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Introduction: Feminism and History
I first came to feminist history in the 1970s as a way of reconciling my two full but contrary identities at the time. In one, I was a lesbian feminist, absorbed by activism at home and in the streets. In the other, I was a studious medievalist, training under the guidance of male professors, most of them priests, at the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies. Radical feminist by night, medievalist by day; feminist history brought my two selves together. As I recall, the reconciliation was less than perfect. Among some feminists I felt awkward about the elitism of my education, the snottiness of my diction, and the maleness of my chosen profession. And at both the Pontifical Institute and the University of Toronto I encountered a steady stream of students and professors who dismissed feminist history, not to mention abortion rights, lesbian self-determination, and the other struggles that nourished my political soul. But there was one aspect of the reconciliation that was always a perfect fit: I never doubted that my work as a historian was important work for feminism. In the 1970s it seemed crystal clear that one of the battlefronts of feminism was women's history, where feminists—both in the academy and without—were reclaiming a lost past in their research, empowering students in their teaching, and using historical insight to inform feminist strategy.
This book seeks to recover some of the clarity of that 1970s ideal of a seamless union of history and feminism—and to add depth to it. In the thirty years since I first pulled a history book off the shelves of the Toronto Women's Bookstore, the history of women and gender has developed into a recognized academic field, institutionalized in departments, conferences, journals, and presses, and mature enough to participate in the creation of such newer fields as lesbian history and the history of masculinity. Feminism, even though it has waxed and waned in popularity, has also grown immensely, its theories becoming more sophisticated and inclusive and some of its tenets now realized in the legal codes, educational curricula, and everyday values of some nations; in the 1990s, for example, sexual equality was enshrined in the constitutions of the emerging states of Namibia, South Africa, and the Czech Republic. Yet, although both history and feminism have grown stronger over these decades, the relationship between them has weakened. Women's history once shone as a critical battlefront of the feminist struggle, but today it is often considered irrelevant: feminist media include much less history than they once did (such once-regular venues as the "Lost Women" column of Ms. Magazine and the "Archives" section of Signs are now themselves "history"); much feminist theory is remarkably uninformed by historical insight; and, most worryingly of all, some young feminists cavalierly reject the utility of the past, proclaiming proudly that "we don't much remember." I want to remember; I think that the achievement of a more feminist future depends on such remembrance; and I believe it is the particular job of feminist historians to ensure that those memories are rich, plausible, and well-informed.
I first began expressing my concerns about an eroding relationship between "feminism and history" in an article of that title published in 1989. In the years since, I have learned from the generous suggestions of readers and audiences, refined my thinking, and continued to reflect in print on developments in feminist history. This book borrows from some of these past publications but in ways that will often be unrecognizable. I have drawn my thoughts together here into a new argument about the depoliticization of women's and gender history, the loss of historical depth in feminist scholarship, the critical perspectives afforded by a long view of the history of women and gender, and the importance of studying what I call a "patriarchal equilibrium." In this process of rethinking and revision, I have formulated some new ideas and text, and I have also sometimes freely self-plagiarized from previously published articles. History Matters addresses some subjects entirely new to my process of historiographical reflection, and it also provides, compared to any of my individual articles, a more coherent and thorough statement of my hopes for feminist history.
In tackling the major issues of this book, I can speak, of course, only from my own experience and expertise. I teach in the United States, where I was born to nonimmigrant and middle-class parents of European descent and where I retain the privileges of citizenship; I pursued my graduate studies in Canada; I now spend a few months of each year in England, the country whose medieval history is the subject of my academic research. My perspective is, in short, profoundly "Anglo" in American terms or "Western" in world terms. These are the intellectual traditions within which I work and from which I draw most of my observations.
Although my examples will be largely taken from European history, my working assumption has been that the issues raised here are of general relevance to feminist historians. My familiarity with non-European branches of women's history is necessarily more limited, but what I know of the pursuit of women's history in other world regions—particularly the United States, Latin America, Africa, Australia, and China—suggests that, in these areas, too, feminist history is challenged by depoliticization, present-mindedness, and inattention to long-term continuities. Such challenges do, of course, play out differently in the histories of specific regions and times, and I certainly do not mean to imply that the history of European women should serve as a paradigm for histories of women elsewhere. Instead, I hope that readers of this book will consider both the European peculiarities of my concerns and the general trends of which Europe is merely one example of many.
Even for Europeanists, much of the historical information in this book will be new, for I draw the bulk of my examples from my own field of medieval women's history. Most historians of women, Europeanists or not, are unfamiliar with the history and historiography of the European middle ages. My focus on medieval evidence speaks directly to this book's contention that feminist history should be more attentive to premodern eras. In "getting medieval," I have endeavored not to dwell unnecessarily on medieval arcana and to offer examples that are clear, accessible, and to-the-point, even for readers unfamiliar with early Europe. I hope that readers will, in turn, open themselves to these earlier histories, thereby expanding their temporal perspectives on feminist history while also thinking in comparative ways about the field. This is not a book on medieval women's history; this is a book in which every incursion into the history of women is intended to help us think more generally about history, patriarchy, and feminism.
One last caveat. I have been told that anyone who begins a sentence with "we" is starting to deceive her (or his) audience, and I know that there are many circumstances that separate me from the diverse feminist historians who will, I hope, read this book. By using the first person plural, I mean to evoke our common feminist interest in the past, not to claim a common subjectivity. My evocation is practical and strategic, and it seeks to extend to "feminist historians" the implications of Iris Young's smart argument that we can conceptualize "women" as a serial collective, as formed by shared circumstance rather than common attribute or identity. Feminist historians are a sort of serial collective, too. We work in many national and institutional settings; we work on many subjects and centuries; and we work with tape recorders as well as trowels, in archives as well as streets. Feminist history is different everywhere—it has been, for example, especially influenced by socialism in Britain, shaped by marxism in China, interested in women's culture in the United States, allied with sociology in Brazil, and fractured by "women" versus "gender" in Japan. These sorts of differences are a rich strength of women's history, and they need not divide us. In writing this book for feminist historians, in other words, I have seen myself as part of a diverse collectivity of feminist women and men who share a common interest in studying the past.
The argument of this book builds steadily from problem to solution to elaboration. The next two chapters lay the foundation by outlining the challenges that women's history—a term which I will use as a shorthand for "women's and gender history"—faces in the twenty-first century, specifically a waning of feminist connection in history (chapter 2) and a waning of historical depth in feminism (chapter 3). Chapter 4 suggests a way of approaching these problems—that is, by attending more to the history of a "patriarchal equilibrium" whereby, despite many changes in women's experiences over the centuries, women's low status vis-à-vis men has remained remarkably unchanged. The fact of this patriarchal equilibrium presents, in my view, a critical feminist problem that only historians-and, indeed, only feminist historians who take a long view of women's past—can unpack. The next two chapters offer in-depth illustrations of how deep historical study can enrich feminist understandings of women's work (chapter 5) and lesbian sexualities (chapter 6). The book is wrapped up with a chapter that adds a new twist—the challenges of textbooks and classrooms—to viewing women's history from a distance and with feminist intent. And a brief conclusion offers some final and (I hope) stirring thoughts.
Feminism has come a long way since the 1970s. As I look back now, I am amazed by some of the "truths" I then held dear, embarrassed by the differences among women I then overlooked, and ashamed by some of the ways in which my certainties then oppressed other women. But I remain as confident now as I was then that history is critical to the feminist project, that history provides feminist activists and theorists with long-term perspectives essential to building a better long-term future. I hope this book will help us think more explicitly about what sorts of feminist history can best aid feminist struggles in the twenty-first century. In the 1970s, feminists often turned to history for inspiring stories about great women who have triumphed over adversity and accomplished marvelous deeds. Today, feminists still mostly see history, when they turn to it at all, as an ever-expanding list of positive and encouraging role models: such women as Rosa Parks, Eleanor Roosevelt, Simone de Beauvoir, Susan B. Anthony, and, for those who take a longer view, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Sojourner Truth, Olympe de Gouges, Mary Wollstonecraft, and perhaps even Christine de Pizan.
These women are certainly important parts of the feminist past and their inspiration does important work in the feminist present, but I seek in this book to encourage a more substantive integration of history and feminism, one that turns to history for strategy as well as inspiration. To my mind, the strategic lessons of women's history are more sobering than encouraging. Stirring tales of strong women who accomplished marvelous deeds against great odds may build self-esteem and confidence, but women's history, especially when viewed across many centuries, can also stimulate feminist outrage and revolutionary fervor. To whet your appetite for the "long view," here is one example taken from the pages that follow: in fourteenth-century England a female wage-worker earned, on the average, 71 percent of male wages; in Great Britain today women earn about the same—75 percent of the annual wages earned by men. There are many ways to qualify this bald comparison and I shall do just that in chapter 5, but surely this "sticky" wage gap offers good information for feminists to think through. The feminist potential of this particular sort of women's history—focused on feminist issues, aware of the distant past, attentive to continuities, and alert to the workings of patriarchal power—is the subject of this book.