Is the rise of gender history 'hiding' women from history once again?
By Dr Joanne Bailey (this page) and Dr John Arnold.
Dr Joanne Bailey (New Hall, Cambridge)
Recovering the lives of women from the neglect of historians was the goal of women's history from its inception. Its methodology and interests have evolved over time as it has become established as an academic discipline. From its early origins in cataloguing great women in history, in the 1970s it turned to recording ordinary women's expectations, aspirations and status. Then, with the rise of the feminist movement, the emphasis shifted in the 1980s towards exposing the oppression of women and examining how they responded to discrimination and subordination. In more recent times women's history has moved to charting female agency, recognising women's strategies, accommodations and negotiations within a male dominated world. Although it developed out of the feminist agenda, gender history has somewhat different objectives. Recognising that femininity and masculinity are to some extent social constructs, it investigates how institutions are gendered and how institutions gender individuals. In a short space of time gender has become an indispensable category for historical analysis alongside class and race. While this is to be applauded, gender history is not without its problems. One of its most prolific areas of research is the history of men as a sex and the changing nature of masculinity. Though gender is a relational concept, women and femininity have been marginalised in some of these studies. Indeed one historian of masculinity, Toby Ditz, has recently warned that this risks 'restoring men - however particularised, differentiated and socially constructed - to the centre of our historical narrative'. (1) Thus it is time to ask whether gender history is 'hiding' women from history again.
As sobering as these timely warnings are, there are several reasons why it is unlikely that women will disappear from the historical gaze.
First, gender history is not incompatible with, or antagonistic to, exploring women in history. Indeed, the tools of gender analysis are essential to advance our knowledge of women further. To understand female experience and identity formulation, for example, it is necessary to investigate gender relationships between women and men, and to explore men's identities and their ability to achieve and exercise patriarchal power over women as well as over each other. To chart how ideas about femininity change over time, scholars need to identify normative gender constructions and conflict around them. Gender is also a category of analysis that enables historians to perceive the causes and maintenance of women's inequality. Gender history even highlights the remaining gaps in our understandings of women. For instance, while most historical studies of early modern or eighteenth-century English masculinity expose the diversity of male identities - or masculinities - there are very few published studies of English femininity in these periods, let alone many exploring whether women also confronted a range of constructions of femininity.
Second, there is substantial blurring of boundaries between women's history and gender history as, to some extent, they can be seen as synonymous. This is evident in the secondary sources themselves. Widely used textbooks with gender in their titles are in fact frequently organised around women, their life cycles and their concerns. (2) The reading lists of courses on gender history, for which such textbooks are intended, are made up as much from studies of women as from those of masculinity, or theoretical and conceptual works. Monographs and edited collections regularly use both 'gender' and 'women' in their titles and thus reviewers frequently discuss developments of both fields of history in thematic reviews. (3) Specialist journals in women's and gender history also take an inclusive stance. To take two examples, the Women's History Review welcomes contributions from a range of disciplines that encourage debate about women and/or gender relations in history. Gender & History's notes for contributors eschew the term 'women', but the journal nevertheless regularly includes several articles entirely devoted to women in history. The interchangeable use of terms is also reflected in internet sites. The Internet Women's History Sourcebook , for example, which offers resources for a huge range of periods and places, situates 'gender construction' among other relevant organising sub-titles such as: 'great women', 'women's oppression', 'women's lives', 'women's agency', and 'feminism'. The WWW Virtual Library Women's History site offers web-resources under the heading 'Women's and Gender History'. Likewise, searching on the internet for 'gender history' produces women's history sites as well as gender ones. The crucial point is that if students engage in gender history they engage in women's history and vice-versa.
Third, the fact that scholars are asking conceptual and methodological questions about both gender and women's history reveals the vitality of both fields and points to their continuing evolution. Such questioning should avoid the fate of obscuring women in history and instead lead to new opportunities for more research about women. For instance, scholars entering the field will inevitably need to engage with recent claims that masculinity is only comprehensible when fully integrated with the history of women and, in the view of some, with feminist concepts of male-female power differentials.
Finally, women's history is alive and well. Books and articles continue to be published covering many periods and places, both traditional and innovative in content and approach. That these find an academic and popular audience indicates that the desire to know about women in the past will continue to stimulate important further work.
The key to keeping women in history visible and to encouraging new and exciting ways of retaining them on research agendas is to ensure that women's historians and gender historians communicate and collaborate with one another. After all, to borrow Clifford Geertz's observation, women's and gender historians deal with the same 'grand realities...Power, Change, Faith, Oppression, Work, Passion, Authority, Beauty, Violence, Love, [and] Prestige'. (4) They can explore how such realities influenced and affected women and men in numerous ways in seminars and conferences with integrated agendas, and through large research projects, forging links within and across institutions. If anything, then, there is more opportunity for revealing women in history now that gender is successfully established as a discipline.
1. T. Ditz, 'The new men's history and the peculiar absence of gendered power: some remedies from early American gender history', Gender & History, 16.1 (2004), 1-35, at p. 7.
2. See, for example, R. Shoemaker, Gender in English Society 1650-1850 (1998).
3. For example E. J. Clapp, 'New directions in American women's history', Gender & History, 16.2 (2004), 476-79; and S. H. Rigby, 'Gender and the family in pre-industrial Europe', Gender & History, 15.2 (2003), 361-5.
4. Point made about the shared concerns of anthropologists, historians, economists, sociologists and political scientists. C. Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures (1973), p. 21.
If you would like to contribute to this discussion or write an article for one of the forthcoming issues of History in Focus, on 'The sea', 'The Cold War' and 'Race and ethnicity', please contact the Assistant Editor, Lindsey Dodd for details.