Original Zins: Little thoughts on biography and women's history

dame-desprit.jpgAs in other history subfields, there is a great deal of contemporary interest in biography among women’s historians.  At the Berkshire Conference on the History of Women this year, we have two panels, a workshop, and a seminar on women’s biography and feminist autobiography, with a total of 32 scholars presenting their work or commenting on the proceedings (program available here).  When we announced that a seminar on women’s history and biography would be led by Judith Zinsser, co-author (with Bonnie Anderson) of the two-volume foundational work in European women’s history, A History of Their Own (1988, rev. 2000), and most recently the author of La Dame d’Esprit:  A Biography of the Marquise du Chatelet (Viking/Penguin, 2006), we were deluged with applications.  So, clearly biography is hot, and I expect that these sessions will attract throngs of other women’s historians who are working on biographies of their own.

But, are women’s history and biography compatable genres?  After all, biography is a genre of history that argues implicitly, if not explicitly, that men of action and vision are the great actors on history’s stage.  (See for example this thread over at Edge of the American West asking for names of heretofore obscure people who have changed American history.  When Historiann wrote in with women’s names, her suggestions were greeted by…a chorus of chirping crickets!  There were other women’s names tossed in later, but all of them–Lucy Stone, Margaret Sanger, Rachel Carson, the Grimke sisters–have had at least one biographer, and their places are assured in the women’s history cannon.)  So historians, who are prisoners of the text anyway, end up writing biographies of elite men who enjoyed the privilege of literacy, the time to record their thoughts in journals and letters, and the means to ensure that their papers didn’t end up lining shoes or at the bottom of a privy after their deaths.  (This is especially true of biographies of people who lived before 1800, when the politics of American literacy guaranteed that very few female, brown, and/or working-class people had either the education or the time for writing.) 


Zinsser is a pathbreaking scholar who has written frankly and compellingly about the challenges of feminist biography, and how the subjectivity of the author and her times inevitably and unavoidably influence her scholarship.  She was a guest blogger over at the Penguin Group blog last month–click here to read her reflections on her life and the life of Emilie du Chatelet, the great mathematician, Enlightenment salonniere, and the translator of the authoritative French version of Newton’s Principia.  (Zinsser’s book is now available in paperback as Emilie du Chatelet:  Daring Genius of the Enlightenment, shown here.)  Let us–Judith Zinsser and Historiann–know what you think in the comments.  Does women’s history demand a reconceptualization of biography?  Is there a difference between feminist biography and women’s biography?  What are some of the best women’s biographies that you have read, and why do you think they were successful?  If you are contemplating or writing a biography of a woman now, what are your challenges?  How do literacy politics and power play into the period and region of the world you work in, and how do they shape your agenda as a scholar?

The War Between the States (of employment)

Michael Bowen has an article up at Inside Higher Ed that argues that the American Historical Association (AHA)  should do better by graduate students.  He wants the organization to 1) stop touting an improved job market without taking into consideration the backlog of un- and underemployed Ph.D.’s from years past, and 2) to formulate uniform deadlines and standards of communication for search committees.  I think point #1 is reasonable (although I think if you read Robert B. Townsend’s reports, and not just the headlines, they are much more cautious), but I have some doubts about #2.  The discussion in the comment section, especially the comments by “Nimrod” and “AHA Veteran,” does a good job of explaining the limits of both the AHA and search committees themselves to control the hiring process.  (One exception:  I like Bowen’s deadline of offering interviews 30 days before the convention, although 3 weeks is usually early enough to get a decent non-refundable plane fare.  It’s horribly exploitative to invite graduate students and the underemployed interview at the AHA after mid-December.)  Bowen’s article is a fair shot, unlike some of the overheated discussions on the job wiki, but both this article and the job wiki are striking in that they suggest that job candidates feel very alienated from the faculties they want to join. 

Historiann has been thinking a lot recently about how technology has changed the job search process, and how it may have raised expectations that neither technology nor the search process can satisfy.  As recently as the mid-1990s, search committee correspondence took place entirely via Pony Express–just kidding!–I mean the U.S. Mail and telephone calls, and most departments didn’t have web pages, so job candidates had only the AHA Directory of History Departments and course catalogs on microfilm (!) to prepare for interviews.  E-mail has made getting and staying in touch with job candidates easier, and search committees who don’t take advantage of this to keep their applicants posted on major search developments are indeed neglectful.  But the ease of discovering information about a prospective employer via the web doesn’t seem to have improved job candidates’ preparation for interviews, especially on-campus interviews.  Nor have laptop computers and the ease of making revisions on the spot improved people’s job talks–things like practicing the talk 5 times in your hotel room and being able to think on your feet aren’t technology dependent. 

The main thing that technology has done–like “just in time” ordering and delivery of parts in the auto industry–is allow us to work up to deadlines.  It also allows both job candidates and hiring departments to vent in places like the wiki, so we’re more aware of the antagonism on the other side.  As a job candidate, I’ve been treated shabbily by hiring committees and prospective departments both before and after the technological divide, and I try to use those experiences to make the job interview process saner and fairer for others.  As a faculty member now, I believe that’s the way the majority of us approach the hiring season, but I know from experience that it only takes a few jerks (or a few jerky departments) to poison the well.  Sad to say, but I don’t really remember the kind, respectful people who took me out to dinner, or asked thoughtful questions on my job interviews for positions I wasn’t offered.  The jerks, however, are etched onto my brain in stark relief (and you know who you are!)

Nancy Hewitt dishes on "The Leaky Pipeline"

You’re probably like Historiann, in that you didn’t get to see the recent AHA panel called “The Leaky Pipeline:  Issues of Promotion, Retention, and Quality of Life Issues for Women in the Historical Profession,” chaired by Leo Spitzer, and starring Tiya Miles, Claire Potter, and Nancy Hewitt.  (Potter has posted a brief description at Tenured Radical, in which she reveals that the room this panel was assigned was in fact IN a garage, presumably with leaky pipes about to burst all over the assembled pilgrims.  Surely, it’s just a coincidence that the panel on women’s working conditions was given this room!)  The title of the panel appears to have been inspired by a 2005 Report on the Status of Women in the Profession by Liz Lunbeck, which argues that the “pipeline” from Ph.D. to full Professorship for women “is in fact quite leaky, with women dropping out at every step up the ladder.” 

The most senior of the three panelists, Nancy Hewitt, wrote to Historiann and very generously shared the full text of her comments with me, the title of which was “The Feminization of History, or the Disciplining of Women?  Women in the Historical Profession since the 1970s.”  It is a reflection on Hewitt’s own career, as well as her observations of changes in women’s status since she was the first woman hired by the History department at the University of South Florida in 1981, to full Professorships at Duke and now Rutgers.  As a historian of women activists and reformers (her books include Southern Discomfort:  Women’s Activism in Tampa, Florida, 1880s-1920sand Women’s Activism and Social Change:  Rochester, New York, 1822-1872) her thoughts are I think particularly compelling, and deserve some serious consideration, especially by those behind Hewitt in the “pipeline:”  graduate students, adjunct and junior faculty, and the newly tenured.

Hewitt’s analysis–as the title of her paper suggests–is that there are mixed results from the last 25 years of struggle by and for women in the profession.  She writes that today “nearly half of PhDs in History go to women, and the face of the discipline has changed dramatically. It is no longer a singular event when a history department hires or tenures a woman or when women historians are elected to the presidencies of professional associations or selected to serve as editors of major journals. There are many reasons to celebrate the new demographics within the historical profession, which include far more scholars of color as well as women than ever before. Yet these very changes-what some have called the feminization of history–have also created new burdens, highlighted long-term problems, and inspired in some departments a backlash against further change.”  In sum, “even as adding women to History and other disciplines has transformed the academy in numerous ways, universities have also sought to contain and discipline women.”  Lots more dish after the jump… Continue reading

Childhood is back, baby

captivity-child-adult.JPG  The recent postings on children’s stories and dolls were not just a lame Gen-X nostalgia trip for Historiann (although they were admittedly that too), but rather part of my current research project, which has required an excursion into the new history of childhood (suggested in the New Year’s Eve entry below). It’s back, and this time the best of it is very intertwined with feminist history’s fascination with developing an archaeology of power in the 1990s and early 2000s. Barry Levy’s excellent review essay in the July 2007 William and Mary Quarterly (sorry–for subscribers only) is a great explanation of the older historiography of childhood as well as an explanation of the issues and concerns of the newer literature. He writes that “the sorrow of most early American children’s experience and their own and their parents’ efforts to overcome haunting memories and events” is an assumption that structures the newer literature on early American childhood. Because I’ve written extensively about the experience of Indian captivity for both English captives and their Indian captors, and the book I’m writing is about an English girl taken into captivity by the Abenaki in 1703 at age seven, this emphasis on trauma makes sense to me. But one doesn’t need to seek out subjects who witnessed or experienced warfare in such an intimate way–consider the daily traumas suffered and absorbed by enslaved children, the indignities of being a seventeenth- or eighteenth-century English orphan, or the dislocation and disease of colonial Indian childhood. The colonial world was all about the violent exploitation of the few by the many, and children were at least witnesses to if not also victims of this harsh reality.

Kriste Lindenmeyer recently informed me that there is a new historical journal devoted to this topic, The Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth, and its inaugural issue is published this month. It features articles on global childhood and a roundtable on “Age as a Category of Historical Analysis,” the title of which is a clear homage to Joan Scott’s signal 1986 article, “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis” (sorry–subscribers only, again!) Pioneers of the new history of childhood like Lindenmeyer, Mary Jo Maynes, and Ping-chen Hsiung have contributed to this journal, and it features several emerging scholars as well, notably Leslie Paris and Laura Lovett, whose first books are hot off the presses. I’m pleased to report that many of this journal’s first contributors (and all of the historians specifically mentioned above) are also on panels on the history of childhood and girlhood that will be presented at the Fourteenth Berkshire Conference on the History of Women, June 12-15, 2008, for which I am a Program Committee co-chair. By my count, we’ve got at least eleven panels that deal wholly or in part with the history of childhood, not counting individual papers that might have something to say on the topic. Check out the program here.

To all of my friends at the AHA, and you too

That annual gathering of the (mostly) middle-aged men with (mostly) bad wardrobes is upon us–namely, the 122nd Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association in Washington, D.C.  (This is not an ad hominem attack, rather a Hunter S. Thompsonesque observation grounded in reportage, only alas without the drinking and shotguns.  To wit:  one of the first AHAs I ever attended back in the previous century was in Chicago, and I got lost downtown in between the El and the Palmer House.  I looked across the street, and saw a bunch of middle-aged men, and each one was wearing a tweed jacket with patches on the elbows, and I knew in an instant that I was no longer lost!) 

I’m happily sitting this one out, but I’m in solidarity with all of you unemployed attendees and search committee members sweating away in the job register.  Tenured Radical has posted some good advice to job seekers and other newcomers to conventionland.  May the Job Fairy grant you some fantastic interviews, invitations to visit campus, and the job of your dreams.  Failing that–remember, it’s possible to survive a 4-4 teaching load and/or a move to East Jesus State U.  You’ll get good experience, improve your character, learn something about a new region of the country, and widen your circle of friends, if you’re not a complete jerk.  People are friendly in East Jesus, and the cost of living is pretty reasonable there too, so you can even save up a little money for that summer research trip.