How is this OK? On dismissing historical subfields and the evolution of our intellectual lives.

I’ve had some conversations with senior male historians over the past few years that have troubled me.

When talking about my work, or about the work of another women’s historian, some scholars apparently feel it’s OK to say “Oh, that’s why I don’t know her work.  I just don’t do women’s history.”  Or, “Women’s history is just something I never think about,” or comments to that effect.

I get it that we historians can’t all do everything, but how is it acceptable to announce that you never think about half of humanity in your own work or even read the scholarship on this half of humanity?  Would these white men (and they have all been white) announce blithely that “I don’t do race,” even if it were true?  (Odds are they’re not as ignorant of the scholarship on race as they are on the scholarship on women, gender, and sexuality, but this is just a guess.  This post is mostly about the liberty some feel to confess their total ignorance of what has become a major subfield of history, and why that’s a bad idea not just for the audience but for the speaker.)

I’m neither a political nor an intellectual historian, but I am broadly aware of debates in these fields, and I can follow along as a reader of articles and seminar papers even if I’m not contributing to these fields as a scholar myself.  But there are other fields that demand my attention and engagement.  For example, although I don’t identify myself primarily as a historian of religion, it’s been a big part of both of my first two books, and I consider myself aware of if not 100% up-to-date on the secondary literature.  Similarly, although I don’t consider myself a historian of race, both of my books focus productively on questions about race and ethnicity, especially in the relationships between and among Native Americans, Anglo-American colonists, and French Canadians.  Can’t everyone else walk and chew gum?  Or don’t they want to?

Even if you “don’t do women’s history,” ask yourself if that’s a choice or a fate.  Are there ways in which asking questions about women, gender, and sexuality might open up fruitful paths in  your research?  It can’t hurt, and you never know if it might help.  Finally, when talking to other scholars, stop yourself before completely dismissing a subfield and confessing your ignorance of it.  Ask yourself why you wanted to do that. Would you sound defensive? Or aggressive?  I have my opinions about certain subfields, but I’d never dismiss them as irrelevant to my work or unimportant in the larger profession.  

As regular readers know, I think historians should follow their own bliss.  Let a thousand flowers bloom! There’s a reason why History departments tend not to hire carbon copies of the same scholar, but rather seek to showcase a variety of subfields, methodologies, and subjects.  All contributions should be welcome, none discouraged, because we serve our students, our institutions, and ourselves better when we feature a wide cross-section of our profession.

You never know where life will take you or which questions you once considered marginal might become central to your work if you’re open to growing as a scholar.  Do I wish I had worked harder in high school and college French classes than I did chasing boys or memorizing the lyrics to Billy Bragg albums?  Hell yes!  At the time, though, I had no clue that I’d ever need French in my professional life, but that all changed when I ventured into Canadian history in not just one but two books.  Now that I’m reading up on neoclassicism in the U.S. Early Republic, doesn’t my decision in college to study Hebrew rather than Greek or Latin seem monumentally boneheaded?  Right on!  I had my reasons at the time–I thought I was going to study religion in early New England, and believe it or not, the seventeenth-century puritan ministers seemed to drop at least as much Hebrew as Latin into their sermons and commentaries, and zero French.  But I just couldn’t figure out anything new or interesting to say in puritan studies.  This is not to say that there’s nothing new to say about the puritans, just that I wasn’t the one to do it.

Similarly, I’ve always been a little wary of the rush to the Early U.S. Republic we’ve seen in the past twenty years.  It all seemed so facile, considering the availability of published primary sources and the fact that it’s pretty much all in English–well, that hardly seemed like much of a challenge to me.  But now that I’m asking some questions that have let me to the immediately post-Revolution period, my resistance to this field seems defensive and foolish in retrospect.  (I don’t think I ever announced that I was completely ignorant, nor was I in fact completely ignorant of the literature in this field.  I knew who were and are considered the big names in the field, and I could advise students who wanted to work in the field which books to consult and which scholars to pay attention to.)

Now, for you Reds who liked my “thousand flowers bloom” comment, here’s Billy Bragg singing about “Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards.”

27 thoughts on “How is this OK? On dismissing historical subfields and the evolution of our intellectual lives.

  1. Totes.

    I’m not an expert in lots of fields, including some I really ought to know more about. But I’m at least apologetic about it: “oh, gosh, I’m still catching up on my ecclesiastical history,” or “I probably should know her work–but I’m embarrassingly ignorant about most things prior to 1580.”

    And there are things I’ll never study, but I’m certainly not going to dismiss them as fields of study.

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  2. Sigh. I have spent 30 years trying to convince some of my colleagues that gender might be useful to political history. I’m persistent, if not successful. I’ve tried to keep track of things that are outside my particular interests… Sure, there are articles I look at and say, OK, now I kniw that this exists, if I need it.

    And where this really irks me is in teaching, because it’s not fair to our students to exclude stuff just because it doesn’t float our boat.

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  3. Ugh. There shouldn’t have to even *be* women’s history because it should be integrated into the rest of history. Because you know, women are more than half the population.

    But it’s not like economics is much better. Some things are integrated into basic labor economics, but they’re kinda sexist (like proving that women should stay at home kind of sexist).

    In terms of subfields, I dunno. I certainly am not gleeful about not knowing, say, I/O theory, or structural macro beyond what I got in grad school, but I also don’t, you know, know those literatures all that well.

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  4. Sadly, like Susan, I’ve come to learn not just that women’s history is necessary (and that we’re not yet ready to claim that “history” nec. includes women), but also that if women scholars don’t *do* women’s history, it doesn’t get done. IOW, there are thousands of white men who write Native American and African American history, but I can think of less than a handful of men who write women’s history. (Asian American history tends to be written by Asian American scholars however–this is something that sets it apart from Native American & Af Am history. Latin@ history too tends to be a Latin@ scholar pursuit.)

    Effectively, this places an unfair burden on women to write women’s history. (Or it gives us all permission to ignore half the population! Take your pick.) There were and still are loads of XX chromosome people who aren’t particularly interested in women’s history in their own scholarship, but I know dozens of women who aren’t women’s historians who read in the field & offer women’s history courses at their universities.

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  5. Oh, come on. We know why.

    These people persist in viewing humanity as fundamentally male, and femininity as a deviation from that normative perspective.

    Will they say that? No. If you actually articulate that, it sounds nearly as bad as it is. Will they opeate from that principle anyway. Signs point to yes.

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  6. Saying that women’s history is a subfield of history is like saying that electricity is a subfield of electricity and magnetism. You can’t even make the slightest sense of E&M without a unified consideration of how electrical and magnetic fields interact. You can’t just ignore electrical fields as a featureless background upon which magnetic fields do their thing. The math doesn’t work. Similarly, how could you possibly make sense of human history without a unified consideration of how men’s and women’s actions interacted in the past?

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  7. That’s a really good point CPP–but pretty much everything in History is a “sub-field,” rather than a “supra-field” or whatever. Political history is a subfield; economic history the same; environmental history ditto, etc.

    I get the intellectual point you’re making & agree with where you’re coming from, but sadly we have to point out and make a big deal when a historian writes about women as historical subjects, because it’s just not integrated into the discipline like many of us had hoped it would be.

    Most of the conferences I’ve attended this year at the Huntington have borne this out, as most have been negligent or completely avoided including any women as historical subjects or gender and sexuality as categories of analysis. The one exception was a conference on the history of sexuality, natch, but otherwise it’s been a sausage-fest: Economic history, early American history, “Illicit Atlantics,” Vesalius’s 500th b’day. And it looks the same for the upcoming Shakespeare and American Rev. conferences this spring!

    nicoleandmaggie: don’t despair! There are still non-peer reviewed blogs where you can complain about patriarchy. You might even win the internets one day!!!

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  8. Well that suckes! BTW, speaking of Shakespeare, I heard that the official hashtag of the Shakespeare Association annual meeting is #shakeass. Dunno if it’s true, but super cool if it is.

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  9. Not reading women’s history isn’t just a problem for equity reasons (it’s important to include women), but because most women’s historians today actually engage in ‘mainstream’ historical debates, and their contributions do not just ‘add women’, but fundamentally change the direction of their overlapping subfields. If you do ‘political history’ and don’t read the relevant women’s history for your area of political history, then you may well be missing out on cutting-edge political history that is transforming how we understand political history (not women’s history). To be completely honest, if you are a scholar producing work today and show no evidence of reading women’s history, I tend to suspect you’re history isn’t any good, and certainly can’t be field-leading.

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  10. Hate to digress, Historiann, but was that you standing near me and my then-girlfriend at Billy Bragg’s show at the Chestnut Cabaret, fall 1990?

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  11. Historiann, The next time one of those clueless twits tells you that he just “doesn’t do women’s history”, dramatically twirl on your stilettos and walk away.
    He is not worthy of your dewy eyed attention, or even a pretense of attention. A lady like snort would also be appropriate.

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  12. I read women’s history, not usually for research, but for teaching prep. The students in my survey classes demand that women be included, and they get pissed when I’m forced to shrug and say, I don’t know what women were doing in the Mughal Empire or wherever. Are these guys oblivious to what their students want, or are they beyond teaching undergrads?

    Of course, I still hit the problem is that for women’s history in premodern subfields, the historiography is pretty slim compared to more recent periods. We desperately need more attention to women’s history for the medieval and ancient worlds.

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  13. EngLitProf: coulda been me! I don’t remember seeing BB in Philly, though–saw him in Providence, R.I. in 1987. I think I tried to get tix to see BB near Penn in 1991, but he was sold out.

    Rustoninte: I’m glad to hear that students pipe up and ask about women’s history if they don’t get it, and I’m glad to hear that you read up to help them out!

    Sweet Sue: Dewey-eyed attention? Puh-leez! (Plus, I’m too old to be mistaken for dewey-eyed any more.)

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  14. CPP:

    Yes, the rumors are true. And I expect to be shaking ass in just a few days.

    Incidentally, I think the tendency to dismiss “wimmins stuff” is a little more complicated in literary studies. It is absolutely true that a lot of people, especially those working in earlier fields, have no interest in working on writing by women. (And though this is less true for, say, Victorianists or Modernists–it’s kind of a problem if you’re not up on George Eliot or Virginia Woolf–more popular genres of women’s writing still get neglected and treated as unserious.) But I think the fact that literary studies is more theory-driven means that most male scholars, certainly of my generation and just above, would consider themselves embarrassingly uneducated if they weren’t minimally literate in issues pertaining to gender and sexuality.

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  15. #Shakeass Vancouver 2015!!! Enjoy your time on the Best Coast.

    Interesting point about theory & the minimal demands for sophistication. I’d say that there’s still a species of male scholar out there who takes pride in knowing nothing about women/gender/sexuality in history & will be rewarded for that nonetheless, so you’re right–different politics & different standards.

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  16. Take heart, not all is lost. There are small changes that will have big effects. I try to assign a work about women and gender history in every course I teach. In my survey class its very prominent. I devote a whole week to talking about state socialism as a gendered experience. I am pretty sure my other colleagues (outside of the octogenarians) do much the same.

    I am teaching a unit on Space and Cosmonauts in my upper level History of the Soviet Union class. In addition to the History of Technology article on ICBMs, the one on the image of Yuri Gagarin, I am assigning a third article on Valentina Tereshkova, Soviet girls and women’s careers in science.

    I just assume that a course is incomplete if it does not introduce and address gender in some way. Just like a class would be incomplete if it did not give the students some background in the relevant political and social history.

    This matters because I’m helping to train the next cohort of Social Science and History Teachers and they will also think its important to include gender in the lessons they teach to their students. Its going to change, we just have to keep on keeping on.

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  17. Had a male grad student say *out loud, in seminar* “you know me and gender history, I just don’t get it, ha ha ha.” Just about blew a gasket that this was somehow considered an appropriate comment.

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  18. LOLsob! What a douche. And I almost hope you called him that in front of his classmates.

    But of course, that would be terribly, terribly unprofessional of you. Shame on you for ever having thought to do such a thing, Ellie!

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  19. Pingback: This Week in Early American History « The Junto

  20. I’m reviewing a history paper right now and the guy who wrote the paper is making all of these claims that are logically, as someone with two X chromosomes, completely incorrect. It’s an R&R and in his response to my review, he says, “I know of no historian who …”

    Well, douchebag, that’s because you apparently only read male historians. Maybe if you stop citing these right-wing guys with political agendas (and actually, for most of these statements, you present them without citation, and “I know of no historians” still isn’t a citation, it’s just a really bad proof by authority/intimidation) and read some of the, I dunno, actual letters that people wrote to each other from the time period…

    So… guys doing “women’s history”… sometimes just as bad as guys doing “women’s economics.”

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