women, spread your….wing

found a wonderful expression to describe my distrust of consciously women-based history: purdah of scholarship, a woman’s wing of history writing to and for itself — where ideas of women scarcely cause ripples outside the tokenism of a highly specialized gender studies, a kind of ‘women’s quarters’ of the royal academic palace. Feminist scholarship can and does flourish wonderfully where it draws on an academic community operating from similar premises, language sets and standards of critique, but it seems to me to simultaneously imply an unfruitful segregation — such as political parties in Malaysia in the 1970s, which spawned a multitude of ‘Women’s Wing of X Party’ in the name of female emancipation into the political arena, even though the very idea of a ‘women’s wing’ marginalizes as much as it empowers — I think.

Another problem arises when I consider women on a transnational scale — how European women in the colonies cast their non-European counterparts as necessary inferiors by showering them with sympathetic goodwill as to their ‘backwardness’; so impressing on them the need to ‘modernize’ or ‘progress’ to their level of development. I think about such dichotomies (modernity v. backwardness seemingly always juxtaposed with male v. female, strength v. weakness, occident v. orient, patriarch v. matriarch) and whether these are inherent in the world (“real”, if you will) or whether they are, so to speak, arithmetic products of a calculus of Judeo-Christian or even Confucian patriarchal structures.

in this way I also become skeptical of the notion of a “universal sisterhood”, which obviates racial and cultural differences in the cause of sexual singularity — surely this has led to all sorts of vicissitudes about e.g. whether the niqaab is oppressive for women or not (this is not a clear cut answer) and implies that a certain conception of freedom is an unmitigated universal (something I also have problems with).

apologies for incoherence — I am trying to work out my gut distrust of feminist history & nothing is quite fossilized yet, so I am open to any thoughts.


7 responses to “women, spread your….wing

  • Gavin Robinson

    Feminist history has problems, but maybe those problems were created by patriarchy. I think you’re right that women’s history needs to be thoroughly integrated into history rather than being kept separate, so that no historians ignore women. On the other hand we need to redress the balance because until 20 or 30 years ago, pretty much all secondary works on history were effectively men’s history, even though they claimed to be just history. Maybe there doesn’t need to be a conflict between those two aims. Old books which don’t give enough consideration to women could just be rejected as out of date, but first everyone needs to recognise that ignoring gender is a serious weakness.

    I’ll be testing the water with my work on saddlers in 17th century London. Ideally I’d like to integrate male and female saddlers into the same work and consider them equally, but I suspect that people will take more notice of a paper that’s just about the female ones, because women are “sexy”. Or maybe I’m just being paranoid…

  • rAchel

    Interesting, because I think a paper that is just about women tends to be noticed largely by just women. Example: in my university there is a Gender & History workshop, which is attended by anywhere from 5 to 20 women, and about 1 man. One might counter that by saying that the Military History workshop is attended by 20 men and 1 woman — but then, no one is claiming that military events have been left out of history: attendance of military history workshops are an expression of specialized interest, not a movement to address a deficiency.

    what I suppose I am trying to say is: if it is by and large women who are interested in refocusing gender in history, that is not really addressing the deep-seated patriarchy of history, since women-writing-gender-history then get marginalized right along with women-in-history. In perhaps an ironic reassertion of patriarchy, it seems to me that gender history needs to not be the purview of women academics in order to attain a greater academic legitimacy…

  • Kyle

    To what extent do you think it is that women attend women’s history classes and workshops because they are (intentionally or not) designed to be of interest to women? And, conversely, to what extent are they designed to be of interest to women for the simple reason that their audience is overwhelmingly female?

    Along similar lines, while there are approaches to history that are male-centered (the great man approach, for example), there is no male-centered discipline as such (that I know of). And it is logical, after all, that something called “women’s history” will largely be attractive to women, particularly given the “deep-seated patriarchy” you speak of. Women’s history, even the less polemic name “gender studies”, is automatically a challenge to the status quo of History as It Stands, meaning it cannot help but be liberal, even radical and, as such, too easy for any self-respecting, institutionalized patriarchy to dismiss. Disciplines are notoriously stubborn to change, and current approaches to women’s studies, generally characterized by even the educated public as radical feminism (albeit wrongly), lose their appeal to the largely conservative male voices with the power to make the changes sought after.

    So the question is how we can refocus existing disciplines in such a way that they reflect the interests of women’s history in a seemingly less ideologically radical way? Often the best and most satisfying way to be subversive is to work within the boundaries of a system to force it to change without even realizing it.

    Taking the tone of this comment down slightly, I would like to modify Gavin’s statement about women being sexy (and therefore generating interest) to slightly circumvent rAchel’s criticism that a paper about women will largely be noticed only by women. Women performing within traditionally male roles–defined broadly and quite unfairly as anything *not* nearly exclusively female–are extraordinarily vogue these days, and will ultimately draw far more attention than a study of women in traditionally female roles.

  • andrew weiss

    Kyle said: “To what extent do you think it is that women attend women’s history classes and workshops because they are (intentionally or not) designed to be of interest to women? And, conversely, to what extent are they designed to be of interest to women for the simple reason that their audience is overwhelmingly female?”

    Surely the point being made is that women’s history is mostly interesting to women, and therefore its appeal to women is inherent and leads to an overwhelmingly female audience. It does not seem to me to be a question of whether it is “intentional” design or not, nor even that it is necessarily “design”. If you are saying that only women attend women’s history workshops because they were designed for women, because only women are interested in women’s history, that is surely a circular argument . . .

    I do not think gender history is as radical now as you might make it out to be, yet it nevertheless still continues to matter more to women than men. I think men are simply less interested in gendering history . . . academia is still a very patriarchal system. As one historian said, ‘Feminist scholarship, existing in between a social movement and the academy, has a mistress and a master, and guess which one pays wages.’ No prizes for guessing whether this historian was a man or a woman.

  • Gavin Robinson

    Kyle: “Women performing within traditionally male roles–defined broadly and quite unfairly as anything *not* nearly exclusively female–are extraordinarily vogue these days, and will ultimately draw far more attention than a study of women in traditionally female roles.”

    That’s a very important distinction. Thinking about it in the light of that, my work on saddlers is potentially “sexy” not because it’s about women, but because it’s about women running businesses in their own right in the City of London and making money out of supplying the New Model Army.

    It could be that people who are vaguely interested in women’s history but don’t research it themselves are still stuck in the revisionist phase (characterised by Amy Erickson’s Women and Property) which focuses on women’s agency. I can see how that would be attractive to a wide range of people, but I’m trying to find a different angle because to me “look, here’s some women doing male things” isn’t that exciting in itself. Historians at the cutting edge of women’s history are trying to move beyond that oppression vs agency dialectic and consider a wider range of factors than property law. Ironically a major contribution to this movement is being made by men (eg Alastair Owens, David Green).

  • Kyle

    Gavin: The argument most certainly is circular, and intentionally so.

    Also, my point was not that gender history is radical, but that perhaps it is all too easy to characterize it as a radical ideology rather than a serious scholarly enterprise.

  • transatlantic pursuits « a historian’s craft

    […] it may be that I am to publish with another journal, if/when I get my act together.  despite my somewhat ill-substantiated reservations about gender history (and the discussion on that link is worth reading), and despite having moved on to something rather […]

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