Gender, politics and history

I’m still trying to finish off the proofs of my book and think up something coherent to say about the International Medieval Congress 2011 (in between starting preparations for IMC 2012). But I’ve also been distracted this week by a Christian friend of mine starting to come out as genderqueer and the reminder that gives me of why my work as a historian matters.

It’s very unlikely that my friend will ever read my academic work, or probably even this blog, but their situation resonates with two of the key themes of my forthcoming book: that gender is socially constructed (masculinity and femininity have no innate characteristics but vary vastly between societies), and that Christian precepts have always been interpreted and adapted to suit the existing morality of society around them. These themes of my book are in no way new, but my work forms one extra data point to demonstrate them, one more piece of evidence that so-called eternal truths aren’t. And it’s this drip-drip of evidence that many of our beliefs aren’t ‘natural’, that, I hope, contributes in a tiny way to non-conventional gender norms becoming more accepted in society.

I’m not an activist: I don’t have the skills or the personality for that. I’m a historian, and to a certain extent, a writer, and I think my most useful political contribution is to use those particular abilities. There’s been a recent debate inspired by an important early medievalist on the extent to which historians should be more politically engaged in their academic work. It’s not a new debate: the issue was recently raised, for example, in a rather more irenic manner by Judith Bennett in her book History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism.

In my discussions on Bennett’s book, I wrote then about this issue of mainstream versus explicitly feminist historical styles. In my work, one of the things I have been trying to do is to take women’s history and gender history into the mainstream of early medieval history, get them read about and thought about by people who aren’t normally interested in the topics. So I’ve deliberately written a book for CUP about masculinity that isn’t going to scare the horses, that isn’t yelling about my own feminism, but that will, I hope, get some medievalists, who might not otherwise read about such topics, thinking about the social construction of gender and John Boswell’s ideas on gay/non-gay, for example.

In other words, I’m playing by the established academic rules in order to get a hearing for my work. Is that the right approach? I can’t be sure: my work probably isn’t very important, but it is, as far as I’m aware, the first book on gender that’s been published in the series Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought. Even if people don’t accept my ideas, they can’t be so easily dismissed simply as modish irrelevance or political correctness gone mad if I place my work within a solid and deliberately non-polemical scholarly tradition. The use of ad hominem/ad feminam attacks on historians’ political/social views as a tactic has all too often been used to exclude the voices challenging social hierarchies. While politically activist historians have produced some marvellous work, I think there is also a role for those of us who are less explicit in our condemnations.

So what should my role be? I know that some of the articles I’ve written, some of the material I’ve translated, are already being used to teach students, show them a world in which women face systematic disadvantage, but also the opportunity to show agency. If I keep on playing the game as an academic historian, more of what I want to say on these themes of morality and sexuality and women will, I hope get read, not just by professional historians, but a wider range of students. Similarly, I know that this blog is read by a small number of people on at least three continents. Writing about these themes, in a way that tries to explain them to people who don’t necessarily share my political or religious beliefs is one way of getting people to start thinking about why they hold the attitudes they do. And that is one of my tiny contributions to making the world a better place for people like my friend.

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4 thoughts on “Gender, politics and history

  1. Well, for what it’s worth, I started reading this blog precisely because it talked in historian-terms (ie, familiar terms which worked for me) about the construction of gender, at a time when I had a particular personal (as well as academic) need for tools to do just that. So, yes, there is a use for this sort of thing.

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  2. I really enjoy feminist perspective as opposed to feminist polemic. From what I’ve read here, I’d say ‘irenic’ is a label you could apply, in the best possible way, to yourself and work. Intellectual rigour working in concert with (not against, not in service to) a feminist understanding of the world and its history.

    Thank you for that.

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  3. um… yes! It’s one of the things that bothers me a lot about the assumptions about women’s history, gender history, African-American history, etc. Doing those sorts of history is only political because when one does them, one is saying, “I think these things are important to know.”

    BUT

    Shouldn’t they be important to know because those people make up large segments of society, and good history is history that looks at as much as possible?

    Instead, because those things are non-normative, in terms of how history was done for such a long time, the assumption is always “you think they are important because you want to make a point about population X.” What’s especially interesting is that, if one says, “I want to look at source type Y to see if it can tell us more about traditional historical topic Z, and scholars really haven’t considered that in much detail before,” then it’s often considered thinking outside the box, and maybe deserving of praise. But women? minorities? oooh, now you’re just being political, you are!

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  4. I’m no expert but I saw a case where a boy in Canada was dismembered when they tried to curcumsise him with an electric current. The parents were told to bring him up as a girl and it didn’t work, eventually as an adult he had a sex change back to male and sadly when he couldn’t be a complete man he killed himself.
    As I said I’m no expert and I do believe nurture has a big part to play but nature is inate, exept for a tiny percentage of people with chromasonal abnormalities, we are male or female from well before birth and that can’t be changed.
    Perhaps I have missed the point you are trying to make, if I have please enlighten me.

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