History Matters 6: Women’s history and the mainstream

I want to turn in what is (probably) my final post on Judith Bennett’s History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006) to one of her most controversial points, which has clearly been significant in the discussions around her book. How far should feminist researchers let their research be influenced by the mainstream of academic life? Bennett is generous in her appreciation of the varying forms that women’s history might take, but she does argue clearly for her own preferred style of history research with its explicitly feminist framing, and language of oppression and patriarchy rather than gender differences (p 28). I would see myself personally as a researcher firmly in the mainstream tradition, so Bennett’s view is a direct challenge to some of my positions. How do I respond to that?

One of the complexities of Bennett’s wary position towards mainstreaming is that it’s implicitly embedded in three different invisible frames. One is a general feminist one that worries about women saying only what they want men (or the patriarchy more generally) to hear. One is a concern about academic life throughout the world: that historians get ahead by doing the conventional kind of history in the conventional kind of way. And one, I think, is a concern specifically of US academic life, that academics are at the front line of the feminist movement and mustn’t step back from engagement in the culture wars.

In my own work, I don’t think either the first or third aspect are particularly important. Because I work on such a remote historical period (the early Middle Ages) talking about the oppression of women then is relatively uncontroversial and doesn’t threaten modern men. You’d have to push the evidence very hard to find many specific patriarchal parallels. And in the UK, unlike in the US, liberal feminism is pretty much the mainstream position among the middle classes. I don’t know the comparative strength of the radical feminism movement in the UK and the US, but in the UK its powerbase has certainly never been the universities.

A desire for acceptance by the mainstream, has however, affected the way I write. Not just in order to gain academic rewards (or at least I’ve been singularly unsuccessful in doing so), but also because I think my work is interesting and important and I want to get it heard and considered in the mainstream. And here is my problem: explicitly feminist history does not have a good reputation among medievalists. I once had a reading list from an eminent medievalist (who has written articles on women’s history) which included the following comment in its section on ‘women’: ‘There are also specific studies, though some are pretty dreadful. All the papers by XXX [prominent feminist historian], however, are excellent. ’ The historian didn’t feel the need to put this sort of comment warning about quality on the other sections of the bibliography.

Is this just prejudice? Possibly, but it may also reflect a general problem for people who do the less common historical subjects. There seems to me a danger that small close-knit groups of historians tend to reinforce each other’s ideas, rather than provide a bracing critique of them. Specifically work may end up being valued for toeing the ‘party line’ more than its intrinsic quality. After all, if outsiders are criticizing your field of research as ‘not worth doing’ (whether it’s too old-fashioned or too trendy or just not ‘important’), then it’s hard to admit that some of your colleagues and friends are producing mediocre stuff. But if you don’t, you simply reinforce the field’s weaknesses. This isn’t simply an issue for ‘left-wing’ or ‘politicised’ historians: for example, a lot of medieval military history has a dubious reputation for other medievalists, with too much mediocre stuff published because it fits a particular dominant paradigm (although there are also some very good military historians).

A supportive atmosphere is needed for research, obviously, but I think there’s a danger that it can get too supportive: it is useful to be exposed to critical and even hostile views. I think that has helped those of us in the UK who work on women’s history, who are usually based in history departments, not women’s studies departments. At a relatively early stage in my PhD I talked about my project to an eminent (female) historian, who didn’t think masculinity was a proper subject of study, which was difficult since I was doing my PhD on it. (She did apologise several years later for seeming discouraging) But talking to her and thinking about her views afterwards did sharpen my argument in useful ways on why masculinity is worth thinking about and what it can bring to other historical topics. Which is why I don’t think it’s constructive (even if it may be satisfying) simply to call
Lawrence Stone a tool
for pointing out alleged weaknesses in the study of women’s history. It’s better to show why his arguments are invalid (if they are). (It is one of the depressing facts of academic life that an academic’s personal niceness and the quality of their scholarship are not necessarily correlated: there are obnoxious historians out there who are very talented, and lovely people whose work isn’t very good).

I think these concerns about quality also apply when choosing what conferences to give papers at. Bennett is unhappy that medievalists tend to stick to their own conferences and not attend general ones (p 36). I have participated in general conferences sometimes, but the results have been mixed. My session at one recent conference on masculinity got an audience of five, and though my paper got a positive reception, I didn’t get a lot of useful feedback from it. Modernists often don’t have a lot they can constructively say about medievalists’ papers, because the societies and sources are so different. And equally, while I may be personally fascinated by finding out about twentieth century cross-dressers it’s hard to gain more than some general ideas for my own research. In contrast, if I give papers to a medievalist audience, even one not particularly interested in women’s history, I am likely to get specific and sharp questions about my use of sources, possible counter-examples etc. This is the kind of thing that will have an immediate impact in helping me improve the quality of my work.

For modernists (and even early modernists) there may now be enough women’s historians to avoid this problem of small-group reinforcement and generate the kind of internal debates that ensure quality. For medievalists (and particularly early medievalists), I’m not sure there is yet. One of the reasons I want to take my kind of work into the mainstream is to get enough people interested in the topics to provide this kind of critical (in both senses) mass. There is a danger that feminist history may lose some of its cutting edge in this way, but the best way for radical history to get accepted in the mainstream is surely for it to be done by radical historians too good to be ignored.

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