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.”