Publication Date

October 3, 2019

Perspectives Section

Letters to the Editor

To the Editor:

I was delighted to read AHA President John R. McNeill’s bold column “Jargon in History Writing Shuts Out the Public” (May 2019). I have been concerned about the increase in postmodernist terminology since the late 1980s, and I encourage everyone to read Barbara Christian’s groundbreaking essay “The Race for Theory,” which appeared in Feminist Studies in spring 1988. Christian suggested that the language of critical theory “. . . is as hegemonic as the world it attacks. I see the language it creates as one that mystifies rather than clarifies our condition, making it possible for a few people who know that particular language to control the critical scene. That language surfaced, interestingly enough, just when the literature of peoples of color, black women, Latin Americans, and Africans began to move to ‘the center.’”

Christian’s argument informed my own awareness of the ways in which the field of women’s studies adopted the language of critical theory in order to increase its legitimacy in the academy and a place at the scholarly table. I observed stylistic language changes in publications and discourse throughout the 1990s as a scholar with a doctorate in women’s history, holding academic positions in both history and women’s studies.

Christian made a particular point about the irony of inaccessible scholarly language becoming dominant even in women’s studies, a field that sought to make working-class students and women of color feel welcomed and “heard” in the women’s history classroom. In my book The Disappearing L (SUNY Press, 2016), I chart similar ways that the field of LGBT history has rapidly shut out grassroots community scholars in favor of the complex theoretical language of queer studies. I appreciate seeing this issue discussed front and center in Perspectives.

Bonnie J. Morris
George Washington University (emerita)
University of California, Berkeley

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