than just about any other department on campus. “Ain’t I a woman” indeed.


  17. You know, I read Hämäläinen’s book last semester in a seminar and I noticed the same thing. It is a fantastic book overall, but we spent the entire class focusing on the semantics of Empire – a fascinating discussion for sure. I found myself, however, hesitant to bring up the lack of a critical gender analysis because I am always the one bringing up the lack of a critical gender analysis! Sometimes I feel like a broken record and I don’t want everyone constantly thinking, “Oh, there she goes again.”

    Anyway, I am sure you’ve read it, but “Still Walking, Still Brave: Mapping Gender, Race, and Power in U.S. Western History” by Karen J. Leong elegantly addresses this problem and I often go back to it for inspiration in my own writing.


  18. Oh, yes – this resonates so much, even though I don’t work in American history. But pick up a work on early modern England and, unless it has ‘women’ in the title, it’s often uncritically accepting of historical actors and interests all being tidily contained in the story of men.

    Gender history and women’s history being mainstream? Sure, they’re accepted fields and many working scholars give a nod to this, but I see all too many who’re willing to either concede the field entirely to others (“I won’t engage with women’s history here”) or include it on the most superficial level (i.e. the “women and” model).

    I think I’m going to have my grad students read a chapter or two from “History Matters” in the fall seminar on methods. Not that any of them are coming in unawares, but it helps to reinforce how central the understandings of gender history are to the practices of the discipline.


  19. If everyone is “disturbed” by ignoring women in history writing (in this case), why does it continue so long and seems to even get worse?


  20. “Why, I wonder, do people think they can express this towards women’s and gender history?”
    Women’s history is identity politics and that’s what killed the New Left. Anyone who reads Christopher Lasch knows that. If you really cared about the working class you wouldn’t keep going on about this. Honestly.
    [an argument used much more frequently against gender analysis than race analysis]


  21. And this is true in our political discourse, too — especially (and shamefully) among liberals. Racial and ethnic minorities are recognized as experiencing systemic forms of discrimination, but women are often silenced or pooh-poohed when they try to talk about their own struggles.

    Not that I’m conflating or claiming precise equivalence between gender and racial discrimination! But so many people don’t seem willing to recognize that the former does exist, or that a bougie white woman still encounters problems a bougie white man doesn’t. (Don’t get me started on the white male scholars I know at my institution who think it’s “unfair” that white women qualify for various diversity grants, leaves, etc., and they don’t.)


  22. Heh. Of course. Feminism = self interest.

    koshembos, I don’t think everyone, or even a near majority, is disturbed by this. People who read this blog might be, but not most of the rest of the American historical profession.

    When I was a little girl, my mother purchased an incomplete set of one of those Childcraft encyclopedias at a garage sale. There was a volume that contained traditional European fairy tales, another that featured American folk tales, etc. The one I remember most of all was a volume of historical biographies entitled Great Men and Famous Deeds. I keep thinking about that book, and how little our historiography has advanced beyond its simplistic thesis.

    I found this book on Ebay just now. This looks like the edition I had–note the explorer’s ship on the cover, and the illustration opposite the title page showing a European male trapper/trader with a Native male guide. They point to and behold a steamboat on the title page. Concepts like discovery and empire are just so overdetermined, aren’t they? But you’d think that professional historians could do better than a 60 year-old Childcraft encyclopedia!


  23. Very interesting post from the perspective of someone who is not aware of these currents in historical scholarship.

    And BTW, I am surprised that you haven’t been accused yet of being “divisive” or of engaging in “oppression olympics” by asshole commenters.


  24. I find that the only people who view conversations like this as advocating a zero-sum game of hiring are those who’d prefer to have no attention to either race/ethnicity or women/gender. (And I say that as somebody who frequently finds feminism woefully inattentive to how racism leads nonwhite women to make different calculations and choices.)

    That said, the other big problem with the womenetchildren approach is that, at least in my field, children are starting to get a lot of scholarly attention.

    I went to a conference a few years back where a panelist was asked about feminists’ responses to the event he’d discussed. Again, it was a situation where the question was fully logical. He responded by saying that women weren’t the subject of his paper. The panel chair/commentator is a senior historian in my Global South regional field, a nonwhite and non-American woman, and she wasn’t having it. She said…”I thought we were past the point where you could simply say ‘women aren’t the subject of my paper.'” Women aren’t the subject of my work (hang with me…) but her words have always stuck with me, and I’ve made sure that I don’t allow moments for gender analysis to go unanalyzed, even though I don’t know the literature at all.


  25. Totally agree. My graduate instructors would be very displeased if I weren’t attentive to all of the strands in the knot. And yet I can easily think now, looking back, of many places where I have failed to do just that. And I loathe myself for those failures, even if I like to think that I am ever better and ever more attentive to the fuller range of people and concepts and practices and performances in play in the stories I tell. In my case, that has meant changing the way I write and what I write about; I’ve gone from writing a monograph with four chapters on four men and their respective masculinities, to a narratively-driven book with a mix of male and female actors along with a range of gendered perspectives, to, finally, a woman’s biography.

    I don’t think we will ever be past the point, though, where we have to publicly disavow those who say, “I’m not writing about women.” As effectively as H-Ann did above, too. Really and sadly.


  26. thefrogprincess: great story. I think that chair/commentator was admirably tough.

    And CPP: no complaints here yet, but that’s because I prewarned everyone about their risk of contimination in the title of this post. Maybe it actually worked!


  27. If you get the chance, read Margaret Jacobs’ essay in the Autumn 2011 Western Historical Quarterly, “Western History: What’s Gender Got To Do With It?”. Jacobs uses Susan Johnson’s Pacific Historical Quarterly essay “Nail This To Your Door: A Disputation on the Power, Efficacy, and Indulgent Delusion of Western Scholarship That Neglects the Challenge of Gender and Women’s History” as a jumping off point and looked at eleven years of the WHA’s Caughey Prize winners (best book in Western history). Her findings echo the larger themes addressed in most of the comments above and her subsequent suggestions for the field are particularly germane here. The article is available free at UNL’s Digital Commons: http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1114&context=historyfacpub


  28. Thanks, Les! I will check those out. I was just looking at the 2012 WHA program because the conference will be in Denver and I try to get down for things like that. (I went in 2009 and met Susan Johnson and hung out with her all day long.)

    I must say that I was struck by the absence of these topics on the program. I had been hopeful when I saw that Al Hurtado was the President this year–but the program clearly represents the history of the borderlands as it’s currently practiced, not in the ways that SJ and MJ would approve. (In fact, I saw MJ speak in 2009 at the WHA on a panel on the topic of “where are the women/where is the gender,” so I wonder if that essay was based on her paper on that panel.)

    I will say this: it was very well attended, so it’s not like there aren’t people interested in Western women’s and gender history.


  29. Yep, I am also a bit frustrated with the program this year but do love that conference, so will be Denver.
    There are quite a few folks proposing women’s history panels for the 2013 conference, so there are hopes that some of them end up on next year’s program.
    The 2009 panel MJ participated in was great – inspirational, educational, etc – but it seems like we are going to be fighting this battle for a while.


  30. Very interesting discussion, especially as I’m about to start writing a dissertation chapter about a group of texts that have almost exclusively been analyzed from the point of view of gender. It’s to the extent that my argument is along the lines of “For gendered analyses, see x awesome books, now I’m going to talk about some other stuff these texts engage with,” but this discussion is making me think I need to come up with a way of keeping the gender angle in the picture throughout my chapter, even if it’s not the main thing I’m talking about.

    On a similar note, at some point in the last few years I’ve read that prejudices against race/ethnicity and sexuality are the first to decrease, whereas sexism and ageism are much more intractable. I can’t remember where I read it (a book introduction, I think), but the comment about the division of prejudices stuck with me.


  31. As an SJ student (one of her first two dissertation advisees!) I heartily approve of this message. I owe almost everything I know about doing history to Susan and a lot of choices about what and how I teach are her doing.

    Curious what you think about Ned Blackhawk’s book (I haven’t read it yet) as well as Captives and Cousins (which I read but little stuck). I think Drew Isenberg’s book on the Decline of the Buffalo did a decent job talking about how the introduction of horses harmed women’s positions as tribes moved onto the plains and in general took gender pretty seriously, but I might have been reading into it. (I juxtaposed it with Manliness and Civilization excerpts and Jenny Price’s “When Bird’s Were Hats” in my environmental history class).

    Most of the good work on colonialism in the West that does gender (and women’s agency) well are later or not US. I’m thinking Many Tender Ties and all the Metis scholarship that followed, George Sanchez’s work on LA, Pablo Mitchell on territorial New Mexico, Que Vivan Los Tamales on Mexico (the chapter on the rise of store-bought masa is a terrific example of women’s agency despite patriarchal attitudes. Mexican men: “If women stop grinding corn all day and buy corn meal at the store, society will crumble! CRUMBLE!” Mexican women: “So, I was at the store today buying cornmeal…”) and….”

    Any suggestions for who is doing this right? Pablo Mitchell’s new book “West of Sex” looks very promising.

    (NB: I went to college and grad school with Pablo and he’s a friend).


  32. Historiann – I wasn’t arguing that there are fields in which women aren’t relevant; just that a specific study *within a field* might make a reasonable (though likely narrow) argument without addressing women per se. And when I said “women per se,” I probably should have said “real women” or “women’s lived experiences” or something similar – because I think the issues about Marian worship or prayer to other female saints would count as a study of gender, but not of real (archival?) women, most of whom don’t manage to pull off both being virginal and giving birth, or the kinds of martyrdom expected of female saints. Yes, in most cases male monastics are going to have contacts with actual live women (and people have studied this) – just saying I could see doing a more culturally-focused analysis of, say, the forms of worship in a given male monastic order that wouldn’t address interactions with actual women.

    However, *even if* you could engage in a study of a context where women are genuinely lacking (how about a men’s prison?), I *don’t* see how any such study could ignore gender and its construction. (Re: men’s prison: on a recent tour of a prison one of the warden-type people said that the biggest cause of fights among inmates was fighting over inmates who were feminized – for lack of a better word – who often grow their hair, wear makeup, that kind of thing, and act as “women” sexually. No women anywhere around, but a FASCINATING subject for gender analysis.) I’ll admit that these subjects are few and far between, and *nowhere* near common enough to justify the feeble defenses “we just didn’t address women/gender,” but I think they’re possible.

    (This may go back to some of the debates about the role of archival research in women’s history, and the definitions of women’s v. gender history, and so on.)


  33. Apropos of the marginalization of scholarship on “women and children,” and the lumping-together of these two categories: Shulamith Firestone, who composed one of the first radical feminist critiques of this confection, has just died. I suspect her passing won’t receive much coverage.


  34. Amen. You could say just about the same thing about Russian imperial/Central Asian history (especially the pre-Soviet period). It’s so frustrating. A recent review essay on the “new imperial” history of Russia highlighted the almost complete lack of works on women/gender/sexuality (I would add that this one is as crucial as the first two). However, the way the essay was written, women/gender/sexuality and similar “speciality” work was cast as not quite as important as a new synthesis of the empire that would demonstrate how the borders make us re-conceptualize the metropole or the empire as a whole. The example the reviewer used is the need for a broader study of unfreedom (e.g., serfdom and slavery/slaving in the borderlands) in the empire. As much as I agree with the reviewer on that point, I don’t see how a work like that could not address women, gender, and sexuality. (For instance, there’s a bit of Russian primary source lit that discusses the trade in young boys to be used as dancers and entertainers in the courts of the “immoral” Central Asian emirs. This work, IMO, is as much about Russian attitudes toward sex, sexuality, and “proper” masculinity as it is about slave-trading.) I do get the impression that folks think that they can just exclude women/gender/sexuality because they are somehow “outside the scope” of whatever it is they’re doing – at the same time, I know that if I didn’t pay attention to important economic and administrative changes in my research, I would get raked over the coals. Also, frankly, I don’t think I’d be doing my job as an historian if I didn’t provide as much context as possible and follow the leads that my sources provide.


  35. One of the reasons ethnicity which is a category that includes a lot of diversity among the Whites and race are considered more important than gender has to do with their international aspects. Academia is only dominated by White people in North America, Europe, Australia and parts of Latin America. In Africa most scholars are Black men. So outside of North America there are a large number of scholarly institutions dominated by non-White men. But, these institutions are usually even more male dominated than those in the White world. A greater problem than the lack of gender focus in my opinion is the narrow American parochialism of North American scholars who ignore the rest of the world and give undue privilege to scholars and institutions in the US and Europe. There are lots of non-White male scholars in the world. It is just that most of them work outside of the White dominated institutions that White scholars privilege.


  36. Is it terribly cynical of me to find this as unsurprising as frustrating? When I teach my courses in American religious history, I spend much time on gender, race and class. My students continually grip on the evaluations that I spend too much time on “African Americans” and “feminists” (by which I think they mean women). The students explain to me that gender doesn’t matter as much anymore as it used to (!), and I proceed to bang my head on the desk.

    Regarding academic norms and values, similar to the New Kid’s comments, my work has a heavy dose of gender analysis regarding both constructions of femininity and masculinity. What happens to me most often is questions about why I would study gender in conjunction with men. A particularly good journal reviewed an article of mine on the 1920s Klan and Christian masculinity, and one reviewer spent two pages yelling about my “feminist” analysis of a group, the Klan, who were clearly not gendered. Men, for this reviewer, lacked gender entirely. Ugh.

    So, amen, Historiann, let’s pay attention to women’s lives in American history. And let’s admit that gender analysis is a remarkably useful tool to study both women and men (who, of course, have gender), which needs to be reflected in modern historiographies not avoided. It deeply saddens me that this is a battle still being fought.


  37. Reminders/rebukes like this are always good for people like me (straight white male all too often guilty of ignoring/downplaying the role of women in my research), and it is things like this–from bloggers I don’t know, from advisors and professors, and from my grad student peers–that have led me to make a conscious effort to correct that previous oversight in my dissertation research. So thanks.

    If we think women are important, we ask questions that reflect this assumption.

    That seems obvious, but is crucial I think. I’ve always found the lack of attention to women in my own field (American Religious History) especially odd, in light of the fact that women have always dominated the membership rolls of Christian churches in America. Women, of course, did much more than merely sit in the pews, but just keeping in mind their sheer numbers has served as a nice mental corrective as I pour through manuscript church records, diaries, etc. and seek to make sense of what they mean.


  38. Thanks for all of your comments overnight. I appreciate them all–esp. Kimbrulee’s comments about the ways in which this is a problem in her field outside of U.S. history. (I have been aware of the rise of the borderlands history in Eastern Russian/Central Asian studies–we’ve interviewed candidates here whose work reflects this new paradigm–but I don’t read in that field so it’s always good to hear from an expert.)

    Like Kelly, I’m ultimately unsurprised by this. I have been deeply, seriously skeptical as I’ve seen (yet again!) the rise in so-called “new imperial” studies, with the concept of EMPIRE being re-enshrined as the center of early American studies in particular. (Like we didn’t hear enough about this in the 1950s?) I am very close to coming to the conclusion that the paradigm of EMPIRE is predestined to ignore women, gender, and the history of sexuality.

    Borderlands seems to me to be a more supple and malleable concept, one not freighted with as much political and Eurocentric garbage as the concept of empire. What I wonder is why borderlands scholars haven’t written articles insisting on the salience of their model for understanding the modern history (ca. 1500-2012) of the Western Hemisphere? (At least I haven’t seen any articles like this.) I don’t get it why historians always invoke EMPIRE whenever historians get the scent of salt air.

    Western Dave asks who’s doing it right, IMHO. Here’s my modest feminist bibliography of relevant borderland history titles that privilege the history of women, gender, and sexuality:

    Juliana Barr, Peace Came in the Form of a Woman: Indians and Spaniards in the Texas Borderlands (2007)
    –Barr, “From Captives to Slaves: Commodifying Indian Women in the Borderlands,” Journal of American History 92:1 (June 2005)
    Jennifer S.H. Brown, Strangers in blood : fur trade company families in Indian country (1980)
    Allan Greer, Mohawk Saint: Catherine Tekakwitha and the Jesuits (2005)
    Ramón Gutierrez, When Jesus came, the corn mothers went away : marriage, sexuality, and power in New Mexico, 1500-1846 (1991)
    Albert Hurtado, Intimate frontiers : sex, gender, and culture in old California (1999)
    Michelle LeMaster, Brothers Born of One Mother: British-Native American Relations in the Colonial Southeast (2012)
    Ann M. Little, Abraham in Arms: War and Gender in Colonial New England (2007)
    Susan Sleeper-Smith, Indian Women and French Men: Rethinking Cultural Encounter in the Western Great Lakes (2001)
    Camilla Townsend, Malintzin’s Choices: an Indian Woman in the Conquest of Mexico (2006)
    –Townsend, Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma (2004)
    Sylvia Van Kirk, “Many Tender Ties”: Women in Fur-Trade Society, 1670-1870 (1980)

    I don’t entirely agree with absolutely everything each one of these authors claims–however, it’s a place to start if you want to understand how fundamental women, gender, and sexuality are in North American borderlands history.


  39. p.s. And if you haven’t clicked on the link that Les Work left in hir comment above, DO IT. Ze is right–Margaret Jacobs said everything I said here, in more detail and more politely however, since she did it in a journal rather than a blog post.

    I am going to read Susan Johnson’s angry salvo today, in order to trace Jacobs’s article to its source.


  40. I find the “womenenchildren” point interesting and pertinent. In a great many communities–even more so in the past–male and female children would (and will!) experience very different types of lives depending upon their gender. In contemporary Mayan societies, for example, the lives of female children and adolescents are pretty much prescribed and circumscribed almost from birth; and, of course, the same can be said for males, even though males will enjoy a much greater latitude. The ways in which these experiences for minors would be different from that of adult women are vast. In short, when doing scholarly investigation and writing, dumping together “women-and-children” as if these were a single type of experience or social variable can be considered as careless and/or negligent research. I will assign your post to my students as reading this semester!


  41. Off topic but the NY Times has done it again! From yesterday’s paper:

    And Mr. Ryan, 42, perhaps has a bit more leeway than Mr. Romney, 65, representing his own brand of change as the first vice-presidential nominee of Generation X, and his unveiling here has screamed “new direction.”

    Sheesh, the editors really need to read this blog. Paul Ryan was NOT the first vice-presidential nominee of Generation X.


  42. Pingback: Is Borderlands History Just Turner and Parkman Without the Racism? « Borderlands History

  43. Pingback: Caturday Morning Playhouse « Sky Dancing

  44. I’ve been musing over this post for the past 36 hours, and the more I think about it, the more it resonates. And Flavia’s comment, about the invisibility of real-life discrimination against women, has been tumbling around my head as well. I’m traveling right now, so it took me a while to really chew it all over amidst other distractions.

    But I think both of these are spot on. Two anecdotes, both about hiring decisions at my uni: FIrst, on the question of US history and race. Several years ago, we interviewed a US historian who had written a diss. to which gender analysis was central, but race was not. The topic concerned trends in white bourgeois culture, and the formation of new cultural norms that suggested women were “doing it wrong” and should restructure a significant aspect of their lives/ experiences according to the demands of male commentators and theorists. Because it was a very bourgie topic, race and ethnicity were not discussed in detail.

    Now, perhaps this was indefensible: I don’t know enough about this field to be able to say. Perhaps the candidate should have contextualized the topic in a broader way that permitted a racial/ethnic angle of analysis. But what I really want to point out, is that for a number of my US colleagues this was an absolute deal-breaker. There was much hysteria in the hallways. Yet, I cannot tell you how often we hire folks who present work that is 100% about male actors and ideas, with zero gender analysis of masculinity of the topic, with nary a murmur. And, if someone dared to bring that up, I can guarantee you it would get no traction. Gender / women’s history just is not a “bottom line” requirement in the way cultural and ethnic diversity is.

    THe other anecdote, likewise a hiring story, speaks to Flavia’s point. We recently interviewed a senior male candidate who was extremely rude to three women colleagues here during his interview. He was incredible dismissive, treated potential future women colleagues almost as servile inferiors, and generally was an arrogant boor. When the time came to make the hiring decision, I was leading the charge against this person, and I was very carefully advised not to even *mention* this issue, for fear of alienating people. I was able to make the case on other grounds but still: if that person had treated people of color on the faculty the way he treated women, it would have been front and center in our discussions. Luckily, he was such an ass in so many other ways, it was easy to make the case without that element.

    Again, as everyone else has noted: this is not to diminish the critical importance of racial diversity consciousness and interventions.. But the fact is, I think that’s something that already has a fair amount of traction, as Historiann points out. Women and women’s history, OTOH, not only isn’t part of our default set of “best practices,” there is actual resentment about even opening up this line of questioning and communication.

    It really is striking. I like to work hard, and I’ve done pretty well for myself… but sometimes I wonder how much farther along I might be, with the work I’ve put in, if I were male.


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