Blogs > Cliopatria > What Would Natalie Zemon Davis Do? A Few Meditations on Women's History and Women in History

Jun 19, 2008 1:05 pm

What Would Natalie Zemon Davis Do? A Few Meditations on Women's History and Women in History

How might Natalie Davis have responded to the recent flap-a-roonie sparked by an obscure English blogger? With dignity, humor and razor sharp intelligence, that's how.

Here at Cliopatria, Ralph Luker has chided said blogger for ducking in and out of a fight he started. Speaking from experience, I would say that new bloggers do make mistakes, although I'm not sure that Rusticus would agree he made one. He may be uncertain, though. The posts and the blog itself go down periodically, only to reappear with the same ideas, sometimes framed differently, but sometimes not. For a brief period Mercurius Rusticus was up but closed to all but invited guests, perhaps because a group of female Picts waving scythes and staves (and I might add, only recently have Picts, male or female, been welcome in the profession at all because they are prone to such behavior) had gathered outside his office. With this I sympathize: I had a Pict problem myself a while back, and it took months to untangle.

Luker, my colleague and fellow Cliopatrician, notes that this discussion is:

a missed opportunity, because underlying MR's bitterness and snark were some issues that ought be discussed: 1) in what ways, if any, has the growth of women's history broadened and deepened our understanding of history? 2) has its growth drained resources from other fields of historical inquiry and negatively affected the careers of male historians? and 3) person for person, have female historians been as productive as their male counterparts? (I have heard the late Elizabeth Fox-Genovese make the argument that they have not.)

I might add to Ralph's observation that Betsy, as her intimates called this intelligent, accomplished and hard-edged scholar, also lost a lot of friends (men and women) not because she became a neocon in her final years (which she did) but because such opinions had little basis in fact and seemed only designed for self-promotion. But Ralph's point about a missed opportunity echoes a question, asked by a certain Mouse:"would you consider doing a post on some of what you consider to be the highlights of achievements by women historians, and/or in gender history, in the past few years? Why does the Berkshire conference matter?"

Well, it would take too long to really do it right, but let me give it a shot.

Let me begin by turning to Davis, who answered questions about her own innovations in the field in a 1988 AHR Forum. It is one of the most lucid essays I have ever read, and responds to Robert Finlay's counter-reading of Davis's path-breaking interpretations of well-known evidence in The Return of Martin Guerre, a foundational work in the fields of early modern history and women's history. I -- and others in my department, male and female - teach Martin Guerre and the subsequent debate for two reasons. One is because Davis is able to demonstrate, by telling a story, a methodological approach to recovering history that then illuminates so many other aspects of the world in which it is situated. This is something that historians of earlier periods do so well, and since most of our students go on to do modern, or even recent, history as majors, it is a good opportunity to make them aware of some basic rules, and debates, over the nature of evidence. But in doing so, Davis also uncovers a story about how women who lived in a world governed by fathers, brothers and husbands made choices that allowed them to survive and prosper. And she points to the importance of understanding communities as places where various hierarchicies of power, whether gender, age, or status, were not fixed but negotiated through the actions and choices of individuals. In other words, not only does Davis"recover" the story of a woman, one principle task of women's history, she uses that as a path to recover a better history of men, and to illuminate what it meant to be human in a particular world.

My point is that illuminating what it means to be human is what women's history does, but as it happens, humans come in different bodies that engage universalisms (for example, what it means to be"human") differently. By including the"other humans" -- whether those other humans are women, slaves, workers, colonized subjects, children, the common soldier, or what have you -- historians working on the so-called margins illuminate the world of the humans who have traditionally been at the center of historical research. Women's history is part of that task. And women are more likely to do it than men at present, although that is less and less true.

But the other thing that the Davis-Finlay exchange demonstrates is how to argue in a civilized way. Of course, they had editors, and bloggers don't. But Finlay avoids an error that some historians, young and old, would do well to contemplate: do not use a machine gun when a .22, carefully aimed, will do; and be respectful of other people's achievements even when you question their findings. Similarly, Davis avoids an error by not over-arguing or becoming defensive; and by illuminating a point of genuine disagreement about scholarly method while elaborating on why she thinks she is right.

I'd like to come back to this question of history's focus on"being human" (although historians of the environment and other non-human fields might have something to say about this, since things have a history at the same time as that history can't be disentangled from the history of human thought about them.) But"being human" is not just a vacant (or as feminist scholar Ann Snitow would say,"unmarked") category that allows us to go on and assemble"the facts" in a neutral way. History has always been highly (perhaps too) attendant to and embedded in nationalism. And let's look at the role race has played in historical writing -- whether we are talking about the long historiography of Atlantic World slavery, colonialism and various forms of conquest; the Anglo-Saxonism and regionalism of early United States and English historians; or the efforts to locate the origins of modern nation-states in long, pre-modern pseudo-racial histories. And of course, we might also point to the long-standing ignorance by historians of politics that occurred outside the formal political sphere that has now fortunately been relieved.

So one might say that"women's history," and the history of gender that emerged from it, is no different from any of the projects that have sought to mark unmarked categories, except that it was brought into the university by women. And, more properly by feminists. As a field that, in its professionalized form was inherently attached to the bodies of women who struggled against prejudice,"women's history" challenged and changed history in three important ways: by fighting for the recognition of female practitioners as scholars and professionals; by allowing historians as a group to simply know more by extending professional archival practices to the history of women; and by changing what historians knew about major historical trasnformations such as industrialization, war, emancipation, and state formation. But women, disproportionate to their numbers and often working to support a great man (can we say"Michelet?") have dramatically influenced what counts as history, and that is part of what they celebrate and perpetuate when they gather. For a useful introduction to this, and to the ways that historians' wives were a hidden part of the publishing enterprise, see Bonnie Smith's long publishing record, and particularly The Gender of History: Men, Women, and Historical Practice (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998.)

Those not interested in the history of"women" might yet attend usefully to the fields that this history has created in its wake, principally studies of maleness and masculinity; and to fields previously unmarked by gender. War and international relations are two related fields that, in today's world, we might usefully revisit. Drew Faust's books on the Civil War (companion volumes really, if you read her work chronologically from beginning to end), skillfully deploy what Joan Scott famously called"gender as a category of analysis" to ask fresh questions about an historical event that is perhaps more thoroughly excavated than any other, certainly in American history. And scholars like Patricia Hill, Leila J. Rupp and other scholars influenced by the history of women and of feminist thought, male and female, have asked new questions about the history of foreign policy, still mostly male-dominated.

I could go on, but I won't: as I said, never over argue, and know that you are losing your audience in the blogosphere for every additional paragraph you write. But as to why the Berkshire Conference matters: well, that's a longer story, but I have some human responses to that. One is that, while male scholars have historically valorized independence and objectivity, it is simply the case that often through participation in professional organizations, men formed networks that excluded women for decades, and that those networks sustained their scholarship and marginalized the scholarship of women as not"good enough." For an example of this, which I will make a subject of another post, see Deborah Gray White's new collection, Telling Histories: Black Women Historians in the Ivory Tower, which details the struggle to establish the history of black women as a field, and the struggle of black women to establish themselves as inherently worthy of consideration as intellectuals by men (black and white) and often other women (white.) And as we all know, Deborah Gray White wrote the first book ever about African-American women in slavery, having been told repeatedly that there was no history to write. Sensibly, she wondered how that could be and the rest was -- well, history.

One of the themes that leaps out of the collection is how professional organizations put otherwise isolated black women in contact with each other, to exchange work, initiate collaborative research, and mentor each other. Professional organizations always matter and, as many of the methodological panels at the Berks underlined, they help us review the field, figure out where it is fraying at the edges, and guide us either backwards to scholarship we need to reconsider or forward to the next stage of our inquiry.

But I would close with two points: contemporary feminist organizations are not about the"exclusion of men," nor is women's and gender history surviving because its numerous critics have been mysteriously silenced. It has gained the purchase it has in the profession because it persuades and corrects. Indeed, in this way I am a great believer in the market. Scholars and educated readers buy, teach, and read the books that persuade them. When women pried their way into the academy (which often meant prying themselves out of full-time mother- and wifehood first), despite discrimination, they prospered. And they prospered principally because men -- who still overwhelmingly dominate the profession and at least in the United States get jobs out of proportion to the percentage of men who earn Ph.D.'s - were persuaded, and continue to be persuaded. They taught us, mentored us, voted for our tenure, put us on editorial boards, elected us president of national organizations and so on. Whatever struggles women still face, we are here to stay, and in all fields.

Cross posted at Tenured Radical

comments powered by Disqus