Every Man Should Do It! Teaching Women's History

Joel T. Rosenthal | Jul 1, 1996

This column in Perspectives is often about a teaching or classroom innovation that affects students. In this instance, however, it's about a novel experience for the teacher, one that made him rethink his professional identity and what he was accustomed to doing in the classroom. I recently began teaching an undergraduate course (with about 90 students) on women in premodern Europe. Teaching the course has made me reexamine many of the point, that I, like other teachers, took for granted—the purpose and nature of historical explanation, the syllabus, the organization of courses as "blocks of knowledge," and the interaction or reciprocity between teachers and students.

The course is not new, having been taught before by a female colleague who is a gifted teacher. We rotate courses, and I asked if I could have a turn. The syllabus, as I inherited and modified it, covers the ancient world (a bit of the ancient Near East, more of Greece and Rome), the Middle Ages, and the beginnings of early modern history in the West. This is a conventional outline for women's history, as it is for traditional European history. The readings are from widely used and well-tested books. They include many primary sources, some contemporary literature read in extenso, and a handful of respected secondary volumes. Only the teacher is, by the standards of the 1990s, a little unusual for such a course.

Moving into women's history has forced me to spend time—both in private thought and in class discourse-dealing with questions about teaching history that I, like many of my colleagues, am rarely moved to articulate in a structured fashion. One set of questions came from the issue of who and what I am. Can, and should, a man teach women's history, and why would he wish to? These questions—like so many we ask our students and discuss with colleagues—have a number of provocative answers. Some are personal and political, some academic or pedagogical.

One obvious answer is simply that women's history is still a relatively new field, and it behooves all historians—as we worry about repetition and burnout—to keep up with changes in scholarship and pedagogy. I label this "the professional life cycle" answer. Beyond that, for me, there is a political response. It is "politically correct" for men to teach such courses. Of course, they should not be the only ones who do so, nor should they teach them to the exclusion of other courses. Though "political correctness" has come under attack, the phrase and what it connotes are meaningful signals of civility as well as of partisanship. "Prof-bashing" notwithstanding, it is not a bad idea for academics to strive for political correctness. And considering the history of our society, the special burden here properly falls, most heavily though hardly exclusively, on white males. As I prepared the course, I received support and suggestions from female colleagues who had taught women's history to undergraduates, and since the Women's Studies Program cross-listed my course, I felt I was being endorsed rather than being treated as an intruder.

But beyond the personal and the political, what are the pedagogical considerations that argue for a man teaching women's history? As I noted above, teaching such a course forces upon the instructor an examination (or a reexamination) of some rarely contested assumptions upon which our culture has been built. It also requires a rethinking of the way we accept a packaging of the past to accommodate it within the standardized boundaries of history courses (and vice versa). When women (and gender)—rather than men—become the focal point of the survey course, we realize from the very beginning that the customary center no longer holds. All is topsy-turvy and confusion—a good point at which to begin.

It follows that the instructor must tum his hand to the construction of a new or a different explanatory framework, one hitched to a fresh reading of sources and only explicable in terms of a new relationship between the construction of a usable past and an uncertain present. The following issues-listed in an arbitrary order-move both teacher and students from the accustomed (and comfortable) ranks of male-defined canonicity to a no-man's [sic] land of interpretation, ongoing struggle, and recognition of the power of hegemony-by-hindsight. We can either yield to the momentum of these new definitional constructs with grace, or we can resist until their glacial force pushes us down the incline of reassessment.

Rearranging the Paradigm

Since Herodotus and Thucydides (if not from Old Testament times), the model or "paradigm" of historical analysis and explanation has been a narrative that accorded to men.in-politics/men-in-power an undisputed pride of place. The men themselves, the institutions they worked in, the offices they held, and the struggles emanating from their differences (of class, race, nation, and imperial ambition) were the core of historical presentation—a presentation usually offered through the medium of chronological narrative. History was mostly about "events," and after that, it was about "great lives." Whatever we think of this model, as professionals or as sociopolitical dissidents, it is difficult in the classroom to alter or to dodge a view so deeply embedded in the lay definition of history.

Women's history, on the other hand, is about neither events nor, for the earlier periods, lives (let alone men's lives). It is about interaction and interpretation. It looks at the continuous endeavors that were expended to erect institutions and to transmit the common culture so that a "natural" place in Western society was accorded to the tale of male definition and domination. The mainstream paradigm of historical narrative offers virtually no explanation of or for women, except as "the other"—no space for their interest or expression, for their voice or dynamic in change. Therefore we must, from the first class meeting, try to construct an alternative history—using, resting upon, and informed by an alternative database to arrive at an alternative picture of society and an alternative model of social relations and social change. Even such a pedagogical given as traditional periodization (thanks in good part to Joan Kelly's famous 1977 essay, "Did Women Have a Renaissance?") is now up for grabs, along with other accepted frameworks we use to navigate and explicate the past. Women's history, as we want our students to realize, is not simply the story of those women who "belonged" to famous men. It involves social relations and structure, sex and sexuality, and the private as well as the public sphere.

Demystifying the Syllabus

Years of passive consumerism have made most students only too ready to accept a course syllabus as a given, a disinterested guide to a body of historical data. It is hard to make them see the syllabus as a construct. A course begins; the instructor distributes a handout that resembles a table of contents or a calendar outline. Except for details on such matters as the number and type of student assignments, it is seen as standard classroom fare.

In reality, a course syllabus is a powerful too of pedagogical imperialism. Through its facade of abbreviation and its canonical status it controls and directs student access to the subject matter—we could be pompous and say "to the past." It imposes the instructor's decisions about inclusion and exclusion as though they were theorems of Euclid, rather than what they are—a blend of eccentricities and biases that through some mix of convenience, partisanship, or indifference layout our prescribed pathway. The syllabus looks like a neutral reflection of larger realities: nation-states feudal monarchies, geopolitical boundaries, periodization, and political events. In reality of course, the syllabus "privileges" such entities; they become prime movers in the cosmos of historical narrative.

A syllabus for a women's history course has no choice but to confront the realities that underlie this kind of arbitrary construction. Since the tale of women in premodern Europe is not determined by political boundaries or revealed through events, the selective nature of readings, topics, and assignments becomes an up-front issue. Why are some topics included and others ignored or given short shrift? We throw out the traditional chestnuts and cease rounding up the usual suspects; the causes of World War I, the reasons for British success against Napoleon, the wisdom (or foolishness) of Louis XIV's wars are lost and forgotten.

In their place we offer readings and lectures that center on the search for voice, for significant sources, for the archaeology and architecture of social structure and status. The course is unfolded and revealed as a series of teaching and teacher's choices, of decisions about material, topics, and themes. Some units and lectures emphasize men talking about women. Others, though fewee in number, pertain more to women talking about women. We see the ramifications of history as an unfolding tale relying upon records, chronicles, and literary depictions. Is it a story shaped by theories of misogyny, occasionally balanced by a glimpse into sources that illuminate a woman's world of shared experience and common activities? Once we jettison the traditional paradigm of historical explanation, the syllabus also is—and is seen to be—a construct resting on choice and politics—contested ground, as we now say, rather than on engraved commandments.

The World of Uncertainty and Ambiguity

When we depart from history-as-narrative and cross over into the realms of interaction and interpretation, we leave a stage on which events take place and then exit in order to give their successors a turn. As a result, the syllabus becomes a string of issues and investigations that never seem to get resolved, about which our society never offers answers that seem final or wholly acceptable. A women's history course helps transpose the inconsistency and uncertainty of our own world into the past. Endless contestation, with each faction holding its entrenched position regarding gender (and class and race), is the reality with which we live. Why should the past be reduced to a narrative flow? And since women's history is a tale of interaction, rather than of events, there is no logical reason why any of its salient subtopics should ever be brought to closure. "No final answers" and "no answer that pleases everyone" are good lessons for a teacher's closing lines. For all the talk about "critical thinking" in the classroom, the old paradigm of history still includes a lot of "correct" answers and "basic" facts.

A good example of social indeterminacy, and an important one for a course like this, concerns the elaborate rationale that for 3,000 years has been used to justify the inferior and subordinate status of women. Some basic texts are concise and easy to follow: the sociobiology of Aristotle (from On the Generation of Animals) and some of the Pauline epistles. Other Pauline texts, and some of Plato's views, and some medieval canon law about equality or gender symmetry within marriage can be used as alternative readings. So the issue in class goes beyond what some "dead white men" said and moves to why some of their texts prevailed, why some interpretations became the mainstream ones. Why did Genesis on the Fall become such a burden on women, rather than merely a myth about a lost idyll? Why did Aristotle's biology have such powerful and long-lived "scientific" and moral validity? Why did sexuality—in so many forms and permutations—give rise to so much control, while other important activities were left to intrafamilial jurisdiction (like disciplining children) or to voluntary association (like public ritual and social welfare)? Who made these choices? Who set the agenda of social discourse that has dominated our history? I offer these "breakthrough" questions to show how teaching women's history can force into the open matters usually kept under wraps, at least as far as students and classroom deliberations are concerned.

There are other topics, of a related nature, I could elaborate upon. One is essentialism; my mere presence as a male would seem to force the question-and in a different way for my male students than for my female students. All of my students-male and female- have to decide whether my "party line" is personal or inseparable from the chosen subject matter and course readings. The nature of primary sources-the fixed stars of the historian's firmament-is another issue we confront in the course. The partisan nature of primary sources and their persistent silence toward vast areas of life (let alone toward half the population) enable us to question the way in which they have been created, preserved, and interpreted as cultural and political artifacts.

The course has offered opportunities as well as challenges. Medieval historians do not usually have much occasion to bring "current events" into the classroom. And yet it would be perverse to teach women's history without reference to the morning newspaper: court decisions about access to abortion clinics, Mormon rulings on divorce, women priests in the Anglican Church, and scientific questions about sperm and mutation. Lively discussion has its own virtues and also serves to remind students of the timeless nature of, as well as the inconsistent answers offered to, the basic dilemmas of life and society in a gendered world.

For an experienced teacher to have come through a new pedagogical experience is exhilarating, and it raises a further set of questions. Recent discussions in this column (see "White Professors, Black History: Forays into the Multicultural Classroom," Perspectives, September 1993) have looked at problems encountered by some white faculty members who teach African American history. A good deal of what was said about the search for a dialogue to enrich the experience or teacher and students was rather discouraging. What are the boundaries of antiessentialism, and how far can the analogy of a man teaching women's history carry me—either toward them or away from them—as I read the discussion about race? A sympathetic male in a women's history classroom, teaching mostly women, does not seem to open himself to the same problems as those faced by a white instructor teaching black history to black students. To me, at least, the divide of gender seems narrower than that of race (or class). But then again, it may not behoove me, as one who can pretend to accept the prevailing male-oriented agenda if I so choose to grow dogmatic about the irreversibility of otherness. Maybe I have just had the good fortune to be in tune with my students—who are 80 percent women—or at least with the articulate and politically sympathetic ones. Or perhaps I have had the misfortune to be teaching students who prefer to dose down rather than to argue with me before their peers.

Another question I have been mulling over has to do with how different my course is from one that might be taught by a female colleague, and how much of this difference is because of gender. My own views land my unwonted introspection, do not seem to me to be gender-specific; they seem to be part of a universal classroom reflection that we should all engage in. But as I have just said, it is not for me to have a final word on such matters. I do know that teaching “the other” pushed me to isolate the problems I have talked about here. I realized in preparing the course that decisions about the syllabus were more sensitive than usual. Was this inherent in the subject matter or part of my new consciousness? Some aspects of the course were business as usual. I typically emphasize social and economic data over political, and I did so here. Women in religion, social structure, and literature as a path into social structure are my standard bill of fare, and they continued to be in my women's history course.

Some things were different; some challenges were novel ones. I told the class there would be little about the gynecological tradition. I would find this embarrassing, and I think many students (male and female) feel the same. On the other hand, my female colleague, whose own research is in this field, always uses a large number of such readings: But while I had no problems talking about sexual activity, to focus just on women's bodies was not so easy. The nude in art went down smoothly, but what monks theorized about the spasms and receptivity of the womb during intercourse took me closer to a prurient interest than I wanted to be. Other topics fell by the wayside for different reasons. I lectured hardly at all about the Mother Goddess and the Old Religion; I think these are largely ahistorical concepts, and the layers of historiography are complex and contentious. Witchcraft—squeezed by time and many competing topics—was also cut short, though I plan to redress this balance. It is hard to explain to students why two millennia of misogyny took such a virulent form around 1500, and why persecutors were able to conflate the petty magic of love charms and village lore with the great powers of darkness. But these are in-course decisions, comparable to those we always make, or should make, in any course, and there are always worthwhile topics we can't get around to covering.

Do the lessons of my women's history course carry over to other courses? I will be more explicit about “the other” in all my courses, no doubt, as will try to carry my attack on the paradigm and the syllabus into any and all fields of battle. What have I done in this course that I do not do in others? One, certainly, is to concentrate on the issues discussed above: how to teach the field and how to relate it to traditional courses and fields. I spent a good deal of class time dealing with these issues and questions—often to the bewilderment of some of the students. But judging by the topics chosen for the las essay assignment I gave, some of my points about relativism and taking positions in a partisan world seem to have come home. Lastly—and this is not so different from many other classes and, I hope, no different for a man than for a woman—I have had, lot of fun trying to synthesize and talk about a body of new material and assignments and encouraging my students to wrestle with basic issues about the structure of society and the mythology of culture.

Joel T. Rosenthal teaches medieval history, the State University of New York at Stan Brook. His most recent publications include patriarchy and Families of Privilege in Fifteenth Century England (1991) and Late Medieval England, 1377-1485: A Bibliography of Historical Scholarship, 1975-1989 (1994). He also coedits Medieval Prosopography. He wishes to acknowledge the advice of the editor of this column, of Michelle Fishman, who helped him teach the course described in this article, and of Diane Samuels who quizzed him as he tried to get his thoughts in order.


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