Feminist history and the history of feminism

Last night, I was at the twentieth anniversary celebration of the Women’s History seminar at the Institute of Historical Research. A large and distinguished group of historians were there and Ann Curthoys spoke on ‘The Impact of Feminist History on Theories of History’. It was a very rapid whiz-through of the changing ways in which feminist historians had thought and wrote about history.

I call myself a feminist and a historian, but I’m not sure I’m a feminist historian. So the event got me thinking about the relationship between feminism and history in my life. In some ways they’re not that closely connected. I didn’t choose my field of study with a particular feminist political purpose, as some historians have done. I chose it because I was interested first of all in a specific historical era (Carolingian) and then a particular social/intellectual level (the court and intellectual life at it). Most feminist historians work on the modern period (or at least early modern/late medieval) – there’s simply more evidence for the activities of women in those periods and more sources written by them. And if you’re trying to change society, then recent history often seems far more politically relevant – a lot of feminist work over the years has been in some ways a genealogy of feminist thought and movements.

It is possible to do women’s history for the early medieval period, but looking back I think I may have unconsciously shied away from that area. I think my very limited knowledge of women’s history at the time I was becoming a historian was very much that it was all about the oppression of women by men and thus depressing (if accurate) or politically biased (if less accurate). Ann Curthoys mentioned in her talk how there was a debate within feminist historian circles in the late 1970s about whether there should be more emphasis on women’s agency and less on oppression. I think that has taken a long time to filter into medieval women’s history – there are still some prominent American medievalists who largely subscribe to a view of men’s inevitable aim as oppressing women. (I can name names if anyone’s interested).

I ended up doing gender history almost by chance – my PhD was originally going to be on moral tracts for laypeople. However since I had Jinty Nelson (a very good feminist historian) as my supervisor, saying that I must consider gender as a category, it ended up being about moral tracts for laymen and masculinity as well as nobility. (There was such an imbalance in the material that I couldn’t really write about advice to women in the same thesis).

Where my feminism did come in was that it made me receptive to using theoretical insights about gender when I started reading up on them. The social construction of roles and their variability over time made a lot of sense to me both professionally, but also at a personal level. What history gave to my feminism was a grounding in its theory that it had previously lacked. Looking back, I realise how my feminism as a young woman was almost entirely non-intellectual, uninfluenced by all the key texts. It came instinctively from an aversion to the domestic life my mother led, an anger at boys at my school saying that men were better at everything than women, and a desire for the intellectual life that focused on the un-feminine subject of mathematics. What feminist theory I learned over the years before I became a historian was largely stuff I got from TV and newspapers.

One of the conclusions of the talk and the discussion after it was that women’s history had now become more mainstream in most areas of history (though not all – someone pointed out the Cambridge school of intellectual history as being very resistant still). Maybe the same thing has happened to feminism as well, at least in the UK (I’m less sure about the USA). If I don’t see myself as a feminist historian it’s because I don’t need to in the same way that historians in the 1970s did. I can mostly take it for granted that as a woman studying history and as a historian studying gender I will be taken seriously and not discriminated against. Maybe that’s what feminist history and feminism more generally has achieved – to make at least some feminism historic, part of an accepted, taken for granted past.


8 thoughts on “Feminist history and the history of feminism

  1. Hello …
    I consider myself as a feminist, not really particularly consider as a feminist historian or any other thing. But, yup, reading histories gave me lots of insights about how at last feminism ideology appeared, to put back things more in balance so that this world is no longer male-dominated.
    I assume that in the western countries, people are no longer interested in using term ‘feminist’ anymore recently?
    I once got attacked by an Indonesian woman via mailing list I joined that feminism has been ridden by capitalism, so in the future, if feminists succeed to ‘conquer’ this male-dominated world, feminists will be as annoying as those patriarchal people.
    Well, I myself still think that I need to proclaim as a feminist, to show that I really care for the betterment of women’s lives.
    FYI, I got to know feminism ideology in 2003, ‘still new’. 😀 however, I have been rebelling this unfair male-female relationship since I was a kid.


  2. A lot of commentators have pointed out that young women in the UK (I don’t know about elsewhere) don’t want to call themselves ‘feminists’, but actually subscribe to a lot of feminist ideas about sexual equality etc. It’s probably a combination of the fact that a lot of feminist ideas have been so widely accepted that they’re now seen as obvious and also that feminism has an image problem. (It tends to get seen now as grumpy old women like Germaine Greer – I think the older stereotype of lesbians in dungarees has rather gone away). I suppose I call myself a feminist (at least on this blog) more to align myself with a historical tradition than as part of a specific current political grouping.

    As for the relationship between feminism and capitalism, there are a lot of different strands in Western feminism now and some of them are very pro-capitalist. However, there’s also a strong and continuing tradition of socialist and radical feminism (in the talk on feminist historians, it was noticeable how many of the pioneers were communists/ex-communists) and there are also newer variants which are anti-capitalist, such as eco-feminism.


    • Yes, I’ve seen the tendency of young girls in the UK, and perhaps in many other western countries not to call themselves as feminists although their way of thinking–to me–is feministic. Some of them perhaps also think that it is no longer important to talk about feminism ideology. However, we in the East, especially in my country, Indonesia, I think we need to proclaim ourselves as feminists so that people will recognize us as people who don’t support the hegemony of patriarchal culture. The idea that women were born as housewives to do household chores is still strong here. When a woman chooses to work outside home–let’s say to augment the income–she is entitled to do the household chores while the husband doesn’t need to do that only coz he is a man.
      However, I also agree that women who choose to be a housewife can be also a feminist, as long as she made the choice, not the husband. One main point of feminism–to me–is that women have full rights to choose to do anything they want, and not just let their father/husband/son make the choice for them. Feminists who have career outside must also respect women who decide to be a full housewife.
      That’s all for this time. 🙂


  3. “young women in the UK (I don’t know about elsewhere) don’t want to call themselves ‘feminists'”

    Of all the “feminists” I know I think most of them chose to understand feminism from a desire for equality and not through a study of feminist history or ideology. I was part of a small group of female friends at school who also wished to pursue an academic life and were discouraged by male counter-parts and related “well-wishers”. I think this is what drove us to read feminist ideolody.

    Also I agree with your views about capitalist’s use of feminism to promote capitalism. [the anti-full time mother argurment and the financial “support”]

    I personally don’t call myself a feminist because I don’t know enough about the movement but I certainly support the notion of gender equality and the desire for freedom of choice.

    It is under this pretext that I would support the argument for women who wish to be full time mothers. We should be supported in having a choice(!) not just in coming back to work “because women have the right to work”. Of course women have the right to work and work can be a stimulating and liberating experience but not all of us “want” to do this.


  4. I got a new ideaa and wanted to share 😉
    i say why UNITED KINGDOM and why not……
    The current monarch is a queen and not a king.
    Why every monarchy in the world has to be called a KINGDOM,even when there is a female monarch.
    This country should change it’s name from united kingdom to united queen-dom,instantly.
    Another of the all mine new ideas,isn’t it?


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