9th 2009
Who indeed is afraid of the distant past (and who says it’s distant, anyway)? A call to arms.

Posted under: American history, Berkshire Conference, book reviews, European history, Gender, happy endings, publication, students, women's history

bennetthistorymatters1Part II of Judith Bennett’s “History Matters” Women’s History Month book club.  If you haven’t seen it already, go read Part I here.

When my copy of Judith Bennett’s History Matters:  Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism (2006) arrived on the doorstep earlier this winter, I sat down and devoured it.  Yes, it was my constant companion, and even bedtime reading.  At times in the initial chapters, it read like a feminist version of Peter Novick’s That Noble Dream,with bits of gossip dropped here and there (although, frustratingly, I wished that Bennett had dished more than she does–she doesn’t always provide citations when she suggests that people wrote or did something she disapproves of.  However, if you’d like to know what a complete tool Lawrence Stone was, I can direct your attention to p. 14, footnote 36.  The cited condescending book review is available by subscription only on-line, but you can get some of the flava by reading Joan Scott’s angry response here.)  I love Bennett’s passionate, informed conviction that as women’s history has become more institutionalized and thus more distant from the women’s movement, it has lost something vital.

Last week over at Notorious Ph.D., Girl Scholar, several of us got into a discussion about the generational angle of Bennett’s book.  In History Matters, Bennett writes about the excitement of being a graduate student in Toronto in the 1970s at the height of the modern women’s movement, coming out as a lesbian, and helping to invent women’s history all at the same time.  She also writes about her keen disappointment that succeeding generations of women’s historians have lost the founders’ zeal–and although she doesn’t say specifically, my guess is that Generation X women like me are a big part of her disappointment.  We went to college in the 1980s and grad school in the 1980s and 1990s as beneficiaries of the feminist movement who didn’t necessarily think we needed to call ourselves feminists.  We were convinced that all of the major battles were won, and that we could therefore study whatever we wanted, and have careers and wonderful lives as the first post-feminist generation free of the oppressive legal and economic structures and  cultural and religious beliefs that ensnared women for centuries–until now!  Weren’t we lucky?  (For the record:  I was generationally unfashionable in that I always considered myself a feminist and embraced the label, but I was tragically naive until my late 20s about my generation’s ability to escape the bonds that have governed women’s lives for millennia.  In the previous discussion, Belle pointed out that dividing up historians into generations isn’t so neat and clean–for the record, “my generation” means mostly my grad school generation, in that I think it’s when people trained that’s most relevant here.)  Perhaps my thoughts here are too much informed by my generational identity, but I think that a greater appreciation for what Bennett calls “the distant past” in chapter 3, and therefore a better sense of what she calls “patriarchal equilibrium” in chapter 4, would have tempered my youthful arrogance that the rules for women and men had changed completely and that I could just enjoy the benefits without having to continue the fight.

Bennett’s insists that the ancient and medieval past is still relevant to history and to feminism, and she is concerned that women’s history has become almost by definition a modern history field.  Bennett’s research in chapter 3 demonstrating the mad rush to modern history in the historical profession in general, as well as in women’s history conferences and journals in particular, provides conclusive proof of the abandonment of pre-modern and even early modern history (at least by comparison to their presence in the infancy of women’s history in the 1970s).  As someone whose publications are in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century history, I’m poised in-between medievalists like Bennett and the majority of women’s historians, whose work is in twentieth century history, but I’m more sympathetic to the view that the so-called “distant past” is valuable (perhaps, admittedly, out of self-interest.)

One major reason women’s historians have gravitated to modern history I think is that most of us want to write books with happy endings.  As feminist readers and writers, students and professors, we want to think that the women’s movements of the past 230 years have borne some fruit.  This yearning for happy endings is something I see all of the time in the classroom.  Anyone who has taught women’s history across four centuries (as I have in the past) knows that students are demonstrably giddy once we get to around 1800, and can finally talk about feminism through the writings of Olympe de Gouges, Judith Sargent Murray, and Mary Wollstonecraft.  The students who enroll in women’s history courses are largely sympathetic to feminist values, and once we get to modern history’s rapid pace of apparent change, and events (in American history) like the abolition of couverture and slavery, women’s suffrage, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and Sandra Day O’Connor, they’re looking forward to a happy ending that conforms with the Whig takeaway message of their U.S. history survey classes:  American history is all about the spread of liberty, and everyone is getting freer and freer all of the time. 

I now teach American women’s history up to 1800 only, and I can tell that my students think the course is a major bummer.  From the start, it’s a horror show of starvation, disease, exploitation, enslavement, and rape, and then we conclude with the consensus view among early American historians that the Age of Revolutions not only does nothing for women as women, but that there is conclusive evidence that the eighteenth century is dramatically regressive for Native American, African American, and Euro-American women.  (I had a complaint on my course evaluations last term that “we learned a lot about oppressed women, but not much about the majority of women.”  Oh, how I wish I could teach that course, where the “majority” of women in the Americas from 1492 to 1800 weren’t “oppressed!”  The problem is that it would have to be taught as science fiction, not as a history course!)

Bennett notes that while women’s history has become shallower in its focus on modern history, it has become broader with the inclusion of more women’s history outside of the U.S., Canada, and Europe.  She (rightly) suggests that “[t]his is not an either/or situation; we need both more non-Western history and more early history (and sometimes, of course, we get both at once.)  If the former has expanded at the expense of the latter, neither is to blame; instead, the elephant in the room looks to be the history of the modern West whose dominance over both seems to have yielded little ground, if any,” 41.  Bennett’s demand here for more attention to pre-modern history is nothing short of a call for us to return to the longue durée of the Annales school, and is intimately connected to her demand that women’s historians embrace the fact that women’s history is more about continuity than change.  This is a radically counter-cultural idea in the historical profession, which is all about the study of change over time.  But, as Bennett points out, looking for change over time makes sense in some sub-fields, but perhaps not in others, and anyone working in women’s and gender history and the history of sexuality knows in hir bones that our fields are marked much more by depressing, confounding continuity rather than change.  I can’t help but think there’s a generational angle to this, too–with a suggestion that social history (rather than cultural history, which is what all of the kids are into these days) is more useful for developing comparative studies of women across the centuries.  (Bennett offers just such a case study with crunchy, raw social historical data in chapter 5, which examines the durabilty of the wage gap over the past 600+ years.)

Bennett reminds us that women’s history was radically counter-cultural–the mere suggestion that women’s lives were appropriate subjects of historical inquiry was a radical feminist idea back in the day!–and if we lose that urgency that we need to change history, then what’s the point of doing women’s history?  We shouldn’t back away, or deny that we’re involved in a political project–history is always political, so why should we be more defensive (or worse, apologetic) about our work than any other historians?  The whig narrative–and my students’ insistence that American history courses should always have happy endings–is extremely political, and much less grounded in evidence and reason than any women’ s history I’ve ever read.  Don’t we take it for granted that the political position of Ethnic Studies departments is anti-racism (hardly a controversial position, by the way)?  Don’t we simply assume that most environmental historians probably have a dog in the fights about environmental policy today?  The comments to many of my posts on this blog attest to Generation X’s and now Generation Y’s discovery that the academy and its values have changed very little even after 40 years of feminist scholarship and activism inside and outside the sacred groves of academe–maybe we need to go a few decades or centuries back before 1964 to figure it all out.  The fight continues–we didn’t pick it, but it’s our responsibility now.  To the barricades, mes amies!  Aux armes, citoyennes–la jour de gloire n’est pas arrivée. 

P.S.:  Don’t miss next week’s installment over at Tenured Radical, and the March 23 edition by Another Damned Medievalist at Blogenspiel!  And stay tuned for announcements for our last installment, still in the works.

And now, over to you, my esteemed colleagues of the commentariat. . .


119 Responses to “Who indeed is afraid of the distant past (and who says it’s distant, anyway)? A call to arms.”

  1. Profane on 09 Mar 2009 at 6:38 am #

    Many thanks for the monday morning mental floss!

    One thought on how give your female students a pre-1800 ‘victory’. . .

    For the first time this semester, my Gen Ed World History 101 is cross-listed with our women’s studies minor, which has naturally required a re-thinking of the overall course delivery. On one day I do a hypothetical re-construction of a ‘typical’ early modern peasant village, where a large portion of what I talk about is anthropologically informed. It is a very good moment to talk about how one gets a very different answer to the basic question of who has power, depending on how one defines power. Who controls the public sphere? The private? Economic decisions? Delivery of food? After what began as a case of ‘here we go again’, there were smiles on the faces of many women by the end of the class. There were also a large number of very uncomfortable men. . .

    It is also a good moment to talk about how the entrance of women into the academy has altered whole fields. Apropos – how did anthropology change when women went into a modern peasant village and did a shocking thing like talking to the women?

  2. Historiann on 09 Mar 2009 at 7:12 am #

    Profane–that’s a good idea. Actually, a lot of the historiography on Native American women is very positive and focuses on agency rather than victimization, especially in the earlier colonial period, and we read that. I think the student complaint was in part her assumption that non-white people were “oppressed,” and white women were not, and she wanted me to pay more attention to the white women but she didn’t want to say, “why don’t you let us read more about white women?”

  3. Notorious Ph.D. on 09 Mar 2009 at 10:12 am #

    As someone who teaches women’s history, pre-1500, I have the other side of the “happy ending” coin: I think that every time I talk about something really, truly bad (one I was typing up yesterday was that women of dubious sexual reputation had no standing to prosecute for rape), I fear that my audience will cringe (rightly so!), then quickly move on to “Thank god we don’t live in the distant past! I’d hate to live in a time when things were that bad.”

    That’s the one hitch I see in Bennett’s distant past plan: It *should* lead to us seeing important continuities (patirarchal equilibrium; wage disparities), but more often, I think it leads to a self-congratulatory impulse, because all that really bad stuff happened (wait for it:) in the Distant Past.

  4. Historiann on 09 Mar 2009 at 10:27 am #

    Notorious–it’s funny you brought up rape as an example. One of the major bummer books we read last term was Sharon Block’s Rape and Sexual Power in Early America (2006). The students were quite eager to see the continuities between their lives and those of colonial women, in that case, because my middle-class women students are probably as sexually vulnerable as they’ll ever be in their lives, and they see and hear of several sexual assaults among their peers every year that usually mean the victim drops out of school and the perp continues with his studies. There was absolutely no gloating over having transcended the bad old days when women’s behavior as victims was more scrutinized and more harshly judged than men’s behavior as aggressors.

    There is a great deal of self-satisfaction about the abolition of slavery, on the other hand…

  5. Notorious Ph.D. on 09 Mar 2009 at 10:36 am #

    Hm. You know, that’s really interesting — I never would have imagined that level of identification. But that’s very encouraging (okay, not the transhistorical rape continuum, but your students’ responses). I wonder if there’s something about placing things in a “mid-evil” past that renders them safely quarantined from our present.

    On the other hand, maybe I’ve been imagining more self-satisfaction than is actually there. I’ve got this presentation on Wednesday (other faculty, but non-historians), so I’ll let you know.

  6. Indyanna on 09 Mar 2009 at 10:37 am #

    Amen on the social history point, and I’d go so far as to propose–at the risk of being totally wrong as a generalization–that the farther back you go the more the evidence becomes material and behavioral (as opposed to richly expressive), and thus more appropriate to social history reconstruction (with appropriate interpretive inference) than to quote-heavy cultural exegesis.

    There’s lots of bad outcomes post-1800, too, of course, and disabusing students of too much reflexive whiggery should make it a pretty useful “teachable moment,” as the saying goes.

    I accidentally sat across a cafeteria table from Lord and Lady Stone at the IAS at Princeton at a conference years ago–due to the hectic lunch schedule and an impending blizzard. I was completely tongue-tied for all of the obvious reasons a junior intruder would have been, but he was oddly shy enough too, I thought. Mrs. Stone, meanwhile, regaled the table (including two mathemeticians engaged in an Ersatz Einstein performance) with an account of an ongoing research project of hers on a boy ancestor dragged off to the Napoleonic Wars. (If I’m remembering this at all!). Her review might have been biting, but I doubt if it would have been condescending.

  7. Another Damned Medievalist on 09 Mar 2009 at 10:39 am #

    Great post. I have to say that one of my biggest challenges is fighting the idea that, especially in the pre-modern period, women have always been oppressed. I think it’s as damaging to learning the history of women, let alone history in general, as not teaching anything about women at all. Basically, it reinforces that Whiggish view of history that you mention. So I spend a lot of time on what women *did* do, what they were *allowed* to do, how they exercised agency and power in arenas different to the ones we assume are important, and how our assumptions about power and agency just can’t be translated easily to the past. One of the classic examples is the “would you rather be an Athenian or Spartan woman” question. Students will initially choose Sparta, because the women were allowed much more freedom outside the home, could sign contracts and engage in business, ‘got to go to the gym’ (a real example from a student), etc., while middle- and upper class Athenian women lived lives that kept them largely sequestered, and clearly secondary everywhere but in the home (and even then, obviously they were secondary to their menfolk.

    And then you have them read about what we know about the Spartan marriage ceremony.

    Or looking at any law codes we have from the Ancient Near East through the various Germanic law codes, and asking them to think about the penalties for rape, which make it pretty clear that it’s not seen as a crime against women, but a mixture of crime against a man’s property and a clan’s integrity. The woman is just a vehicle.

    But getting students to understand that’s far different, and to my mind, far more important than merely demonstrating over and over again that women have been oppressed. The where and the why and the how are what tell us about society as a whole, and we need the fuller picture. Because somewhere in there, we can find ways of seeing how women subverted a system, or how they exerted their own power and influence in ways we often discount today, in part as a rejection of the ‘just a housewife’ paradigm.

    And there has been some really good stuff coming out of my period recently that shows that women *did* exercise power — but not in the ways or for the reasons that men did. But these studies are often part of larger discussions of power, agency, kinship, and politics rather than as particularly looking at women, so it can seem as if women are being ignored.

  8. Notorious Ph.D. on 09 Mar 2009 at 10:50 am #

    “Would you rather be an Athenian or Spartan woman?” ADM, have you been lurking in the back of my classroom? Because one of my students asked me precisely that question the other day.

    I like your final point (if I’m understanding it the way you meant it): that even when we talk about women in the same field as men (“power”, “family”, etc.), we can’t always talk about it in the same way/measure it by the same yardstick. Hmm. Lots to think about there.

  9. squadratomagico on 09 Mar 2009 at 10:54 am #

    I think your suggestion that students want a happy ending is a very perceptive one, Historiann — but I would add that such desires are not limited only to the undergraduate population. Part of what you characterized (over at Notorious’) as the shift from social to cultural history also has involved a distinct shift in tone and emphasis. To simplify vastly, I think the field of women’s history (at least in my area) changed dramatically in the 1980s from being a project of cataloging women’s oppression, to one dominated by studies trying to recover the subjective elements of female experience in the past. Most often, this experience has been interpreted in ways that emphasize very positive, creative self-fashioning, or social negotiations within the broader context of male-dominated society, hence implicitly suggesting limits to masculist hegemony.

    This last bit is crucial: finding those limits makes for a far more pleasant research agenda than one dedicated to an unending stream of depressing evidence of oppression on the one side, victimhood on the other. The idea of recovering a “usable past” — e.g., one that inspires contemporary feminist academics, rather than driving them to despair — has been an unacknowledged predicate of medievalist feminist scholarship, at least, for more than a generation now. Yet like anything else, this more optimistic stance is a form of ideology that strongly affects how history is framed and written. While I don’t advocate a return to the exclusively “lachrymose” tradition (to borrow a term from Jewish history), I do think that the pendulum has swung rather far in the opposite direction.

  10. Profane on 09 Mar 2009 at 11:15 am #

    A couple footnotes for you ADM:

    1. The traditional Athenian/Spartan discussion can be greatly enhanced by including the role of hetaerae. [I spent the last hour in the first of three classes on Procopius, so prostitution is on the mind.]

    2. In the _Mabinogi_ there is an interesting subversion of a rape narrative – a maiden at court is raped by the king’s nephews, and the king responds to the crime by marrying the maiden (!). He then proceeds to transform the offending nephews into a stag and hind for one year (who produce a fawn); a boar and a sow for one year (who produce a piglet); and a wolf and a she-wolf for one year (who produce a cub); for the purpose of publicly shaming them.

  11. Another Damned Medievalist on 09 Mar 2009 at 11:28 am #

    Oh, I definitely talk about hetairai, Profane — and the trade-off between the relative freedom of someone like Aspasia while Pericles was alive, and her life after he died.

    squadratomagico — that’s pretty much what I was trying to say, but you’ve done it more succinctly.

  12. Historiann on 09 Mar 2009 at 12:05 pm #

    Squadratomagico, and all: great point about the shift in the 1980s, but I think it’s happened not just in medieval European women’s history but throughout women’s history. We did all seem to get tired of the “catalogue of oppressions,” and instead initiated the Great Search for Agency. I think it has been a healthy switch in many ways, not to mention inevitable, but I think the constant search for agency has led to its own peculiar intellectual results. For many women in my period, the 17th & 18th centuries (think: enslaved women), it is so difficult to uncover individual stories at all, let alone individual stories that reveal agency. Whose stories are we leaving out because they’re not fashionable or “ideologically correct” now?

    ADM: great point about the complexity of women’s lives. But–I’m a little surprised to hear your emphasis on kind of a neo-”Golden Age” understanding of medieval women! Because it was for the most part early modern and modern women’s historians who invented the medieval “golden age” myth that for a while many medieval women’s historians were obsessed with rooting out (Bennett among them, I think.) Do any of you still feel the need to address the “golden age” myth, or is that so totally 1978 (or 1988, or whatever)?

  13. Another Damned Medievalist on 09 Mar 2009 at 12:10 pm #

    Historiann, I’m not sure where you see a neo-”Golden Age” — I only said that there’s some interesting work being done on women in larger contexts.

  14. ej on 09 Mar 2009 at 12:14 pm #

    While I completely agree with Bennett that we often emphasize change at the expense of continuity, I would also say that for some reason, we want to see the pre-modern world in simplistic terms. Women were either oppressed or had agency. My frustration stems from the inability to get to the complexities that we know were there. We don’t assume that all women post 1500 shared the same experience, why do we keep looking for it in the past? I don’t see this from feminist scholars, but from medievalists more generally and especially those writing in later periods who see positing a monolithic medieval experience as a spring board from which they can launch into a later period, which is somehow different (good or bad).

  15. Historiann on 09 Mar 2009 at 12:14 pm #

    ADM, I’m writing of the Golden Age thesis from the 1970s that many women’s historians perpetuated that said that life in medieval Europe before the early modern period was a relative golden age for women. I wasn’t referencing anything in your post, other than how it seems like you don’t feel the need to counter the Golden Age thesis any longer but rather feel like you have to convince your students that it wasn’t all just toil and misery. So, I’m just asking if the Golden Age hypothesis that people fought for so long is really dead.

  16. squadratomagico on 09 Mar 2009 at 12:38 pm #

    I share your fear, Historiann, that the search for agency has become something of a focusing lens that can narrow scholars’ choices/interests, both in terms of which women’s history gets written, as well as how particular women’s lives get interpreted. I’ve read medievalist scholarship that refers to feminism, and female empowerment, with few caveats or presentation of limiting factors, and I find it a highly misleading trend. I think the appropriateness of such terms is highly debatable for the medieval period.

    That’s not to say that I don’t think that scholarship on women who managed to transcend the historical constraints placed upon them is invalid: that’s not my point at all. But I do think there can be a focus on the more malleable aspect of “individual, lived experience” that dramatically underemphasizes very real legal/ cultural/ social constraints. Moreover, the reconstruction of experience is itself a complicated undertaking (thinking here of Joan Scott’s trenchant critique) that seldom is problematized as carefully as it ought to be.

  17. kw on 09 Mar 2009 at 12:45 pm #

    Great discussion today and last week. Not to be completely self-serving, but it’ll make good reading for my grad. seminar on gender and sexuality in the early modern Atlantic next Spring. (Slightly) new topic: I find even my students who have taken women’s studies courses are still having a tough time dealing with Woman as a category, either as a subject of study, as an object of the state’s attention, or as a common experience. Race they get–no matter that they also understand broad differentiation. Gender they sort of get as a shorthanded way of describing masculinity and femininity in really abstracted (but rarely applicable to themselves or their generation, they think) ways. But “woman” or “women” has much less traction. So questions of agency, or oppression, or any of the other basics that have been discussed here thusfar don’t get very far off the ground unless we can make some headway on the category itself and its legitimacy. Only then can we move toward why” women’s history.” On the book itself: I found Bennett alternately thought-provoking, quaint (even charming), and frustrating. She is harder edged and more useful, I thought, about some of the things that Historiann has already noted, like the exasperating tendency toward All Things Modern (Annales, that’s right!). But the chapter on whether we might think about Lesbian-like was just frustrating and, I though, both ahistorical and a capitulation to the categories imposed (woman as a category of the state, for example) rather than chosen or embraced. And it seemed to me to disregard the importance of sexuality and sexual experience for lesbians and heterosexuals alike. But here’s to you, Historiann, for co-hosting a timely discussion. Happy Women’s History Month. Anybody see the NY Times rushing to publish op-eds on women and gender at the pace of the Lincoln-fest last month? No?!

  18. Another Damned Medievalist on 09 Mar 2009 at 1:04 pm #

    Gotcha, Historiann —

    I guess the thing is that I tend to ignore it entirely, in part because, to the extent that I’ve ever been aware of it (remember, actual Women’s History courses taken = 1, and it was mostly dealing with medieval periods later than my own), I’ve never been convinced of it. And most of the thesis seems based in later periods than my own, which is Very Early Medieval to Still Early Medieval. So mostly what we have is, “Look! Elite Women in charge of Monasteries! and Being Badly Behaved Dowager Queens With Power! and Converting their Husbands!” not a lot of Golden Age there. I mean, seriously — how insulting is it that we can reduce things to what a minority of elite women were doing and come up with, “See! Not bad at all!”?

  19. Susan on 09 Mar 2009 at 1:32 pm #

    Slight digression caused by Indyanna’s anecdote about the Stones — which is right on: I spent a year at the Davis Center and when they were together, Jeanne Stone would often tell Lawrence what to do. For those who had watched him terrify the seminar room, it was quite a transformation. I also think that I became a feminist historian partly because in his lecture course on early modern England, Stone made some slighting comment about Queen Mary I of the “hysterical woman” variety. Even at age 20, I resented that, and the rest is, well, history :)

    Back to the question. . . As someone who works on the 17th century primarily, I’m obviously invested in the distant past. But I think we need to be fairly sophisticated about the continuity/change balance. And while I agree that it’s good to identify long term structural continuities, I think it’s also important to show how the contexts of those continuities might change. To use Notorious’ example — of women who could not sue for rape because of a poor sexual reputation — this was true effectively in the US until prior sexual reputation was declared inadmissable evidence. And my understanding is that in rape trials, defense attorneys will try to undo the reputation of the woman. Still. But for me it’s as important to note that what constitutes a poor reputation has changed, what it consists of, etc. as the sexual practices have changed. It also makes a difference that there is an actual debate about this: in 1970, it was clearly “well, you slept with your boyfriend therefore you couldn’t be raped”; but this would not prove anything today. Does this make any sense?

    When I started my dissertation research, I was really interested in untangling the relationship between capitalism and patriarchy, one of THE big debates of the late 70s. By the time I finished my diss, I rarely used the word capitalism OR patriarchy. . . both seemed so abstract, and the reality was so much messier. When did the economic relations I was examining come to be capitalist? How would I know from the rentals, inventories, etc.? And then, it struck me that some of the implications of patriarchy — and particularly its relationship to class — did change towards the end of my period, and I wanted to highlight that. That change was not positive, but it was there.

    Oh, and I get the question about “would you like to live in …” all the time. And I usually say, well, who am I? It always stops my students, because they remember that experience is not undifferentiated.

  20. John S. on 09 Mar 2009 at 2:14 pm #

    Though it deals with slavery and African-American history and not women’s/gender history, but I would recommend Walter Johnson’s 2003 article “On Agency” in the Journal of Social History for this discussion. Johnson does a good job there placing the scholars’ desire to recover slave agency in its social context, namely the wake of the civil rights movement. He also links the rise in discussions of agency to the desire to have satisfying, if not happy, endings in histories of race and slavery. He suggests the desirability of moving beyond the quest to find agency, not least b/c undertheorized notions of agency and “resistance” miss the cross-cutting impact of gender and class on the formation of racial hierarchies.

    Not the same field, I know, but I wondered reading this thread if the trajectory of feminism/women’s history has a similar arc to that traced by Johnson for racial justice/history of slavery. I don’t know if I have any good answer to that question, but I thought it worth mentioning.

  21. Another Damned Medievalist on 09 Mar 2009 at 2:56 pm #

    Susan, that just reminded me of something. I have a colleague in field X who continuously refers to unmarried mothers as Single Mothers. And yes, that word Single is imbued with all sorts of notions of the brave and struggling single woman, left to fend for herself, a model of feminist independence … when in most of the cases she refers to, the women in question are part of two-income partnerships, the fathers are living with them and maintain an active role in parenting, etc. I’m not sure how that’s really relevant, or even why you brought it to mind, except that I think it speaks to our ability to make assumptions that then need to be unpacked and checked against the evidence.

  22. Notorious Ph.D. on 09 Mar 2009 at 3:02 pm #

    I’m glad someone brought up the subject of agency, because I’ve recently started to have my doubts about its utility as an analytical framework, and I wonder if anyone else is going through the same. First, there is the danger of slipping into an either/or fallacy. But the real problem, for me, is that we first have to decide what behaviors, patterns, attitudes, actions, or attempted actions constitute agency. It’s seemed to me more and more that this decision is highly subjective. And that’s where I run into problems: when a concept can be stretched to encompass almost anything, it tends to lose its meaning.

    Hey, quick request: is anyone out there on MedFem? I’ve been wanting to post a note about what we’re doing here, but doing so might reveal my Diana Prince identity. I’m only semi-anonymous, but I’d like to keep what I have, so if someone would drop a line to the list, we might get many more people stopping by and adding in their two cents’ worth.

  23. ej on 09 Mar 2009 at 3:12 pm #

    Notorious-I am on MedFem, and would be more than happy to post, as long as no one else has already done so or plans to do so.

  24. Susan on 09 Mar 2009 at 3:13 pm #

    Notorious, I have the same problem with agency, (also with subjectivity, but that’s a different discussion. I take it for granted that everyone has agency; the only question is what the historical sources allow us to see. “Agency” (a word I have almost never used) is usually a code word for “independent”. Or, as John S. suggests, a code for “not taking oppression lying down”. So we refer to those who are outside the normal patriarchal structures as having agency, but we rarely refer to wives as having agency. Now your agency may be more or less severely constrained, but still, to assume that even those who appear to conform are not making active choices strikes me as condescending in the extreme.

  25. Valerie on 09 Mar 2009 at 3:28 pm #

    Great discussion. I thought I had heard that Barron was revising the original “Golden Women” thesis. Anyone heard anything along those lines?

  26. Notorious Ph.D. on 09 Mar 2009 at 3:40 pm #

    Thanks, ej!

  27. Another Damned Medievalist on 09 Mar 2009 at 3:49 pm #

    Oh, definitely, Notorious — because what happens, for example, when it’s clear that a woman is acting independently, but the actions are clearly directed towards the good of her birth family — or marital family, for that matter? There’s an interesting article in M. de Jong (and R. Le Jan, I think)Topographies of Power that made me think about this a lot — one of the things that struck me was that something that looks like independent decision-making may be that, but it can also be that, again, women and men are operating in different arenas, and in terms of kinship and family obligation, it may be that neither sons nor daughters operate as independently as we have often assumed.

  28. Satsuma on 09 Mar 2009 at 4:40 pm #

    It’s funny to read how students viewed pre-1800 history as a catalogue of oppression, and that they fail to see the happy endings in the lives of women throughout time.

    I don’t regard women’s past as depressing at all. It is exciting to see how women’s studies has progressed. What I worry about is that as the discipline becomes more academized, the sheer passion and excitement of the discovery of everything women have done in the past will turn into yet more boring lectures by women who turn into establishment types. The cutting edge, the passion for lesbian nation, the excitement of being in a large lecture class with NO men present as we discover the greatness of women together will diminish.

    Back in the day, women’s studies was a welcome oasis from male dominance, male bores and male sexual garbage. We talked about ending rape on campus, we stood up to boys who thought the university was theirs alone.

    Women’s studies was powerful in the 70s because it had passion. I believe scholars today are kow towing to male agendas too much. We are creating “gender” as a category, and “women” will be erased again.

    How women’s studies is taught, is as significant as the actual herstorical topics themselves. We forget how radical it is when women band together, and kick the boys out of the room. We forget the freedom from male dominance and stupidity that never really ends in the world.

    Our herstory is our power. Perhaps this is a radical lesbian view, but still, that is what makes women’s herstory amazing to me.

    We still don’t know the full story of women’s past, and we are battling men’s hatred of women throughout time.
    Whether it is the Salem Witch trials of 1692 or the hatred directed at Hillary Clinton in 2008, we have yet to see what women can do once patriarchy no longer intrudes.

    The story of women can be good or bad, but it is our story. I challenge the scholars here to communicate this passion to the next generation, because throughout time, women have always sought freedom and sisterhood, and men have always sought to destroy, dominate and imprison women. It is this great awakening of women worldwide that men fear, the day all women refuse to produce more male oppressors, the day women professors keep speaking up and defining the tactics of patriarchy throughout time.

    It is our duty to create the golden age of women in the present moment. I know that when men aren’t in the room, I am in a golden age. Take the oppressors off center stage, and focus on the power of women, and the whole point of view shifts.

  29. Ruth on 09 Mar 2009 at 4:48 pm #

    There has recently been quite a lot of work arguing that medieval women, both aristocratic women and urban elites, did actually have a lot of clout, within the family and on their own. A lot of good scholarship, too–very far from a simplistic “Golden Age” model, although it’s easy enough for people who don’t want to think about complexity to reduce it to that, in the same way that they can reduce Bennett’s argument to “the patriarchy is an evil conspiracy that always oppresses all women.”

    I don’t see why you can’t have the glass half empty and half full at the same time. Women have always, in every time and place that I’ve heard of, been disadvantaged compared to men of the same social status. That doesn’t mean some of them weren’t powerful and didn’t do important things. And vice versa.

    Barbara Hanawalt’s The Wealth of Wives does a good job with this particular balancing act: women’s control of wealth in late medieval London was important, but it also has to be seen in a patriarchal context.

  30. Indyanna on 09 Mar 2009 at 4:56 pm #

    A brief, non-sponsored plug here, triggered by the mention in the initial post of Judith Sargent Murray. Last Friday, at a seminar, I got an early look at Shiela Skemp’s brand new (but long in the works) biography of Murray: _First Lady of Letters: Judith Sargent Murray and the Struggle for Female Independence_(Penn Press, Early American Studies Series, 2009). It’s based among other things on a huge cache of (several thousand) letters discovered in Mississippi, I think. The blurb describes Murray has having been somewhat muffled, but not silenced, by the “backlash” against women’s autonomy that we now know followed the American Revolution. Without having looked much past the dust jacket, it promises to say something about agency, at or near the break point in the periodization Historiann offers.

  31. the rebel lettriste on 09 Mar 2009 at 5:06 pm #

    I am so glad for this! I was just conferencing with a student about his paper on the Miller’s Tale, which basically argued that the character Alison somehow needed a strong young man to control her rampant sexuality, and isn’t this shocking! I told him it wasn’t shocking; it was de rigeur.

    “What if she was just allowed some agency!” he bemoaned.

    “But she isn’t because that doesn’t exist and that isn’t actually what the text is about,” I replied.

    Because here’s the deal: within her strictures, Alison does well. She gets off scotfree, while all the men who adore her get humiliated and tortured. That’s what’s interesting. Without agency or power or legal identity, she gets to have sex with who she wants, and gets away with it. Sweet, no?

  32. Another Damned Medievalist on 09 Mar 2009 at 5:30 pm #

    rebel — couldn’t you also argue that Alison exemplifies a different sort of agency than we typically understand by subverting the rules?

  33. Women’s History Book Club: History Matters Part II « Knitting Clio on 09 Mar 2009 at 6:01 pm #

    [...] Studies | Part II of the discussion of Judith Bennett’s History Matters is now up at Historiann.  I’ve only read the first few chapters of the book, so don’t feel like I can comment [...]

  34. squadratomagico on 09 Mar 2009 at 6:03 pm #

    Satsuma, I really wonder why you find it necessary to denigrate women academics so frequently, while commenting here and previously at Notorious’. Here you are, participating in a discussion with a dozen or so women who have dedicated their lives — years of difficult, often boring, sometimes unrewarding work in archives and libraries — to the project you call “herstory,” and yet you seem to have nothing but contempt for us. All I see from you are accusations of us kow towing to men, of placing careerism over feminist principles, of giving boring, establishment lectures and of being too conventional if we are not lesbian separatists. Even allowing male students into our classrooms (and for the record, I suspect the attempt to restrict their enrollment in our classes would be illegal at most mixed-sex universities) is fodder for veiled accusations that we are not radical or committed enough for you.

    I’m glad that you are fighting the fight you are. But I wish you would reciprocate with some basic respect — I’d even settle for a lack of frequently-expressed contempt — for us and the work we do.

  35. Lilian Nattel on 09 Mar 2009 at 6:44 pm #

    This discussion is interesting to me because some of the concerns (eg the change in scholarship to search for agency)are so different from how I read history. I’m a novelist–but I want my fiction to be as historically accurate as I can make it, out of respect for the real lives of people who lived in that period. I find that during my research, there is a period where I despair of understanding it, from the inside, because it seems so different, and then comes a period where it all seems endlessly the same, and then I get it. The pieces fall together, my reading reinforces what I already know or repeats it. I read academic work, I read contemporary work (in translation or in the original if I know the language). I read broadly: I want to know the politics and economics and geography of the place. And I read specifically, digging through memoirs and letters for descriptions of food, utensils, structure of an ordinary person’s house. (In a shtetl: two rooms, a cooking room and a sleeping room, a narrow hallway where chickens stayed in winter, made of half planks). I look for corroboration, because I don’t rely on a single source as accurate. My previous novels mainly focused on Jewish characters & so I also see a cross-cultural contrast that also raises further questions about agency. For example in the mid-19th century, upper middle class Jewish girls in Eastern Europe often received an excellent secular education, superior to their counterparts in England and far superior to Jewish boys in that class. Why? In that culture religious study had higher status and was barred to girls. Secular education was considered inappropriate for those boys, but harmless for girls barred from religious study except for what was considered necessary to their proper conduct as girls and later women. In the lower classes, girls and women had a great deal of freedom to run businesses and trade in the marketplace while boys, if clever or better off, studied religious texts. Only poor boys had just a basic religious education and had to go into the trades or peddling. When I grew up, my society valued being out in the world more than religious study and so those Jewish women were, in my mind, strong, independent, self-directed. And yet that is a backward projection of my values. It isn’t that simple. I think that is my point. History is fascinating, complex, difficult to grasp, looked at one way appearing one thing, looked at another way appearing another. I think continuity is too simple a way to look at women’s history. I’m not sure that I understand the objections to history as change, unless change is understood as a continuous line leading to the present. My own experience of reading history is one of both constants and differences so profound they seem, at first, impossible to understand, but which do become possible, even imaginable.

  36. New Kid on the Hallway on 09 Mar 2009 at 7:18 pm #

    I just wanted to piggyback on Ruth’s comment to point to Marorie McIntosh’s latest book on working women in medieval/early modern women (a couple years old at least now) – what I like about McIntosh especially is that she bridges that medieval/early modern gap and is able to trace changes that occurred in the 16th-c. in a more useful way than simply saying “Golden Age!” She addresses Bennett’s work on alewives pretty directly and does trace ways in which the economic changes of the 16th c. disadvantaged women. So yes, women were always disadvantaged in a patriarchal society, but that didn’t mean there weren’t changes worth considering. I don’t know that McIntosh would consider herself a Golden Age proponent, but her work is definitely relevant.

    Going back to students’ reactions to medieval women’s history, the last time I taught medieval women’s history, we opened by reading stuff out of the collection of misogynous sources (names/titles escaping me at the moment), and I was struck by how universally the students (all women, I think) said, “Yeah, THIS sounds familiar!” (They were an excellent group who were almost all women’s studies minors, so not necessarily representative, but it was still so nice to hear.)

    About the turn to cultural history from social history – I’ve been present for some discussions of this at Kzoo. Myself, I’m part of that turn, so I obviously think it’s valid, intellectually. I get the argument about the happy ending, but I also think that this is simply a trend in the profession more generally to consider subjective questions like identity and such. But it’s also very important to point out that there are structural elements in the profession that have nothing to do with women’s history that influence this as well. Cultural history doesn’t require poring through archive after archive and therefore doesn’t require getting enough funding to send you to Europe for a big chunk of time (this is getting easier in the age of digitization, but a lot of primary stuff still needs to be visited in person). You can finish cultural projects more quickly and therefore write a diss more quickly and publish more quickly in order to get and keep a job. I really think this is a HUGE factor in this cultural turn.

  37. Satsuma on 09 Mar 2009 at 7:33 pm #

    I don’t think you should confuse respect with critique Squad.
    I am rightfully concerned that women’s studies will become dulled down and conventional over time, and I do question the purpose of not having space just for women to study together, and read women’s history together.
    Legally questionable? Are the Amazons of the academy worried about confrontation?

    If we are dealing with patriarchy, and 600 years of a wage gap between men and women, I think we owe it to ourselves to ask why this persists hundred years after hundred years.

    I think we underestimate the indoctrination toward male-centric HIStory, and how this is presented as authentic HIStory to begin with.

    What is exciting about women’s studies, is that we now have a real chance to concentrate on what women have done throughout time. We don’t even have to read about men anymore if we don’t want to (which I most certainly don’t anymore), and we can find a golden age in which women are # 1, and are filled with greatness and accomplishment. I personally don’t think women will get anywhere if we keep watering down our passion to suit men, and we should be proud to confront these oppressors with everything we’ve got. We have seen what men have done to women throughout time, and we owe it to ourselves to see a new world.

    We make these amazing discoveries by saying that women’s studies is about the truth for women. It is not about the truth about men, for they are the obstacles, the perpetrators and the blockers of women’s culture worldwide. Women have this great chance to spend eons of time developing a powerful womancentric research ethic, the letters collections, the revelation that lesbians had a unique culture away from heteronormativity. This perhaps will not go down well with heteronormative women, but it is a delight to all women who believe that men are the problem and that when women finally see this through research, this oppression could possibly come to an end.

    I am rightly concerned that women will become conservative, and will forget what was most exciting about women’s studies to begin with. If African American studies is about the evil of racism and how black people countered it, then women’s studies should never fear saying that women’s studies is about women’s worldwide movement over time to gain freedom, to rid themselves of involuntary servitude, to at last become free of the tryanny of men, just as black people wanted freedom from the tyranny of white people.

    Yes, I am critical of the direction of women’s studies, because frankly, a lot of the books and research is dull and dulling. You have great books too, but there really is this leaning tower of Pisa “academentia” as Maryt Daly put it, to crank out boring women’s books. Admit it, there is a lot of really boring stuff being published by a lot of obscure universtiy presses. What happened? We have to be aware of this. And women can and should provide spaces in the academy where men are simply not allowed. Women have a right to not have rapists and sexually harassing men contaminating sacred women’s space. That is a given to any group that wants freedom and self-determination without the “masters” interferring with this revolution of the mind and soul.

  38. Satsuma on 09 Mar 2009 at 7:36 pm #

    P.S. I sure hope men aren’t showing up in droves in women’s studies classes now, or are they? Many lesbians on campus were able to find each other because of this female exclusive zone. I do think the existence of lesbians in a straight majority women’s studies program will cause trouble. We were meant to stirr the pot, we were meant to critique and we were meant to point out that women are never safe around men.

  39. Historiann on 09 Mar 2009 at 8:23 pm #

    Hi all–sorry to have been away from the conversation so long. Today is my long teaching day, and then I had several appointments with students. (I wrote a longish comment four hours ago that vanished when I tried to post it–darn it all!)

    Here’s a recap of what I tried to say earlier: John S., thanks for mentioning that Johnson essay on agency–I was thinking of it when the word first came up. I thought Susan’s comments were great on this–I think she is suggesting that “agency” is a fetish, rather than an analytical framework, and I agree.

    Welcome to kw–and I’d like to hear from others if they also see what ze reports on current grad students being down with “gender,” but uncomfortable to non-responsive about women as a topic in history. I’m a little surprised that you don’t like Bennett’s “lesbian-like history” concept–I thought it was an interesting strategy for prying women’s history away from compulsory heterosexuality and the family. I’d like to hear more about what you didn’t like about it–and from others as well.

    On a purely gossipy note, I liked Indyanna’s and Susan’s memories of the Stones. I wonder if ca. 1985 he was experiencing status anxiety, since so many women were reading/responding to/arguing with his Family, Sex and Marriage book? In any case, I’m glad to hear that he was married to a bright and bossy woman. Then again, I can think of SO many instances when historians’ avowed intellectual agendas just don’t match up with their personal lives in a neat and clean fashion. (And I can say this, because I think I’m one of ‘em! Those of you who know me in RL know what I mean, and those of you who don’t are free to speculate and spread scandalous rumors about me!)

    Satsuma, the points you raise are some of the points that Bennett raises, esp. re: the taming of women’s studies and women’s history. But–please keep in mind your audience here. Most of us are academic feminists who are struggling with these issues on many levels–in the institutional bureaucracy, in our teaching, in our relationships with students and colleagues, as well as in our research and writing, of course. We are who we are, and we’re doing the best we can. None of us are in complete agreement with one another–but then, that’s been one of the historic strengths of intellectual feminism and movement feminism–the heterogeneity of it all.

  40. Historiann on 09 Mar 2009 at 8:30 pm #

    On Bennett’s lesbian-like history: while I think it’s an interesting model, I thought that she gave short shrift to some of the emerging new scholarship on sexuality and reproductive labor, and how sex work and reproduction are in fact areas of women’s work (and women’s exploitation.)

    I understand her call for us to return to women and work, but I think she kind of missed the boat on much of the new work on sexuality. She writes about it as though it’s only about sex, not about labor, exploitation, control, theft, class, slavery, capitalism, etc.

  41. Historiann on 09 Mar 2009 at 8:37 pm #

    And one more p.s. New Kid writes:

    Cultural history doesn’t require poring through archive after archive and therefore doesn’t require getting enough funding to send you to Europe for a big chunk of time (this is getting easier in the age of digitization, but a lot of primary stuff still needs to be visited in person). You can finish cultural projects more quickly and therefore write a diss more quickly and publish more quickly in order to get and keep a job. I really think this is a HUGE factor in this cultural turn.

    AMEN. Yes, we cannot live on air and books alone. I think this is correct. Still, writing as a North American historian (not a U.S. historian–mind you!), I think that archival research trips should be seen as a rite of passage for graduate students, and that they need to get their hands gritty with the dust of 17th and 18th century letters and court records (for example.) For students based in the U.S., travel is relatively inexpensive and predictable, and most archives keep a list of low-cost housing options (and with CraigsList now, there really are no excuses for not getting out to at least three or four different archives while researching a dissertation!) There are still so many as-yet-undiscovered stories out there, particularly in the case of women and enslaved people–and they’re not going to magically pop up fully realized out of Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia or the on-line Lewis and Clark expedition (for example.)

    (Besides, I just heard that the Canadian dollar is back down to around $0.78 U.S., so we can afford to go north again!)

  42. Indyanna on 09 Mar 2009 at 9:17 pm #

    I would just second Historiann’s point on archival/rite-of-passage. For U.S. history, at least, there is an increasing network of at least short-term fellowship support, much of it aimed at pre-doctoral level work. And the whole idea of the *new* social history was that you could go down to your own county courthouse and tap into the same fungible vein of phenomena that your old college roommate was tapping into three time zones away. For European and especially medieval, this may be less workable. Graduate education policymakers should really be tasked to address this in shaping support packages. Easy to say, obviously, but that’s a problem they should just be expected to solve. There are plenty of good justifications for cultural as well as social history. The social/cultural history interface and the chronology of the transition would justify one or many good conferences. Who would not classify Natalie Z. Davis as a practitioner of both strands of history? I know I was trained by one such, although ze was usually glibly categorized as the former.

    Thinking of them as “The Stones” puts a whole new face on the matter, doesn’t it?

  43. ej on 09 Mar 2009 at 9:18 pm #

    I would have to agree with Historiann on this. As a medievalist, I would hate to have to rely on archivists and the 19th century antiquarians for what is important. When I visit my regional archives in France, my requests are often received with raised eyebrows and puzzled looks. They can’t imagine why anyone would want to look at the records of a nunnery. Visiting the archives not only provides necessary training in terms of working with original sources and honing transcription and translation skills, but it provides an increased appreciation for the system, and what one might not find in a catalog because some archivist didn’t think it was important.

    That said, I realize that trips to Europe are costly. I would encourage people to do as much leg work as possible from the states, and to try to be as efficient as possible to limit the time abroad. But in light of the fact that my most recent archival experience was spent digging through documents in a moated castle, I would say the trip is why we do what we do.

  44. Another Damned Medievalist on 09 Mar 2009 at 9:21 pm #

    So I think I’ve just discovered one of the few real advantages to being someone who does work east of the Rhine. For years, people have pointed out how hard it is to work primarily in German (and Latin, natch) and so damned early. But the majority of my sources are edited, because of those crazy 19th C German scholars. So most of my traveling is because so many of the secondary sources are really hard to get in the US.

  45. thefrogprincess on 09 Mar 2009 at 9:57 pm #

    There’s a lot to think about here and I’m trying to finish the book this week. I don’t work in this field but I’m enjoying the discussion nonetheless.

    I’d second the recommendation of Walter Johnson’s article on agency. It gets at a lot of these issues, just from the perspective of another politically charged field.

    And on this latest archival thread, I can only speak for what I’ve seen at my institution but I’ve been struck by those of my fellow graduate students who aren’t doing much archival time. Although I know there are a lot of projects that can be done without extensive archive time and certainly there are more and more sources online (although I’ve found online collections make it easier to find stuff through keyword searches but add immensely to the volume of sources to sift through), I’m skeptical of almost all grad students who find almost any reason not to go to the archives (certain exceptions excluded). Maybe I’ve fetishized the archive too much but a big part of what attracted me to history was the travel and writing from archival materials. I’m a bit confused about why people do history if that’s not part of it.

  46. Satsuma on 10 Mar 2009 at 12:06 am #

    Those of you who go to the archives and do original research are to be commended. To actually see the documents inside a French nunnary can yield spectacular insights. If you rely on 19th century antiquarians, you’re going through the male filter yet again.

    The point is to get at as much original research in women’s own handwriting, as it were, as possible. The truth will require millions of woman hours, but the insights will be priceless. I found very valuable material to work with already from Bennett, for example. I’ve already given two speeches citing the seemingly unchanging gap in women’s and men’s wages over a 600 year period. One group was stunned into silence when I said this. It was worth the entire Bennett book to find out that one bit of information!

    I’ve talked to other lesbian activists (the pioneers from the 70s), and they have mentioned the decline in activism at the NAWS conferences, and how they like going to the conferences to catch up with old friends, but find the atmosphere dulling. Just a report from the front there. They report a kind of chilling effect, with scholars not really wanting to do feminist battle in service to women’s truth. Just their comments–”They’re not politically interesting conferences anymore,” is something I often hear.

    Bennett was clever (I love cleverness) in coming up with the term “lesbian-like,” although I’m a little weary of this dancing around the issue. There are so many women I meet today who are still cleverly closeted, and will remain so till the day they die–highly placed women in business, for example. To unearth lesbians of the past is a challenge, but “lesbian-like” provides clues as to where lesbians went in say 1350, and how they communicated in various male free zones. This was huge in women’s colleges in the 19th century here, for example.

    Still though, the basic issue remains, are young scholars afraid of the “W” word, and do women always have to hide behind “gender” because the very mention of women’s history is so scary to the status quo? Sometimes I think this fight has really only just begun, and I often wonder if the young scholars of today will have the guts to break down the doors and go for the gold the way say a Lillian Faderman did.

    Can we connect the women of the past who wrote these groundbreaking herstories, and bring them together in our own time? I suppose I look at all women’s history as a kind of battle armor, the kind of information I take out into the world today, the kind of truths that make me sit up in shock—”oh my6 goddess, pay gaps for 600 years!!” Clearly women need to know what this is about and decide how to overthrow this system of pay inequality. To me, the purpose of women’s herstory is simply to get the story right for women, to give us power!

  47. Another Damned Medievalist on 10 Mar 2009 at 7:12 am #

    Why thank you, Satsuma, for that dismissal. I’d take it more seriously if I thought you actually had a clue about what it is that I do. Me, I’m just pleased that, rather than having to deal with 872 documents written in varying forms of script (they span a 500 year period), I can look at an edited version that happened to be done by a man. How the hell that’s a filter is beyond me.

    But then, your idea of the purpose of history is beyond me. I happen to be studying women at the moment because I noticed there was some good information that hadn’t been mined yet. I’m also one of the few USians, and I think the only woman to be working in my subfield with the particular sets of documents I use (there are men working with some of the same documents, but they are doing other things). The fact that the men have left out — or not noticed — the women means I can work on them without worrying too much about competition from people who have positions that allow them far more research time than I have in my positions. It interests me, but it also annoys me that I may end up reinforcing the idea that because I’m a woman, I study women. Because I think that’s a stupid approach.

    My feminism is not your feminism. My feminism does not depend on creating an artificial environment where men are excluded and treated as the enemy. My feminism absolutely rejects the idea that women are inherently better than men, and that they have some mythical past where really, the women were treated like goddesses and were in charge of things. My feminism is not exclusionary, because I believe that if we justify the exclusion on any group, we make all exclusion justifiable. I’m not willing to throw people of color, other-gendered, disabled, [insert discriminated-against minority here] people under the bus to prove your point. My world has men in it. I don’t have the luxury of pretending they don’t exist.

    And many of them are supportive. Many are not (although they probably think they are). And some of them are blindly sexist asshats. And you know, I’m much more interested in fighting a real-life fight for equal pay and an equal voice, rather than cherry-picking facts to create an historical cloud-cuckoo land to satisfy your sensibilities, which to me speak the language of privilege and hate.

    But those are my battles. The ones where I see female colleagues heaped with more service than men. The ones where I see all of my colleagues in the humanities paid less than in the overwhelmingly male professional schools. The ones where men who take time off to be with their kids are praised, and women are ‘letting themselves be distracted.’

    I don’t do Women’s Studies. I am a historian. I’m focusing on women at the moment, because I think they are interesting, and I think that, when we write about something that interests us, we can transmit that interest to other people. And I hope very much that what I write gives us new ways of understanding the past and how people interacted. But women do not operate in a vacuum, then or now. To write or act as if they have is to write a history that is no more true than what already exists.

  48. Another Damned Medievalist on 10 Mar 2009 at 7:19 am #

    Also, Satsuma, you might notice that ej did not say she went to a French nunnery to do her archival work. She said she was studying records of a French nunnery in an archive.

    Probably one that, like most archives, was set up by men.

  49. Historiann on 10 Mar 2009 at 7:27 am #

    Satsuma–doing history is a little more complicated than you suggest. Pretty much every historical source ever written or created–or conserved and archived, as ADM suggests–is something that has been “filtered” by men, and by other people with various prejudices and agendas. I wish it were so, but there is no such place as the secret, perfect cache of primary sources that will reveal to us the truth of women’s lives! Most of us use combinations of primary sources that are archival and published–and those female and male antiquarians of the 19th C did many of us a great favor by editing and publishing editions of charters, laws, colonial American court records, etc., without which we couldn’t do our work.

    ADM, I don’t understand your anxieties that somehow you’re fulfilling a stereotype that “because you’re a woman, you study women.” You seem angry about that, and I don’t get it. We all are drawn to what we study for a variety of reasons, personal and intellectual, that we probably don’t entirely understand. The majority of women historians these days are NOT women’s historians–at least where I work, women aren’t automatically assumed to do women’s history. I think the expectation for non-white scholars to “do” the history of their ethnic group is much stronger than the presumption that all women historians do women’s history.

  50. Another Damned Medievalist on 10 Mar 2009 at 7:56 am #

    Historiann, part of it is that, even though my subfield has a TON of very scary senior scholars who are women, my generation feels very much a boys’ club. To be honest, it’s not so much my peers in my field I’m woried about.

    I think you are absolutely right that this sort of pressure is much more in evidence for non-white scholars, but I’ve run into that same attitude when teaching — “oh, you’re a woman, so obviously you’re going to focus on women and gender.” And there is absolutely a demographic on my campus and in our community that tends to veer to my male colleagues because they do ‘real’ history (one of them is a cultural historian, but he’s male …).

    So I’m really less worried about being pigeonholed by colleagues in my field than I am by the people I meet on a daily basis, because it’s just one more stereotype I have to fight to be heard.

  51. Janice on 10 Mar 2009 at 8:13 am #

    Let me step in on the last point regarding the annoyance of being classified with the stereotype of “because you’re a woman, you study women.” When I was hired here at Northern U, I was hired on the strength of doctoral research into early Tudor humanist religious, legal and social reform texts as well as my ability to teach medieval and early modern history based upon my, again!, very traditional preparation in those fields with a heavy emphasis on intellectual history and codicological studies. I was not, then, even remotely touched by women’s history. (Judith Bennett and I attended the same graduate school only about ten years apart but our experiences were quite, quite different. And I came there after her!)

    In my second year at Northern U, one of my colleagues suggested that I update the correspondence course on women’s history. The only reason he thought I was qualified was because I was a woman. To be honest, at that point, I was about the least qualified to talk about women’s history of my fellow European historians (all male — I was the only woman in the department besides the secretary!) because I had no background in the field at all. That’s a pretty typical taste of how the old-school male networks of history have treated women’s history — as a bone that can be thrown to the women in their department or working in their subfield to satisfy outside demands for the same, but nothing that’s really important or relevant to the males already established in the profession.

    I suspect ADM and I have both worked in environments where simply being the woman has made us, in the eyes of many of the men around us, the “women’s historian”. That shows how some old-school historians dismiss both the subject and women as historians. When I’ve ventured into doing women’s history both in my scholarly research and in the classroom (I actually got angry enough at the cavalier suggestion about writing the correspondence course to set myself a demanding reading list of women’s history, prep to teach the class on campus and then set it up anew as a stronger correspondence course once I figured that these guys wouldn’t do the subject justice!), I’ve done it as a part of my broader identification as an intellectual historian.

    It would be fraudulent of me to identify myself as a women’s historian — I’ve published very little that can fall under this aspect and I don’t make that subject a major focus of my teaching. That would also demean the truly committed women’s historians with whom I work and correspond. I’m no longer the only woman in my department: new colleagues, male and female, carry on the inquiries of women’s history in the classroom and in their publications.

    I’m truly glad that I did take more of an interest in women’s history — feminist theory and an appreciation of women’s history have improved both my scholarship and teaching as well as given me more focus for my own political viewpoints. But I’m not in the same league as my colleagues in the department or spread across the profession who devote so much more of their scholarly efforts to the subject and so I won’t appropriate the label for myself.

  52. Historiann on 10 Mar 2009 at 8:28 am #

    ADM–I’m sorry that you find yourself pigeonholed. That is unfortunate–I’m in a department where most of the women are not women’s historians–three of us were trained as such, but there are 6 others who were not. Two of these teach a women’s/gender course out of an interest like Janice’s–they think it’s important and they’re the only person in their field, so they teach it. But, I now have male colleagues who are offering courses on gender, although they are not trained in women’s & gender history.

    That said–I completely understand your point about being shunned in your work environment as though you have cooties. My grad seminar (not a women’s/gender course) last term had 6 women and 2 men–men who were either interested in gender history, and/or had had me before as a prof., whereas the other section of the course was filled with all of the other male grad students. I’m not quite sure what to think about this, except that some students–mostly men, but some women too–do indeed pigeonhole people whose work is in women’s & gender history–as though “that’s all” we do, and we can’t possibly teach a major field in a “broad enough” fashion.

  53. New Kid on the Hallway on 10 Mar 2009 at 8:56 am #

    About archives – I’m not saying medieval women’s historians shouldn’t go to the archives (been there, done that, actually sat across the table from Bennett once!). The archives are great. But the funding isn’t always available to get to Europe. I’m not just talking about scraping out of your asst. prof salary to get to the archives; I’m talking about getting funded in grad school, too. When I was going through, getting solid money to spend a year in England was really really hard, because no one who was giving money to go to England cared about old stuff (this was much less the case for the slightly less-studied countries – getting a Fulbright to Spain or the Netherlands was much more manageable than getting one to England). Anyway, I think my point was that the cultural turn wasn’t just an ideological rejection of hard-core archival social history – it’s a function of economics.

    And actually, I will step forward here and say that I do define myself as a gender historian – not because I’m scared the “W” word (????), but because for me, gender is a more satisfying and useful construct for answering the questions that interest me. Knowing what women did or didn’t do only makes sense in the context of knowing what men did or didn’t do – you can’t identify a wage gap, for instance, without knowing what men were paid. That doesn’t mean using women to find out more about men, but that I don’t find talking about women as an isolated group always very helpful.

    And myself, I hope men ARE taking women’s studies classes. They’re an academic endeavor, not a consciousness-raising session, and I WANT men to think about and be concerned with what goes on in Women’s Studies classes. (They’re ABOUT women, not FOR women.)

  54. Lawrence Stone: classy, classy guy! : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present on 10 Mar 2009 at 9:03 am #

    [...] case any of you doubted my judgment of Lawrence Stone as a complete tool, you can decide for yourself.  Close your eyes, and imagine it’s 1985.  You’re [...]

  55. Another Damned Medievalist on 10 Mar 2009 at 9:06 am #

    Historiann — I think a lot of this goes back to Dr. Crazy’s and GayProf’s posts of last week. Our models of academia are R1s. Most of us don’t teach at R1s. You have about a 2.3x more women in your department than there are people in mine! And my department is twice the size of the departments at the CCs I’ve taught at.

    And the pigeonholing doesn’t last long among students, at least — I teach more students than any of my colleagues do. And I actually do a lot of gender stuff — because it’s important. But it’s a double-edged sword; the more I do on women and gender, the more likely that the 800-lb gorillas on campus, the men in the professional schools and the athletics coaches, find reasons to dismiss me.

    This is in part why I am so adamantly opposed to some of the things that Satsuma calls for. I love my job, and I consider myself lucky to be where I am, because I’m at a campus where I get a lot of support and there are fantastic people. But I am not going to lie and say there is not a lot of entrenched institutionalized sexism and that white male privilege (and actually, male privilege in general) doesn’t exist. It does, and it’s immediate. So my battles, and those of other female historians in small departments in small, traditional colleges, may be a bit different than what most people imagine.

  56. Historiann on 10 Mar 2009 at 9:11 am #

    New Kid–I understand, and agree with you on the reasons for the cultural turn. I was just suggesting that travel is less expensive for people whose archives are closer to home.

    In my experience, teaching both women’s/gender and non-women’s and gender courses, men remain fairly resistant to the subject. Men are ususally only a tiny minority in my women’s history classes, and they are sometimes a vocal minority in my class evaluations for my non women’s and gender history courses, complaining that they had to read anything about women and non-white people at all or think about gender in any fashion whatsoever. I always get some version of this in my course evals: “This isn’t an American history course–this course was only about blacks, women, and Indians.”

    As for the women versus gender split: women is a subject, and gender is the analytical framework which can be applied to any subjects, whatever their sex/es.

  57. Notorious Ph.D. on 10 Mar 2009 at 9:17 am #

    As much as I want to talk about my love of the archives (mmm… archives…) and my frustrations and minor triumphs at finding (always heavily mediated) women’s stories therein, I’m going to do something crazy and go back to one of the points Historiann raises in her post.

    So, topic: Historical continuities in women’s lives. I think Bennett makes many good points here (and does a nice job illustrating her point with the chapter-length example on the wage gap for women). I could raise a methodological quibble by pointing out the danger of slipping into some transhistorical fallacy that potentially flattens historical differences between women and wage work (or sexuality, or childcare, or whatever continuity you like) in different times and places, but I think the utility of continuity as an analytical framework, at least, makes it worth the risk.

    But here’s the question: What about good continuities? Can we point to important historical continuities in women’s lives that have worked to women’s benefits? Is there, for example, convincing evidence of certain patterns of resistance, solidarity, or independent action from which we can take historical lessons as valuable as those suggested by the more obvious negative continuities? I’ve been searching my brain, and I’m having trouble coming up with anything, but it’s early where I am, and I’m only halfway into my first cup of coffee.

  58. Historiann on 10 Mar 2009 at 9:19 am #

    ADM–I hear you, and I’m sorry that you are so embattled. I think institutional and departmental size makes a big difference, because at a university with 27K students, I can just tune out huge swaths of the students and faculty and talk to the people who want to buy what I’m selling. And, I turned 40 last year, and I’ve decided that I just don’t care what people think about me so much any more.

    I had a very nice conversation with Carol Berkin once, who said something like, “I don’t argue with anyone who doesn’t believe that women’s history is significant or important. Life is too short. I just do what I do, and I talk to the people who appreciate it.” I’ve come around to her way of thinking pretty rapidly since then. I do what I do, I am who I am, and I don’t really care what anyone else thinks. But–it’s much easier for me working at a place like Baa Ram U., and it’s much easier for Carol Berkin than most because she’s Carol Berkin (and she’s earned it!).

  59. Historiann on 10 Mar 2009 at 9:27 am #

    Notorious–good question. Are there any positive things we can point to across time and space? I think you’ve hit the only one I would suggest, which is that in every place and time there were some women who resisted the given political, economic, and/or patriarchal order. They were always a small minority of women, but that’s true in our own time as well. (And history is rarely moved by the majority of people being in agreement–it’s usually moved by a minority of people who have the energy and resources to force the majority along with them.)

  60. Jonathan Jarrett on 10 Mar 2009 at 9:45 am #

    I didn’t like to comment in this thread at Notorious Ph.D.’s, because it seemed like a strategy discussion between members of an army of which I can’t be part. The only man taking part in that discussion got shot down and maybe that was his failing to read the territory before stepping into it. I’ll try to be more careful. I think it’s valid for a man, even if he can’t be a radical lesbian feminist, at least to be aware of the battle and try to avoid being in the opposite force, and so it’s with that intent I pick up on a few points.

    Firstly, and uncontentiously, when Notorious Ph.D. says, “I wonder if there’s something about placing things in a `mid-evil’ past that renders them safely quarantined from our present”, I say, I’m currently reading Kathleen Davis’s Periodization and Sovereignty for review which argues that this is a conscious intent behind the exercise of periodization, and she has many examples of the way people have politically defined the ‘distant past’ of which we’ve spoken here as, basically, the time when they did it wrong compared to our current state of enlightenment. So, yes, I think so, even if I don’t necessarily agree with a lot of the rest of the book.

    Secondly, on the battle of Agency. I plough a particularly old-fashioned furrow of history, the so-called feudal transformation of c. 1000, so I would just like to say that though it is old-fashioned and outdated, the idea that people could and did do things about their circumstances and environment still has power when you’re dealing with either everyone’s oppression by huge quasi-Marxist social forces like economic growth, when you can show them trying to surf the wave of change, or else when you’re dealing with peasants (of either main gender) being oppressed by men (or women) in lordship. I think we need agency to comfort ourselves that we are not powerless in the face of oppression, whoever we are, and the nice thing about that is that we can usually find it. This is partly a political want, but the fact that we can find it reassures me that it is historical to talk about people in the past as agents.

    That’s where I wanted to go next, actually, being historical. It is of course very political how we present the past. I’d actually prefer to keep my politics and my history separate as far as I can, not least because I fear not being hired if my politics are too obvious. As with any part of the great Struggle for Objectivity ™, I don’t think we can succeed but it is important to try. Now when I try and apply this to firstly the question of women’s history and secondly the early Middle Ages, I hit the problem of balance that Ruth mentions above. I would prefer to write history with both men and women in because I deal in social structures in which they both participated: families, agriculture, landholding, memory, identity etc. (Making an index for my first book is reassuring me about this, that I have at least partly escaped the kind of men-only paradigm Satsuma was deriding at Notorious Ph.D.’s.) It is therefore important to me, neither to downplay the genuine contribution, willingness or unwillingness, and position of advantage or disadvantage held by either women or men in society, nor to omit either side in the cause of the other. I want to draw history as it was, as far as I can.

    For the Middle Ages, one can do a reasonable job of showing women in positions of social advantage or equality – a few élite women, here and there, anyway. And I study Spain and there, early on at least, actually women’s position in law is pretty good relatively speaking, that is, still disadvantaged but not as much as in many other places. Women hold property, lead families (where there are no cogenerational men, anyway), and generally have some space of action; but if you actually count up the documents and their actors, women turn up about one in five, and then almost always as part of a couple. (In fact couples appear more than lone men in most areas.) That’s what I’m struggling against, and maybe you too: to put women in the political position the radical agenda would like them in, we have to fight the sources. If we leave out the men, as some would advise here, then we risk marginalising that work as women’s history or gender history and don’t confront feminism’s enemies where we need to for the sake of equality. There is a balance to strike, and especially for me with my stuff it’s not easy.

    Fourthly, I don’t mean this to seem like a snark but it is a correction I suppose: Satsuma, when you say, “Those of you who go to the archives and do original research are to be commended. To actually see the documents inside a French nunnary can yield spectacular insights. If you rely on 19th century antiquarians, you’re going through the male filter yet again”, you must be talking about a period later than mine. In my period, the documents from the nunnery I’ve worked on were written by men. That filter is hard to escape. A nunnery isn’t as female a space as one might hope for that sort of work; there are priests and confessors, instruction on how to live life is still male. And often, as Another Damned Medievalist alludes to, there are also the house patrons to deal with, who probably had purely patrimonial interests (word choice deliberate) in setting up their chosen family woman there. ADM, I think the article you allude to is Régine le Jan’s “Convents, Violence and Competition for Power in Seventh-Century Francia”, transl. Janet L. Nelson in Franz Theuws & Mayke de Jong with Carine van Rhijn (edd.), Topographies of Power in the Early Middle Ages, The Transformation of the Roman World 6 (Leiden 2001), pp. 243-269, in case that cite would be of use to anyone else.)

    So I guess my open question is, does Bennett, do any of us, have a solution to this dilemma to try to study everyone, and cope somehow with the fact that the sources keep hiding the women? Or study women primarily and somehow stay attached to the fact that the society in question almost certainly didn’t respect that agenda? It seems to me that all the stuff about marginalization or not, about lesbianism and ‘lesbian-like’ as historical tools of intepretation, it’s all in that gap, between giving women a history of their own or somehow breaking them into the general one without losing sight of them.

    I really wish this blog system allowed for a preview… Hopefully no offence caused by so long a musing.

  61. The Rebel Lettriste on 10 Mar 2009 at 9:58 am #

    as per my comment way up above, yes, Alisoun DOES offer an agency that has nothing to do with the sort of 20th c. identity politics bildungsroman model, where she exerts her unique subjectivity against oppression and prevails in the end. That was my student’s struggle: he was trying to write an essay that criticized her and her society for not allowing that struggle to take place. Which is a totally bad thesis.

    Because what Alisoun offers is utterly outside of that model. She is not criticized or judged in the least–but all the men around her are castigated and punished. That strange possibility and sort of secretive, under the radar agency could the subject of an interesting analysis, and one that would require the student to engage more fully with the text. Because that’s all he–and I, because I teach literature–can do.

    My students have also been protesting, when I mark their “historical” claims as bullshit, that it isn’t fair because I haven’t given them any history to read alongside the Chaucer. And I have to keep saying, “what history do you want to read? There sure is a lot it. And I promise, it’ll raise more questions than it answers.”

    They want to “understand” medieval society, and they think it’s going to be easy. And they think that the poem gives them a window on history. But really, there are FAIRIES in it, for god’s sake. We’re reading make believe!

  62. squadratomagico on 10 Mar 2009 at 10:06 am #

    What?? Are you saying fairies are make believe?

  63. Historiann on 10 Mar 2009 at 10:15 am #

    Jonathan, you are welcome here–there are several men who have commented in this thread, only some of them have ambiugous on-line handles, so don’t make any assumptions. (Also–some people I only know on-line, so who knows who they really are, although they may present as female?) I don’t understand why you found the discussion at Notorious, Ph.D. alienating–when you use language like “it seemed like a strategy discussion between members of an army of which I can’t be part,” it makes you sound like you’re afraid of a “monstrous regiment of women” on the internets.

    I think you raise good questions: “it’s all in that gap, between giving women a history of their own or somehow breaking them into the general one without losing sight of them.” Why can’t it be both, instead of either/or? I think we can have both, and both are important.

  64. Another Damned Medievalist on 10 Mar 2009 at 10:35 am #

    Jon, please tell me you didn’t just pull that out of memory — that’s exactly the article I was thinking of, but didn’t have time to dig through my notes to find it. I really have to get a decent note-taking program.

  65. ej on 10 Mar 2009 at 11:13 am #

    This issue of nunneries is exactly what I was talking about in a previous post. One of the points I think Bennett makes is that modernists don’t factor in the medieval experience enough. But I would also argue that when they do, they posit a monolithic “female” experience spanning 1000 years and multiple areas. I’m not questioning what the previous posts have said about certain nunneries, but the ones I study happen to be different-17/23 nunneries founded by women in the 13th century. And they aren’t all widows, and it isn’t because they can’t find a husband and I would categorize these as female spaces. Much different than the ones le Jan studies in the 7th century, or nunneries in late medieval Spain. And wouldn’t we expect that kind of difference across so much time and space? Not to suggest that there aren’t also continuties, but I think its dangerous to get caught up the looking for the long duree when it means under appreciating complexity.

  66. The Rebel Lettriste on 10 Mar 2009 at 11:22 am #

    yes. Alas. Fairies are indeed makebelieve. So, too, is the Wife of Bath. And in some ways, Margery Kempe.

    Fiction! What’s a gal to do?

  67. Historiann on 10 Mar 2009 at 11:29 am #

    ej–great points. I’ve been rather surprised not to hear from more modern women’s historians–it’s been just colonial Americanists, early modern Europeanists, and medieval Europeanists on this thread (so far!)

    I think this is in part why I raised the “Golden Age” hypothesis–because while it was about medieval women’s history, it was the invention of modern historians whose oversimplifications led to 25+ years of medieval women’s historians feeling like they needed to argue with the “Golden Age” idea. While it would be great for medieval women’s history if more modern historians read and cited you all, on the other hand, you will risk that complexities will inevitably get lost in the translation.

  68. Knitting Clio on 10 Mar 2009 at 5:21 pm #

    I’ve only read the first few chapters of the book, so don’t feel like I can comment on the work as a whole. Also, as someone who does very recent U.S. history (my current project starts in 1965) I don’t think I’m qualified to talk about the distant past that I last took a course on sometime in the 1980s.

    What I will say is that Bennett, while criticizing historians who presume a premodern “golden age” for women, seems to have constructed a “golden age” model of the development of women’s history as a discipline — i.e. she and her generation were more “authentic” and genuinely feminist than us youngins’. My professors in graduate school (Cornell, late 1980s/early 1990s) came of age around the same time, but also pointed out the methodological flaws and lack of rigor in some of the earliest works in women’s history.

  69. Janice on 10 Mar 2009 at 8:15 pm #

    Knitting Clio? Zing! I agree with you that I’m damned suspicious of this golden age of women’s history in the 1970s though more on the issue of what kind of nurturing activist communities were there.

    In 1991, Natalie Davis received one of the honorary doctorates at the UofT history department’s 100th anniversary convocation. She and Veronica Strong-Boag, who introduced her, spoke frankly about the problems they’d faced, trying to do women’s history at UofT in the late 60s and early 70s. I get the impression that they all fought tooth and nail to build any kind of semi-welcoming environment for the field. When I came to study there in the mid-eighties, it wasn’t exactly a bastion of women’s history although there were a few wonderful standouts whom I only knew outside of the classroom and a lot of misogynistic jokes were tossed around in the hallways, right over the heads of women students such as myself and, I presume, women faculty as well.

  70. Historiann on 10 Mar 2009 at 8:37 pm #

    Janice and KC–I don’t know if you went to the plenary session at the Berks last June on the status of women in the historical profession, but Davis remarked briefly about how back in the day, there was a real excitement and daring about doing women’s history. I can’t remember exactly what she said, but the sense was, “we were BAD, and we knew it!” She said it in a way that suggested that she was nostalgic for the zeal of the new, but also glad in many ways for the institutionalization of women’s history.

    Thanks for stopping by to comment, KC! And I’ll expect to see both of you over at Blogenspiel next Monday, too.

  71. Satsuma on 11 Mar 2009 at 2:43 am #

    Jonathan Jarett, you are a mAn, and you are the enemy of women! I am a part of lesbian herstorical nation, and our sacred task is the documentation and discovery of what women have done throughout time.

    We had a golden age of women’s studies, it really was the 1970s. We had lecture halls filled with women, and there were no men to stop us. Outside the hall gangs of boys actually spit on us from a balcony.. they hated the idea thAT women would gather to study the herstory of women. Straight women just meekly gave in, but the lesbians took up baseball bats and went after the pigs.

    We are at war with men women! If you don’t know you are at war for your very soul now, you must be utterly blind.

    Yes, the golden age is here when women band together, create our herstory, and begin the dream of a powerful land which women control, create and elevate.

    Us radical lesbians want an end to male HISstory, the wars, the rape, the boredom the cluelessness. We have watched our staight sisterS marry these creeps, placaate them… but now women are getting the majority of PhDs, and Masters, and the majority of undergrad degrees as well. Men are opting out of academy, and like the pigs that they are, they believe they will still rule the world.

    But no, women’s herstorians will reveal the world of women, we will eliminate the dulling boring world of men’s wars and their incompetant governments vis-a-vis women. Women will find their past, erase the male contamination as if it never existed, women Herstorians will celebrate the pure triumph of women. We had the golden age of the male free classes of the 70s, and we can create a world where the minds and brilliance of women will be worshipped, adored and celebrated! And men be damned for all time!! bE DAMNED AND LET THE SUPERIOR INTELLECNCE ARISE NOW!!

  72. Historiann on 11 Mar 2009 at 5:58 am #

    Satsuma–I appreciate where you’re coming from, but that’s not where most of us are coming from. Your comments seem to reflect what KC and Janice are skeptical of–that is, the notion that the 1970s were a “Golden Age” for women’s studies.

    Women’s history only got stronger, smarter, and more interesting once women’s historians were able to see beyond the stark and exaggerated divide of all men versus all women, when they started to pay attention to intersectionality (that is, the ways in which other components of identity, primarily race and class, but also other things like sexuality, region, age, work role, etc. are inextricably intertwined with sex). Most of us on this thread, although women’s historians, also think about these things all of the time, too, so your positing of an intellectual world of all men versus all women seems very strange to us.

  73. The Van Dykes, and the generation gap among lesbians : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present on 11 Mar 2009 at 6:00 am #

    [...] thought this was interesting in light of our ongoing discussion of Judith Bennett’s History Matters, since Van Dyke’s disappointment with the current generation of lesbians [...]

  74. Another Damned Medievalist on 11 Mar 2009 at 6:04 am #

    I call troll.

    Historiann, if you’ve got an IP tracker on this, you might want to check and see if that last was really the same Satsuma.

  75. Historiann on 11 Mar 2009 at 6:22 am #

    You know, the thought occured to me, ADM, more than once–I’ll keep an eye on this.

  76. squadratomagico on 11 Mar 2009 at 9:19 am #

    I was thinking along those lines too. I’m pretty sure “Satsuma” is really Rush Limbaugh pulling a prank.

  77. squadratomagico » Blog Archive » the troll on 11 Mar 2009 at 11:46 am #

    [...] History Matters. The conversation began at Notorious PhD’s, and has now moved over to Historiann’s. I believe that next week, Another Damned Medievalist will host at her blog, Blogenspiel; [...]

  78. Another Damned Medievalist on 11 Mar 2009 at 1:50 pm #

    Correction, everybody — Next week at TR, the following week at mine!

    Jon, I’ve been thinking a lot about your post, and I have to say two things:

    First, I’ll admit to being a women’s historian if you do! I do admit that, by Bennett’s very wide-reaching definition, we both fit in — we study the history of women, even if it is not our primary focus all the time. I still prefer social-institutional Carolingianist, or some such. But then if I go to St. Andrews this summer, will that make me a monastic historian? (Historiann, I’m not teasing — I re-read Bennett’s definition last night, and can see why we’ve been talking a little at cross-purposes. And by Bennett’s schema, I probably fit in on the Gabrielle Spiegel end of the ‘feminist historian’ spectrum.

    The other is that your take on our job and how we do it really resonates with me and considering our academic genaologies, if you will, I find this really interesting. Your doctoral grandmother is also your undergrad mother — that is, you’ve got one of the big names in our field as a direct and indirect influence, and that same person is one of the three best-known, most influential (Anglophone, at least) scholars of our period.

    I have to go back a bit further, I think — My DV is of your grandmother’s generation, I think (because your DV is younger than me!) But like several of the other medievalists I know, we all are of the Thrupp-Power line. It’s not like there are no ground-breaking women forebears here …

  79. John S. on 11 Mar 2009 at 2:31 pm #

    ADM’s most recent post brought up something I’ve wondered about before on this thread: how much does the nature of the job market–particularly the way that tenure lines are defined–shape how we identify ourselves? I can best speak to this with respect to US history, being an early Americanist myself and being married to a 20thc US historian; my points may not be valid for other fields. One of the things that has struck me when I consider job searches I observed as a grad student and now at my current institution is that self-identified “women’s historians” seem to have a better chance getting hired as “generalists” in early American history than they do in modern US history. There are some reasons behind that, I think, one of them being that political history still tends to be the default narrative of more recent US history but no longer is in early America. (And yes, I know that what counts as “political history,” and who self-identifies as a “political historian” is a gendered question, too. This post will be too long if I share all my thoughts on that, however.)

    This makes me wonder about the costs and benefits of self-identification as we’re marketing ourselves on the job market, a commodification process that does distort intellectual categories somewhat. It seems to me that where departments and hiring committees see women’s historians as “specialists” appropriate to particular tenure slots and historians who don’t identify as historians of women as “generalists” appropriate for different tenure slots, that will impact the way that both men and women see themselves as scholars, the training they seek in graduate school (how do you choose your qualifying exam fields?), and the way you frame your research.

    I know this holds true outside of US history to some extent. In my dept we have decided that when (fingers crossed with our budget woes!) we replace a recently retired colleague who could be described as a historian of science/women’s historian/medievalist, we’re going to list the job as “history of science.” That’s the most important “hat” we want the new person to wear. The fact that we’re a big department obviously makes our thinking on this different than what smaller departments do. But I’d be curious to hear what other people think. Am I overstating the impact of the professionalization process and the job market?

  80. Megan L. on 11 Mar 2009 at 3:48 pm #

    I find the ad hominem attack on Lawrence Stone in this blog inappropriate and unhelpful. I followed the links and read both Stone’s book review and Scott’s reply. It struck me that Scott grossly mischaracterized the tone of Stone’s review. Stone had developed a set of ten ‘commandments’ which historians ought to follow when writing women’s history. While I take the point that ‘guidelines’ would have been a better choice than ‘commandments’, I think Scott’s characterization of Stone as envisioning himself as a God-like figure to be absurd. As a graduate student, I’ve encountered a number of professors (both humble and arrogant) who have their own list of self-proclaimed ‘Commandments’ which students/writers ought to follow. Stone’s top-10 list was in this style and I frankly find it mildly slanderous to suggest otherwise. I’ve rarely read a piece as arrogant and apoplectic as Scott’s reply.

    Moving on to p. 14, footnote 36 of Bennett’s book, I found the said ‘toolish’ footnote to merely be a snippet of one of Stone’s ‘commandments’ taken out of context enough to make him sound arrogant. Stone’s second guideline of writing women’s history was “Thou shalt strive not to distort the evidence and the conclusions to support modern feminist ideology: social change is by no means always the product of an activist minority, and all change is relative not absolute”. Bennet changes this to “But many eyebrows are still raised over feminist history, because of the enduring assumption that historians inspired by feminism “distort the evidence and the conclusions to support modern feminist ideology.”” I think there’s a real difference here between Stone’s prescriptive for writing accurate histories, and Bennett’s distorting this guideline so that it reads as an accusation. Many historians warn against letting presentist concerns dictate how one writes history, and I don’t see Stone as doing anything other than this here.

    As a note before Historiann inevitably brands me a fellow chauvinistic tool: I have never met Laurence Stone. I think his own work is interesting, but ultimately problematic. I am not a ‘fan’ of Stone. Neither do I have any axe to grind against women’s history. I have no reasons for defending Stone in this forum other than it irks me when historians take people’s words out of context, as in the case here of Historiann, Scott, and Bennett. Incidentally, I do wonder whether the same words would have invited such a shameful ad hominem attack (‘tool’? what are we, twelve?) had they been spoken by a fellow female historian rather than an elderly male professor. I invite everyone to read Stone and Scott’s work and judge the matter for themselves, rather than following in Historiann’s model and exhibiting an ill-considered reactionary behavior.

  81. Satsuma on 11 Mar 2009 at 4:24 pm #

    I don’t think creating a world where women of intellectual bent can flourish outside malestream discourse is at all a bad idea. After all, history has for the longest time been about men writing about men, men going to conferences to talk about what men of the past have done.

    Even watching the “History” channel is largely WWII and a male obsession with war as “history”, while movements like the feminist movement are largely ignored in talking about liberation in America.

    To me, it is exciting to read about women, and to study with women, and to be a part of women’s organizations. As a radical lesbian I simply don’t find male contributions to my sense of herstory or my sense of self relevent. Perhaps I am free of the contradictions that women face living with men, or having to deal with them as thesis gatekeepers.

    We need to acknowledge that women’s studies grew out of a fierce political movement, that women protested, marched in the streets, and that men harassed early women’s studies classes. We have a right to our own herstory, and this herstory thread has inspired me to contact women’s and lesbian archives nationwide to place my papers there. And I most certainly wouldn’t want my papers mixed in with a “malestream” HIStory department; I want a woman controlled archive that attracts women scholars all over the world. I don’t think it’s too much to ask that I be free of what men do and say routinely to women. HIStory should teach us the lessons of freedom, and is not gained in cooperation with patriarchy ever.

  82. Another Damned Medievalist on 11 Mar 2009 at 4:42 pm #

    Satsuma — This is Historiann’s blog, and the decision is hers. But I, for one, especially after your screed against a male historian who happens to do very good history, and does work on women, would appreciate it if you would at least try to direct your comments either to Historiann’s post, or to Bennett’s book.

    Having said that, going to Berks was one of the best conference experiences of my life.

  83. Janice on 11 Mar 2009 at 4:56 pm #

    Megan L, responding directly about Lawrence Stone might be better suited for that post’s comment thread but I’ll respond here. As I said in my initial reply to that post, I read that review at the time it was published after picking up a copy of the Prior collection (I also nabbed Fraser’s book, but a little later). And my response on reading that list of commandments was not to be amused. Despite Lawrence Stone’s reply to Joan Scott claiming his commandments were “patently facetious”, it didn’t come across that way in print to me and to many other readers. Maybe I’m a humourless feminist, but it struck me as archly dismissive of the whole subfield.

    Whether I’d call him a tool, now, is something different. It’s not a word that’s frequent in my vocabulary! However, I might have muttered something about an “ass” under my breath as I read through the review.

    His reply to Scott’s response seemed disingenuous to me, both in his claims that he was only kidding about those commandments and also when he declared “the moment the field of history was broadened, the idea of writing only about men or women became, and remains, rather absurd.” Was that a joke, too?

    You can argued that Stone sought to live up to his commandments and his declaration about the absurdity of single-gender history in his own work on marital history, for instance, but I still think his review did a disservice to the discipline as a whole and this field in particular. I don’t think he saw women’s history as viable at all, at least not at the time he wrote his review and I really don’t know about any point later than that. And isn’t that all too common? I don’t have to fight for people to give respect to the history of ideas or religious history, but the same can’t be said of women’s history, sadly.

  84. Janice on 11 Mar 2009 at 4:57 pm #

    ADM, dang!, I wish I’d went to the Berks. Next time around, maybe?

  85. Satsuma on 11 Mar 2009 at 5:46 pm #

    I don’t really think that Bennett should worry about feminism distorting women’s herstory. It seems to be a worry that “history” isn’t objective enough, or that women’s herstory will be biased in some way. Just ask Ken Burns when Latinos were furious at being left out of his series “The War.” And gay and lesbian veterans organizations attacked him for excluding them as well.

    All of history and herstory carries the bias of the questions asked about the past. It’s why some time periods come into fashion, while others go out of fashion. Kind of like the fascination with neo-classicism in the 18th and 19th centuries.

    Just recently, a scholar gave a paper on ancient Greece and its influence on Walt Whitman. When the scholar was quoting Greek laws from the period, and also Roman law, he just said matter of factly, “oh women’s position was awful that that’s that…” I thought he was simply lazy in not trying to find out what the life of ancient Greek women was really all about, and that his only sources were laws on the books. This tells us little about how Greek women of that time prospered or dealt with oppression.

    A lot of what women do is completely outside the male defined social structures of different times and places.

    I would argue a tiny bit that social change of any kind is about majorities. Dedicated minorities do create a visionary agenda. Margaret Snager was not mainstream, neither was Joan of Arc. The majority joins in later as the ideas are fought out on the streets or within reform movements, for example. You have large majorities who really sit around and do nothing in terms of minority or excluded groups’ freedom, until all hell breaks loose.
    I’m thinking of average white communities in say 1953 — they had no contact with black people, they noted that black people were not being treated well, but didn’t care to do anything about it, for example.

    To want change from the status quo is inherently a minority idea. Those excluded from the “official narrative” always see this. Those in the majority often don’t even welcome the minorities into their “clubs” as it were to begin with. And who wants the add women and stirr agenda, or the add lesbians and stir; we want to create an entirely new soup pot to stir of our own accord.

    I’m kind of weary of the “10 commandment” concept in herstorical research. The very word “commandment” just seems, well domineering or coming down from on high.

    It is a trap to fear not being taken seriously by the dominant class. So this is a trap women’s herstorians need to be aware of. The goal is not social acceptance by one’s oppressors or bosses, but the dignity that comes from uncovering the truth about all the work women have done throughout time to be better in the world, to have unique social structures.

    Women’s dramatic herstorical breakthrough of the last 25 some years prove this I think. All the information was just waiting for the women who cared to find it. And also, women need to be aware that we need not reinvent the wheel; women throughout time have done great things, and then the powers that be try to discredit and bury the information. Bennett highlights this very well I think, and so does Sheila Jeffreys, who I am very fond of as well.

  86. Satsuma on 11 Mar 2009 at 5:48 pm #

    P.S. As for the golden age of women’s studies of the 70s, it really is a kind of “you had to be there” to understand this. If you weren’t there you would not know.

  87. Historiann on 11 Mar 2009 at 7:24 pm #

    Satsuma, it doesn’t seem like you’re really interested in engaging with the rest of us in discussion. ADM has asked you pointedly to do so, and you haven’t in two comments since hers. I’ve also asked you to limit the length of your posts.

    The purpose of comments on my blog is for people to have an informed discussion, and it doesn’t look to me like that’s what you’re up to, so I’m going to ask you not to post here for a little while. Please consult the comments policy in the upper-hand left corner if you have any questions about the comments policy here.

  88. Historiann on 11 Mar 2009 at 7:37 pm #

    OK, now down to business: Megan L., when you say things like “as a note before Historiann inevitably brands me a fellow chauvinistic tool…,” that kind of baseless accusation makes me think you’re not interested in a serious conversation either. I don’t call people names here as a general rule, and for the record, I called Stone a tool because of the linked review (also please see yesterday’s post on this), and it’s more polite than other words I could think of. If you think his review was entirely appropriate–that’s fine. You could have just said that without the attitude. (Thanks, by the way, for putting me in good company with Joan Scott and Judith Bennett, in our apparent inability to read and interpret text accurately! That’s the nicest thing anyone’s said to me all week long. Scott, Bennett, and Historiann–mmmmmmmm…..)

    Now, I think John S. raises a good question, about marketing oneself and the job market. I think I see what you’re saying, John, although as an early American women’s historian, I’ve gone on exactly one campus interview for a position that was defined as early American and women’s history–one out of seven in my lifetime (so far!) And, I’ve long felt that I’ve had to work extra-hard to explain that I really am a colonial historian although I am yes a women’s historian, or that I really am a women’s historian although yes my work is in the colonial period. Most women’s history spots are de facto modern history spots, and I’ve thought for a long while that most colonial history spots are not-women’s history, and that there are strong preferences for other non-women’s, non-gender subfields. I still think that’s the case–but I can see how it might be harder for modern U.S. women’s historians to make plays for jobs not defined as women’s history. (Then again, there are in fact so many more jobs in U.S. women’s history than in my period or in any other field, European, Asian, Lat Am., African, etc…)

    I’ll be interested to hear what others think about this.

  89. Another Damned Medievalist on 11 Mar 2009 at 9:42 pm #

    Historiann — I think YAY! I love how the relative lack of sources let me be a historian that does lots of stuff (and love that my DV didn’t think I was crazy to have an outside field in a non-western topic, because let me tell you, that breadth is what gives lots of us Ancient/Medieval specialists a slight advantage in the generalists’ job market)!

    Seriously, though, I wonder if John’s point on my point leads us to a more important issue — even within the field of History on the large scale, it’s hard to negotiate between how we see ourselves and our work, and how our colleagues do. Is it any wonder that the general public sees us and what our jobs are so differently to how we see us?

  90. Historiann on 11 Mar 2009 at 10:07 pm #

    ADM, a former colleague of mine once said to me, “to most people, you are your first book, no matter what else you write.” He also used to agonize about this, and said, “I just can’t stand it that people might read my first book and think that that’s who I still am as a scholar.”

    He was a little overwrought–but I think his overall point was very valid. We get tracked into job descriptions that were written before we were hired, and that’s how our colleagues think of us no matter how many different/unadvertised/new specialities we may inhabit or develop over the course of our careers.

  91. Susan on 11 Mar 2009 at 11:17 pm #

    ADM, I’m so glad you went to the Berks and that it was a good experience. And I think that the vibe of the Berks is shaped by the fact that (a) a great majority of the participants are women and (b) politics is not asked to take a back seat.

    I’m of the generation that came of age intellectually in the mid-1970s, so I can attest to the intellectual excitement of doing women’s history/women’s studies then. It was all open, everything was possible, and we were going to figure it all out. And it was all new, bright and shiny. And it was manageable: you could have a feeling that you could keep up in multiple fields! No one had been talking about these things. So yes, there was a sense of adventure (terror, too, at times). THen, for many of us, getting into the archives taught us some things we had expected, others we hadn’t, and it was all more complicated than we’d thought.

    Actually, (to return to where Historiann started this thread) one of the things that drew me to the study of the distant past was that it was sufficiently distant that I never knew exactly what to think, who was right and who was wrong. I’d have a terrible time as a modern historian, I think. Studying the early modern period has allowed me to explore questions that are of vital importance today — from domestic violence to race and sex — in a context where unexpected things keep showing up. (Sorry, it’s late and it’s been a long day. I’d like to be more articulate on this one.) So it’s not that I think domestic violence, or rape is OK: but I get things about today by the ways that things surrounding them in the 17th C are not what I would expect.

    Another thought: one of the great things Bennett does is remind us of the big questions. I always think a project has a big question that I end up addressing through some small part of it. And I sometimes lose sight of the big issue. Bennett says we shouldn’t lose track of the big questions because that’s why it matters. In that, ironically, she has much in common with Lawrence Stone :)

  92. Another Damned Medievalist on 12 Mar 2009 at 6:18 am #

    Susan, I’m just glad you invited me! And I think that what draws you to the distant past is what draws me. I really am one of those believers that “the past is another country; they do things differently there.” It’s at the core of who I am as a historian, and it is probably the most driving political force in my classroom work. I love that the distance allows us to cultivate an objectivity we can’t find as easily in the present. But I also believe if we can teach the skills that we historians of the distant past use, we can help people to cultivate that same objectivity when looking at the Other when our own lives come in contact with it, whether it’s race or gender or religion (or whatever) at home, or whether it’s dealing with entire different countries.

    Historiann — Yeah, I’m a little worried about the first book thing, because it’s going to set me up as someone who does a particular kind of technical work, rather than the scholarship I like. After that, my next book (or first ‘real’ monograph) will be on women, though — providing the stuff I started teasing out at Berks is right! But I think it will still be seen as kinship and patronage history as it is women’s history.

  93. Historiann on 12 Mar 2009 at 6:44 am #

    Susan wrote, “one of the things that drew me to the study of the distant past was that it was sufficiently distant that I never knew exactly what to think, who was right and who was wrong.”

    On ADM’s comment that “the past is a foreign country,” too: I agree with both of you. But what if the past you research is in fact in another country than your country of origin or citizenship? Conducting research on another country than one’s own can lead to the same thing–a distancing from national/ist politics that is refreshing. U.S. Americans who take a critical view of American history are accused by (mostly) non-professional critics of not “loving America” sufficiently. Crossing borders as well as centuries can be a relief–not that there aren’t nationalist politics in other national histories (I write about Quebec now!), but that somehow you don’t own them or have to answer to them so much.

  94. Belle on 12 Mar 2009 at 9:04 am #

    I do modern, and I can assure you Susan, that I’ve never known who was right, wrong or whatever. What drew me into history? The foreignness of it all, the way I just knew that they were doing and thinking and living very differently that I was, and since I was also doing/thinking/living differently than anybody I knew, I might, just might, find a place. And since my research is on French diplomats, I also deal with power elites (very far from my own experience) who were, by definition men. So I am very much in foreign territory. That difference is, as Historiann notes, a relief. It also sharpens my own awareness of issues of power, privilege, etc in the US and elsewhere. (I started to say ‘my own society’ but haven’t felt the US was ‘mine’ for a very long time).

  95. Susan on 12 Mar 2009 at 10:43 am #

    Belle, thank you for the reminder. I totally get how doing modern French diplomatic history could feel just as distant as a native new yorker working on 17th century English villages! I think for all of us there is something that grabs us at some point, and it can be different things for different folks. And for those like ADM, I might as well be doing current events!

    I think you’ve nailed it better than I did — “they were doing and thinking and living very differently that I was, and since I was also doing/thinking/living differently than anybody I knew”. I love that sense.

  96. EXCLUSIVE! Publishing in “Gender and History,” by co-editor Ruth Karras : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present on 13 Mar 2009 at 5:35 am #

    [...] because the discussion of Judith Bennett’s History Matters here earlier this week and at Notorious Ph.D., Girl Scholar last week drew many comments from people who work in earlier [...]

  97. Another Damned Medievalist on 13 Mar 2009 at 6:52 am #

    It’s funny, but I was re-reading this chapter in Bennett last night, and it’s really interesting to me that we’ve really been playing out all of the different attitudes and approaches that Bennett talks about, while not actually addressing Bennett’s take. Book comes to life on blog!

  98. Historiann on 13 Mar 2009 at 7:04 am #

    Yes, indeed–I thought the same thing.

  99. Jonathan Jarrett on 13 Mar 2009 at 10:40 am #

    Historiann, thankyou for the welcome and a fair point about my assumptions, I’ll be more careful. I didn’t mean to sound the trumpets of the monstrous regiment cliché, but merely that parts of that conversation seemed as if I couldn’t step in without being characterised as the enemy. I think I was attributing too much representativeness to one particularly vocal commentator.

    ADM, firstly, no, I looked up the reference online don’t worry. But knowing I’d read it, I had somewhere easy to look… As to your other point, there is no question but that women have been important in my academic formation all the way up, from a radical feminist older half-sister (now farming in my subject country…) to various teachers at various levels. And I think that’s disinclined me to leave women out of my picture but I tried initially to avoid doing gender work because I saw it as leaving out the bits of society I was principally interested in, which was those who made war and passed laws, I was terribly boy-like then. So when I did the work that made me a women’s historian in Bennett’s terms, it was simply because I was looking at a source repository of incredible detail. In that instance it happened to be Abbess Emma who had caused it all to be, but if it had been an abbot I’d have been just as happy. I did, however, think I had a better chance of getting it published because the lead figure was a woman, and that was rarer and therefore more significant. I’m not sure whether I was right or what it would say about the journal or industry if I was.

    Lastly, I know, don’t feed the troll, and I too doubt that this was the original poster, but when Satsuma says:
    “now women are getting the majority of PhDs, and Masters, and the majority of undergrad degrees as well”, I have to say, `Apparently not in history!‘ Which bothers me.

  100. Historiann on 13 Mar 2009 at 10:42 am #

    Jonathan–welcome back, and good point. Women are underrepresented in history at all levels in U.S. universities. I think there is some data the AHA has about this trend accelerating after 9/11/01, although of course there probably is no clear causal link.

  101. Indyanna on 13 Mar 2009 at 2:13 pm #

    I’d be interested if anybody has access to the latter data. Because our required gen. ed./service course has about 57-60% women registered in sections on a consistent basis, reflecting the overall enrollment ratio at the U.. But our majors and students in courses voluntarily appear to break close to 63%/65% male, based on a limited but substantial number of sample class rosters that I’ve sampled, going back to (as it happens, because of a change in e-system vendors) 2000. ** It’s never seemed to me that this could be explained by clear cultural factors, such as: aeronautical engineering always attracts more men. So what is the deal, then?

    ** Eyeball correlation of the apparent gender of surnames, of course, is at best a rough methodology

  102. magistra on 14 Mar 2009 at 12:51 am #

    On statistics, I can add a bit for the UK (I don’t know whether anyone has stats for non-Anglo countries). Overall, women outnumber men on history courses (54% details. At postgraduate level for ‘historical and philosophical studies’ (I can’t find a more specific breakdown), women make up the majority of taught postgrads (53%), but only 42% of postgraduate researchers. And they’re now 28% of history teachers in HE. So here, it looks like what we have is the common ‘leaky pipeline’ situation, in which women are more likely to fall by the wayside along the way to an academic career than men are.

  103. Belle on 14 Mar 2009 at 8:35 am #

    Indyanna, take a look at PhD in History ( who has crunched numbers for history. He’s always enlightening and sometimes really depressing.

    There is hope, however, for women in history faculty. Not a lot, and we’re consistently underpaid (who isn’t?) but chez nous women make up about 55% of our A&S faculty and 50% of the history department. Our students think that’s normal.

  104. Belle on 14 Mar 2009 at 8:36 am #

    Crap. I didn’t read Sterling’s 1/29 post. His new blog: Sorry.

  105. Another Damned Medievalist on 14 Mar 2009 at 9:24 am #

    Magistra, I think that in the UK the system is especially difficult for people who don’t take the traditional path, and most especially for women who don’t.

  106. Veleda on 14 Mar 2009 at 6:27 pm #

    This discussion to me is better than chocolate. Can’t wait to read Bennett’s book; i saw excerpts and liked them. I have been protesting the passing-over that women’s history is getting in Women’s Studies for some time now, especially anything more than a century or two ago, and it’s great to hear from other women historians who understand the importance of the subject.

    On the other blog, now closed, Notorious PhD wrote:
    “I now see the study of women in particular as a way of uncovering information and introducing perspectives that can in turn be used to reshape the master narrative itself.”

    And in fact it has done that. We’re not all the way there, not by a long shot, but we have won, finally, acknowledgment (from many quarters, at least) that a study that ignores women is inadequate, pure and simple. It’s finally hitting them in their reputations, and that makes the recalcitrant sit up and take notice. Of course many have welcomed the inclusion as well.

    I like the comments that were made about how women’s history strengthened the hand of social history, and would add that the same is true for interdisciplinarity. Not only because of feminists studies, of course, but also Africana and all the other intersecting subjects whose scholars understood the necessity of reweaving knowledge from all the humanities to get a broader picture.

    What concerns me is the way that the theoretical turn in women’s studies has led to near-abandonment of the field of history. Claims seem to require no substantial documentation. Earlier there was discussion of whether there was a “golden age” of women’s history. I don’t have such a rosy view as that, for reasons i won’t go into now, but there was at least a strong sense of solidarity in common enterprise, on an uphill climb, and most importantly, a deep interest in what women’s analysis would look like. Hearing women theorize about what all the data meant, and especially about the patterns.

    What i saw happen somewhere in the 90s was an elevation of male theorists and masculine prestige. Foucault, Derrida, even Freud. Somer Broddrib and Tania Modleisky called it. At the same time, the feminist theory that had been done so far, and especailly words like patriarchy, acquired a heavy stigma. It’s one thing to generalize about The Patriarchy at every turn, as has been noted here, and another altogether to shrink from ever using the term–or male supremacy, or male dominance, or similar descriptors. Sometimes you need a word that spells it out. I understand the reasons for timidity; there are real costs. But this goes directly to what you can say–or what you are not saying because of those consequences.

    Gotta go. More later.

  107. Veleda on 15 Mar 2009 at 4:29 pm #

    I enjoyed the discussion of the stampede toward Agency, a development that dismayed me insofar as 1) the feminist historians i respect did not minimize agency to begin with. 2) it’s crucial to acknowledge the very real barriers women face/d. 3) the way “negotiation” got elevated (typically) bypassed realistically accounting for inequalities, severe constraints, and outright violence. 4) “we don’t want to be victims” often turned into “we don’t want to see victims,” or as i would rather put it, oppression. Whatever its complexities…

    However! the “good continuities” that Notorious PhD flags are important. Yes, absolutely, even within those very bleak timescapes. My women’s history looks for resistance and solidarity and female spheres of power within patriarchal societies. One rich area I’ve been mining for years is women’s spiritual leadership and sodalities. These bridge across all kinds of social systems from the most patriarchal where they are prohibited or repressed, to more egalitarian systems which have formal female offices and organizations–and all the other societies which fall between those extremes. I’m thinking Beguines and beatas, Henan sworn sisterhoods maintained via the Nüshu women’s script, Iroquois gantowisas and Cherokee Beloved Women, Chewa women’s sodalities and female eldership posts, Brazilian maes de santo as socio-political forces, and the medicine women who led indigenous resistance movements in California, Uganda, Somalia, and other colonized countries. Even the Thesmophoria, in spite of “negotiations” that forced it into compliance with masculine state goals, as has been noted. We have to look at patterns of collective female power, without missing how that may be cut into or mediated by male dominance–or whacked down. Further, how it is situated in terms of class and ethnicity, and all the complex interactions that make history.

    In my experience, the more local and particular we get, the more interesting stuff surfaces. Folk religion is a very rich vein, and oral tradition, including that written down by colonials like Sahagún.

    Or even the inquisitorial archives in Friuli that Ginzburg studied. The benandante (that’s not a typo, but the female plural) are an instructive case, because we can see how a regional folk culture was riven along gender lines, by outside forces and then from within. The male benandanti turned into witch-finders, and the female benandante became the accused, via the torture trials of the late 16th and early 17th century. But before that? the depositions show a female allegiance to the benandante that persisted, even under duress. We aren’t going to get the same level of detail beyond the written record, of course.

    But we do get glimpses from the witch trials of women like Gabrina degl’Albetti and Jeanne de Brigue and Scudder of Scotland who dealt in sexual politics, battery and desertion and things of great concern to women in their communities. It’s not all victims, resistors are visible there too, even if they end up going to the stake, or like Gabrina have their tongues cut out.

    Looking forward to the next installment.

  108. Women’s History Month book club: Judith Bennett’s “History Matters” Part III at Tenured Radical : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present on 16 Mar 2009 at 3:20 pm #

    [...] Tenured Radical has posted her essay for Part III of our discussion of Judith Bennett’s History Matters, where she discusses premodern history, the academic job market’s bias towards the modern, and Bennett’s call for women’s historians to write more “lesbian-like” history.  The conversation is happening there now, so come on over and join in the fun!  (If you haven’t read them already, see part I by Notorious, Ph.D. here, and see my contribution, part II, here.)  [...]

  109. Scattered Links - 3/16/2009 « history-ing on 17 Mar 2009 at 5:38 am #

    [...] politics be historical? Should history be political? Then Historiann kept the ball rolling with Who indeed is afraid of the distant past (and who says it’s distant, anyway)? A call to arms. This week Claire Potter at Tenured Radical posted part three, Teach This [...]

  110. Women’s History Month Book Club: Part the Fourth at Blogenspiel : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present on 23 Mar 2009 at 2:04 pm #

    [...] case you missed all of the excitement so far, you can see part I here, part II here, and part III here.  Next week, we’ll all head back to Notorious Ph.D., Girl Scholar for a [...]

  111. Women’s History Month Book Club: Bennett talks back at Notorious, Ph.D. : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present on 30 Mar 2009 at 7:22 am #

    [...] Bennett’s comments about our discussion of her book this month.  She really disagrees with my generational analysis, claiming that’s not what she meant at all, and she wants us to talk more about her concept [...]

  112. Women’s History Month wrap-up : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present on 06 Apr 2009 at 10:41 am #

    [...] Challenge of Feminism.  (Just in case you’ve missed our discussions, here they are:  Parts I, II, III, IV, and V.)  This post is an open thread to solicit your comments on our discussion, and [...]

  113. And this *isn’t*… « A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe on 24 Aug 2009 at 11:11 am #

    [...] the effect that these anthropological and sociological concepts have had on history of the period; I’m told that agency is now out of fashion though I continue to find it a very useful concept for my work; materiality is a weak spot for many [...]

  114. Cowgirl Up: my talk at the University of Texas : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present on 04 Mar 2011 at 7:43 am #

    [...] did I call Lawrence Stone a “complete tool?”  You can review the controversy here and here.  I was calling him out on an obnoxious review in the New York Review of Booksin which [...]

  115. » Carnivalesque 48 Sarah Werner on 15 May 2011 at 2:16 pm #

    [...] it means for the two to intersect. The first discussion is hosted by Notorious PhD; the second by Historiann (don’t miss her follow-up in which she expounds on why “Lawrence Stone is a [...]

  116. Girls Gone Wild: Dade City Journal, Spring Break Edition - Tenured Radical - The Chronicle of Higher Education on 21 Jun 2011 at 2:39 pm #

    [...] tuned: the Radical returns from vacation and adds her bit to the Judith Bennett Round Table. This entry was posted in Cows, Go With the Herd Why Don't You?, Vacation. Bookmark the [...]

  117. Teach This Book! Judith Bennett's History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism (Part 3 Of A Blogfest) - Tenured Radical - The Chronicle of Higher Education on 25 Jun 2011 at 9:54 am #

    [...] this series may wish to begin with the post by Notorious, PH.D. (March 2), and proceed to Historiann’s contribution (March 9). As a bonus, who but our very own Historiann would have the ova to refer to [...]

  118. Seminar CXII: ladies love generalisations based on gender | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe on 14 Jun 2012 at 1:27 pm #

    [...] round-table that was mounted at Blogenspiel and The Adventures of Notorious, Ph.D., among other places, on Judith Bennett’s book, History Matters, but also because the author of Blogenspiel [...]

  119. Lean in, ask for equal pay, get fired. : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present on 15 May 2014 at 9:02 am #

    […] I’d also assign passages of it to my students when we read about patriarchal equilibrium (h/t Judith Bennett) in my […]

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