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Writing Gender History


On 18 March 1920, Virginia Woolf reminded readers of the venerable Times Literary Supplement that, despite the existence of isolated works on the history of women (one of which she had reviewed that day), the lives and condition of women in history remained shrouded in profound obscurity: ‘It has been common knowledge for ages that women exist, bear children, have no beards, and seldom go bald,’ wrote Woolf with acerbic wit, ‘but save in these respects, and in others where they are said to be identical with men, we know little of them and have little sound evidence upon which to base our conclusions. Moreover, we are seldom dispassionate.’1 And indeed, aside from the work of a few maverick pioneers, to whom the history of women offered fresh and challenging terrain, women’s history would continue to languish in the shadows of which Woolf had complained until the 1960s, when the first stirrings of renewed political activism (feminism’s muchvaunted ‘second wave’) turned the sustained attention of historians and activists towards the recovery and analysis of those who remained ‘hidden from history’.

This volume explores the evolution of historical writing about women and gender since the turn of the twentieth century. It focuses primarily on the literatures generated by European and American historians, and pays special attention to developments since the late 1960s. Throughout the volume, we will consider the epistemological consequences that the birth and development of women’s and gender history in tandem with a very present-minded political movement have had for the field as a whole. Yet discussion will focus neither on abstract theory nor on historiography per se, but rather upon the practical application of theory in historical scholarship on women and gender. The chapters are organized more thematically than chronologically, though there is a gradual progression from early to mid- to late twentieth century, as the discussion moves from women’s history to gender history and then to poststructuralist challenges to women’s and gender history. At the core of each chapter lie detailed analyses of one or two works of feminist scholarship around which I have sought to build a textually grounded discussion of the various debates and developments that have marked the evolution of women’s and gender history as sub-disciplines.

Of course, you might ask, why write a book on the development of women’s and gender history? The answer to that question is twofold. First, the fields of women’s and gender history have expanded dramatically in the 40 years since feminism’s second wave first crashed on the shores of Europe and North America, showing great vigour and variety in the breadth of subjects tackled and the range of methodologies explored. The sheer energy with which feminist scholarship has unfolded and the diverse forms it has taken seem justification enough for undertaking such a survey. But there is a second, yet more compelling reason to trace the development of women’s and gender history, and that is the central role that feminist scholarship has played in the recent evolution of the historical discipline itself. From the complacent reign of macro-social analysis in the 1960s and 1970s to the ‘crisis’ of such analysis in the 1980s to the cultural and linguistic (or poststructuralist) turns through which that crisis was expressed at the turn of the 1990s, feminist critics and historians have played a crucial part in the often searing ‘theory wars’ that have divided the discipline for the last 25 years. Women’s and gender history thus provide a privileged vantage point from which to consider the larger epistemological debates that have shaken the discipline since the late 1970s. For, as we will see, those debates were very often driven by the frustration of feminist scholars with the limits of traditional approaches when it came to accounting for the specific experiences of women in history.

Due to constraints of space, and the specifics of my own areas of expertise, I have chosen to analyse at some length a fairly limited series of works drawn essentially from the modern period (1750 to the present), and from France, the UK, Germany and the USA, with brief forays into medieval Europe and colonial Africa and India. While this has required that I leave aside much excellent and important research, I believe the closer focus on a selected number of books and articles will allow certain trends that have shaped the fields of women’s and gender history to emerge with greater clarity. As a preliminary to the analysis of major texts and concepts that constitutes the main work of this book, the following brief overview lays out several of these trends in a brief survey of the changing shape of the women’s and gender history fields over the period 1970–2000.

From women’s history to gender history : an overview

In the early 1970s, feminist scholars and activists founded the first women’s studies courses in universities and adult education programmes across the USA and Europe.2 ‘1973: the first course on women at Jussieu,’ recalls Michelle Perrot. ‘On the 7th of November, Andrée Michel opened fire with a lecture on “Women and the family in developed societies.” The lecture hall was packed, the atmosphere over-heated by the hostility of leftist [male] students for whom the study of women was but a distraction from the real work of revolution.’3 But such resistance merely fuelled feminist scholars’ determination to recover their own history, a history that had been unjustly banished from view, a history that could serve to reinforce feminist politics by offering a historically grounded account of women’s identity as a group distinct from men. As publications accumulated, feminist historians moved from their initial, hesitant question, ‘Is it possible to write a history of women?’ (and what might it look like?), towards the more confidant formulation that to write a history without women was a foolhardy endeavour indeed, for it would be to tell barely half the story.4

Fired by an enthusiasm that was at once political and intellectual, feminist scholars, students and activists engaged in individual and collective projects of research and teaching whose accumulated, and sometimes unexpected, results did not always fit smoothly into the existing narratives of history.5 The problem of integrating the ‘women’s story’ soon prompted feminist scholars to challenge the traditional contours of their discipline by posing a new and difficult question: is women’s history merely an ‘innocuous supplement’ to existing narratives, or does the integration of these new stories and perspectives demand that the analytic structures themselves be reshaped?6 For if, as the growing body of scholarship on women suggested, gender identity was not a biological given but a social and historical creation, then the task of the historian was no longer merely adding women to an existing narrative whose outlines were familiar. Rather, her task was now to excavate the precise meanings that femininity and masculinity have carried in the past, to demonstrate the evolution of those meanings over time, and so reveal the historically constructed nature of these concepts in our present world.

From early on, then, feminist scholars were committed not merely to adding new material to the historical record, but also to changing the analytic structures of historical practice. Crucial to this ambition was the distinction drawn between biological sex, understood as the material and unchanging ground of one’s identity, and the infinitely malleable carapace of gender, a socially constructed series of behaviours that code one as male or female, but that vary across time and space in such a way as to reveal their constructed nature.7 Women (and men, for that matter) were thus made and not born, and much productive research proceeded on the ground of the sex/gender distinction, as feminist historians smoked out the various ways that gender, understood as a socially constructed system of difference, had operated to shape social relations and understandings of self in societies past.

Women’s history was fast transforming itself into a broader history of gender relations, though not without protest from scholars who feared that the turn to gender signalled the abandonment of women’s history as a feminist political project.8 Yet the very move by which women’s historians had underscored the constructed nature of male and female roles in society had already destabilized the notion of identity as an essential, natural property. In this sense, gender history was immanent in the very development of women’s history, and feminist scholars moved increasingly towards the study of gender as a way to locate the experiences of women in a broader context, while arguing for the gendered nature of all human experience, and not simply that of women.9

The shift from women’s history to gender history over the course of the 1980s thus had several important consequences, not the least of which was to contribute to the development of an entirely new arena of research: that of masculinity and ‘men’s studies’, a field that was to expand and develop rapidly during the 1990s. But de-essentializing maleness and femaleness by underscoring their historical construction also met a vital intellectual need of the young sub-discipline, by taking these categories out of the timeless realm of eternal verities, where male dominance and women’s subordination were written into the very order of things, and returning them to the stream of history. By the same token, de-essentializing the category ‘woman’ served an equally important political goal, underscoring the historical, and hence changeable, non-necessary content of the category as it is deployed in contemporary politics and social policy.

Finally, it was argued that the turn to gender would give feminist scholarship greater impact on the shape of the historical discipline itself. For by the mid-1980s, it was clear that women’s history on its own had failed to transform the epistemological bases of the historical discipline, despite the conviction of many feminist historians that the integration of the women’s story rendered such transformation inevitable. Rather, women’s history was being researched and taught alongside the standard narratives of ‘real’ history, without affecting those narratives in any fundamental way. The only way to break out of this intellectual ghetto, it was argued, was to cease focusing exclusively on women and follow instead the mutual construction of masculinities and femininities as they have evolved over time. Drawing heavily from the anthropologist’s tool kit, historians of gender sought to render the study of sexual division an instrument of historical analysis by arguing that such divisions are rooted in a more global sexual division of social, symbolic and political space. Any history worth the name would henceforth have to abandon the pretext that the masculine represents a neutral and universal history of the species, while the feminine remains the particular object of a revendicating identity politics. Rather, historians of any subject, whether military, social, political or diplomatic, would henceforth have to identify the gendered constitution of their object of analysis, to demonstrate how it had been coded masculine or feminine and then explain what the consequences of that gendering have been for its evolution in time. For gender (unlike women) was everywhere, or so the theory went.

Feminist scholars’ desire to render women visible in history thus resulted ultimately in a broader conceptual vision of the social distinction of the sexes; a less militantly woman-centred concept, perhaps, but one which has nonetheless altered historical practice, not only among feminist scholars but among many of their male colleagues as well. Feminist politics and the demands of scholarship thus remained tightly intertwined in the intellectual history of the discipline, even as its practitioners moved outwards from the particulars of women’s history to a more universal history of gender, understood as a fundamental aspect of social being and social order.10

Throughout its initial phase of development, women’s history had been riding the people’s history wave, which, fed by a number of streams (notably the Annales school and the ‘new social history’ movement), peaked in the 1960s and early 1970s. In this, the golden age of social history, where scholars strove to restore the voices of common people to history, women found their place as a prime example of the generally-unheard-from in standard history textbooks.11 In addition, the link to social history gave women’s history a strong orientation towards labour history, which was reinforced by the conviction, common to 1970s feminists in Europe and the USA, that one key to women’s liberation from the patriarchal domination of fathers and husbands lay in their finding paid employment outside the home.12

Social and labour history would continue to dominate the emerging fields of women’s and gender history until the late 1980s, by which point historians in general, and women’s and gender historians in particular, began turning away from social history, with its basis in macro-structural forms of analysis (social and economic structures as determinants of individual behaviour), towards more cultural and discursive forms of analysis, often grounded in more micro-historical contexts. Thanks to their long-standing recourse to the notion of social construction in the study of masculinities and femininities past, feminist historians found themselves on the cutting edge of this larger poststructuralist movement in historical analysis. For at the very moment that feminist critiques of an essentializing women’s history were driving the growth and elaboration of gender history, the entire discipline of social history was engaged as a whole in the search for more nuanced ways of addressing the relationships among the social, material and cultural aspects of history. Frustrated by the limits of earlier, social-science-driven and/or Marxist perspectives, scholars across the discipline placed increasing stress on the importance of the play between representation and social reality. Here, the use of the notion of social construction (in this case of sex/gender) became a way to navigate between the two.

At a time when the discipline of social history was pushing up against the limits of earlier models and conceptualizations, then, feminist historians carved out an avant-garde role for themselves as theoretical and methodological innovators, developing fruitful new approaches that were grounded in psychoanalytic understandings of gender identity-formation, and in the insights of radical feminist consciousness-raising groups into the inherently political nature of domestic gender relations, which are, after all, relations of power. The feminist challenge to stable social categories like male and female, achieved through the historical study of gender relations as they have shifted in time, thus preceded the arrival of poststructuralist theory in departments of history, which arrived bearing the chic banner of ‘French theory’. Although such theory had blossomed in departments of language and literature since the late 1970s, the message came to history rather late in the day, borne notably by Joan Wallach Scott in her famous essay, ‘Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis’, first published in the American Historical Review in 1986.13

Feminist historians would thus play a leading role in the theoretical and methodological debates that shook the discipline from the late 1980s into the mid-1990s. As we will see, these debates would upset the epistemological certitudes on which history had confidently rested, notably the idea that textual sources give us a direct window onto the past. At the same time, they challenged the original synthesis of scholarship and politics that had characterized women’s and gender history, by casting doubt on the notion that at the core of each individual subject lies a stable and coherent identity. In order to explore more concretely what the turn from women’s to gender history – and the subsequent engagement with poststructuralism – have meant for the practice of women’s and gender history, the remainder of this book discusses the major theoretical and methodological contributions of feminist scholarship since the turn of the twentieth century through a close analysis of particular texts and arguments and their location within the broader historical discipline.

Writing Gender History - Notes and Bibliography:

1. Virginia Woolf, review of Léonie Villard, La Femme anglaise au XIXe siècle et son évolution d’après le roman anglais contemporain (Henry Didier, 1920), first published in the Times Literary Supplement, 18 March 1920, cited in Rachel Bowlby (ed.), Virginia Woolf: A Woman’s Essays (London, 1992), 18.

2. While feminism is itself a contested word, and one whose meaning has, moreover, shifted over the course of the women’s rights movement, one can nonetheless establish a broad definition of the term, one that embraces all who find women’s subordinate status to be unjust, and who, furthermore, believe that there is nothing inevitable about this status: it is a product of human convention and can therefore be changed through human effort.

3. Scott, Joan WallachMichelle Perrot, Les Femmes ou les silences de l’histoire (Paris, 1998), xi–xii.

4. I refer here to the famous pair of conferences in women’s history organized by the University of Toulouse-Le-Mirail in 1983 and 1997, titled, respectively, ‘Une histoire des femmes est-elle possible?’ and ‘Une histoire sans les femmes, est-elle possible?’.

5. The scope and scale of this rapid ‘primitive accumulation’ in women’s history can be measured by the number of new journals that sprang up overnight, some, like Pénélope (France) or Memoria (Italy), destined to die after just a few years, others, like Signs and Feminist Studies (USA), Women’s History Yearbook (Netherlands), L’Homme (Austria) Arenal (Spain) and Women’s Studies International Quarterly (UK), are still going strong some 40 years later. At the end of the 1980s and early 1990s, a new generation of journals appeared, including Clio and Travail, genre et sociétés (France), Gender & History (based in the UK but co-edited in the USA), Women’s History Review (UK) and The Journal of Women’s History (USA).

6. On women’s history as an ‘innocuous supplement’, see Joan W. Scott, ‘Women’s History: The Emergence of a New Field’, in Peter Burke (ed.), New Perspectives in Historical Writing (University Park, PA, 1989).

7. For more on the sex/gender distinction see Annie Oakley, Sex, Gender and Society (London, 1972); Gayle Rubin, ‘The Traffic in Women: Notes on the Political Economy of Sex’, in Rayna Reiter (ed.), Towards an Anthropology of Women (New York, 1975), 157–210; Michèle Barrett, Women’s Oppression Today: Problems in Marxist-Feminist Analysis (London, 1980); and Joan W. Scott, ‘Gender: A Useful Category of Analysis’, American Historical Review, 91 (1986), 1053–75, reprinted in Joan Scott, Gender and the Politics of History (New York, 1988). For a critique of the ironclad division between biology and culture on which the sex/gender distinction rests, see Mary Midgley, ‘On Not Being Afraid of Natural Sex Difference’, in Morwenna Griffiths and Margaret Whitford (eds), Feminist Perspectives in Philosophy (London, 1988); and Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York, 1990).

8. See Judith Bennett, ‘Feminism and History’, Gender & History, 1:3 (Autumn 1989), 251–71; and Joan Hoff, ‘Gender as a Postmodern Category of Paralysis’, Women’s History Review 3:2 (1994), 149–68. Of course, plenty of feminist historians see no necessary opposition between women’s and gender history, but rather a continuity of aims and practices, notably, the common goal of restructuring the historical record using the analytic tool of sexual difference, understood as a social construct, to recast our understanding of societies past. See Jane Rendall, ‘Review Article: Women’s History: Beyond the Cage?’, History, 75 (1990), 63–72.

9. Gianna Pomata has argued that women’s history and gender history must be understood as inextricably linked in the dialectic movement from the particular (women’s history) to general history and back again, with gender history serving as a conduit between the two: ‘With its higher claim to generality, gender history can be the bridge that connects the particulars discovered by women’s history with wider social contexts, and therefore with the space occupied by general history.’ Gianna Pomata, ‘Close-ups and Long Shots: Combining Particular and General in Writing the Histories of Women and Men’, in Hans Medick and Anne-Charlotte Trepp, Geschlectergeschichte und Allgemeine Geschichte (Goettingen, 1998), 117.

10. ‘Relations between the sexes are a primary aspect of social organization.’ Joan W. Scott, ‘Women’s History’, in Scott, Gender and the Politics of History, 25.

11. On this point, see Maxine Berg, A Woman in History. Eileen Power, 1889–1940 (Cambridge, 1996)..

12. The focus on work was especially pronounced in the English literature, but was quite visible in the American, French and German literatures of the 1970s and 1980s as well.

13. The Subaltern school of history, with its concern for understanding the articulation of nation and class, occupied a similarly advanced position theoretically. See below, Chapter 8.

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