Thursday, June 19, 2008

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.

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 principal 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 transformations 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 Cliopatria


arvilla said...

well said, friend TR!

I am still fixated on one of the counter-posts yesterday that asked, in effect: have women's historians learned anything that could not be predicted by anyone with half a brain?

You have a great response here but I'll add a gem from a session I attended at the Berks: Holly Brewer's lovely paper on Blackstone & marriage law showed that he imposed a false unity on diverse contemporary practices. Legal historians, in short, would do well to investigate Blackstone's commentaries in general rather than 'just taking his word for it' about legal practices in his own day. A word to the wise, in fact, for all of us regardless of field.

Janice said...

I'm not sure I like his missed opportunities. The cards are stacked against women's history and women's historians, particularly in the second point that posits women's history as taking away from other types of history (more rightful? more righteous?) and that the influx of women historians into the profession being harmful to men.

I'd have to do a quantitative study, but my off-the-cuff response is to say that there are lots more history positions, full-stop, across the continent (and across the world) than there were two or three generations ago. I suspect that more men are employed as professional historians now than they were back then.

And the idea that the normative historian is male and that the hiring of a woman does damage to the same? Let's just say that I'm tired of hearing that (as I suspect goes for every woman historian -- haven't we all been accused of taking away some "more qualified" man's job?).

Otherwise, let me just say that I love your blog post. I agree that Natalie Davis, Bonnie Smith and the others stand as living exemplars of the value of women's history and women historians. If someone's not seeing this, it's certainly not for their lack of stature and importance in the field!

dance said...

That NZD-Finlay AHR Forum is possibly my favorite piece of historical writing ever. I was assigned it in an undergrad hist methods/historiography class, and have never forgotten it. Sadly, not yet had an opportunity to teach it.

Susan said...

I just said something slightly relevant in relation to the previous post (catching up belatedly).

I'm still getting my brain around this precisely because I know the field of Mercurius Rusticus quite well.
So I'm discouraged. Rusticus' comments remind me of just how provincial some British historians (that is, those living in Britain) can be. The three scholars of the early modern Atlantic R. has never heard of? Well, they work on the Iberian Atlantic rather than the English Atlantic. In his own field, Rusticus can go read David Underdown's Freeborn People, and then come back to the discussion. Oh, and maybe Alastair Bellany, or Cynthia Herrup (oh, but she's a woman, so doesn't count, probably -- though Castlehaven *is* a man). If s/he prefers the Brits, s/he can read Fletcher's book on patriarchy, or Shepard's terrific book on manhood.

We all have our interests, and that's fine. But what's not so fine is to elevate one's own interests above all others. It's not a great way to get colleagues.

Some of this has to do with differences between US & UK educational systems, and because of the way we teach, US based scholars have used gender far more than UK scholars who do NOT do social history. But still.

Gavin Robinson said...

I'm working on non-human animals but there's nothing here that I can object to at all. You're right that non-human things can't be disentangled from human thought and language. I made the point in my Social-Political Animals paper (which Rusticus and Oxoniensis both apparently approved of enough to link to it and not say anything bad about it) that even if history is just about humanity we need to understand how the human was defined and constructed, and that the human identity is just as ideological as any of the differences constructed between humans such as gender, race, class etc. All of these things have been mixed up with animal/human boundaries in various ways so that rulers/in-groups have identified oppressed/out-groups as not being entirely human. I couldn't have written this paper without the insights and possibilities opened up by feminism, Marxism, postcolonialism etc. I was slightly critical of these movements because early on they tended to each focus on one difference without paying enough attention to any of the others, but that was probably necessary to get us into the position where we can start to see how these differences interact. So a history which attempts to cover the whole of humanity needs to start with what it means to be human (and that's going to be different for different people in different places at different times), and gender is an overwhelmingly important part of that question.

David Andress said...

I believe that it was, somewhat ironically, Hegel who observed that it is the Master who does not know what it is to be human, and the Slave who does. Expanding the case to other forms of historical dominance hierarchy, it would seem that people such as the twit this post is responding to are in that very same position - they do not even know they are human, they do not even know that what they think is 'history' is in fact not history at all, but just some stories of some guys who happened to get lucky in all the various genetic and endocrinological lotteries of reproduction. And that really is their problem, not anyone else's, even if proving to them is really rather tiresome, over and over again.

Anonymous said...

Lady Anne Grating writes: I am able to help you with some details of Mercurius Rusticus's life and career.

He is a Scot from an old landed family, born in 19--, his father baillie of Erewhon and his mother hereditary keeper of Loch Ness. He was educated at Bonham's School and afterwards at Aberdeen University where he gained a Double First in Women's History and a First in Gender Studies in a single year. His military service was performed in the Highland Heavy Cavalry where he was aide-de-camp to Major General 'Tiger' Nidgett at the battles of Clio's bridge, Harpy's Valley and Harridan Ridge from all of which he emerged with his trews intact.

After this service, he proceeded to the banks of the Cam where his many books, articles and squibs in the public prints caused him to be elected first to a College fellowship and then to an ancient Chair in history. Whilst there, he was one of the founders of a secret society, the Men's Liberation Front, dedicated to freeing the male half of humankind from millennia of matriarchy. His friends, including the barmaids in the Fox and Hounds, say he is of an amiable disposition much given to corresponding with his friends, Sir Philip Francis, Master Rochester Sneath and Henry Root, Esquire. After his death, these letters will be published to the world to the inestimable good of all people of learning and good sense.

Of late, he has been pestered by diverse communications from female hands in the New World suggesting what he might do or what might be done to him. The former he must decline as physically impossible, the latter as illegal under the common law. If his wife permits, he will be on King's Parade at 10 a.m. next Wednesday morning to inspect the fourteen ladies who have proposed marriage.

A portrait of Mercurius Rusticus at the age of 23 will shortly appear.

Tenured Radical said...

Dear Lady Anne,

In addition to everything else he has done, this lad is contemplating polygamy? Good God! If only Henry the VIII had never broken with the One True Church to marry the Whore Boleyn, all of this might have been avoided.


Anonymous said...

I can scarcely believe that any member of our sex could have been so foolish as to reveal to men our rule and superiority over them. We have successfully deluded them for generations into thinking they ruled the world while we pulled the strings. And now by complaining of the appearances of our deception in history as elsewhere, we are undone. A life in the snug of the Pig and Whistle or the bar of the King's Arms awaits to prevent their foolish plots for freedom. Your silly sisters should have kept your counsel and left well alone. As it is, Rusticus must be confined to his chamber for several years on gruel and water until his senses are befuddled again.
Valeria Margherita

anthony grafton said...

Thank you, wonderful post and wonderful thread, and above all a wonderful moral. When faced with any complex problem, scholarly, pedagogical, or moral, asking yourself what Natalie Zemon Davis would do is always the right thing to do.

Anonymous said...

Let me begin by introducing myself. I am Mercurius Rusticus, an academic historian of more than forty years' standing. I hold advanced degrees from three U.K. universities and have taught in ten of them. My publications include over fifty books and articles together in addition to hundreds of more casual blog entries. In my own field of early modern history and in my own university, I am relatively well known and my identity can easily be discovered. Those who have so readily denounced me, including - be it noted by Mr Luker - those using pseudonyms, have evidently rushed to judgment without checking the facts first.

In fact, my critics have failed to read carefully what I wrote on my blog on 16 and 17 June. Quoting oneself is an act of vanity but I hope I may be forgiven for doing so on this occasion. "Historians are and should be concerned with the past of humanity, with men and women, old and young alike"; that was my starting point. Let me repeat too that "being female is not a prerequisite for such studies." My argument begins with this contention.

The study of women's history was well established before the rise of the feminist movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Do I need to do more than cite the works of Mary Beard or Alice Clark or Eileen Power or Beatrice Webb? There were important female historians too - women like Valerie Pearl, Menna Prestwich, Claire Cross and Lucy Sutherland long before that time. Keith Thomas was teaching a course on women's history in the University of Oxford in the early-1960s. It is quite untrue to claim that the study of women's history was brought into academic instituions by 'feminist women'.
My second contention, namely, that the study of the history of women predates the rise if 'women's history and gender studies' is, therefore, correct too.

Naturally enough, the first wave of 'feminist' historians and their heirs and successors from c.1970 onwards believed that they were opening up new continents and new worlds for intellectual exploration for the first time. They were wrong but the advocates of new fashions in the world of ideas almost always advance such claims. Equally naturally, they demanded a positive response from the institutions of higher education on both sides of the Atlantic to their demands for new courses in women's history, gender studies and so on. In a system driven by what administrators (mistakenly) see as students' expectations, not to mention the shriller cries of radical women's groups, they have given way and created new courses and new positions to appease these demands. I am personally aware of posts being awarded to women (in preference to abler men) simply because they were female and because making such appointments would please bureaucrats and pressure groups alike. One would have to be very naive indeed and to have lived life in a cloister not to know of the existence of the latter.

Citing Natalie Zemon Davis as an example of an innovative female historian is hardly enough to prove your case. She was and is a good historian in my view but not a great one in the sense that Edward Gibbon or Bloch or Braudel or Garrett Mattingly or, on occasion, Jack Hexter were and are. A single swallow does not make a summer as the logicians will tell you.

Nor is it convincing to praise the exchanges between Natalie Zemon Davis and Robert Finlay as models of civility in the field of women's history. If they were, then the comments on my posts from female readers of your blog (and their male fellow-travellers) fail this test. They have been predominantly abusive and poorly written, some, indeed, largely illiterate. They have all lacked humour and wit, which is an interesting illustration of the state of women's history in your country.

The sad truth is that women's history has not lived up to its promoters' hopes, let alone to their extravagant claims a generation or two ago. It has absorbed the energies that would have been better spent elsewhere and created an interest group that cannot bear to be challenged, let alone criticised. Its decline is already under way as it is overtaken by newer, more fashionable historical preoccupations. You may not like it but you will have to live with it.

Tenured Radical said...


a) I don't know who you are, and you should just say. I am not responsible for other bloggers, only myself.

b) This is a silly argument and pointless. You say the same things over and over and they are simply not so, so why continue to berate others?


dance said...

I think it's a victory for the forces of rightness in the world that Rusticus has finally written a straightforward statement with a clear author (that he can't decide to delete tomorrow). Too bad more internet spats don't turn out that way.

I didn't think Rusticus was young, because I skimmed backwards in his blog, and it looked like the blog of someone who did not fully comprehend the internet---for instance, mentioning and reflecting upon other people's blog posts without actually linking to the post or even blog.

SImilarly, while Rusticus may consider snipes and "kiss my ass" uncivil, I would consider it far more uncivil to try to identify the real-life person behind a pseudonymous blog. The point of constructing a pseudonymous identity is that it rises and falls based only on the actions of that identity. Yet it now seems Rusticus *expected* people he attacked to attempt to discover the professor behind Rusticus. Odd.

Tenured Radical said...

Dear all:

One of the things I liked about doing this post is that, as a teacher and a writer, it was an excellent opportunity to put some thoughts together about the field I will be doing an intro seminar about in the fall. And I want to thank those of you who posted constructive, engaged comments, positive or negative.

But let me say another thing: people who seem to have as their whole purpose creating controversy that somehow -- surprise! puts themselves at the center are not worth revisiting more than once.

And let me say --although I understand and sympathize with the need for many bloggers to be pseudonymous, I have more than once had the experience of someone saying it is "perfectly obvious" who s/he is when in fact it is not, and the intent is exactly to lead one down the rabbit hole trying to find out who they are. And one might ask: if it is perfectly obvious, why not use your name? I think we know the answer to that one.


Anonymous said...

Your review in the TLS was interesting.

Izgad said...


"She was and is a good historian in my view but not a great one in the sense that Edward Gibbon or Bloch or Braudel or Garrett Mattingly or, on occasion, Jack Hexter were and are."

A few years ago, as a summer project I decided to actually sit down and read my way through Gibbon. It was a lot of fun, but when I told one of my professors about it his response was that I was wasting my time as Gibbon was not a real historian.

I admit that Gibbon was a great writer. I would even call him the Shakespeare of history. But I would hardly call him a great historian. He was one of the founding figures of the Whig narrative, which we are still trying to recover from.

Much of my work in teaching about the Middle Ages and the early modern period has been trying to get students to unlearn their Whig notions of history.

Anonymous said...

It is with pleasure that I have heard from my intelligencers this has been given Cliopatria's "best post" prize for 2008. In your distant land, logic and eloquence fare ill. Master Luker is again beside himself with excitement little knowing how he has been beguiled since June. Enjoy thy sojourn in New Amsterdam and celebrate on my account. From the centre of the universe, I am your humble and amused servant,
Mercurius Rusticus

Rohan Maitzen said...

It has gained the purchase it has in the profession because it persuades and corrects.

I've come very belatedly to this important and interesting discussion, but I thought I'd just add a small anecdote from my own experience as a History honours student back in the late 1980s--a program notable at the time for enrolling mostly male students. Our required historiography course included no feminist historiography. Together with a friend, I made a request (a plea?) to the (male) professor of our Renaissance history seminar (which also initially included no works of or about women's history) that we at least look at Joan Kelly's essay "Did Woman Have a Renaissance?" The resistance among the male students was remarkable; I remember one earnest young man pushing his chair back from the table in great frustration, exclaiming "But you're trying to change something in your culture!" Well, yes. And a couple of our female colleagues wanted no part of this very modest effort to extend the reach of our syllabus. But what I remember most is that at the end of the course, the professor thanked us for pressing the issue and credited us with having started him on a process of rethinking things he had previously taken for granted. In other words, he was persuaded, and honest enough to be corrected, even by undergraduates.

I went on to do some work on women's historical writing and feminist historiography myself and the scholars you name such as Bonnie Smith were great models of how such work could go forward and what it might achieve.

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