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From the Viewpoints column in the October 2000 Perspectives

The Future of Feminist History

Susan Pedersen, October 2000

Editor's Note: This essay was presented as part of a panel entitled "The Future of Feminist History" at the breakfast meeting of the Committee on Women Historians of the AHA on January 8, 2000. The panel was organized by Carla Hesse and also included talks by Jennifer Morgan and Mrinalini Sinha. This text has been edited but appears very largely as it was given.

I want to thank all of you for coming out at 7:30 a.m. on a Saturday morning of a busy conference. When I see the group gathered here today, I understand why feminist history has accomplished all that it has. And this is because, after we feminists do our share of interviewing and being interviewed, speaking, commenting and debating, schmoozing, hobnobbing, and finding time to see old friends (not to mention sometimes getting up with small children), we wake up at the crack of dawn to talk about the future of feminist history. Confronted by such dedication, I am tempted to propose one possible future for feminist history: let the women sleep in! Next year, let's let the men get up at dawn to discuss gender and history. But they won't and don't, and we will and do—and that is our strength and also our cross.

Let me turn, then, to my task, which is to discuss the future of feminist history. But surely this is an impossible—and almost antifeminist—charge. For the topic seems to invite the kind of magisterial summarizing and confident prediction that women's history—with its attention to the unexpected and contingent, the marginal and suppressed—was virtually developed against. But as I reflected further on this challenge, I began to find it an extraordinarily useful one, for it forced me to think outside my usual range of topics and against the historian's particularist grain. After all, there is a value in magisterial pronouncements and sweeping generalizations, if only because they can serve as stimuli to debate. So, instead of making the true but unhelpful point that the future of feminist history is likely to be messy, unfathomable, contentious and yet productive, let me take advantage of this chance to be magisterial and predictive, and put forward my own singular but considered views. And in this vein, I am drawn to make three main points about our field: one celebratory, one anxious, and one programmatic.

A Transformative Presence

First and most fundamentally, I want to acknowledge and celebrate the degree to which feminist history has come to be—and, I believe, will continue to be—a powerful and transformative presence in the academy. Whatever our individual criticisms of various approaches and fields—and there is no more critical and self-critical bunch—I think all of us would agree that feminism has utterly transformed historical writing. If we take feminism to be that cast of mind that insists that the differences and inequalities between the sexes are the result of historical processes and are not blindly "natural," we can understand why feminist history has always had a dual mission—on the one hand to recover the lives, experiences, and mentalities of women from the condescension and obscurity in which they have been so unnaturally placed, and on the other to reexamine and rewrite the entire historical narrative to reveal the construction and workings of gender. Moreover, despite our own endless arguments over which of these approaches and tasks is the more significant, the important point is that we have been true to both. And rightly so, for this argument—the argument between "women's history" and "gender history"—is an argument in which one side continually produces the case for the opposite stance, an argument neither side should ever win. Women's history isn't a stage that we move through as we struggle toward gender history, for gender history itself sends us endlessly back to women. And both inquiries have transformed our historical work and understanding.

Thus, works on women have consistently de-essentialized and historicized groups and issues too often trapped in discourses of degeneracy and difference. From Luise White's determination to see Nairobi's prostitutes as entrepreneurs and not victims, to Margot Badran's recovery of a critical feminist voice in Egyptian nationalism, to Nancy Hunt's creative analysis of the ways in which varied cultural practices around maternity in the Belgian Congo shaped colonial relations and populations more broadly, feminist historians have recovered and asserted the significance of women's voices and choices in the past—an effort that cannot possibly be dismissed as "compensatory history." And the payoffs from the turn to gender history have been equally great. Most of the great narratives of modern history—the narratives of industrialization, of class formation, of the construction of welfare states, of the making of nations and empires, of the emergence of democratic politics and the practices of total war—are now seen to have been framed by, based upon, productive of, and narrated through changes in relations between the sexes. This revisionist impulse has gone very far in some fields—there is, for example, no more flourishing subfield in British history today than that devoted to working out the interconnections between the construction of gender identities and the operations of empire—but we find it in almost every field. Think, for example, of Afsaneh Najmabadi's lovely recent study of the ways in which a national panic over the abduction and selling of girls helped to authorize and legitimate the project of Iranian nation-building, of Kristin Hoganson's reading of the Spanish-American war as a project of cultural masculinization, or of Partha Chatterjee's and Mrinalini Sinha's rival accounts of the gendered bases of British imperialism and Indian nationalism.

Institutional Achievements

Nor need our celebration of the impact of feminism on the academy be measured by the flow of books and articles alone. There are also institutional achievements. Not only do most departments now feel that they must teach women's history and (sometimes) even hire specialist women's historians, but also—and this is a quantum leap—they can increasingly imagine hiring someone who works on women or gender not as a "women's historian" but rather, say, as a colonial Americanist. Equally important, department members who are responsible for other areas—whether medieval Europe or modern Japan—increasingly feel driven to incorporate material on women into their teaching. Women's and gender history, in other words, may not have achieved its grandest ambition—the ambition to rewrite all of history from the standpoint of gender—but it has accomplished something that I feel to be even more important: it has established itself as one of a relatively small number of approaches and perspectives that are accepted both as legitimate subfields in their own right and as essential components of all national fields. Nor is this position seriously under threat, for both the intellectual imperatives and the emotional and political passions that underpin it are alive and well. Our search to find "where the women were," and to reinterpret the world from their standpoint, will sustain and enrich our profession for a long time to come.

Is all, then, sweetness and light? Here, I want to stop and spend a few minutes voicing an anxiety about two trends within feminist history that I find both exciting and disquieting. I speak, on the one hand, of the increasing attention paid to questions of identity in the study of the formation of individuals and collectivities, and, second, of the turn to what we might call an epistemological approach to the study of relations of power.

Contesting Identities

Of course, there are good reasons for both of these moves. The study of women led us ineluctably to the discovery of differences and antagonisms between women, to an awareness of the fact that women often saw other affiliations as more meaningful than those of sex. From this study of division arose, inevitably, the study of contestation among identities, and of the processes through which particular affiliations come to be privileged or powerfully felt. Likewise, the study of gender as a cultural and symbolic system led us inevitably to what Mary Poovey and others have called historical epistemology—that is, to the attempt to understand the production of all those fundamental assumptions and categories that underwrite and sustain particular cultural formations. And if these moves were logical, so too have they had their benefits. The turn to identity, for example, has forced a critical reexamination of—and a moral attention to—a history that feminism has sometimes been slow to acknowledge. Rather than assuming the power of the identity of "woman," we spend more time these days acknowledging and studying women's investment in other cultural practices or markers of difference—in ethnic and racial identities, in relational or family roles, in religious faith and observance. Thus, for example, Susan Grayzel's recent study of women's identities in Britain and France during World War I explores not only the emergence of a feminist pacifism but equally the ways in which many women sought to craft a gendered rhetoric of patriotism and to align the cause of feminism with the cause of war. Likewise, works by feminist historians show us what can be gained by integrating the insights of cultural analysis into studies of social relations: one has only to think of Leora Auslander's brilliant account of the ways in which aesthetic tastes and styles, gender and labor relations, and political forms coalesced and reinforced one another in 18th- and 19th-century France. And one could proliferate such examples.

History without Politics?

And yet, in spite of the manifest excellence of such work, the turn to identity in the context of a parallel turn toward what we might call a neo-Foucauldian or discursive theory of power has left me somewhat uneasy—or, rather, with the nagging feeling that something has been left out. What might that be? Let me take an example from my own field of British history. At the last annual meeting of the North American Conference on British Studies, there were 25 panels devoted to the modern period. Of these, 11 (or nearly a half) either employed gender as a central analytic concept or were explicitly on men, women, or the family. By contrast, 8 of these 25 panels (or about a third of the total) were on imperial questions. There was, however, an overlap of six between these two groups: six panels, in other words, were on gender and empire. These were, very largely, on identity—on "imperial masculinity" or on women's self-understandings and expression in different imperial contexts. They were, I hasten to add, often fascinating presentations: through an enterprising investigation of new sources, they revealed much about their subjects' mental worlds. But this focus on identity and subjectivity seemed to have come at some cost (if only in terms of alternatives foresworn), for what struck me at the time was that, among all these papers on sailors and settlers, missionaries and migrants, I was scarcely able to find one directly concerned with the political processes or social relations of empire—with conquest and governance, population policy, and labor control—all of which, I might add, have everything to do with gender. If a nonhistorian were to have come to this conference, then, she might conclude that the British Empire was nothing more than a great staging ground for the elaboration of "Britishness," in which groups of rather self-absorbed British men and women could experiment with different identities without doing much harm to anyone—a bizarre vision, profoundly one-sided, and oddly reminiscent of an old imperial history also intensely focused on the self-justifications and self-understandings of the colonizing power.

Why, I wondered, did the conference look this way? Why had politics dropped out? There are, of course, many possible answers to this question, some of which would simply stress shifts in intellectual fashion and the lure of new sources, but one part of any answer must surely focus on the difficulties of studying politics in the context of our preoccupation with systemic cultural analysis. The problem is that the insights that have proven so productive for cultural analysis—insights about the multivalent, collaborative, and web-like nature of power—tend to be less useful for the study of narrower political processes. For, once we assume power is everywhere, it usually turns out to be nowhere very much; if it is analytically directionless, it scarcely needs to be taken into account. Our acceptance, in other words, of the truth that power is everywhere and that the weak, like the strong, play the game of power, has led us away from grasping the other truth that the players are not equal, that even multivalent systems can have internal movements preponderantly in one direction or another, that there are degrees of power, that a middle ground exists between an assumption of total agency and an assumption of total fixity—and that it is on this crucial middle ground that most interesting questions are found and much interesting history happens.

What Is to Be Done?

What is to be done? I think the problem itself dictates the solution. Let me then argue—and this is my third point—that feminist historians need to bring politics back in, and by this I mean politics less in the broad sense of systemic relations of power than in the narrower sense of that set of negotiations and institutions through which rights and goods are claimed, distributed, and contested. Bringing politics back in will give some much-needed precision to some of the work on identity—allowing us to see, for example, the conditions under which particular racialized or gendered identities can be captured by political movements and mobilized for particular ends. The narrow study of politics also reawakens us to the truth that questions about the degree and form of power are crucial and consequential historical questions, that there is a big difference between the sticks and stones that break our bones and the words that hurt but don't quite kill us. The study of politics, in other words, forces us constantly, and almost against our will, to shift the unit of analysis away from the system and toward the component parts, and to ask questions about processes and outcomes as well as about meanings. Partial such an approach may well be, but it strikes me as a necessary corrective at a moment when systemic analysis and "thick description," rather than causal analysis and the study of change has so much the intellectual upper hand.

But I want to argue for bringing politics back in for two other reasons as well. We should pay attention to politics, I think, because political history has been one of the last intellectual strongholds of antifeminism, and is only now undergoing a real revision. Thus, in British history, a field in which virtually every worthwhile topic has been done many times over, crucial topics relating to women and politics and gendered studies of politics are still relatively underdeveloped. There is, for example, no book-length study of women's activism in the League of Nations, even though this is where many social reformers cut their teeth; only one recent scholarly work (by Kim Reynolds) on the activities of the political wife, even though political hostesses were crucial power brokers in the era before the emergence of mass parties; and until quite recently relatively little work on the reasons for the long-standing (if now overcome) gender gap in British politics, whereby women disproportionately favor conservatism. Only in the last few years, in work by Alison Light on the affinity between appeasement and domesticity, by Ina Zweiniger-Bargielowska and Fiona Grigg on the gendered appeal of conservative penal and economic policies, and by Martin Pugh and David Jarvis on the party's women's organizations, do we get the beginnings of such a gendered history of conservatism. Subjects like these are not trivial, for they help us to understand how some of the core political changes of our time—changes that affected the lives and life chances of millions—happened. These processes, too, were gendered, and they need our attention.

But there is one final reason I want to argue for attention to politics, and that is because it will help us with our own institutional work and practice. As we trace the historical significance of the partial reform, of the awkward coalition, of the indifferent outcome chosen to preclude the worse, we learn some lessons that may actually help us in the world in which we find ourselves. For—and this brings me back to my first point—as feminist history has swollen into a big and successful wave, it has lifted a lot of individual historian boats. Feminist historians are now on the committees and Council of the American Historical Association, they are deans and university presidents, heads of major granting agencies, tenured professors and department chairs. This group is making or helping to make the decisions about hiring, promotion, and publishing that will affect our profession through the next generation. I don't wish to belittle in any way the struggles of the first generations of feminist historians, who often pursued their visions from marginal positions and against difficult odds, but for a younger generation—my generation—I think it is important to acknowledge that the world has changed. It is no good, anymore, pretending that we are brave outsiders valiantly challenging patriarchal institutions: that is, the institutions may still be patriarchal, but we are right in the middle of them. When we make such claims or play such a role, then, we look—to our graduate students, to younger faculty, to adjuncts sweating it out in poorly paid holding tanks—not merely ridiculous but irresponsible, indulging in some fantasy of romantic opposition at their expense. For, I would argue, there is no power more despotic than the power that hides its face, that operates personally and erratically, that despises process, that will not acknowledge its own place in the hierarchy, that takes refuge—to cite a feminist classic—in the "tyranny of structurelessness." Theories that stress the fluidity and multivalence of power fit too comfortably with such practice to make our attraction to them entirely innocent. My last point, then, is to ask that as we, as feminist historians, take on ever more important roles in the academy, we understand our place in fixed and directional hierarchies of power, and use our position well. This means, among other things, that we think about whether we can place our graduate students before we ask them to carry out our own intellectual agendas; that we diversify our curriculum without operating our own thought police; that we are gracious to those colleagues who don't quite understand what we do but want to be on our side; and, finally, that we not act like hurt parents when a younger generation decides—as it assuredly will—that we got it all wrong, and comes along to chastise and correct us.

—Susan Pedersen is professor of history and dean of undergraduate education at Harvard University. She is the author of Family, Dependence, and the Origins of the Welfare State: Britain and France, 1914–1945 (1993), and the editor, with Peter Mandler, of After the Victorians: Private Conscience and Public Duty in Modern Britain (1994). She has also written on British feminism and imperial politics between the two world wars, and is now completing a biography of the British feminist and social reformer, Eleanor Rathbone.