How doth the little crocodile improve his shining tail? The “big questions” and women’s history.

alicecrocodile“How doth the little crocodile improve his shining tail, and pour the waters of the Nile on every golden scale?” It’s that time of the year, friends. Why does every spring semester feel so damn busy? Is it the graduate exams, the lectures and colloquia, or the inviting, deep, deep snow in the mountains? All of the above? Other concatenations of obligations, pleasures, and near-disasters?

I was chairing a Master’s exam committee yesterday, and my student (who did brilliantly, natch) made a comment about the ways in which women’s history was always viewed as narrow or of limited relevance to the rest of the profession, when traditional topics in men’s history (the new imperial history, for example, which seems almost exactly like the old imperial history) are viewed as “big” topics of universal importance. Size matters, right? So why do male topics always seem bigger than women’s histories, even when they’re based on a much narrower source base written only by a tiny sliver of elites? (Bonnie Smith’s arguments in The Gender of History seem inescapable.)

Alice in TenurelandIf size matters, then we need to point out that these “new” imperial histories (just like the old imperial histories) are based for the most part only on the European-language papers and letters of a few kings, colonial functionaries, military officers, and (if relevant) Jesuit or Franciscan records. That’s not a huge source base, certainly compared to Susan Klepp’s Revolutionary Conceptions, which attempts to answer a question–why do we see a fertility transition to smaller families after the American Revolution?– no one ever addressed explicitly in their papers or letters (let alone collected and published the relevant papers in nicely organized volumes.) Now, that’s a major historical feat, regardless of the size of the question, which is itself one of tremendous relevance not just to women’s history or American history but to all of modern global history, given the fertility transitions demographers have charted in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in countries around the world.

“How cheerfully he seems to grin, how neatly spreads his claws! And welcomes little fishes in with gently smiling jaws!”

Happy trails, and be good to your croc.

23 thoughts on “How doth the little crocodile improve his shining tail? The “big questions” and women’s history.

  1. You’d be surprised what women explicitly addressed to each other in letters. But you know, just unimportant ordinary women.

    And, of course, instead of papers, they had pamphlets and books. If you go to the post civil-war period you start getting actual studies.

    The irritating thing about the early demographic transition literature is that outside of a few fields, it is predominately looked upon as a man’s choice to have fewer children. Why did they decide to have smaller families? As if women have always wanted to have 8-14 kids. I guess that’s Klepp’s argument too though, though she gives a slightly feminist spin to it, allowing women a choice in the matter.

    I should stop talking.


  2. Check out Klepp’s book–she argues that the fertility transition is led by free women, and that it’s the *real* revolution for women’s lives. In the period she writes about (ca. 1760-1820), no woman ever sits down at her desk to write “gee, I’d like to have exactly two children, whereas my mother had six and my grandmother had nine!” No woman writes explicitly about how she achieved a smaller family. Klepp had to put all of this together from hundreds of letters and diaries, advice literature, advertisements in newspapers, and stray jokes or comments about *other* women who are criticized for being too profligate or having children too quickly after marriage, etc.


  3. What new imperial history are you reading that’s exactly like the old imperial history? At least in British imperial history, “new imperial history” refers to a specific segment of scholarship (whose heyday, I think, has largely passed unfortunately), and its practitioners (mostly—exclusively?—women) broke loudly and demonstrably from the old methods and emphases and thoroughly embraced women’s and gender history, and cultural historical methodologies. You might be speaking more generally and not about that specific body of literature, b/c one couldn’t call that “new imperial history” the same as the old.

    (And, yes, I haven’t commented in some time, but I still enjoy reading the blog!)


  4. Well, they do in slightly later periods (as in 1830+). They talk about how they don’t want to die in childbirth. They talk about how they are afraid they can’t afford to feed another child. They give each other instructions on how to buy cundoms and how to do withdrawal. There’s even an interesting diary where a woman notes each period, pregnancy, and time of intercourse in code (I believe housed at Radcliffe). And of course the later 19th century is full of stuff like this. Of course, literacy is also much higher in the later 19th century.

    Now, there is a believe that the transition period she’s talking about is different than the 19th century demographic transition. There’s room for extended breast-feeding and delayed marriage as causes, for example. Midwives also are thought to have had a much greater effect on fertility during that time-period as the transmitters of information.


  5. Sure, women in the later 19th century and 20th century write much more fulsomely than they do in the 18th and early 19th centuries (if you can find any letters or journals at all). My point was to highlight the ingenuity of the historian who dared to write a book before letters and diaries became so confessional, thereby making my point about the “bigness” of a project versus a smaller project, which would one in which your historical subjects answer the questions for you.

    thefrogprincess: nice to hear from you! I’m writing here about the Atlantic World/borderlands/North American-centered “new” imperial history, not the British stuff. Yes, you are right that the scholars to whom you’re referring (Linda Colley etc.) *did* innovate and go large. But the folks writing on the North American side to whom I’m referring are mostly dudes and mostly writing out of the same colonial sources used by Francis Parkman & Herbert Bolton in the 19th and early 20th centuries. IOW, nothing to see here, except maybe less racism & condescention towards Native peoples, but the same old, same old when it comes to ignoring women, avoiding gender, and refusing to consider or problematize sexuality.


  6. The classic example of the “women’s history isn’t real history” happened to me many years ago, when there was a Russian who specialized in my field visiting. I met a very traditional (woman) historian, and she introduced me *not* as another historian in our field, but “She does women’s history”. I’d never realized that made me not a historian of the nation and period which I study…

    There’s an amazing passage in a 17th C woman’s autobiography, where she says that some thing or other that happened to her was a punishment, because when she was younger she didn’t want a second child too soon after her first. (And it’s been 30 years, so I don’t remember which calamity she attributed to her sin, but I do remember thinking — oh, she and her husband limited fertility.) Needless to say, said calamity led to a conversion, and she was a very pious lady when she wrote…


  7. This is interesting, and oh so true.I talked about this a lot with some people in my graduate community. One of them especially pointed out how Jennifer Spear’s book could be read as a history of “empire,” but instead gets relegated to “women/sexuality history.” It seems to happen again and again.


  8. My adviser (a self described conservative) insists that if the authors of the sources weren’t interested in a topic, we shouldn’t be- and it’s therefore invalid, or at least very questionable, to write about, for instance, women in the Middle Ages, unless our source is a medieval text specifically about women. He’s never justified this point of view, but seems to consider it self evidently true. I just nod and adjust my drafts accordingly.


  9. Teaching women’s history again this term (the first time in many years), I’m struck anew by how hard it is for some students and some textbooks to acknowledge that women are a part of history. When a history ignores or elides women, it’s not a strength! Hard to get some people to recognize that, though.


  10. “When a history ignores or elides women, it’s not a strength.”

    Exactly. We never praise books or articles because they’re so brilliantly EXclusive and focus only on one thing, one issue, one identity, one point of view, etc. In fact, it’s become ordinary to offer readers of book reviews a list of the significant topics and individuals who aren’t covered in a particular title.

    I guess I keep forgetting that it’s different for girls.

    Rustonite, keep copies of whatever you’re taking out of your dissertation chapters. You can always write the book you want to by putting them back in.


  11. I believe strongly in women’s history as a discipline, and think it should be encourage and promoted whenever possible. I’m not a women’s historian myself, but I think everyone can – and should – contribute to its promotion. At the same time, I got kind of tired of teaching women’s history classes that only had women in them, and the continued acceptance in my discipline of marginalizing women’s topics to separate classes that could be avoided by folks who didn’t want girl germs or whatever they are afraid of getting by being exposed to 50% of the population. I tend to engage in what I think of ‘sneak attack’ women’s history in my classes – I make sure women as historical subjects and the authors (and subjects!) of historical texts are given equal presence and weight in my courses. (Note to the d00des: It’s super easy to do!) Sometimes this is something I emphasize (the gendered readings) and sometimes it passes relatively unremarked. I also include women’s, gender, and queer history on my graduate reading lists, and if students don’t answer a question about this topic on their written exams, they get asked about it at their orals. There is no excuse for ignore or bad/incomplete training.


  12. Perpetua: I share your goal of integration. (I don’t even sneak in the women’s history–I just do it right there in broad daylight, make them read primary and secondary sources about women, and make them write about it in their assignments.)

    I’ve never had your experience of teaching women-only women’s history courses. I always get several men in my American women’s history to 1800 and in the history of sexuality in America course I teach with Ruth Alexander. That said, I don’t know why it would be discouraging to teach an all-woman class. It seems like you’d still be serving a need, and we don’t need male students to ratify the legitimacy of our teaching fields, do we?

    I don’t know why you didn’t get men in your classes–I’m sure institutional culture has something to do with it. I’m fortunate to have a lot of supportive colleagues in key decision-making roles. I’m perceived as a leader among my colleagues in both graduate and undergraduate education, and I think they steer strong students my way. It would be very undermining f you didn’t have colleagues who recommended your courses and supported student interest in them.


  13. I think my colleagues have generally not known that I teach women’s history (there hasn’t been a lot of curricular integration in the institutions where I’ve taught, and in one case possibly a certain baseline level of hostility to women’s history). It’s only discouraging because it’s a clear sign that male students at those institutions don’t feel like they need women’s history, that it’s not relevant and it can be ignored, that’s all. In one 100% female class, the class was still packed, so it certainly filled a need. I didn’t mean to suggest it’s discouraging to teach women!


  14. I’m inclined to disagree that the “new imperial history” from the Atlantic World/borderlands/North America side is just the old imperial history in new packaging. I’m thinking (off the top of my head) of titles like Sarah Pearsall’s Atlantic Families, Susannah Shaw Romney’s new book on New Netherlands, Heather Kopelson’s Faithful Bodies, soon out from NYU, Jennifer Spear’s Race, Sex, and Social Order in Early New Orleans, Julianna Barr, Peace Came in the Form of a Woman, Catherine Brekus, Sarah Osborne’s World, Holly Brewer, By Birth or Consent, Maya Jasanoff, Liberty’s Exiles, Stephanie Smallwood, Saltwater Slavery, Rebecca Goetz, The Baptism of Early Virginia, Serena Zabin, Dangerous Economies, Nicole Eustace, Passion is the Gale, and even including the works of some “dudes” like Brett Rushforth’s Bonds of Alliance, Allan Greer’s Mohawk Saint, and Trevor Burnard’s Mastery, Tyranny, and Desire. This is a pretty impressive list of newer titles that don’t ignore women, avoid gender, or refuse to consider or problematize sexuality, that are pretty big, and have made big impacts on the field.


  15. Right, but do they get assigned as the “new imperial history/AW/borderlands” title in a grad seminar? Or as Melissa notes, are they grouped on the syllabus as women’s & gender history.

    This was a HUGE issue (at least, I thought it was an issue) in that 2009 Huntington seminar I was a part of, and which you witnessed from the audience, Mark. I made this point in my comments on Jim Sidbury’s and Jorge Canizares-Esguerra’s essay on ethnogenisis/creolization, and my comments about “where are the women out of whose bodies this stuff happens?” When the essay was published two years later in the WMQ (April 2011), and one commissioned commenter said this AGAIN, they sheepishly noted in a footnote that I had asked these questions repeatedly in the seminar.

    At least, that’s my memory of the seminar: everyone listened to me politely, and then pretty much ignored my ideas for the rest of the weekend.


  16. Yes, your recollection of the Huntington symposium sounds exactly right, especially about the Canizares-Sidbury essay. And yet, your work, Juliana Barr’s and Allan Greer’s were all represented there as leading examples of “borderlands” history (or “Territorial Crossings,” as they called it for the symposium). In my own syllabi and grad teaching, I’m not a big fan of labels and gatekeeping across subfields, and I’m not entirely sure i know what the “new imperial history” is — not a phrase I’ve ever used — but I and my colleagues have definitely assigned many of the above titles in Atlantic history, borderlands, slavery, or American Revolution contexts.


  17. As I go through my graduate work, I’m having more and more of a problem with “women’s” history. Not only does the focus on “women” reinforce the ahistorical gender binary, but it makes it too easy to slip into “women and other” or “men and other”. To my mind, if you are talking about women’s history, you are inherently talking about men as well because you are singling out women in the context of a female/male binary. I’m all for females as historical subjects, but I’d like to see even more critical engagement with definitions – what does “women” mean, when a historian says women in the context of a piece about reproduction do they really mean people with childbearing capabilities?

    It’s unfortunate that “gender history” is at times seen as a cop out of sorts for those wanting to get away from the marginalization of women’s history. However, I think gender history is a much more honest and helpful representation of the work being done.

    Also Ann, I was one of the students at the lunch with Nikki at NYU – thanks for coming to talk with us!


  18. Next semester, I’m teaching what is basically a survey of Georgian Britain for 2/3 year u/grads, which ranges from political structures, to economy, to family life, and the MAJORITY of my reading had been written by gender historians (of men as well as women – there is a lot of masculinity stuff in this field). There is enough work on this topic to give them a strong sense of the basic debates in the wider field with a strong gender analysis from the outset. I also tried to include reading on Black and other minority Britons for every topic where it existed, whilst social class is fairly fundamental to the course structure. It wasn’t remotely hard and it didn’t mean giving them inappropriate or ‘marginal’ readings. These were all authors engaging with the main debates in the field. This is not being marketed as a gender course and I’m not planning on discussing gender as a form of analysis; rather I’m just integrating gender into my analysis as if it was a fundamental part of how we understand experience in the past – you know what gender historians have been doing for 50 years now.

    I think as a result it’s a really vibrant course and has some of the most cutting edge stuff in the field on it. (Perhaps because it is my area) I also have piles of primary sources that include women and men, were produced by women and men, and very often both together interacting (imagine that!). I’ll be interested to see whether the students notice – that sounds daft, but if we don’t make a fuss will they just assume that it makes sense to study all of the human population? Or whether they see it as a ‘women’s history’ course at the end.


  19. Twenty years ago, I would have made the argument that Sarah makes: why do we segregate women’s history? Why can’t we teach the kind of courses that Feminist Avatar teaches? Can’t we all just get along? Especially because my earliest published work was on the subject (new at the time) of masculinity, not women. I never took a women’s history course as an undergrad–I just studied what I wanted to and figured that all historical subjects were created equal.

    However, within five years I was radicalized by my experience as an employee of a few very different universities, where women scholars were relatively few on the faculty, and where women’s history didn’t exist as an intellectual subject. Colleagues and department chairs said and did things to me that very few young male scholars ever have to put up with. The profession’s failure to integrate scholars with women’s bodies was clear to me in the 90s, as well as the profession’s failure to integrate the insights of women’s and gender history. Indeed, I was witness to its resistance to both projects.

    And what I did in my research was even more marginal and less imaginable than an old-fashioned women’s history course. (Gender and warfare? Idiotic! Of course war is about gender–it’s something that’s either so overdetermined we don’t need to talk about it, or of such marginal significance we don’t need to talk about it.)

    So, I guess you can say that I was a gender-integrationist historian who was mugged by reality. It’s disillusioning as a junior scholar when you believe in your profession and believe in change over time to be confronted with such stubborn resistance to change. I hope today’s grad students and junior scholars have a very different experience, but I’ll believe it when I see it.


  20. I had a different and very rewarding experience as an u/grad in a uni with an unusually high (even now!) number of women’s historians. I almost managed to get a women’s studies degree in a standard history dept. Of 16 upper level modules (3 and 4th year), half were explicitly women’s history topics or feminist politics. And several other courses had women integrated into them. It was very important to my personal development as a scholar, a feminist and a human being to do those courses, and I still think there is an important place for them on the curriculum.

    In my current institution, apart from the (small number of) gender historians, gender history tends to still be ‘the token extra’ – the one lecture added onto a course to cover ‘women’s issues’ or the one women’s history module (although this is changing or at least we’re trying to make change happen). So, for this course (which I inherited so had to stick with certain structures), I decided that it was politically important to demonstrate how gender could be integrated into your standard course. It’s perhaps especially important in a small dept where we don’t have a lot of bodies to provide a large variety of courses.


  21. Pingback: Marcia! Marcia! Marcia! A member of a Monstrous Regiment of Women pipes up a tune & smokes it. | Historiann

Let me have it!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.