Letters to the Editor

Gender Analysis under Fire

Aviel Roshwald, November 1991

Professor Bonnie Smith's jargonistic discourse on "Gender, Reproduction, and European History," (Perspectives, September 1991) underscores the danger involved in trying to use professionalism as a substitute for, rather than supplement to, common sense. Monodimensional perspectives on history have never been particularly productive, given the enormous variety of issues, cultures, time periods, geographical regions, etc., covered by the field. And the diversity of human historical experience is obscured rather than highlighted by an obsessive attempt to interpret every significant development through the lens of "gender analysis" (be it the male- or female-oriented version thereof).

To take the most glaring example, Professor Smith suggests that misogyny was the fundamental point of departure for the ideology and policies of the Nazi state. She goes on to add that "Nazism also depended on anti-Semitism ...to heighten its power and to provide a motor force for its policy (italics added)." Perhaps this passage was intended as an exercise in self-parody, but in any case, it is an excellent illustration of how to stretch an interpretive framework far beyond the point at which it ceases to have any explanatory value. After all, if it is a given that all major historical phenomena are outgrowths of misogyny, then gender analysis can no longer serve to differentiate between one phenomenon and the other.

Surely Professor Smith's dogmatic (not to say insensitive) approach does a grave disservice to the field of women's history. It is clearly vital to incorporate the discoveries of these pathbreaking researchers into the historical syntheses which we present to students in our courses. But to use gender analysis as an overarching, deterministic explanation of Western civilization is to delude ourselves and mislead our students. It is precisely the intricacy, complexity, and diversity of history which makes it an exciting topic to teach.

Aviel Roshwald, Assistant Professor
Georgetown University