Publication Date

January 3, 2017

Perspectives Section



Political, Women, Gender, & Sexuality

Self-proclaimed guardians of political history have regularly issued jeremiads about the decline of our field. For years, this typically took the form of complaints about the rise of social and cultural history. Sometimes working-class history, women’s history, the history of racial minorities, and LGBT history were blamed. When Logevall and Osgood conflate “history from the bottom up” with the history of African Americans, Latinas/Latinos, women, and “homosexuals,” they erase an array of works that address politics in relation to gender, race, and sexuality. In their response, they continue to discuss political history in ways that almost entirely ignore these topics. One clue about why they do so can be found in their discussion of my “little corner of the world.” Apparently, they missed my sarcasm; my point was that my corner is actually pretty popular. Instead, they urge us to “take a broader perspective” and examine “all points on the compass, not just our own.” I couldn’t agree more. Sarcasm alert: I sure do wish that political historians who focus on class, gender, race, and sexuality would stop looking at things from provincial and parochial points of view and focus on larger political issues like capitalism, colonialism, democracy, equality, justice, war, and peace. As for their efforts to provide further evidence for the decline of political history, I am not convinced that their research methodology is up to the task, primarily because of the questions they are not asking.

First, do most US history textbooks and survey courses still privilege political history? If so, what is the relationship between this and the patterns that Logevall and Osgood have identified in history specializations and job advertisements?

Second, how do we measure the changing popularity of political history when (a) the boundaries between political history and fields like diplomatic, legal, and military history are porous, (b) political history includes the local and urban, not just the state and national, (c) some surveys limit the number of specialties one can select, (d) some political historians might have political or other reasons for not identifying as such on surveys, and (e) the number of fields listed in disciplinary surveys has changed over time?

Third, is it possible that more and more dissertations integrate political history with other approaches? Has there been a generational shift whereby new historians are less invested in older field designations? What if many historians who combine “top down” and “bottom up” approaches do not describe themselves as political historians?

Fourth, while quantitative studies of job advertisements are interesting, is it possible that political historians are favored in job searches that do not mention politics (such as searches in US history, the American Revolution, the Civil War, and chronologically defined subfields)?

All of this begs the question of how we should define “the political.” It is sometimes said that if everything is political, the concept of politics as a distinct conceptual domain loses its utility. But surely we can come up with a definition that encompasses less than everything but more than national elections, political parties, and a small set of individuals and institutions. Notwithstanding several significant attempts, the concept of a “new political history” has never been defined successfully. In my little corner of the world, no definition will work if it minimizes the work of political historians who focus on class, race, gender, and sexuality.

Marc Stein is the Jamie and Phyllis Pasker Professor of US History at San Francisco State University. He is the author of City of Sisterly and Brotherly Loves: Lesbian and Gay Philadelphia (2000), Sexual Injustice: Supreme Court Decisions from Griswold to Roe (2010), and Rethinking the Gay and Lesbian Movement (2012).

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