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Why Gender History is Important (Asshole)
This weekend I was schmoozing at an event when some guy asked me what kind of history I study. I said “I’m currently researching the role of gender in Jewish emigration out of the Third Reich,” and he replied “oh you just threw gender in there for fun, huh?” and shot me what he clearly thought to be a charming smile.
The reality is that most of our understandings of history revolve around what men were doing. But by paying attention to the other half of humanity our understanding of history can be radically altered.
For example, with Jewish emigration out of the Third Reich it is just kind of assumed that it was a decision made by a man, and the rest of his family just followed him out of danger. But that is completely inaccurate. Women, constrained to the private social sphere to varying extents, were the first to notice the rise in social anti-Semitism in the beginning of Hitler’s rule. They were the ones to notice their friends pulling away and their social networks coming apart. They were the first to sense the danger.
German Jewish men tended to work in industries which were historically heavily Jewish, thus keeping them from directly experiencing this “social death.” These women would warn their husbands and urge them to begin the emigration process, and often their husbands would overlook or undervalue their concerns (“you’re just being hysterical” etc). After the Nuremberg Laws were passed, and after even more so after Kristallnacht, it fell to women to free their husbands from concentration camps, to run businesses, and to wade through the emigration process.
The fact that the Nazis initially focused their efforts on Jewish men meant that it fell to Jewish women to take charge of the family and plan their escape. In one case, a woman had her husband freed from a camp (to do so, she had to present emigration papers which were not easy to procure), and casually informed him that she had arranged their transport to Shanghai. Her husband—so traumatized from the camp—made no argument. Just by looking at what women were doing, our understanding of this era of Jewish history is changed.
I have read an article arguing that the Renaissance only existed for men, and that women did not undergo this cultural change. The writings of female loyalists in the American Revolutionary period add much needed nuance to our understanding of this period. The character of Jewish liberalism in the first half of the twentieth century is a direct result of the education and socialization of Jewish women. I can give you more examples, but I think you get the point.
So, you wanna understand history? Then you gotta remember the ladies (and not just the privileged ones).
“When one reads of a witch being ducked, of a woman possessed by devils, of a wise woman selling herbs, or even of a very remarkable man who had a mother, then I think we are on the track of a lost novelist, a suppressed poet, of some mute and inglorious Jane Austen, some Emily Bronte who dashed her brains out on the moor or mopped and mowed about the highways crazed with the torture that her gift had put her to. Indeed, I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.”—Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (via potioneer)
“I wouldn’t say that I disagree with being a women but I do disagree with the idea that my gender complexity ends with me being a women. I also disagree with the notion that because I am a woman most of the time I cannot have my own gender history, fluidity, and individual fingerprint.”—i n d e l i b i l i t y
“The tale of Charlemagne's daughter Bertha, carrying her lover Angilbert piggyback across the snow-covered palace courtyard one dark night to evade paternal wrath, is undeniably folklorique, but there is contemporary evidence that Bertha was a well built girl, that Angilbert was her lover, at court, and that the pair produced two boys.”—
Janet L Nelson, Gendering courts in the early medieval west
Hidden gems in academic articles: or, why history is rarely as boring as textbooks would have you believe.
“Indians used gender metaphors in a variety of international situations. One common gender metaphor was to insult enemies by calling them women. Gendered taunts at enemies selected one aspect of gender, sexuality, for a certain purpose: to assert dominance. But gender metaphors could also tie nations together as allies, such as when the Iroquois made "women" of the Delawares...The Iroquois and Delawares had formed an ancient alliance in which "one nation should be the woman." The other male nations would surround the woman and protect her. If anyone hurt the woman, the men would rise to her defense...While encouraging the Delawares to assume the role of peace advocate, the Iroquois speaker dressed the Delaware delegates in women's clothes and handed them a "corn pestle and hoe," implements symbolizing women's work in both Delaware and Iroquois societies.”—Shoemaker, Nancy. “Gender and Kinship Terms in Anglo-Indian Diplomacy.” Compiled by Karen Kupperman in “Major Problems in American Colonial History.” 1999.
Well, I’m not ashamed of you anymore, Momma.
My heart, once bent and cracked, once
ashamed of your China ways,
Ma, hear me now, tell your story
again and again.
Nellie Wong, “From a Heart of Rice Straw”
It was not my mother’s fault that we were poor, and yet so much of my pain and shame has been with our both betraying each other. But my mother has always been there for me in spite of our differences and emotional gulfs. She has never stopped fighting; she is a survivor. Even now I can hear her arguing with my father over how to raise us, insisting that all decisions be made by both of them. I can hear her crying over the body of my dead father. She was 28, had had little schooling, was unskilled, yet her strength was greater than most men’s, raising us single-handed.
Gloria Anzaldua, “La Prieta”
I do not think I am supposed to cry over my homework.
This brings up an interesting debate I had with my cohort this week. Is empathy an integral part of the historical process? I was alone in arguing that empathy is irrelevant to the process of history. Even old school professor thought empathy was required for effective historical engagement. Discussing this with a better history friend later, I was alerted to the term “affective turn”. It is used to describe a trend — or a turn — emerging in historical method in which the emotions of the subjects are being studied. Engaging with an affective turn is often very difficult. We don’t have access to their mental states, let alone a reliable account of them. But I think in contexts like this the affective turn is very evident, and to study this without such an approach is to ignore a fundamental aspect of what is being portrayed.
In truth, I refused to admit to empathy out loud because womanly feelings don’t belong in the academy. My notes as the class went on appeared as follows:
“This is a resistance to prevailing narratives on what history ought to be. It is okay to have feelings. It is historical to have them sometimes.”
So perhaps I am meant to cry over my homework after all.
In lecture today we discussed 4 main critique of women’s history.
I love that one of the main arguments against women’s history:
“Women were seen as victims of Patriarchy rather than agents of change”
There are so many reasons why I love this statement. Mainly that it SHOULD be a criticism! Women should focus on how they can change the world rather than how men victimise them. Not saying that we can’t argue that men have treated women badly, but more that women can be agents of change. All about perception :)
“To be without history is to be trapped in a present where oppressive social relations appear natural and inevitable. Knowledge of history is knowledge that things have changed and do changeâ. ”—Glenn Jordan and Chris Weedon, Cultural Politics: Class, Gender, Race, and the Postmodern World (1995).
Lovin this piece from Historiann
I am so tired of reading “new” histories of the North American borderlands and “new” conceptualizations of “empire” that read just like anything that Francis Parkman or Frederick Jackson Turner ever wrote, except minus the racism. Now, that “minus the racism” part is important, don’t get me wrong. But is it really an intervention for which modern historians should be congratulated when we assume that historical Native Americans were rational and had their own politics?
Having read a whack of recent histories that address the Great Basin and Great Plains in the past few years, a region whose economy was based in large part on the trade in bodies and the labor of female slaves from the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries, I want to hear more about these captive women and less about the men who lead those raids and profit from stealing, raping, exploiting, and/or reselling those women. Every author alive today makes this point in his book–and yet, that’s just about the extent of his analysis. I want books written from the perspective of these women and girls, not more books written from the perspective of the dudes on the horses, whether those dudes are European, Euro-American, or Native American. Didn’t we get enough of those books about the manly exploits of armed and mounted men in the nineteenth century?….
” [La jeune femme] n’est peut-être pas entièrement heureuse, mais elle n’a pas cherché de consolations coupables. […] Elle accomplit son devoir simplement, elle sait que le bonheur complet n’existe pas et elle n’a pas fait de rêves impossibles, ou, du moins, elle les a étouffés.”
Baronne Staffe, Usages du monde : règles du savoir-vivre dans la société moderne, 1889, “La jeune femme : comme elle devrait être”