Record Linkage: project workshop and work in progress

Standard

We’re holding an afternoon workshop on record/data linkage in Sheffield on 4 November. The aim is to explore the challenges and rewards of applying automated nominal record linkage to large-scale historical datasets, with all their variability, fuzziness and uncertainties, but we’d also very much welcome participants and insights from all fields concerned with data linkage including social sciences, health sciences and computer science. In addition to presentations about our work in progress on 90,000 19th-century prisoners and convicts, we have guest speakers who will bring extensive experience of historical record linkage projects to the discussion. It’s free to attend and anyone with an interest, at any stage of their academic career, is welcome (I’d particularly love to see plenty of PhD students!). More info can be found on our website here (and there’s also a programme to download).

Record linkage is really at the heart of the Digital Panopticon project’s goals to explore the impact of the different types of punishments on Old Bailey Online defendants between about 1780 and 1875 (along with working on data visualisations for exploring, presenting and communicating the data and research findings). Our research questions include: How can we improve current record-linkage processes to maximise both the number of individuals linked across different datasets and the amount of information obtained about each individual? What is the minimum amount of contextual information needed in order to conduct successful large-scale record linkage of data pertaining to specific individuals?

I’ve blogged in the past about problems associated with historical record linkage where you don’t have handy unique IDs (like, say, National Insurance numbers): names are often crucial but are highly problematic, and problems with a source like Old Bailey Online that tells us about sentences but not actual punishments. Those are among our biggest headaches with Digital Panopticon.

There are a lot of missing people when we link OBO to transportation records, and a lot of possible reasons for linking to fail. There might be errors in the data created at almost any point between the making of the original source and our production of a specific dataset to feed to the computer: eg, if you’re extracting a London-only subset from a national dataset and you’re not careful, you might also end up with records from Londonderry. Oops. (“You” there is an euphemism for “I”. )

Then there are problems caused by spelling variations in names, or the use of aliases and different names. And the problem of common names. As I blogged before: “How do you decide whether one Robert Scott is the same person as another Robert Scott, or someone else altogether?” But that gets much worse when the name in question is “Mary Smith”.

And the fails that are due to the gaps in our data: Were they pardoned? Did they die in prison or on the hulks before they could be transported? And so we are on a quest to track down sources that can tell us these things and fill the gaps (not all of which have been digitised; some of which have probably not even survived, especially from the 18th century).

Irreconcilable conflicts can emerge between different sources (eg, different trial dates and places). At this point we have to turn to the specialist knowledge of the project team on how, when and where particular sources were created so we can attempt to rate the relative reliability of two conflicting sources. But how are we going to handle those weightings when we’re dealing with  thousands of people and the links are all probables anyway? (Just because source A is generally more reliable for a certain piece of information than source B doesn’t mean A is always right and B is always wrong if they’re in conflict.)

So there will be plenty to discuss at the workshop and for the next three years!

For tasters of what we’ve been getting up to so far:

Repost: Tyburn’s Martyrs

Standard

[Originally posted here, November 2007]

The criminals went to the place of execution in the following order, Morgan, Webb, and Wolf, in the first cart; Moore in a mourning coach; Wareham and Burk in the second cart; Tilley, Green, and Howell in the third; Lloyd on a sledge; on their arrival at Tyburn they were all put into one cart. They all behaved with seriousness and decency. Mary Green professed her innocence to the last moment of the fact for which she died, cleared Ann Basket, and accused the woman who lodged in the room where the fact was committed. As Judith Tilley appeared under terrible agonies, Mary Green applied herself to her, and said, do not be concerned at this death because it is shameful, for I hope God will have mercy upon our souls; Catharine Howell likewise appeared much dejected, trembled and was under very fearful apprehensions; all the rest seemed to observe an equal conduct, except Moore, who, when near dying, shed a flood of tears. In this manner they took their leave of this transitory life, and are gone to be disposed of as shall seem best pleasing to that all-wise Being who first gave them existence.*

In my research sources before I came to Sheffield, capital punishment appeared fairly infrequently, briefly and usually in the future tense: typically, the marginal note ‘suspendatur’ (abbreviated to sur’ or sr’), ‘to be hanged’. Even those terse notes of an event 300 years old, which quite possibly didn’t happen anyway (as many of those sentenced were reprieved), always disturbed me slightly.

I read the records of homicides and coroners’ inquests – murders, gruesome accidents, negligence and cruelty – and they are distressing and disturbing, yet they don’t evoke quite the same sense of culture shock as do the accounts of executions and ‘Last Dying Speeches’. We aren’t simply talking about the execution of murderers here: in the 18th century burglars, robbers, pickpockets, horse thieves, sheep- and cattle-rustlers, forgers and counterfeiters could all face slow, horrible deaths, in most cases public strangulation, and this was regarded by most people as perfectly normal and civilised. (Indeed, there were those who thought that hanging was not punishment enough.)

In my new job, I’ve spent some time reading Ordinary’s Accounts, which are one of the many sources we’re digitising. These are rich and fascinating sources, full of stories of the lives of common people. But they are also stories of death, and they give me the willies – not least because ordinary, decent, intelligent people in the 18th century had no problem with the idea of pickpockets, shoplifters, burglars, sheep rustlers, forgers and counterfeiters, receiving exactly the same punishment as murderers.

So, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of Andrea McKenzie, since she has written an entire, densely detailed book about the subject and the source: Tyburn’s Martyrs: Execution in England 1675-1775. She must be a tougher soul than me.

In fact, at the very beginning of the book she mentions some of the bemused reactions she received from people learning what her research topic was, including the gentleman who suggested that she should study “something pleasant, like great battles”. Continue reading

Repost: Of cats, rabbits and monstrous births

Standard

[Originally posted here, February 2005.]

A couple of blog posts about monstrous births in the early modern period over the last few days: Natalie at Philobiblon discussing Agnes Bowker (supposedly delivered of a cat-like creature in 1568), and Ephelia on Mary Toft (who was reported to have given birth to a large number of rabbits in 1726). Mary Toft’s case is the better-known, to us at first an amusing tale of a trickster; when we learn that she had genuinely suffered a miscarriage, perhaps a little less so. But there’s a wider cultural context to both cases.

Such stories were commonly reported in print: Cressy’s essay on Agnes Bowker refers to many of them, and there is a further chapter on monstrous births in his book.* He suggests that contemporaries explained them in a range of possible ways: freaks of nature or manifestations of divine power; judgements or punishments against individuals or communities; portents of coming catastrophes, or even of the end of the world. Or they could simply be treated as freak-show entertainment.

Very often, the cases are associated with the widespread belief that what the experiences of a pregnant mother – beautiful or shocking, but most often the latter – could physically imprint themselves on her unborn child. In the case of Mary Toft, it was reported that she

hath made oath, That two months ago, being working in a field with other women, they put up a rabbit; who running from them, they pursued it, but to no purpose: This created in her such a longing to it, that she (being with child) was taken ill, and miscarried; and, from that time, she hath not been able to avoid thinking of rabbits.

(Agnes Bowker, on the other hand, claimed to have had sex with a human lover and with the Devil in the shape of (at various times) a man, a greyhound and a cat. As Natalie says, she was very likely trying to cover up an abortion or infanticide.)

Herman Roodenburg’s detailed study of the phenomenon of the ‘maternal imagination’ in Holland** notes that pregnant women were warned to be particularly careful with animals (strange and frightening or maimed animals seem to have been particularly dangerous); other cases were associated with the sight of human ‘freaks’ at fairs, or mutilated beggars, or black people, or lunatics, with paintings or statutes of grotesque subjects. (Conversely, pregnant women were advised to hang beautiful paintings on their walls in order to have beautiful babies.)

Equally, it was common to see these events as manifestations of divine power, even in providentialist terms, as punishments for a community’s sins, or warnings of greater punishments to come if the population did not repent and reform. In the case of Agnes Bowker in 1568, it was a matter of considerable concern to government ministers that her case could be used by Catholic propagandists to undermine the still rather shaky Protestant regime of Elizabeth I.

By the 1720s, Mary Toft could still convince doctors (to begin with), and the possibility was accepted. Even before doubts crept in, there was controversy, although in terms rather different to those used during the 16th century.

People, after all, differ much in their opinion about this matter, some looking upon them as great curiosities fit to be presented to the Royal Society, &c. others are angry at the account, and say, that if it be fact, a veil should be drawn over it, as an imperfection in humane nature.

And within a few weeks, there were severe doubts about the truth of the story, Mary confessed, and a fraud prosecution was initiated (although she was released later without being tried). Even so, she still had her believers, at least among those who still saw such births in political and providential terms; and such beliefs did not really die out until at least the 19th century.

[links have not been recently checked]

Monstrous births
Monsters and prodigies (no longer available: Wayback)
Monstrous children in English Renaissance broadside ballads
Mary Toft and the rabbit babies
A cabinet of curiosities: Mary Toft
The rabbit woman (contemporary newspaper reports: the Mary Toft-related quotes above are taken from this page)
A wondrous tale: Agnes Bowker (extracts from the primary sources)
Early modern pregnancy and childbirth bibliography

………….

* David Cressy, Agnes Bowker’s cat: travesties and transgressions in Tudor and Stuart England (Oxford, 2000).
** Herman W Roodenburg, ‘The maternal imagination: the fears of pregnant women in seventeenth-century Holland’, Journal of Social History, ?, 1988.

Repost: Archive fever

Standard

[Originally posted here (June 2005), in a series of posts on ‘Archive fever‘.]

I haven’t actually read Jacques Derrida’s Archive fever (Mal d’archive). But I have read Carolyn Steedman’s Dust, which mentions it (and I think this was at the back of my mind when I began to type the title for my posts about this summer’s research). For Derrida, if I have Steedman right, Archive Fever is really a kind of desire: “the desire to recover moments of inception: to find and possess all sorts of beginnings”… (Steedman, p. 5)

But Steedman takes us into other possible manifestations of Archive Fever.

Typically, the fever – more accurately, the precursor fever – starts in the early hours of the morning, in the bed of a cheap hotel, where the historian cannot get to sleep. You cannot get to sleep because you lie so narrowly, in an attempt to avoid contact with anything that isn’t shielded by sheets and pillowcases. The first sign then, is an excessive attention to the bed, an irresistible anxiety about the hundreds who have slept there before you, leaving their dust and fibres in the fibres of the blankets… (p. 17)

(Oh, that passage brought flooding back the memories of a place where I stayed a few years ago. The problem was not wondering about previous human occupants of the bed, though. It was the much smaller occupants that were still there that were the trouble. I still don’t know precisely what they were, but either they or something else in the bed brought me out in hives, something I’ve never experienced before or since. So, no, I did not get too much sleep.)

Or the feverish anxiety of the penultimate day in the record office:

You know you will not finish, that there will be something left unread, unnoted, untranscribed. You are not anxious about the Great Unfinished, knowledge of which is the very condition of your being there in the first place, and of the grubby trade you set out in, years ago. You know perfectly well that the infinite heaps of things they recorded, the notes and traces that these people left behind, constitute practically nothing at all… Your anxiety is more precise, and more prosaic. It’s about PT S2/1/1, which only arrived from the stacks that afternoon, which is enormous, and which you will never get through tomorrow. (p.18)

Or even the possibility of real, actual fever. It is not particularly reassuring to learn that the archive could be seriously bad for your health (anthrax-related meningitis?!). Exaggeration? Yet I already know that archives (pre-20th-century, anyway) make you sneeze. And that those old papers and parchments leave their black marks on your fingers (unless you bag yourself some gloves) and your clothes (don’t wear white in an archive. There are smudgy blackish fingerprints on my silvery laptop, too). You watch the dust rise; you mark the passing of the researcher by the little scattering of fragments of fragile paper and rotting leather and red sealing wax (those 400-year-old seals on legal documents are often simply crumbling away).

There is always someone just across from you who has a cold, which you hope fervently that you won’t catch this time. And you get the headaches that come from squinting at near-illegible handwriting… and let’s not start on the backache, often helped along by badly designed chairs. Plus, why is it that archives are either freezing cold (good for the documents, but not so much for the humans) or hot and stuffy (the budget didn’t stretch to decent airconditioning, but it did cover all those new computer terminals blowing out hot air… NLW, I’m talking to you here)?

Still, at least this summer I’m at home for my sickness. My own bed and food, no travelling, just a nice brisk walk up the hill (I hated the commuting to the PRO last year!) to settle at a desk and continue the love-hate relationship with what I do.

I say love-hate because it’s an experience of extremes: it swings between utter boredom and an overwhelming desire to pack it in NOW (several times a day, usually), to the rising excitement of the latest find – it can be something entirely unexpected, or corroboration of something you’ve already begun to suspect, or funny, or sad. But it’s never just so-so, never just another job. If it were, who’d put up with all the discomforts and the frustrations and the crappy bits?

And back to Steedman’s book, which is one that should be read by all historians. And since I have work to get back to today (but a little break from the archives; I have to get on with working on some future teaching materials and planning future courses to impress potential employers next year), I’ll just let her sign off for me.

And nothing starts in the Archive, nothing, ever at all, though things certainly end up there. You find nothing in the Archive but stories caught half way through: the middle of things; discontinuities. (p.45)

(I wish I’d remembered that quote when I was posting about disputes over livestock the other week…)

But in actual Archives, though the bundles may be mountainous, there isn’t in fact, very much there. [...] The Archive is made from selected and consciously chosen documentation from the past and also from the mad fragmentations that no one intended to preserve and just ended up there. [...]

The modern European public archive came into being in order to solidify and memorialise first monarchical and then state power. [...] These are the origins of a prosaic place where the written and fragmentary traces of the past are put in boxes and folders, bound up, stored, catalogued …

And: the Archive is also a place of dreams. [...]

To enter that place where the past lives, where ink on parchment can be made to speak, still remains the social historian’s dream, of bringing to life those who do not for the main part exist, not even between the lines of state papers and legal documents, who are not really present, not even in the records of Revolutionary bodies and fractions. (pp.68-70)

Repost: George’s choice: an 18th-century convict and a medical experiment

Standard

Originally posted here (February 2008)

Last November, I dashed off a quick post about someone I’d encountered in an Ordinary’s Account: It’s Your Neck or Your Arm

On the evening before execution, a respite of 14 days was brought for George Chippendale, and to be continued, if within that time he shall submit to suffer the amputation of a limb, in order to try the efficacy of a new-invented styptic for stopping the blood-vessels, instead of the present more painful practice in such cases. For this indulgence, he, together with his brother and his uncle, had joined in a petition to his Majesty, and thankfully accepted it, appearing in good health and spirits, ready and chearful to undergo the experiment. (Ordinary’s Account, May 1763.)

Well, I got at least one important thing wrong, anyway. It wasn’t George’s arm that was, er, on the block. It was his leg.

How do I know this? Well, by sheer chance, a few weeks after I posted that, I got an email query at work, from a family historian who was searching for a George Clippingdale in the Old Bailey Proceedings. The problem was that the OBP reporters (unlike most other sources the researcher had consulted) spelt his surname Chippendale. (Spelling variations are not an uncommon problem in 18th-century sources, as I’ve mentioned here before.)

So, we got that sorted out, and that would normally have been the end of it. But then the researcher happened to mention that his George was reprieved from a death sentence because a surgeon wanted to use him in an experiment.

At which point, I thought ‘Hang on a minute… that sounds familiar’, and came over here and checked my earlier post. And it’s the same man!

Naturally, of course, I had to write back with a barrage of questions. And the researcher was kind and generous enough to send me his write-up of everything he’d found out about George – and to agree to let me tell you lot about it.

(But I warn you, there’s a sad ending.)

Continue reading

Repost: Learning Welsh in the sixteenth century

Standard

Originally posted here (June 2004).

I got round to reading some of William Salesbury’s A briefe and a playne introduction, teaching how to pronounce the letters in the British tong… today. Rather different to Welsh pronunciation guides (this one has audio files with examples) for all us suffering Welsh learners today. I’m not at all sure that ‘playne’ is the right word.

The introductory note ‘to the reader’ was a fascinating read. Here the author, William Salesbury, sets out the reasons he wrote the book. (I’ve changed ‘u’ to ‘v’ where appropriate and silently expanded some contractions, but otherwise the spelling is unchanged, barring any typos I might have missed.) After he had compiled ‘a little Dictionarye [1547] for the use and behove of my contry men’, he says,

there came came certayne persons unto me, whereof some where Englysh marchers bordering upon Wales: and some not skilled in the Walshe tonge, nevertheles havyng good and honeste occasions, eyther for their promotions and lyvynges, eyther els for trade of marchaudice and other their affayres to be conversante in the sayd contrye of Wales…

And some other were such Walshmen that had been brought up from their yoth and tender age, oute of the precincte of their native contrye, who thoughte it reproch to be utterly ignoraunt in their mother tong, having a mind also to come to some knowledge therin, wherby they myght ye rather (semyng lesse straung) renewe frendshyp and familiaritie with their contrye folke and frendes…

Nowe the other some, were such Englishe men as had not so urgente a cause, nor so earnest an occasion to travell in thys behalfe, but yet were they so fervent… as they (whom I spake of before) whom the Grekes with one propre terme cal Philoglottous, whose gentle herted disposition is alwaies addicte, bente, & geven to be sene in al languages, but speciallye of their owne felow subiectes and contrey menne, thoughe they purchase thereby but small gaynes, lucre, or wynnyng, which thynges be the honied swete baytes of the avaricious beastly misers, and contrarywyse the defiaunce of all liberal and noble stomakes. …

They asked Salesbury ‘whether the pronounciation of the letters in Walshe, dyd dyffer from the Englyshe soundynge of them? And I sayde verye muche.’ (I’ll say.) And so they asked if he would write a short guide setting out ‘a fewe englishe rules’ for Welsh pronunciation. To which he agreed, for ‘the encrease of mutuall amitie and brotherly love, and continuall frendshyppe, and some commoditie at the leaste wise, to suche as be desierous to be occupied thereaboutes.’

In practical terms, particularly relevant in considering the first group, it’s worth commenting that this follows shortly after the ‘Acts of Union’ (1536-43). That legislation (among other things) uniformly replaced most of the final vestiges of Welsh native law with English law, established the Courts of Great Sessions and boosted the influence and business of the Council in the Marches of Wales, based at Ludlow – which between them would have meant many new opportunities for clerks, administrators and lawyers, who might well want some way of communicating with the largely Welsh-speaking population without always having to rely on interpreters. Businessmen, too, might have seen new opportunities across the Welsh border if the legislation was successful in one of its primary aims, reducing Welsh lawlessness and disorder.

But there’s clearly more to it for Salesbury, a true Renaissance man, than that. I’m intrigued about those Welsh exiles, for a start. Were they perhaps the children of Welsh emigrants to London and other English cities (and it’s interesting that they remained attached to their ‘roots’)? The ‘London Welsh’ certainly already existed. Or could they even have been from Protestant families who went into exile to avoid persecution under Henry VIII, now returning following the succession of the far more enthusiastically Protestant Edward VI?

And then there’s Salesbury’s final group: Englishmen (any women, one wonders?) who were eager to learn for the love of learning and to increase ‘mutuall amitie and brotherly love’ with their Welsh neighbours; clearly, a truly noble enterprise. Salesbury was far from being the only highly educated and intelligent, polyglot Welshman in mid-Tudor England (another well known case is John Dee). The Cecils remained interested in their Welsh origins; even the Tudors did on occasion (usually when it suited them politically, it has to be said). Did men like Salesbury help to stimulate English interest in Welsh literary culture and the language? Shakespeare was certainly interested in the ancient ‘British’ (ie, Welsh) past. It would be fascinating to know whether any of Salesbury’s would-be Welsh learners were successful in their quest… and whether anyone ever used his little

book effectively (it does seem to depend on knowing several classical languages before you even begin, which might further suggest that it was his third, already deeply learned, group for whom it was primarily intended. His translation of the New Testament was also aimed at a scholarly audience).

William Salesbury is primarily celebrated in Wales for his part in the Tudor ‘Welsh Renaissance’ and his contribution to Welsh language and literary culture: for his dictionary, for his pioneering Welsh translation of the New Testament (1567) and Prayer Book (1567). Quite right, too. All of these are indeed major achievements. But I’m beginning to wonder if he should also be celebrated as a pioneer in Welsh language teaching for adults, who did not merely champion his language amongst his own people, but also strove to give it wider currency (not least by harnessing the power of print) and to aid those who wished (even for ‘lucre’!) to learn it.

Repost: Women’s history and gender history: what and why?

Standard

Originally posted here (March 2005).

Some women have never lacked historians: usually unusual women of high social status (who had some influence on the ‘male’ political world): queens, mistresses of kings, that kind of thing: what Gerda Lerner called ‘compensatory history’. The goal of women’s history as practised today, however, is to attend to and assert the validity of the experiences and roles of many kinds of women; to challenge perceptions that these were somehow a) ahistorical (biologically determined, therefore unchanging) and b) unimportant, not Real History.

Still, it should be remembered that women’s history is not something invented in the 1970s. (At Oxford University around 1960, a young early modernist, Keith Thomas, offered a series of undergraduate lectures on the history of women. His colleagues found the idea bizarre; the students stayed away in droves. Yet it must have seemed practicable to him – and he was prepared to try.)

To stick with research since the 19th-century emergence of the academic discipline of history, the ‘first wave’ of western feminism was accompanied by important work on the history of women in the early 20th century: in Britain alone, for example, work by Eileen Power (medieval history), Alice Clark and Ivy Pinchbeck (women’s work), Ray Strachey and Sylvia Pankhurst (the women’s suffrage movement). Yet much of this was neglected for decades until the take-off of women’s history associated with the ‘second wave’ of feminism and, more broadly, with the expanding horizons of history writing from the 1960s. That brought research on an unprecedented scale, and with larger ambitions to achieve a fundamental rewriting of all History.

There have been a wide variety of approaches to the history of women, and nearly all have had to grapple with particularly acute problems of evidence and interpretation: discovering new or neglected sources, approaching old ones in new ways, often borrowing methods and techniques from other disciplines. The growth of social history, another challenge to the primacy of political history narrowly defined (states, rulers, governments) cannot be disentangled from this; it offered new methods and perspectives, and often emphasised subjects of key importance to women’s history. (This was true in the early 20th century as well as the 1960s and 70s, although what we’d now think of as social history was then usually called economic history; this was long before the statisticians got in on the act.)

Some key ‘second wave’ pioneers of women’s history, like Sheila Rowbotham, were socialists as much as feminists. But the relationship was not always an easy one; social history could all too easily continue to marginalise women. Labour history, for example, could be overwhelmingly masculine, narrowly focused on institutions; defining ‘work’ and ‘labour’ in particular ways, this kind of labour history tended to overlook the vital contributions of female labour, the variety and significance of the paid work that women have always done, and to entirely exclude any consideration of their unpaid work. And the relationship between Marxism and feminism was strikingly summed up as an unhappy marriage.

An important strand in women’s history has documented their struggles to win admittance to the ‘public sphere’ and to be placed on equal terms with men when it came to legal status, work opportunities, voting rights. This is a key constituent of what was dubbed ‘herstory’: retelling history from women’s perspectives, aiming to recover women’s experiences, ‘women’s cultures’, to document a distinctive female past. Women had been, in Rowbotham’s words, Hidden from History, and it was time to put that right. It’s still going strong too! And it was, and still is, also often about personal reclamations of history far beyond the academy.

Still, while it went far beyond the biographical ‘women worthies‘ or ‘compensatory history’ type of approach, herstory still tended to focus on histories of exceptional women, forms of rebellion against patriarchal norms, whether ‘public’ political activism or ‘private’ feminine desires and friendships. And how were ‘women’s worlds’ to be related to the world of mainstream history? It was not so clear how this approach could (on its own) ever be more than a supplement to Real History, all too easily ignored or, at best, accorded a token presence around the margins.

There was another problem. Who were these ‘women’ in ‘women’s history’? White, middle-class women? Women are not all alike (and no woman is only a woman). What of the influence of class, race, religion, nationality, sexuality, other social/cultural group identities, on women’s historical experiences?

The identification of these issues fostered the rise of ‘gender history’. Gender, it needs to be noted, is a concept that can be used in more than one way. Sometimes, it can simply refer to studying the relationships between women and men, and the ways in which ‘gender roles’ are socially conditioned. But there is a more theoretical/intellectual history approach, associated with ‘poststructuralism’, and perhaps most famously formulated by Joan W Scott, who argued that gender was a key ‘category of historical analysis’, and that it was vital to study how ‘femininity’ and ‘masculinity’ were culturally constructed in relation to each other in different societies. The category ‘women’ itself had to be deconstructed (as did that of ‘experience‘).

The enquiry was no longer so much ‘What did women experience, and what did women, do in xth century in y culture?’ but rather ‘How (and by what processes) in xth century in y culture did gender help construct distinct masculine and feminine meanings and identities?’ [link may be dead: try archive version if it doesn’t work]

This was both stimulating and controversial, for much the same reasons that poststructuralist or postmodernist theories applied to history have been stimulating/controversial more generally. But it was, perhaps, felt to be particularly threatening to a field of history that was relatively new and politically engaged:

The deconstruction of the term ‘women’ and the emphasis on the differences between women at the expense of what they have in common, denies the existence of women as a political category and as a subordinate class.

Other concerns about gender history focused on the decentering of women as its subject. The history of masculinities is a fast-rising field; some (like Joan Hoff) worried that this lets men take over centre-stage again and that women’s history will get lost in the process. (I personally think that Hoff did not help her cause by calling male feminists ‘Tootsie men’.) Others disagree with those fears (I agree with them). The new histories of men are not like the old history of men; histories of women continue to be written; the boundary between ‘women’s history’ and ‘gender history’ is not a clearly-defined one, and nor (as this blogger would attest) do these varying approaches exclude each other.

It is impossible to summarise what’s going on in women’s history or gender history right now; it’s just too vast and diverse. Just take a look at the TOCs of some main journals and you’ll soon see what I mean. I think that in my area, early modern social history, there is currently a particular interest in ‘agency’ – exploring the ways in which ordinary women lived their lives within the constraints placed upon them, survived, negotiated with the system for a better deal without rebelling against it – and how ‘practice’ related to ‘prescriptions’. We ask about both ‘experiences’ and ‘meanings’. There have been some marvellous recent studies of early modern English masculinities; of crime and gender; splendid surveys unashamedly about women; and textbooks that make no mention of women or gender in the title at all – but they’re in there.

I’ll leave you some links to explore, anyway.

And feel free to contribute in comments (or indeed to blog about this yourself?)…

… What’s the current state of affairs in your own subject areas? (Period, place etc)
… Thoughts on your own research/teaching practice
… What are your favourite books? Which do you think are the most important, must-read works for people interested in learning more about women in the past and/or about the development of women’s history? I may well put together a bibliography of some kind.
… Favourite online resources and blog posts

………

[See also this post on Alice Clark, working women’s historian]

[NB: none of the following links have been checked; many are likely to have moved or been taken down]

Gateways and general stuff

BBC Women’s history
SOSIG: Women’s history
History in Focus: Gender
About Women’s history
Women’s history teaching resources

Essays, debates, etc

Myth and memory: old passions, new visions
History, she wrote
The challenge of opinionative assurance
Raising Clio’s consciousness: the writing of women’s history in the US
Integrating men’s history into women’s history: a proposition
Leeds gender studies e-papers
A group of one’s own: filling the gaps in women’s history
To feel a part of history: rethinking the US history survey
Women’s History Review (all issues more than 2 years old are free to access)
Gender as a postmodern category of paralysis (by Joan Hoff)
Unravelling postmodern paralysis
Mistrials and diatribulations: a reply to Joan Hoff
A reply to my critics (Joan Hoff)
Women’s history and poststructuralism
Women’s history: continuity, change or standing still?
History, feminism and gender studies [try archive version if that link doesn’t work]
How did Women’s History Month come about?

Intersections: gender, history and culture in the Asian context
Recovery and revision: women’s history and west Virginia
Gendering modern German history: rewritings of the mainstream
Feminist knowledge (African women’s history)
Feminist history in Japan

Bibliographies, reading lists

Short bibliography
ViVa bibliography of women’s history
Feminist history bibliography
Annotated bibliography of feminist historical theory
Women’s history bibliography

Book reviews

Writing women’s history since the Renaissance
Gender in history
Worlds between: historical perspectives on gender and class

Courses, syllabi

MA in women’s history (Liverpool)
MA in Women’s history (Royal Holloway)
Women’s history, feminist history and gender history (course unit)

… And bloggers!

Women’s History of Philosophy (Siris)
The search for agency (East Asian history) (Muninn)
This one’s for Dr Crazy (student whines spark great discussion), (New Kid on the Hallway)
Women, studying of (The Little Professor)