Blogger Ann Little says she’s tired of male historians saying they don’t do women’s history

Historians in the News
tags: womens history



Ann M. Little is the author of "Abraham in Arms:  War and Gender in Colonial New England" (Philadelphia:  University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007), which was recognized with an Honourable Mention for the Albert B. Corey Prize/Prix Corey awarded jointly by the American Historical Association and the Canadian Historical Association in 2008.  She has held fellowships at the Newberry Library, the Huntington Library, and the Massachusetts Historical Society. 

I’ve had some conversations with senior male historians over the past few years that have troubled me.

When talking about my work, or about the work of another women’s historian, some scholars apparently feel it’s OK to say “Oh, that’s why I don’t know her work.  I just don’t do women’s history.”  Or, “Women’s history is just something I never think about,” or comments to that effect.

I get it that we historians can’t all do everything, but how is it acceptable to announce that you never think about half of humanity in your own work or even read the scholarship on this half of humanity?  Would these white men (and they have all been white) announce blithely that “I don’t do race,” even if it were true?  (Odds are they’re not as ignorant of the scholarship on race as they are on the scholarship on women, gender, and sexuality, but this is just a guess.  This post is mostly about the liberty some feel to confess their total ignorance of what has become a major subfield of history, and why that’s a bad idea not just for the audience but for the speaker.)

I’m neither a political nor an intellectual historian, but I am broadly aware of debates in these fields, and I can follow along as a reader of articles and seminar papers even if I’m not contributing to these fields as a scholar myself.  But there are other fields that demand my attention and engagement.  For example, although I don’t identify myself primarily as a historian of religion, it’s been a big part of both of my first two books, and I consider myself aware of if not 100% up-to-date on the secondary literature.  Similarly, although I don’t consider myself a historian of race, both of my books focus productively on questions about race and ethnicity, especially in the relationships between and among Native Americans, Anglo-American colonists, and French Canadians.  Can’t everyone else walk and chew gum?  Or don’t they want to?

Even if you “don’t do women’s history,” ask yourself if that’s a choice or a fate.  Are there ways in which asking questions about women, gender, and sexuality might open up fruitful paths in  your research?  It can’t hurt, and you never know if it might help.  Finally, when talking to other scholars, stop yourself before completely dismissing a subfield and confessing your ignorance of it.  Ask yourself why you wanted to do that. Would you sound defensive? Or aggressive?  I have my opinions about certain subfields, but I’d never dismiss them as irrelevant to my work or unimportant in the larger profession.  ...




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