In 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 wearing a tube skirt and tights and an oversized sweater (or, if you’re really lucky, a big leather jacket like the one Molly Ringwald wore in The Breakfast Club.) You’re listening to Madonna’s latest hit single, reading about her upcoming wedding to Sean Penn, and wondering if Boris Becker really has a shot at the Wimbledon men’s singles championship at age 17. Then, you open up your latest copy of the New York Review of Books–what can I say? You were a precocious teenager, right?–and you see this review of The Weaker Vessel by Antonia Fraser and Women in English Society, 1500–1800, a collection of essays edited by Mary Prior. Stone begins his review like this:
Before beginning a discussion of the books under review, I must first set out the ten commandments which should, in my opinion, govern the writing of women’s history at any time and in any place:
1. Thou shalt not write about women except in relation to men and children. Women are not a distinct caste, and their history is a story of complex interactions;
2. 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;
3. Thou shalt not forget that in the past nearly all women paid at least lip service to the idea that they were in all respects inferior to men, as ordained by God. The only area in which they were thought to be clearly stronger was in their sexual voracity, their capacity to have multiple orgasms, but this was more a source of shame and temptation than of pride;
4. Thou shalt not confuse prescriptive norms with social reality;
5. Thou shalt exercise subtlety in recognizing diversity, ambivalence, and ambiguity concerning the relative strength of love, sex, money, birth, parental authority, and brute force in determining the choice of a spouse;
6. Thou shalt not assume the ubiquity in the past of modern emotional patterns—neither premarital love, nor conjugal affection, nor maternal devotion to infants. Circumstances and culture are often stronger than natural instincts;
7. Thou shalt not exaggerate the importance in the past of gender over that of power, status, and wealth, even if all women experienced the same biological destiny;
8. Thou shalt not use the biographies of a handful of exceptional (usually upper-class) ladies to describe the experience of the majority of (necessarily lower-class) women;
9. Thou shalt be clear about what constitutes real change in the experience and treatment of women;
10. Thou shalt not omit to analyze with care the structural constraints on women created by values, religion, customs, laws, and the nature of the economy.
When Joan Scott wrote in the following month to ask, rhetorically, “[a]bout what other subject would even as consistently audacious a scholar as Professor Stone presume he could speak as God?” Stone feigned incomprehension. He wrote these Ten Commandments, he claims, “never imagining for a moment that anyone would suspect me to be claiming to speak for God or Moses, or indeed anyone but myself.”
Stone’s intentions are of minor importance, although the rest of his reply reads like one of those non-apology fake apologies that go something like, “I’m sorry if anyone was offended by what I wrote. . . ” My estimation is that at least ten out of ten of these commandments are either pointless because they apply to all historians, or insufficient, or just plain wrong. Discuss!
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