A Conversation with Ida Blom
Alice Kessler-Harris, December 2006
Editor's Note: The AHA's Honorary Foreign Membership, which was first conferred upon Leopold von Ranke in 1886, has since been awarded to 90 other "historians working outside the United States, for their distinguished scholarship and assistance to American scholars working in their country." At the 121st annual meeting of the AHA, the distinction will be conferred upon Ida Blom, who has taught for nearly 40 years at the University of Bergen in Norway. She is a leading scholar of the history of women and gender in Europe and has a worldwide reputation as an active exponent of the uses of gender to interpret social and political change in a global context. She kindly agreed to have an extended e-mail conversation with Alice Kessler-Harris, professor of history at Columbia University and a member of the AHA's Council, to discuss the state of gender history—in Scandinavia in particular and across the globe in general. We present below the text of their exchanges.
Alice Kessler-Harris: Let's begin by talking a little bit about your early beginnings as a historian. How did you become interested in international, or global history?
Ida Blom: Coming from Copenhagen, settling in Bergen, Norway, and passing my masters and doctorate at the University of Bergen, I was interested in historical relations between Denmark and Norway. My doctoral thesis treated a dispute between these two countries during the 1920s and 1930s about sovereignty over part of Eastern Greenland. The dispute, which dates back to the period of Danish sovereignty over Norway (1389–1814), finally ended at the International Court in The Hague, and Denmark won.
So here was a small beginning of my interest in international history. It grew with teaching courses on international relations between 1700 and 1950. But otherwise I turned my interests toward how, in a democratic society, ideas and opinions were funneled from the "common people" to political parties and governments, through civil society, interest organizations, and pressure groups.
AKH: Was there a relationship between this political interest and your turn to gender history?
IB: Quite accidentally, during the summer of 1972, when I had just defended my doctoral thesis, a vivid dispute raged over whether Norway should join the European Union (at the time called the European Economic Community). I became quite involved in these discussions, and met a group of women who found one important reason for staying outside this European cooperation—in the fact that it was led by men only! Moreover, they also thought that women in a number of member countries had much weaker positions in politics as well as on the labor market than in Norway.
I had never thought of this before—women not being welcomed wherever they wanted to go! To my amazement I discovered that in France, where I had spent some years of my youth, women got the vote only in 1944. Also, I realized that I had been teaching history for more than 10 years without even mentioning, even knowing, that women did not have the same civil rights as men, that they were only allowed suffrage decades later than men, and so on.
All this turned my research interest in a new direction—women's history. I speculated about what could have been decisive for women during the period I knew well, and decided that the possibility of deciding on their own how many children they wanted to have, must have changed women's lives. So my first book concerned the sharp reduction in marital fertility in Norway between 1900 and 1930. I found it necessary to tell that story as part of European history, and to chart inspirations from abroad, such as the New Malthusians like Mary Stopes in Britain and Margaret Sanger in the United States, not to speak of events in the other Scandinavian countries. This work made me realize how little we knew about women in past times, and with my master's students I started a new field of research: women's history.
AKH: How did other historians respond to this new field? Did they welcome it, or greet it with suspicion?
IB: Fellow historians responded in very different ways to the early initiatives in women's history. I remember one colleague who found women's history unnecessary since in his opinion sewing and cooking were appropriate subjects for ethnologists, not for historians. Others feared that a focus on gender would dethrone class as the most important category of analysis, while still others admitted that gender might be useful within certain fields of history, such as family history. Some saw it as a special discipline, a little too tightly connected to the women's movement.
The few women teaching in history departments in the 1970s also reacted in different ways to women's history. Some kept their distance. But others were genuinely interested and we started cooperating. Probably the most encouraging factor in Norway was that at the end of the 1970s our National Research Council granted our application for three full-time researchers for three years to take part in the first big project we started. Two of these researchers, Gro Hagemann and Kari Melby, have long been professors. My department created a professorship in women's history in 1985.
By and large, I think women's history was met with some support in Norway, and with less enthusiasm in Denmark and Finland. Some of the problems in Denmark were due to a halt in academic expansion. Very few people were hired between 1972 and 1992. This seriously narrowed the possibilities for women's history. During the past decade this situation has become somewhat better and some new appointments have been made. The more conservative structure of the Finnish academia may also be part of the explanation. It is also a question of how fields of historical research are perceived. Would it be seen as political history or women's history to write about state support for unmarried mothers?
It is in Sweden that gender history has been most successful. I have discussed the differences among the Nordic countries with a small group of Nordic colleagues and they agree that more active policies for gender equality in Swedish society may be one explanation. Also, a different recruitment system, allowing for a greater number of young scholars, may have helped produce more tenured gender historians than in the other Nordic countries. In Norway it has sometimes proved difficult not only to find openings for gender historians, but also to find qualified applicants. It has probably been important that gender history in Sweden has been supported by some of the leading male historians; indeed, the first Swedish professor of women's history was a man. And gender studies have a longer tradition at several Swedish universities. In any case, I think a comparative transnational analysis of the growth of women's and gender history in the Nordic countries would be keenly interesting.
AKH: Can you say anything about the current situation with regard to studies of women and gender?
IB: The general impression of today's situation is that gender history has come to stay, but that it is not always given priority when resources are scarce. Excluding a gender perspective from beginner courses makes recruitment to these studies at master's level rarer, but those who choose to do gender history are often very dedicated and interested students. On the other hand, gender analysis is becoming more widespread among historians who do not specialize in gender history, especially among younger scholars. Mainstreaming is growing, but it is rather exceptional to see scholarship criticized for not including gender as an analytical category. In my opinion, intersectionality, explicitly complementing gender with other categories of analysis, is a fine approach. Also, focusing on topics that at first glance do not seem to have a gender perspective and then demonstrate the fundamental importance of gender in most areas of society, is a fruitful way of bringing attention to gender history.
Nowadays interdisciplinary centers for gender studies are active at many Scandinavian universities. But among the Nordic countries, only Sweden has a very lively and active organization for women's and gender historians. In Denmark, occasional national conferences are organized to unite gender historians. The most important Nordic forum is the Nordic conferences on women's and gender history that have been organized every three years since the early 1980s. They act as a supplement to the regular Nordic history conferences. They started out bringing together only a small group of historians, but now include more than 100 participants.
AKH: How did women historians begin to improve their position in the academy?
IB: When in the early 1970s women's studies started out in Norway, we soon realized that women constituted only a tiny minority of university scholars. We were greatly encouraged to do something about this when at a meeting of the Nordic Council—an institution where Nordic politicians meet to discuss common policies—one of the radical socialist members asked that something be done to address the gender imbalance at Nordic universities. A committee appointed for this task suggested preferential treatment of qualified women applicants to university posts. This suggestion was met with a shower of criticism but some years later women scholars who thought they might be qualified for a professorship were allowed to ask to be evaluated, even if there was no opening available. In this way a number of women saw their position changed from assistant professors to professors. After a while, this opportunity was opened to men.
Another important recommendation accepted only later was to allow research scholars maternity leave, with the right to resume their positions after such a leave. This proved important to a number of young women researchers.
I think that the Scandinavian welfare model has been important in easing the way for women into academia, as well as into other economically gainful activities. For instance, in Norway economically active women have been granted maternity leave that has gradually been extended to cover 11 months with 80 percent wages. Fathers have the right to a minimum of four weeks' leave, and the majority of fathers avail themselves of this opportunity. Although this is only one small step in the direction of sharing childcare and household responsibilities between women and men, it is a good beginning. But even in this field Sweden has long taken the lead. There has been a tradition, going back to the 1930s and still important, of Sweden making efforts to help married women who are gainfully employed to go on working even when having children. Norwegian policies, in contrast, have been to assist working mothers to be able to quit paid work and stay home with their children. Danish policies in this field are nearer the Swedish than the Norwegian traditions.
AKH: It sounds as if your work in women's history has led you full-circle back into transnational approaches.
IB: From the beginning I found that women's history in one country could only be fully understood by comparing it to women's history in other parts of the world. The question of why British women who had struggled so strongly and for such a long time for the same suffrage rights as men, succeeded only as late as in 1928, while this happened in Norway already in 1913 and with much less drama, made me curious about cultural variations in gender relations. Even within Scandinavia the marked differences between, for instance, married women's gainful employment, with Norway at the bottom, Sweden at the top, begged for explanation. At the end of the 1970s, three colleagues and I organized a three-year research program engaging Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish historians, on women's work in family and society between 1875 and 1940. Directly and indirectly, this resulted in a number of books and a couple of doctoral theses.
Scandinavian cooperation has also been important in a project to write a women's world history.
There has been a strong tradition in Norway of writing comprehensive "world histories" as well as "Norwegian histories" every 20 years or so. These works, often amounting to 12–15 volumes, have been addressed to a broad public and sold very well. In the 1980s a Norwegian publisher asked me to take on a project of writing a three-volume women's world history. It resulted in cooperation between 10 Norwegian and Danish historians, and was published in 1992 and 1993. This work really showed me the importance of studying women's histories within different cultures, and started me off on a number of transnational comparative articles discussing gender and nationalism, gender and civil rights, etc.
AKH: So you have a long history of working with other scholars on collaborative and crosscultural research projects. Was there a natural leap from there beyond Scandinavia and into the larger world?
IB: At the 1980 conference of the International Committee for Historical Sciences I was asked to preside over a one-day program that for the first time considered women's history. I remember I was told that this was the first time a woman took on the responsibility for a full one-day program. The theme caught considerable attention and I met a number of historians who had started researching women's history, not least from the United States. This started my interest in somehow organizing international cooperation within this new field of research.
After long and what at times seemed rather hopeless attempts, the International Federation for Research in Women's History was formed in 1987. At the founding conference in Bellagio, Italy, 18 national committees, including those from India, Japan, Nigeria and the then DDR (German Democratic Republic) participated. The IFRWH was accepted as an internal commission of the ICSH and organized its first conference at the world history conference in Madrid in 1990. The IFRWH has since organized its own international conferences every five years as well as programs at the ICSH conferences.
All this stimulated my interest in the growing field of "global history" or "world history," and led me to participate in a number of conferences—among them a panel at the AHA annual meeting in Washington, D.C., in January 1999—on what I prefer to call "transnational comparative history," that is, comparing certain historical phenomena across national boundaries, preferably across continents and cultures.
No doubt, a great help for me in all this was that during my youth I learned French, German, and English very well, partly through studies to become a trilingual secretary, partly by working in Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and France for several years. My personal experience of international contacts and having friends in many different countries added to my curiosity about similarities and differences among national gender histories.
AKH: You mentioned that you began, in the nineties, to compare "certain historical phenomena across national boundaries." Can you tell us a little more about what you mean by "transnational comparative history"?
IB: I prefer the term "transnational comparative history" or "transcultural comparative history" for that matter, to "global history" because I think it is very hard for a historian to study truly global phenomena. This easily leads to generalizations more in tune with sociology or other social science disciplines than with history. The where and when soon disappears, structural factors overshadow human agency, and you may be left with a fleeting feeling of a world that has no distinct cultures. On the other hand, an approach that highlights meetings between well defined different groups of individuals, different cultures, at well defined moments and within well defined fields cannot pretend to be "global."
This may be a too critical approach. The term "global history" seems to be well established and certainly also covers what I call "transnational" or "transcultural" history. As a matter of fact, gender history is a central part of global history. No one would deny that any society at any time has consisted of women and men and that consequently gender relations have been one of the crucial elements in social organization.
AKH: Give us an example of how gender history led you to work across cultures.
IB: One example comes from my earliest interest in this kind of history. I worked with the Scandinavian women's world history during the late 1980s. My interest blossomed more seriously when I organized a panel at the United Nations Women's Conference in Beijing in 1995. With colleagues from India, Japan, and South Korea I discussed connections between feminism and nationalism in our respective countries and our papers were later printed in the Journal of Women's History. I continued working with the theme of different nationalisms and found striking parallels in the way women within such different cultures as Norway, Sweden, Japan, and India had argued about why they deserved to be seen as important members of the nation. Nowhere was there a clear distinction between the public and the private. The family acted as a channel for political power, especially within elite populations, while women also outside elite groups took part in collective actions and voluntary organizations to strengthen women's political—and other—rights. Also, arguments everywhere mirrored two different understandings of gender, one stressing equality between women and men, another accentuating women's special potentials, but both arguing for equal rights.
Analyses of symbols used to represent the "imagined national community" also showed parallels. Women, much more than men, in all these cultures, would wear traditional national dresses, and still do so today. The symbol of the mother nation was also found everywhere. I learned that, as in many European nations, the Indian nation was often symbolized as a caring mother, to be protected from foreign threats. At the same time the mother goddess, who was also the goddess of strength, was invoked to liberate "Mother India." Differently, the Japanese national mother would be seen as a subservient figure, happy to sacrifice her sons to the needs of the emperor, while the Norwegian mother would sometimes take part in battles, sometimes be crying over fighting sons and husbands. In any case she would be the symbol of national continuity, telling her children the old folk tales and singing the folk songs to them.
But there were certainly also huge differences. In India priority was given to solving problems concerning women's physical safety, such as child marriages and widow immolation. In China and Japan, the relevant issues included concubinage, foot-binding, and women's total submission to husbands and mothers-in-law. This was very different from Scandinavian women's attempts to gain access to universities, to secure married women's right to gainful employment, and to keep their national citizenship even when marrying a foreigner.
AKH: How do you explain such differences?
IB: It is no easy matter. I would suggest that in societies where family and kinship were the only safety nets in case of sickness and poverty, loyalty to family and kin would be vital, and individual rights have low priority. In societies where industrialization and urbanization were loosening the ties between the individual and the family, and not least where public policies had started weaving a safety net around individuals, possibilities for women's emancipation were much more promising.
The importance of dominating religious systems may also be at work. Hierarchical and fundamentalist beliefs, be it within Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, or Confucianism narrowed the possibilities for individual rights, especially for women. This may also have been the case in Europe where a more conservative Catholicism prevailed in the south, a more liberal Lutheranism in the north.
But I find it important to emphasize that no culture was/is an absolute entity; within each culture there were/are many differences. The well-known interplay of class-caste-ethnicity-skin color, and so on, makes detailed local studies of the utmost importance, especially in transnational and transcultural comparative history. No doubt such an approach to gender history may yield a lot of new knowledge in many different fields.
AKH: Tell us something about what you think are the prospects for international or global history. Where is it likely to go in the next decade? What are we likely to learn? How will it change the practice and teaching of history? What are your hopes and expectations for it?
IB: I hope that gender history will continue to be enlarged also to include the gendering of men. Knowledge of how traditions of masculinity have formed men's thoughts and actions is an absolute necessity for a full understanding of gender relations at all levels and in all cultures. It is important to look at the heavy responsibility men have traditionally shouldered by attempting to provide for their families in the best possible way, and how being a good provider seemed central to much male identity. What also needs to be analyzed is of course men's inherent patriarchal attitudes, and not least when, where, and how such attitudes gave way to seeing men and women as equal individuals. Studies in this field by Mrinalini Sinha, Michael Kimmel, R. W. Connell, John Tosh, and others are great beginnings, but much remains to be done before we have a more complete picture of the historical dimensions of masculinities.
It is also important to continue and strengthen attempts at gender analysis of seemingly ungendered phenomena, such as peace negotiations or trading agreements. Such studies often reveal important understandings of gendered consequences and may help explain difficulties in reaching international agreements. This is also an approach that often attracts more attention than when research directly targets gender relations.
I think there is a great future for transcultural/global history. First of all, the world is increasingly shrinking and we have a strong need for knowledge about the history of other cultures. One of the most important steps in the direction of a more peaceful world to me seems to be a much better understanding of how each culture has become what it is today. Knowing more, and especially acquiring a more nuanced knowledge of cooperation and conflict between people in past times, will make a very useful background for today's political decisions. A number of crucial mistakes may be avoided if we understand why other people act in ways that we may find distasteful and threatening and where within other cultures we may find individuals that have the same hopes and aspirations as us.
This is not to say that I think we may directly learn from history. But with deeper and more detailed knowledge of other cultures we may be able to better discern what measures would be needed to create prosperity and peace, what we may, and probably just as important, what we should not, do in order to further friendly coexistence.
Global history has lately made very promising progress in including and highlighting gender history. I am very impressed by the three-volume Women's History in Global Perspective (which was conceived by the AHA and edited by Bonnie Smith) and also by the Encyclopedia of Women in World History for which Smith and so many other dedicated historians are responsible. This is a giant step forward. Also, articles in a number of journals continuously remind us of the history of women world wide. When in the late 1980s we worked on the Scandinavian volumes on women's world history useful research was hard to come by. Now it is overwhelming.
AKH: You are an optimist then?
IB: Yes. All this new knowledge is bound to change the way we have so far taught history. I envisage courses for instance on the conditions under which women have given birth to their children and how this has changed or not changed in various cultures during the 19th and 20th centuries. Or we could have seminars on cultural variations in women's access to power in the private as well as in the public sphere, or on cultural differences in masculinities, and so forth. We shall need a variety of theories to account for transcultural changes and continuities, and I hope we shall be able to listen and learn from historians who think differently from us. The big challenge will be to continue to ground history as solidly as possible in primary source materials that indicate time and place, and not take completely off into the world of theories and systems. Seeing the global in the local and vice versa is not easy, but very rewarding.
—Alice Kessler-Harris (Columbia Univ.) is a member of the AHA's Council. She is currently a William C. and Ida Friday Fellow at the National Humanities Center, Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, where she is working on a book about Lillian Hellman.