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
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
ViVa bibliography of women’s history
Feminist history bibliography
Annotated bibliography of feminist historical theory
Women’s history bibliography
Writing women’s history since the Renaissance
Gender in history
Worlds between: historical perspectives on gender and class
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)
7 thoughts on “Women’s history and gender history: what and why?”
For the history of women’s history, I love Joan Scott’s article in Peter Burke’s _New Perspectives on Historical Writing_; it analyses the academic state of play of women’s/gender history with some of the same skill as she analyses historical texts. My favourite historians on women/gender are Carolyn Steedman and Catherine Hall, both of whom are exciting, penetrating, confessional, and never scared to change their focus.
Carolyn Steedman rocks. Importantly, I’d class her as a gender historian rather than a women’s historian, which is a Good Thing in my book.
Mmm, have you read _Dust_? (A particularly interesting thing to read after spending any time in archives of medieval/early modern records, where everyone is sneezing, and the tables at the end of the day are scattered with tiny fragments of paper and sealing wax…)
Not yet – it’s on the ‘must read this some time’ list. With about 50 other things.
Chris: definitely a Good Thing.
I just love _Dust_, although all of her books are great. I’d love to be able to pull off her kind of writing, where she is actually a writer as much as anything else.
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