Perspectives Daily

Taking Stock of Gender History at AHA19

Monica L. Mercado | Jan 3, 2019

More than 30 years after Joan Scott first argued for gender as a legitimate and necessary category of analysis, many of us take for granted the notion that AHA annual meetings can offer spaces for more expansive scholarship. Returning to Scott’s work serves as a reminder that gender history was never interchangeable with an “add women and stir” approach to the field. “The core of the definition,” Scott argued, “rests on an integral connection between two propositions: gender is a constitutive element of social relationships based on perceived differences between the sexes, and gender is a primary way of signifying relations of power.”[1] At AHA19, it is these elements of Scott’s foundational proposition that are on the table in sessions that interrogate the very conditions of our profession, as a full inquiry into gender requires.

Committee on Gender Equity breakfast meeting at AHA18

The AHA Committee on Gender Equity hosted a breakfast meeting at the 2018 annual meeting. Marc Monaghan

Over four days in Chicago, historians will find a diverse slate of discussions that center histories of women and gender. Just a brief scan of the AHA19 conference program reveals numerous panel sessions and affiliated societies addressing gender across time and space. Historians from around the globe will present new research on topics addressing gender and all of its complexities in wide ranging sites—from the British Civil Wars to recent Puerto Rican history, the black diaspora to the streets of Progressive-era cities. The Mexican Studies Committee of the Conference on Latin American History will be meeting to take stock of gender Friday evening; in its open forum, the AHA Committee on LGBTQ Status in the Profession will examine the relationship between history and gender studies. The program suggests that the state of our subfield is vibrant, reflecting the aspirations of the AHA’s Committee on Gender Equity, whose purview includes fostering “an inclusive scholarship that challenges and transforms the practice of history, both substantially and methodologically.”[2]

Why are so many scholars taking stock of gender history and women in the historical profession now? This new year brings many important anniversaries in US politics and in our profession: the centennial of Congress passing the 19th Amendment, for example, and the 50th anniversaries of the founding of both the Coordinating Council for Women in History (or CCWH, organized in 1969 as the Coordinating Committee of Women Historians in the Profession) and the AHA Committee on Gender Equity (established in 1969 as the ad hoc Committee on the Status of Women). Friday’s session, “Foremothers: Looking Back, Looking Forward,” will be a chance for the CCWH to honor one of its founders, Berenice Carroll, before its anniversary celebrations the next day. On Saturday’s panel, “Creating Careers for Women: Gender and the Historical Profession after 1969,” Committee on Gender Equity chair Susan Kent will join university-based historians to reflect on a half-century of changes in academia, suggesting that the hiring of women changed the university workplace, and discussing why a university integrated by both gender and race matters to other kinds of commitments including publicly engaged scholarship, the transformation of curriculum, reimagining hiring norms, and the creation of new knowledge.

But anniversaries are also tricky things. If they present important moments for celebrations that imagine an abundant future, they are complicated by difficult conversations that question the limits of transforming scholarship. Has attention to gender (and the relations of power it highlights) really reshaped the university or the other spaces where historians make their living? The annual Committee on Gender Equity breakfast Saturday morning will feature an interview with historian Linda Kerber, in conversation with Mary Ann Villarreal and the audience, and plenty of time for informal conversation. On Sunday, #MeToo in History: The Profession, Our Scholarship, Flawed (S)Heroes, organized by the CCWH, will build on an AHA18 late-breaking session to discuss sexual harassment at the annual meeting and in the profession more broadly.

Historians are not prognosticators; it is difficult to predict what will emerge from these formal sessions and informal discussions as we return home from Chicago, but it is clear that these and many other events on the program bear on the work of all historians, not simply those who study or write about gender. In the ongoing work to change the academic workplace, we need to be careful to reframe conversations so that the experiences of graduate students and early career and independent scholars are not ignored; conversations about women, gender, and sexual harassment also bear on the expansion of AHA career diversity initiatives, on full display at the annual meeting. We might also amplify the voices of nonbinary scholars and scholarship, ensuring that new conversations about gender and history make room for every historian.

 “Gender history,” editors Ellen Hartigan-O’Connor and Lisa G. Materson write in their introduction to the 2018 Oxford Handbook of American Women’s and Gender History, “did not replace women’s history. Instead, what emerged from the tensions between women’s and gender history was a ‘big tent’ of practitioners and areas of inquiry.”[3] That “big tent” is on full display at AHA19, and welcomes attendees across fields to share new scholarship and the conditions of our work. Join us.

[1] Joan Wallach Scott, Gender and the Politics of History (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), 29-31, 42.

[2] The revised mission statement of the AHA Committee on Gender Equity, formerly the Committee on Women Historians is posted on the AHA website.

[3] Ellen Hartigan-O’Connor and Lisa G. Materson, The Oxford Handbook of American Women’s and Gender History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), 4.

Monica L. Mercado is assistant professor in the Department of History at Colgate University, affiliated with Women’s Studies and Museum Studies. She is a member of the AHA Committee on Gender Equity, formerly the Committee on Women Historians, and served on the AHA ad hoc Committee on Sexual Harassment in 2018.

Tags: 2019 Annual Meeting Perspectives Daily Women, Gender, Sexuality

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