Monday, 9 February 2015

Herstory, She Said.

by Nina Luckmann

Is gender history simply history with the men left out?

'The historian sees nothing in history but history' - Lucien Febvre [1]

Clio - the Muse of History
And yet history is mutable. Once seen as an objective study meant ‘to show what actually happened’[2], the study of history has evolved to become a combination of both the past (the unchangeable, impartial occurrence of events), and the subsequent written record of it. This complex spectrum of perspectives and opinions, however, had only recently begun to convey the varying experiences of different individuals, communities, classes, races, genders, nationalities, cultures, religions etc, and has begun to broaden the previously limited understanding and interpretation of history to give us a more complete sense of the past. Gender history is a part of this spectrum, acting as a ‘gender-conscious’ category that focuses on the roles of both genders and their historical relationship as a means of understanding the significance of both in the past. To explain this concept more fully, I will investigate the origins of gender history, that is, women’s history, as I believe it is necessary in understanding why gender history has evolved to become an independent category of analysis. 

It was sometime around 1960 that a young Oxford professor held a chain of lectures focused on, for the first time, the history of women. They were met with little enthusiasm, and remained largely unattended, and yet the idea seemed of such significance to Keith Thomas, that he remained determined to try to direct attention towards the matter [3]. Previously, the notion of women’s history as an academic discipline had begun to gather pace during ‘first-wave’ feminism. This pivoted around the women’s suffrage movement, and led to changes in the approach to history as a whole, with women rebelling against historical male sexual tyranny and their historical objectification in British society [4]. It resulted in the emergence of individuals such as Frenchwoman Marie Louise Bougle, who devoted her life and meagre resources to hunting for documents and compiling a small women's library that would become to useful to historians studying women later on [8]. These individuals enabled the simplified study of women as a historical class within itself. However, after the success of the suffrage movement, the cause was largely abandoned [3]. During the 1970s, then, the Women’s Liberation movement sought to ‘recover the lives of women from the neglect of historians’, as Dr Joanne Bailey [5] argues. It was done as part of a wider strategy to challenge the apparent masculinist understanding of, and approaches to, the academic world and the subsequent realms of knowledge. These ‘second-wave’ feminists were driven not only by curiosity towards lives of women in the past, but also by a conviction that by comprehending these past lives, a greater understanding towards the contemporary situation of women could be found. The establishment of women’s history as a distinct category of analysis led to discoveries that confirmed and supported a core feminist belief: that women had been, and continued to be regarded as inferior to the male sex in a profusely patriarchal society, and that their role in history was more often than not diminished. For feminists it was not enough to have a few outstanding female individuals that flourished in a male-dominated population (such as Queen Elizabeth I [6]) when the majority of women facing social and political oppression were not given credit for their actions and experiences [7].

The development of women’s history soon led to problems of its own, however. First one must question who these ‘women’ of women’s history are. Just white, middle-class women? Or the Russian female peasantry? It can not be seen as a single social category, with no two women being alike. The influence of class, race, religion, nationality, sexuality, other social/cultural group identities must be considered when regarding women’s historical experiences and how they are perceived, and thus leads to women’s history not being able to be a distinct, separate category. It strongly ties in with, for example, social history, where such distinctions are fundamental [7]. Secondly, in order to be of any relevance, one must question how this study of women on its own relates to history as a whole. Without this link, it can be too easily cast aside as a peripheral, unnecessary category of analysis. With women’s history thus increasingly taking male history within its scope, it was these issues, then, that fostered the rise of gender history. 

Gender history, in this sense, is a category beyond that of women’s history, as it moves past an exclusively female perspective to alter the writing of all of history. Gender, it is important to note, refers to the way in which previously presumed natural sexual differences in men and women are in fact largely socially and culturally constructed. They must, therefore be the product of processes and events that are studied as history [9]. Neither sex is less socially constructed than the other: the notion of ‘masculinity’, that is, qualities associated with the male gender such a social dominance or physical strength, are by no means natural, but instead defined by the fluid relation to apparent ‘femininity’. The heart of gender history lies, therefore, on the field of interplay of both the sexes; not just areas of obvious interaction, such as marriage [7], but their relevance and contribution to each other in all institutions in which the role of gender appears to be of relevance. The result of studying the role of women in relation to men has led to, for example, the discovery of female contribution to historic organisations such as Chartism [10], a political movement that sought Parliamental reform in the early 1800s, that was previously thought of as being exclusively male run and influenced. It showed that women did in fact have a history that was not only a separate category, but instead an important part of general history that had previously been excluded. The more in-depth this study of women became, the more involved it became with other branches of history, most notably social history, later labour history (when the influence of women would increase during and after the Industrial Revolution) and even mainstream history. This, in turn, had an effect on social history as the roles of women began to alter depending on demand of the circumstance (for example, during the First World War, when female workers began to replace male workers that had left for the front). Consequently, the entire realm of women and their lives were being encompassed in general historical understanding.

The notion of gender history had been exciting during its initial stages, for it called for a new approach to, and questioning of the reliability of previous events that had appeared self-evident [9]. However, it began to be criticised when it was argued that research into women had gone far enough, with the notion of male bias being undermined by the female one. ‘The historian sees nothing in history but history’, Lucien Febvre  once argued [1]. In light of this, and assuming that the historian is a woman or feminist, then instead of attempting to solve the problem of female invisibility, her perspective rests on her self-regard as she appears to hold the lack of attention in contempt [8]. It thus becomes too one sided, though this time it focuses too much on women. Similarly, it is possible that, with the history of men being included in the scope of women’s history, it will result in male history asserting dominance of the field, thus losing the importance of women once again [3]. I do not believe, however, that this is the case. Even if male history becomes a more popular subject to concern oneself with, it is unlikely that women will be forgotten as masses of history continue to be written [10], for the two subject areas strongly overlap. For example, where the contribution of Elizabeth of York or Margaret Beaufort to the War of the Roses may fall under the history of women, and that of Henry or Jasper Tudor under that of men, is it possible to discredit the role of any of them? Were they not all crucial to the establishment of the Tudor dynasty? It was the interplay of men and women that brought about this outcome. Additionally, the category of gender analysis has become so vast and diverse that it can no longer be seen as simply history from the perspective of genders. History within these scopes has become so varied that you can now no longer write simply about ‘men’ and ‘women’. Experience varies from class to race to nationality to culture to religion. To write simply from the perspective of either would generalise to the extent that the information would become too vague if not inaccurate.

History is no longer the objective study is was once considered to be. In an attempt to depict and help others understand the past, it is the study of primary and secondary sources that result in the subjective nature of the subject due to the innate sense of prejudice that influence them. For how can we be sure someone is aware of the full story? How can we be sure of the motives behind the creation of the source? Humans are naturally flawed in their thinking process, with past experiences and exterior influences resulting in perceptions changing time and time again. Historians depict what they believe to be the “truth”, as understood by their research methods and insight, but the situation will eventually change, and thus a new school of thought arise. It was these changes in thinking, these different approaches to events, that gave rise to new distinct categories of analysis through new theories, which is evident in the rise of gender history, for example. History is written by historians who's cultural perspective determines what they write. By attempting to convey varying experiences of different individuals, communities, classes, races, genders, nationalities, cultures, religions etc, it has begun to broaden the previously limited understanding and interpretation of history to give us a more complete sense of the past, reflecting the sheer richness of history.

‘Held up to the past, a mirror supposedly reflects bygone events more accurately than any other tool, showing nothing fanciful or imaginary’, Bonnie Smith once argued [8], in an attempt to explain the purpose of gender history in an idealised manner. In light of this, I understand gender history to be simply restoring the balance that had been lost in previously male dominated historical writing. It studies both men and women, and their historical relationship, thus eschewing our human compartmentalising tendency [9]. Women have always had a presence, that much is clear, and so, in order to gain a more accurate insight to the past, they must be included proportionately to their contribution in mainstream history. It is clear they cannot be considered to have equal impact in all branches of history: women had no standing in political systems prior to the twentieth century, for example. It instead becomes relevant when considering the impact of said politics, as it must be considered equally from the perspective of men and women in order to accurately depict the past as a whole. It is not, as the common misconception notes, just about females, nor does it attempt in any way try to diminish the role of men. It simply tries to find the women in history. For as Smith argues: ‘the historical field (is) crowded with heterogeneous characters’ [10]. In response to the question, therefore, I do not believe that gender history is history with men written out; it is simply history with women written in. History combined with herstory.

4.        Kent, Susan Kingsley. Sex and Suffrage in Britain, 1860-1914. 1987.
7.        Tosh, John. The Pursuit of History (fifth edition). Edinburgh: Pearson, 2010.
8.        Mcbride, Theresa M. The Gender of History: Men, Women, and the Historical Practice & the Rise of the Professional Woman in France: Gender and Public Administration since 1830. (Reviews) -
9.        Scott, John Wallach. Gender and the Politics of History. -
10.     Schwarzkopf, Jutta. Women in the Chartist Movement. Macmillan, 1991.

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