Last night, I was at the twentieth anniversary celebration of the Womens 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 Im not sure Im a feminist historian. So the event got me thinking about the relationship between feminism and history in my life. In some ways theyre not that closely connected. I didnt 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) – theres simply more evidence for the activities of women in those periods and more sources written by them. And if youre 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 womens 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 womens 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 womens agency and less on oppression. I think that has taken a long time to filter into medieval womens history – there are still some prominent American medievalists who largely subscribe to a view of mens inevitable aim as oppressing women. (I can name names if anyones 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 couldnt 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 womens 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 (Im less sure about the USA). If I dont see myself as a feminist historian its because I dont 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 thats what feminist history and feminism more generally has achieved – to make at least some feminism historic, part of an accepted, taken for granted past.