#StanfordSausageFest: “A return to history’s dark age as a gentlemen’s protection society?” A response from the Coordinating Council of Women Historians

Sausage fest!

I’ve been asked by the authors of this statement by the Coordinating Council for Women Historians at the American Historical Association to republish their response to the #StanfordSausageFest published yesterday at History News Network.  The authors link the specter of a return to “history’s dark age as a gentlemen’s protection society” to recent consciousness-raising efforts to address sexual harassment and assault in academia and in the wider world. Read on, and scroll all the way down for a brief note on my lengthy absence from this space.

by Sasha Turner, Barbara Molony, and Sandra Dawson

In December 1969, a group of historians organized the Coordinating Committee of Women Historians in the Profession, which, in 1995, joined forces with the Conference Group of Women’s History to become the Coordinating Council for Women in History (CCWH). Both organizations arose from divergent, but overlapping goals to support women students and faculty and to secure greater inclusion of women in the research and teaching of history. At the time of these organizations’ founding, the American Historical Association (AHA) and the history profession in general were deemed “a gentlemen’s protection society… openly supporting practices of sexism, racism, classism, heterosexism, and anti-Semitism.” With a woman historian and a scholar of women’s history now at the helm of the AHA (Mary Beth Norton), and more broadly, the addition of women historians and women and gender history to departments and curricula across the country, few would dispute that the AHA and the history profession have become more inclusive.

Yet, the recent all white male history conference held at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University seems to suggest a return to history’s dark age as a gentlemen’s protection society. Happily, the strong and growing presence of and disciplinary focus on women in history as well as the sharp criticism and condemnation (and rightly so) of the exclusive conference make clear that a return to great white men history and historians is a fantasy. Even so, the holding of this conference and others of its kind reflect the ongoing challenges women historians and women history face.

Conference organizer and senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution Niall Ferguson defended that the exclusion of women was not deliberate and that the women invited to participate in the panel had declined to do so. Yet, it seems that the lack of diversity stemmed less from packed schedules to a deliberate omission. One is hard pressed not to view the conference Ferguson organized through the lens of his acceptance speech for the 2016 Philip Merrill Award for Outstanding Contribution to Liberal Arts Education. While admitting that various social and economic reasons account for the decline in history in the last several decades, Ferguson argued that the changing content of history is the “best explanation.”

Such content changes, Ferguson explained, are the decline in diplomatic and international history; legal and constitutional history; and intellectual, social, and economic history, on the one hand, and the growth in women and gender history; cultural history; history of race and ethnicity; and environmental history, on the other hand.  Challenging the larger significance of courses that center women, including one on women and mental illness offered at Stanford University in Fall 2016, Ferguson remarked that such subjects are certainly less important than investigations into how the United States became an independent republic, for example. The problem with “the new history that’s displaced the old,” Ferguson bemoaned, is that “some are so disconnected from contemporary concerns that it is little better than the antiquarianism scoffed at” by the discipline’s forbearers. Others are so overly politicized, “so skewed by contemporary concerns,” that they are ahistorical and anachronistic.

To be sure, one can hardly gain a critical understanding of women in history by perusing course description and titles. Undeniably, American independence is among the most significant events in the history of the United States. And yet, the question of the historical event of independence is less significant than questions about the nature of the revolution and how revolutionary it might have been. To engage meaningfully in key debates about the revolution, whether it was conservative or radical, is to engage women, race, and gender history and historiography. Diverging from older historical definitions of the revolution as radical, new critical race and gender histories defined it as “the illusion of change.” Women, black people, and Native Americans saw their conditions worsen, their liberties restricted, and rights of citizenship denied after the Revolution. The broadening of the study of the American Revolution beyond the merchant class and wealthy elites, for example, yields a more inclusive history. Resulting debates about how radical the revolution was has also led to the reconceptualization of American history and democracy.

Chiding the so-called new parochial histories as overly political and as importing too much politics into the classroom, it seems quite the double standard (pun intended) when we consider that the conference aimed to discuss questions like, “Are recent developments in American politics unprecedented, or is Trump merely populism revisited?” and “What can we learn from past attempts to learn from the past?” Undoubtedly, one can no more take the politics out of legal and constitutional histories of the United States than they can pretend that American constitutional history is devoid of race and gender politics.  Women’s struggles today for bodily autonomy and greater participation in politics, law, and governance, are rooted in the fact that none of the original authors of the constitution were women. That people of different genders, races, religions, and sexual identities are currently marginalized as interpreters of the Constitution is the direct result of the writing of a constitution that defined political activity in white and masculine terms. Needless to say, how does one discuss recent developments in American politics and Trump’s populism without a critical engagement with American race and gender history and its pivotal role in the election campaigns and voting patterns?

As we contemplate the ways in which the Stanford conference makes it clear that the vestiges of history as an old boy’s club linger, it is difficult not to address the club’s twin pillars: sexual harassment and assault.  The recent panel discussion at the AHA along with Catherine Clinton’s presidential address at the Southern Historical Association have made plain that the history profession is not immune to the problem of sexual abuse that plagues other spaces.

But women and girls today have inherited centuries of male orchestrated legal systems that sanction sexual violence. Although now illegal in the US, marital rape, for example, received legal grounding on the assumption that wives “belonged” to their husbands and therefore could not be raped. Further still, during American chattel slavery, while white women gained some protection from rape, black women, deemed property, could not be raped. To be sure, the persistence of the erroneous view that black men are sexual predators, particularly threatening to white women, and the remarks made by Donald Trump’s lawyer, Michael Cohen that “it is impossible to rape one’s spouse” (for which he subsequently apologized), highlight how social attitudes outlive legislations.  The outlawing of spousal rape in the US in the late 1970s was a direct result of women’s rights campaigns and the insistence that such subjects as women and rape have historical merit.  Such histories have also yielded insight into the ways in which power is exerted through sexual acts. By tracing the perpetrating of rape, for example, across social and cultural settings, geographic and time boundaries, historians have shown the use of sexual violence as tools of social control and domination.

The persistence of sexual violence further makes clear that statements of regret and condemnation, while important, are insufficient to address deep-seated problems of sexual harassment and abuse. In addition to continued investment in such fields as women, race, and gender, outdated and bureaucratic processes that make accountability and redress impossible must be eliminated.  In contrast to the all white men conference, the democratization of history is incumbent upon women and minorities having a seat at the table and access to power and prestigious positions.

Sasha Turner and Barbara Molony are Co-Presidents of the Coordinating Council of Women Historians. Sandra Dawson is the Executive Director.

Thanks, friends, for this thought-provoking response.  Being at the table is critically important, as is speaking out and using our power for positive change.  As I’ve pointed out here many many many times before:  silence only serves the interests of those already in power.  What would academia look like if it were arranged around the priorities and interests of nonwhite students and scholars and women?  Let’s find out!

So where the heck have I been for the past nine months?  Am I lazy? Bereft of new ideas? Probably both.  Let’s just say that heavy hangs the head that wears the crown of Professor and Chair or member of Every Committee You’ve Ever Heard of and Some You’ve Never, but it’s more than that.

I miss the conversations we used to have here, but now many seem to have moved to Twitter. So many of the issues I raised here over the past decade have moved into to the mainstream that it feels like I just don’t have that much to add:  the urgency of addressing gun violence in America, the gendered nature of gun violence, the structural inequalities facing women and all people of color in academia, and the harm caused by the sexualized workplace, just to name a few.  Take a look at my archives–they’re pretty impressive, although who has time to read more than 280 characters of someone else’s thoughts these days?

Let me know if you have any thoughts about the place of blogs in these conversations, and/or in our current social media mad mad mad mad world!  I’m all ears.

19 thoughts on “#StanfordSausageFest: “A return to history’s dark age as a gentlemen’s protection society?” A response from the Coordinating Council of Women Historians

  1. Thanks for reposting the CCWH statement – it deserves so much amplification.

    On where conversation is located and the value of blogs, did you happen to see Dan Cohen’s Back to the Blog post a few weeks ago? He describes a similar transition from his longstanding blog over to Twitter but is feeling the urge to return to the longer form.

    As a now longtime Tweeter (Twitterer?) and blogger myself, I’ve also basically stopped writing the 1,000-word posts that I did a few years ago, even if I never achieved your frequency. But I miss it too and want to return … right after I meet my own big deadline. I think we need your voice in a more permanent location than Twitter—even, perhaps especially, in those instances when I disagree with you. Giving our ideas and arguments a little more breathing space on blogs may have the beneficial effect of taking the burden of bearing that weight away from Twitter, which seems unable to sustain lengthier, more detailed arguments.

    Anyway, count me as one vote in favor of you posting here as your busy schedule allows.

    Liked by 3 people

    • You sometimes disagree with me? Well, I never–

      Thanks for the link to Dan Cohen’s piece–I’ll check that out–and for the encouragement. One of the things that made blogging harder for me is that so many of the blogs I used to be in conversation with shut down a few years ago, so it made blogging less fun (Tenured Radical, Dr. Crazy, Squadratomagico, etc.) Notorious Ph.D. is still at it occasionally, but only very occasionally, and the Junto & Ferule & Fescue are still out there too but I confess my blog READING has slacked as well (part of the firehose blast of news that I’m having trouble coping with.)

      Maybe I should just start reading regularly what you young folks are posting on the Octo-linked blogs, etc., and go from there. I really like Borealia (https://earlycanadianhistory.ca) too–should get back to reading there.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for re-posting this! I had not been terribly exercised over the Hoover Institution conference because I don’t take Ferguson seriously as a historian. However, that raises the immediate problem that Hoover and others *do* take him seriously because he has the affect of a High-Minded Scholar, which seems to be more important than the content. I am currently teaching a seminar in Russian intellectual history that includes the voices of many women scholars, if only a few Russian women themselves. It sounds like Ferguson would discount the course.

    I do miss your blog, but I understand that you have other pressing responsibilities! I follow you on Twitter, but my personal Twitter policy is to be strictly passive, and I miss the conversational possibilities. The advantage of the blog form is not only space, but that we have some time to reflect on the topic at hand rather than instantly react. Maybe I’ll start my own blog some day. . .

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks for your comment & thoughts, NB. As for the “affect of the High-Minded Scholar:” I’ve taken to putting on that attitude when I review grant & fellowship applications and on committee work. It means I don’t really have to work that hard and can just perform my opinions loudly & strongly–a real timesaver!


  3. Yeay! Historiann! Thanks for cross-posting this. I saw this conference and it was justly lambasted elsewhere. I missed the original post on History News Network.

    Like Northern Barbarian, I am teaching a Russian History class this semester, but its mainly a survey of the twentieth century. One of our three main themes is women and gender. The other two themes are ideology and economy. Funny enough, the women and gender theme is what keeps the class grounded in peoples’ actual historical experiences.The other two themes tend to have the effect of looking at history through a paper towel tube where the main actors always seems like the state or leaders like Stalin. I agree with Northern Barbarian, I am sure that Ferg would scoff at the approach, but I think its been a lively class. I am going to revise it further to get away from the state-driven narratives of Russian history.

    I think that the conference is a kind of a joke. Ferg used to be a serious economic historian, but he has spent so much time collecting checks on the conservative rubber chicken circuit he isn’t really a scholar anymore. Its not surprising he organized a safe space for white male snowflakes. The fact that this was bankrolled by the Hoover Institution is much more disturbing. I think its always been pretty conservative in a political and methodological sense. But this conference makes me doubt their credibility.

    If the Hoover Institution was negligent, that was a problem. If they sponsored the conference knowing that it would be exclusionary, that’s an even bigger problem. If they gave Ferg a blank check to do what he wanted, then thats a lack of forethought and oversight. Serious academic institutions have an obligation to be welcoming and open to all, especially their programming. Conferences are part of the public face of serious academic institutions and the Hoover should know what the hell their fellows are organizing, especially if they are paying the bills. If they wrote the check knowing that Ferg was just going to invite his buddies, then they are no different than the Heritage Foundation or Cato Institute.

    It matters to me because when my students are doing research on Russian and Soviet History I send them to the Hoover Institution website to see what resources they have available. If the Hoover is just another Right Wing think tank, then I cannot in good conscience tell the students they are a credible academic institution or repository for research materials.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. And it’s always great to hear from you on your blog, but don’t worry about how often you post. From my point of view, as an audience member, this blog is like one of those old friendships where you might not see one another for a few years, but when you do meet its always at the right time and you can pick up where you left off. Good luck with your service work, being chair, teaching, writing and all the other things that make up a life.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I’m a biologist with a strong interest in gender, and I’ve been coming to your blog for years to get a fresh perspective on, well, all the topics you post about. Your writing got me through the 2016 election! And I don’t use Twitter as a conversation substitute, so for me it’s been a real loss not having your insights. Believe me, you have a lot to add, even to topics you might think have made it to mainstream.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I’ve missed you, Historiann! Seconding the calls to post when you feel like it.

    As for the Twitter machine, here’s my story. Long ago, in the paleolithic, when social media started up, I heard about their privacy settings and their we-own-your-content copyright settings. I’ve been around computers since before 1978, and the sorts of blogs / Usenet I read talked about that kind of thing.

    So I thought — this is where everyone gets to laugh — good god, nobody’s going to stand for that. Regulation will appear in a minute, and once I have some rights, I’ll get on this cool new thing.

    And here we are out of the Stone Age into the Modern and I’m still waiting. The only thing that’s changed is more people are suddenly realizing what those outrageous Terms of Service can do.

    Anyway, that’s a long way of saying I’m not on any social media, so there’s no way for me to interact with any of the interesting things on there. I can read public twitter feeds in a web browser, and I do, but that’s not quite the same.

    The other thing that’s not the same is shoehorning real ideas into 140/280 character twitbytes. I feel my brain turning to mush as I lose the capacity to focus for more than a sentence. I thought it was old age until I read a couple of papers recently showing that attention deficit is hitting everybody.

    So, yes, please, keep writing your thoughtful longer pieces when you can!

    Parenthetically, I saw a comment on L’Affaire Niall over at Butterflies and Wheels:

    “They [Real People™ like Niall, who are Busy] like women just fine. They try to include some women, when they remember, and it always turns out the women have to polish the baby that day or something so they say no so what are the poor men supposed to do?


  7. “If the Hoover is just another Right Wing think tank, then I cannot in good conscience tell the students they are a credible academic institution or repository for research materials.”

    The Hoover Institute has always tilted/leaned/seriously-bent to the Right/Girondist side of the political spectrum, only the degree varying thanks to time and political tide. No surprise that they did something as clueless and dumb as the Boys Club History Conference. When it popped up on HNN, it got the exasperated eye rolls and derision it fully earned and deserved.

    As for the other issue, I would offer the suggestion that long-form writing in The Life Digital is becoming overwhelmed by fatal attraction and the resulting pandemic of Social Media Brevity. As an Early Adapter, thanks to living in the digital work when it was still small enough that I had ARPA access and an email address when most had never heard of either, many of what are often considered as the Unintended Consequences of digitization were, well, actually discussed and pondered at some length. While developing the Digital Library concept and the related issues of access and collaboration, there were some who did bring up the possibility of things getting a tad out of hand. In one instance, we even used the analogy of Pandora’s Box for a panel discussion on this issue within the possible problems of emerging technologies. As one of the token historians involved, I admit to seriously underestimating the timeframe for all this coming to fruition. When we worked on the GIG (Global Information Grid, now better known as The Cloud), it was already evident that adaptation was far more rapid than some of us anticipated.

    In a former life, I was forced to have a Facebook presence, which I reluctantly complied with, but used minimally, as little as I could get away with, in no small part thanks to the nano-conversations it seemed to engender. As for Twitter, while Roger Ebert seemed to enjoy it, no way, Jose….


  8. Thank you to all of the bloggers on women in history. I have wallowed in the information you keep finding, and I continue to share it with groups at retirement communities and libraries and recommend you to the participants.

    It’s very gratifying that in the 80s and 90s we may have gotten 10 – 20 people at a women’s history presentation and now I have 20+ at two monthly groups at the library – one a presentation, one a discussion – and have had 75+ at a couple presentations at retirement communities. Keep up the good work!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Embarrassed to have missed the emergence of this conversation here four months ago, and to have only stumbled back in on it tonight. This space has been more nutritious, to my mind, almost than e-mail itself, which is the strongest comparative statement I could make about different forms of electronic communication. But being a reader and commentator is obviously a lot easier than being a content-stream maintainer, which must be almost like having a third job. So, if and inevitably when, the well runs seasonally dry, it just has to stay that way until it stops being that way. I can just promise not to carelessly (or lazily) assume again that there would probably be nothing to find here if I stopped back in. Habit matters. I even browse the archives here from time to time, and find good calories there. (Showing someone something interesting from 2008 is how I found this new post!).


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