WARNING: Inflammatory post ahead. This is a follow-up post to yesterday’s post, A woman’s work is never done, part I: the daily churn.
My return to blogging yesterday was inspired by a recent conversation over winter break with a former student of mine who’s now enrolled in an impressive Ph.D. program. She was telling me all about the interesting syllabus she read through for a readings course in early American history, a version of which she took eight years ago as a master’s student with me at Baa Ram U. As she was telling me about the books she read and her opinions about them–it was an interesting list and she had worthwhile and frequently spiky opinions–I was gripped by a horrible dread. I hadn’t heard her mention any books that featured women or gender as either subjects or authors. So I asked:
“Did you read any books about women’s and gender history, or the history of sexuality?”
“No,” she said, “and come to think of it, I don’t think we read many books by women, either.”
Seriously, friends? Why are feminist scholars (of whatever sex) still having to ask this question, why are we the ONLY ONES asking it, and why aren’t all of us more outraged about the continuing, ongoing, perpetual exclusion of women as historical actors and writers? Why do we put up with the disparity in assignments and citation rates for men’s vs. women’s scholarship? It’s time for us to get personal. It’s time to get up in people’s grills about this. It’s time to take names and kick some a$$. We can’t just sit around and pretend like the exclusion of women from the historical profession described by Bonnie Smith in The Gender of History is going to change anytime soon, when this kind of syllabus gets written every semester in every history department.
I’m betting that few North American historians feel comfortable any longer in writing syllabi that exclude people of color as subjects or even as authors. Race is a critical category of analysis in my classes, and I try every semester in every class to assign at least one book by a nonwhite scholar, or at least some articles. The claim that “women weren’t important in what I study” is an ideologically motivated fiction. If you believe women are human, you look for them in what you study, teach, and write. If you don’t, then you don’t believe women are human, full stop.
Why were enough (but not a majority!) of Americans skeptical enough of Hillary Clinton’s claims to presidential power to hand the presidency over to the Human Stain? Do you think it has anything at all to do with the fact that the United States specifically excluded women as citizens and politicians for 150 years? OF COURSE IT DOES. Historians who don’t question the assumptions that “women weren’t there,” “women didn’t do anything notable,” and “women don’t write on this topic” aren’t very good historians, not to mentioned crabbed, unimaginative, and generally thoughtless people.
Don’t give me any crap about “I’m not just going to look for tokens to include on my syllabus when I don’t think their contributions/scholarship merit it/fit with my course design/etc.,” or “I don’t just assign what might be hot, or fashionable, or sexy, or politically correct.” You don’t assign it because you don’t think women are important.
So why don’t I just name a name here and call out this dude for his shockingly biased syllabus? I wish I could, but I’m sure many of you will appreciate that I also have a strong interest in protecting my former student’s privacy and anonymity. She doesn’t want me to declare war on her behalf; she wants to engage her proffie and learn what she can from him, and the truth is that this problem is so widespread that we all need to examine ourselves. Also, it’s really unfair to put the burden of this on the backs of our students, when there are tenured scholars like me who can kick up a fuss.
Short of infringing on other scholars’ intellectual liberties, what can we do about this persistent problem? The answer, friends, is the oldest tool in our kit, peer review. Let’s peer review the $hit out of each other:
- Talk about this issue openly and frequently–in person as well as on the internets! Bring it up with colleagues. Say you’ve noticed that women’s work doesn’t get assigned as frequently as men’s work, and ask your colleagues how they make decisions about the books and articles they assign in class.
- Review our own syllabi to make sure we’re being sufficiently attentive ourselves to this issue. I also ensure that nonwhite scholars have their voices on every one of my syllabi too, but we can’t do this unless we ask these questions every semester, for every class.
- Promote women’s scholarship in your peer review work. Don’t give articles, book manuscripts, conference papers, books submitted to prize committees, or fellowship and job applicants a pass if they’re not citing a sufficient variety of scholars. Make that the hill you want to die on in terms of academic rewards and emoluments. Here’s an example in my field I’ve seen time and time again: everyone loves to cite William Cronon’s Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England (1983) in their environmental history and early New England history articles, but few also cite Carolyn Merchant’s important contemporary, Ecological Revolutions: Nature, Gender, and Science in New England (1989) unless they’re also historians of women and gender. Now why is that? Is it because Merchant’s book was bad or derivative of Cronon? Is it because it only addressed issues pertinent to women’s history? No–in fact, like Cronon’s book, it also has been released in a second edition! (It’s also, TBH, a much more intellectually complex and longer book than Changes in the Land.) So why the systemic diss., unless some boys are afraid to have our menstrual blood smeared all over them after they pick up our books. Ensuring that you haven’t missed important titles in your research is called scholarship. Some of you need to work harder at it.
- Let’s consider adding citation equity to the American Historical Association’s Gender Equity in the Academic Workplace document. Why not? Isn’t actually reading and engaging women’s scholarship an important aspect of gender equity in the academic workplace? This document focuses narrowly on office culture and evaluation processes. While it’s good to make sure that job and tenure applicants are evaluated fairly and that no one is sexually harassed, that’s a pretty low bar! Since the production of scholarship is what makes Ph.D.-holding historians different from other historians and is the primary qualification for getting and keeping university and college-teaching jobs, it seems imperative that the profession address this inequity as well.
Other ideas for what we can do? Please drop them in the comments below. I’m done with being polite.
(Keep your browser pointed here this weekend–I’ll be offering some #protips for surviving and thriving at the American Historical Association’s annual conference in Denver next week, #AHA17!)