Monday, March 16, 2009

Teach This Book! Judith Bennett's History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism (Part 3 Of A Blogfest)

Note: those of you who have not yet discovered this series may wish to begin with the post by Notorious, PH.D. (March 2), and proceed to Historiann's contribution (March 9). As a bonus, who but our very own Historiann would have the ova to refer to Lawrence Stone as a "complete tool" -- not once, but but twice, baby! I ask you. This was what Joan Scott meant when she referred to "Stone's explicit patriarchal posture" in a 1985 letter to the New York Review of Books, rendered into that earthy English patois so typical of historians working on the American 17th century.

OK, I admit it. I am one of those twentieth century feminist historians Judith Bennett is speaking to in History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006), historians who have given little thought to the practice of premodern history. No -- wait just a gol' durn minute. I have. Here goes.

My first response to Bennett's assertion "that feminist history should be more attentive to premodern eras" (3) is: right on. My second is that this intervention has implications for the writing and teaching of history more generally. I teach in a program and in a department, both of which assert the importance of the distant past to the not-so-distant past. You can look at the two core courses yourself, both of which I have taught, and both of which take me out of my comfort zone. One is AMST/LAST200, "Colonialism and Its Consequences in the Americas," for which I read and teach not only colonial North American history, but early modern European and colonial Latin American history (applause, por favor.) The other, which I haven't taught in a while, but helped to revise last year, is required for the history major, "Issues in Contemporary Historiography," usually referred to by its barracks name, "History 362."

My third and more ornery response tackles Bennett's assertion that, pushed by liberal and socialist feminisms and structured by conferences (especially my own beloved Berkshire Conference), feminist history's fascination with the present is fueled by the assumption that change is necessarily transformative (62). The present is, well, more cheerful than the past, Bennett argues: we can start with the fruits of progress, and devote our research time to recording the hard-won victories that get "us" here. What we are missing, Bennett argues persuasively through examples drawn from her own research on medieval English women, are the continuities that are just as important to understanding women's lives over time -- if not more important. Bennett argues this point well in Chapters 3,4,5 and 7. However, in Chapter 6, on lesbian history, she stumbles, missing a place where she might suggest how to address the modern as a transformative moment but not be blinded by it.

Premodern history makes you smarter.

There are a number of reasons to reinforce curricula in premodern history. One that prevails at Zenith is that undergraduates are intrinsically presentist, and that this is a bad thing. We have different reasons for thinking it is a bad thing, but we all agree that it is. While you can generally get a full room for the Early American survey (which is a gateway to the American Studies major!) try getting similar numbers for a longer past -- Medieval Europe, Enlightenment Europe, or Qing China. Some of my colleagues are exactly able to fill the room by turning to feminist history (it is Zenith after all). A second route is to introduce students to the earlier periods -- and the talented people who teach them at Zenith -- by using these early periods to teach basic historical methods. The hope is that we can light a fire under a few students to focus their major coursework and senior research in fields that we value; for the rest, we hope to destabilize false notions like, as Bennett puts it, that the Middle Ages was little more than "a thousand years without a bath."(82) Everyone who teaches that course also agrees, I think, that the distant past teaches good lessons about close reading, archival work, the uses of demography and argumentation that can be usefully transported to any period. In addition, Bennett's point -- that there are many categories of difference beyond race, class and gender (147) -- while crucial to understanding pre-modern periods, is no less true for modern history but more often goes unrecognized.

What Bennett has caused me to think about differently is the point that I work hard to hammer home for my students as I introduce them to historical thought: our relationship to our subjects as historians. On the one hand, I tell my students, the people we will study are human: this makes our own human intuition a tool for our research, part of what J.H. Hexter called our "second record." On the other hand, there is a point -- usually early in the semester when some member of my class has offered up a stinging, presentist judgement on a conquistador or a plantation mistress in place of analysis -- that brings discussion to a screaming halt. I then scowl at them and say, "Please remember that the people in this book are strange to you. They live in a foreign country called the past." If a student can learn to perform these two, more or less contradictory, tasks at the same time, said student will have learned to think historically by the end of the semester.

Bennett would, I think ask me to stop thinking about this as an equivalent task. She would ask me to teach historical thought by laying heavier stress on the human continuities, and less stress on the ruptures that modern time creates in human consciousness. And while I can't say I know what I think about that at present, what I do know is that I want to teach this book in History 362 and find out, by discussing it with my students, whether I need to alter this feature of my pedagogy.

What I think Bennett might usefully consider, however, is that the decline of the earlier periods that is evident by looking at women's history does not all lie at the door of the feminist history establishment, as she argues in her introduction. There have been critical, structural changes that dramatically affect the capacity of students in the United States to do archival work in earlier periods. Studying the more recent past, while it has its difficulties, does not require the study of classical languages, in which few students are trained at present. Studying United States history does not require acquisition of a language other than English in many cases -- and fewer and fewer undergraduates are coming to college with any reading fluency in a second, much less a third language. Even if that fluency is acquired, the earlier periods have other challenges, such as faded, unfamiliar handwriting and lack of linguistic standardization within ancient and/or regional forms of a given language. Should a graduate student throw caution to the winds and acquire all of these extra skills -- guess what? There are few jobs available to them, after all that training. That publishing in the earlier periods is way down I have no doubt: but whether it is solely due to a lack of interest by a larger feminist historical establishment is unclear, in my view.

"The L-Word"

Invoking the title of this popular Showtime series, Bennett introduces us to her term "lesbian-like" to describe women-loving women prior to the 1890s. This is perhaps more ironic than Bennett knows. Most of the lesbians I know think those women are "lesbian-like" too -- and not in a good way. ("Have you ever wondered," I began to ask a colleague, in a conversation about the endless sex on the show; and she chimed in to say in unison with me: "what they are actually doing in bed?!?"

But cattiness about Jennifer Beals and the coffee bar gang aside, Bennett uses "The L-Word" to underline what she sees as the reluctance among historians to address same-sex eroticism. Within women's history, she observes, "lesbianism remains a tricky subject and sometimes an unspeakable one. Simply put, women's history has a lesbian problem." (108) While ceding the category argument (that women couldn't "be" lesbians until that socio-scientific category was invented in the 1890s) Bennett argues that to fail to recognize and name "lesbian-like" women is to allow heteronormativity and homophobia to have a continuing, oppressive influence on our practice as feminists (and as lesbians, which in the interest of full disclosure, both Bennett and I are.)

While I am definitely on board with the imperative to fight homophobia in the academy and everywhere else, and I admire Bennett for naming it, I think she pushes for continuity at a price.

Although I am less familiar with the earlier periods -- and I agree that demands for a "smoking (fill in the blank)" should not be necessary to affirm an erotic relationship between women -- literature on twentieth century lesbians is no longer in short supply. Or maybe it's the lesbians who seem to be all over the place at history conventions. I'm not sure. But the mentors are out there, the sources are out there, and the graduate students seem to be more than willing to play along. So that while I buy it that there has been tremendous pressure on women over the past forty years to downplay the sisterhood, looking at a shorter timeline suggests that there has been some progress in this department (ok, I wouldn't go so far as to say transformation.)

My second quibble addresses the term "lesbian-like" as an expansive category that allows us to "see" a particular kind of subject, releasing that subject from the demands of modern identity and its politics. I understand what Bennett is trying to accomplish here, and apparently some historians have found it useful. (112) But by her criteria, we might rightly think of all lesbians as "lesbian-like," because historically, few of us after 1890 have agreed on what it means to be a lesbian, and as sexual identities become more fluid, fewer of us will. We also need to take a harder look at some of the "lesbian-like" women she invokes as historical examples, such as the fifteenth-century cross dressing documented by Michael Shank: what makes this gender-bending woman "lesbian-like," as opposed to transgendered?(120-124) Here, if we invoke Bennett's category, we are creating problems and not solving them.

And here's where modernity raises its ugly, intrusive head: the opposite of "heteronormative" history is not gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender history, since all of these categories reference the normal in some way. It would be queer history. Heterosexuality and homosexuality both insist that sexuality meet a standard and join one of two categories, something Bennett loses sight of as she maneuvers to keep the "L-Word" in play as a way of describing one kind of sexual variety. What can get her out of this bind, I think, is queer history, a post-modern phenomenon that both acknowledges its modern ancestry and attempts to undo the effects of that ancestry at the same time. Bennett invokes the word queer several times, but only as a placeholder for stable identity positions, although we know because of a critical footnote that queer historiography was hovering like trouble at the edges of this chapter. (fn14, 111)

But you know what? When I put together my new lesbian history course, I'm going to teach this chapter anyway, because like pre-modern history more generally, Judith Bennett makes me smarter. And History Matters belongs in historiography courses of all kinds for the questions it asks, not just about feminist historical practice, but about what we carry into the second century of modern historical practice and why.

Next week, go to Blogenspiel where we will hear from Another Damned Medievalist; our final installment, in week 5, will feature Judith Bennett de-lurking on Notorious PH.D. For those of you who can't wait until next week for more Judith Bennett, check out this roundtable, featuring feminist history all-stars Iris Berger, Leila Rupp, Judy Wu, Ulrike Strasser and a final comment from Bennett, from The Journal of Women's History, vol. 20,n. 2, (summer 2008). Hat Tip.

Cross posted at Cliopatria.


Historiann said...

Great post--and I admire the depth, breadth, and reach of your teaching, too. There is nothing like a SLAC or working in a small department to help expand your teaching!

In her "Lesbian-like history" chapter, I didn't think Bennett was talking about just women's erotic or potentially erotic relationships, but about women's only communities like religious orders, and secular networks in which women were each other's main contacts and supporters. Even so, queer may be a better approach, one that opens up more possibilities. (I see Bennett's prescription in this chapter to ditch the heteronormativity as a reaction to the previously very close tie between family history and women's history--one that suggested that only women had families, and that family was only important for understanding women's history, as though men existed outside of families. So women as wives and mothers got a lot of play--women who didn't, not so much.)

I believe Notorious Ph.D. is using Bennett's book this term in a class--maybe she'll report in this "Teach This Book!" thread how it's going over and what her students have to say?

Janice said...

Oh, I was hoping that someone would confront both the pedagogical questions and her use of lesbian-like to pull in a range of historical women for common study.

Unlike Zenith, my small regional comprehensive has no problem with enrollments for pre-modern courses. In fact, I sometimes have to turn them away. But because it's only me teaching these topics (at least in the Anglophone stream), there's only so far they can go with the material here. And I think you're right that the language requirements put them off! (It doesn't help that our university and our program both lack any kind of second-language requirement.)

I'm toying with the idea of teaching this book next fall in my new gender seminar. It's not a perfect match (as I was hoping to focus on continental and early modern pretty much exclusively) but it's so thought-provoking, I'm really tempted.

Still, getting back to the "lesbian-like" suggestion. It struck me as, perhaps, too ambitiously-applied as a term. I kept wondering how useful it really was to link all those different examples with this one term and not something like "women-centred" which doesn't demand that we try to link the distant past up to the present in so many ways.

Am I just being a fuddy-dud? (Entirely possible, I concede up front.)

Steve Muhlberger said...

I think that a lot of students (and maybe not just them) would find it hard to get beyond the notion of physical sex. How much arguing around the term would result, and would it be worth it?

Belle said...

I normally teach our equivalent of History 362, and I'm not sure that Bennett would work in our context. Not because it's not provocative but because the men would freak about being forced to take a class that deals with Women's Stuff. I may be doing them a disservice, but I will have them read a few chapters.

Just to get their blood going.

magistra said...

I don’t think that ‘lesbian-like’ is a useful term: it seems to me to take one aspect of women’s lives (their sexual desires) and privilege it unduly. (I think ‘queer’ also unhelpfully shares some of the same purely sexual connotations, for all its application to matters of race, class etc as well). And I think this distracts from Bennett’s wider point. For all Bennett’s caveats about whether a ‘persistent assumption of a core lesbian identity’ (p 114)’ is justified, she ends up with a list of kinds of women: ‘sexual rebels, gender rebels, marriage-resisters, cross-dressers, singlewomen, and women who found special sustenance in female worlds of love and ritual’ (p 117), that look rather like stereotypes about modern lesbian women.

My preferred term would be ‘non-conforming’, which seems to me to tie in better with the wider message of Bennett’s book. If forms of patriarchy have constricted the lives of women across the centuries, non-conforming women in the past are those who have not fitted neatly into patriarchal institutions, whether through inescapable circumstances or by their deliberate choices. ‘Non-conforming’ reminds us that conformance to patriarchal norms has been the most common occurrence in most societies, but it has never been the only option for women.

clio's disciple said...

My research is on medieval nuns, and I too have some concerns with categorizing all such women as "lesbian-like." True, for many, even most, of these women, their primary relationships were with other women, but even then not all--some nuns had extremely close relationships with their male confessors or chaplains. Drawing analogies between medieval nuns and modern lesbians, even loose analogies, also seems to me to ignore two key pieces of nuns' identity: virginity, and the idea of nuns as brides of Christ.

I have more to say on this, but I'll put it on my own blog.

Historiann said...

Magistra--I understand your reservations about "lesbian-like," but "non-conforming" introduces its own biases and blinkers. What, for example, do we do with religious women? Sometimes they're very conformist, and in some times, places, and religious orders, they're very non-conformist. We can't just say from our secular, modern age that they're all "non-conforming" just because they don't marry and have children. Introducing the concept of "conformity" seems to replicate the bias that Tenured Radical writes about--it seems like another way of talking about what's normative again.

I don't think that "queer" is just about sex--not any more than "heterosexual" means "man-woman sex everywhere all of the time." It's a broader term that covers a broad range of social, economic, and political relationships and arrangements.

And, just a brief word to Belle: I think you're being overly deferential of your male students' interests. What about your women students--why not see this as an opportunity to give them something interesting to chew on, and let the men get what they can out of it? I had several comments from men last week in the thread at my place, and they were just as enthusiastic as the women commenters.

Susan said...

TR, I'm so glad you think teaching about earlier periods makes you smarter. Those of us who work on earlier periods agree :). And I would totally use this book in a historiography class -- maybe a few chapters, maybe the whole thing, depending.

But I want to go to the issue of "lesbian-like". I went back and read the "L-word" chapter last night and I somewhat disagree with your take on it. First, I think she knows that lesbian history is doing OK right now; but in women's history more generally, there is less attention to sexuality. Lesbian-like reminds people of questions we need to ask. I took Bennett's beef with queer studies goes back to the discussion at Notorious' about the generational divide. She keeps saying she wants to how ordinary people are living their lives, what they are doing. And her take (fairly or unfairly) is that the queer work on the middle ages has involved elegant cultural readings of elite texts, but not much on practice. That is, this is the social/cultural history tension once more. But I also think her formulation of lesbian-like is not a stable category; it's certainly not a fixed one. It's expansive because what is lesbian-like at one time might not be lesbian-like at another.

I haven't worked with these questions for a long time, but what I thought about as a I read about lesbian-like was Carol Smith-Rosenberg's old formulation of homosocial worlds. As Bennett described her lesbian-like worlds, some of what I saw was that.

Knitting Clio said...

Reading TR makes me smarter! I haven't gotten much further into the book than last week (it's midterms here at TR's neighbor to the north, a regional comprehensive state not-Uconn university) but spring break is almost here so I hope to finish it then.

As to history of sexuality -- I'm currently teaching a graduate seminar on history of gender and sexuality and there is LOTS of work out there on the modern U.S. alone, so much that I had to make hard decisions about what to include (most of my students work full-time in addition to going to classes at night). Many of my selections are from the Journal of the History of Sexuality, which has been around since the early 1990s.

magistra said...

I would say that the idea of ‘conformity’ (as a shorthand for not ‘conforming with the patriarchal norms of the time’) is the kind of concept we should be working with, because it higlights both the artificiality of these norms and the pressure put on women to adhere to them. In contrast, it seems to me that Bennett’s ‘lesbian-like’ misleadingly conflates female radicalism and sexual desire, and stretches ordinary language to breaking-point. If you take her checklist of traits: ‘sexual rebels, gender rebels, marriage-resisters, cross-dressers, singlewomen, and women who found special sustenance in female worlds of love and ritual’ then you have to conclude that one of the most lesbian-like women in the whole Middle Ages is Heloise (who fits 4 or 5 out of 6 of these characteristics). And yet she’s probably also the medieval woman about whose enduring heterosexual desire we are best informed, because we know it from her own words. On the other hand, I think it’s likely that there were women in the Middle Ages whose lives were socially unremarkable and who did not challenge the patriarchy in any way, except that they were women who loved women. Laurence Poitivin and Jehanne Goula, for example (p 121) don’t seem terribly socially rebellious apart from in their sexual activity. And, although it’s always slightly problematic drawing parallels between gay men and lesbians in history, Alan Bray has suggested how early modern ‘sodomites’ went unsuspected precisely because their behaviour was not ‘unusual’ in any other way: apart from their sexual behaviour, they were respectable men, not the rebels or monsters of stereotype.

Amy said...

Having finished Judith Bennett’s History Matters, it seems at heart to be a pitch to study medieval history and to study it in the manner she proscribes. In her last chapter, “The Master and the Mistress” she details the not surprising yet depressing situation of history textbooks. These works have not gotten very far in incorporating women as historical actors. Nevertheless, remarkably, only Judith Bennett knows how to do a better job. The self-importance and egoism of this book seems to have escaped the attention of most of the commentators in the various blogs.
The weakest chapter is her one on lesbians. For Bennett historical continuity and the long span approach are the keys to writing feminist history. There are lots of lesbians in the present but she can't substantiate sexual activity to a degree that would produce lots in the pre 1800 world. She needs continuity however, so "lesbian like" produces enough people to suit her. Historians are supposed to document and interpret what happened and as much as they can, given that they are often dealing with people who are dead and gone, convey the quality of lived experiences. Who is Judith Bennett to decide that women who lived together but left no evidence or record of sexual activity were lesbian or "lesbian like"? Why must so many different kinds of women be aggregated into one Bennett defined category?
I also take issue with her differentiating between change and transformation, again to support her claim of historical continuity. Although she asserts a difference between these terms in the most empathic manner, she doesn’t actually prove it. To accept that since the middle ages all women have lived their lives within a patriarchal structure and therefore have never experienced transformative change blurs and mutes the point of historical analysis.
Most of the comments that have followed the three blog postings on the book have not really focused on the book and have gone off into tangents. Historiann posted a complimentary item about Lawrence Stone; this produced the most tangents. Can someone explain the precise meaning of “tool”? My son who is eighteen uses this term all the time, but I don’t really understand what it means. In another post, Historiann displayed a picture of a speculum, captioned, "this is a tool". So Lawrence Stone is an instrument used for gynecological exams and therefore a symbol of medical oppression and violence against women? It would have been clearer and more straight forward to say his review was sexist, which it was.

Historiann said...

Gee, Amy--for someone who complains about the "tangents" other commenters have introduced, you bring us back to the "tool shed" again! Well, fair enough I suppose, since Tenured Radical referenced it at the top of this post. Since your 18-year old son uses the term all of the time, I'd suggest that you ask him what he means, but when I use the term I mean "big flaming jerk," and other nouns you can probably fill in that I don't like to use on-line because I don't work blue. (Would people who are all hot and bothered by "tool" prefer one of those?) Interestingly, I don't get the impression that it's women's historians who objected to my characterization--but I could be wrong.

Remember back when Al Franken published his book, "Rush Limbaugh is a Big, Fat Idiot?" and people didn't get the joke and accused him of using the same inflammatory invective that Limbaugh uses, so that meant that we shouldn't listen to Franken because he's just doing the same thing? Well, I feel like Al Franken this week. TR hinted pretty baldly at this above, but here goes: when someone writes or says something completely obnoxious, insulting, and ridiculous (like Stone in that review), IT DOESN'T DESERVE TO BE TAKEN SERIOUSLY. IT'S NOT ACTUAL INTELLECTUAL ENGAGEMENT, SO WHY SHOULD WE PRETEND THAT IT IS? I thought my use of the word "tool" pretty much said that and more in one word, and it seemed like most of the commenters got it (and certainly the women's historians.)

I think it's quite revealing of the state of women's history today--and of the validity of Bennett's arguments--that the most pointed exchanges in this entire book discussion have been over my use of one word to describe a man who was openly hostile to feminist history. People have been so much more interested in setting boundaries around my speech and writing, and lecturing me about how I'm supposed to talk about women's history and critics of women's history (as a mere women's historian myself!) than they have been in engaging Bennett's critique of the field. (This last paragraph is not directed just at you, Amy--you are engaging Bennett and you've clearly read the book. I'll respond to you in another comment, but if you want to discuss my use of "tool" after this, I think you should take it back to my blog and not belabor the point here.)

Historiann said...

As to Amy's other points: I can understand your frustration with the book--it does seem rather convenient that the cure that ails women's history is that modern women's historians need to read in Bennett's field and that we all need to adopt "lesbian-like" as an interpretive frame, as she prescribes.

However, my read on this is that Bennett is who she is, and that she can only speak as someone who is an expert in some fields but not others. Unlike Stone, she doesn't see herself as a "Law Giver" to all other women's historians--she's just putting stuff out there for us to discuss, and it seems reasonable to me that she's making arguments from her own area of professional expertise. She's describing what she has tried to do in various projects in her professional life, and she's putting it out there for the rest of us to discuss. So instead of seeing her "egoism," I see this as being modest--she's not saying that she's got the answer for all time, or that people who work in modern U.S. History, or colonial Latin American history, or African or Australian history can't write a book like hers or talk about these ideas.

I will say that I didn't think her chapter on the "Master Narrative" was persuasive--I think things like "master narratives" (even those written by feminist scholars) perpetuate the notion that there is such a thing as "coverage." I'm highly skeptical of re-writing master narratives as a means of incorporating more women's history into them.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Huh. See, I'm on board with the whole "transforming the master narrative" thing. Because face it, most of us teach in terms of master narratives. Maybe not THE master narrative, but plural smaller ones. Hell, I even had a seminar discussion last night that convinced me that adding gender as an analytical framework might make military history interesting to me!

Notorious Ph.D. said...

And if someone still wants to comment on the Stone thing, then maybe we can take it over to the original post at Historiann's?

Historiann said...

But doesn't a "master narrative" imply that anything that falls outside of it is marginal, just as the search for the "normative" in family history and the history of sexuality makes everything outside of it "deviant?" I'm not sure if I'm being clear hear, but I think there's a connection.

"Queer" opens up possibilities, as does smashing the concept of "coverage," possibilities that may help us see history in new ways. I took Bennett's use of "lesbian-like" as a strategy for ditching the transhistorical assumptions we make about heteronormativity. But, because it's "conformist" or "normative," we don't get as excited about historicizing it quite precisely as we do when Bennett uses the l-word. (That is, women's and family historians have made all kinds of blanket transhistorical assumptions about the experience of heterosexual relations, childbirth, and child care especially with reference to women's experiences of them, but people want to get very careful and historically specific when we talk about lesbian-like history.)

squadratomagico said...

This is a tangential question inspired by the discussion of queer versus "lesbian-like:" I'm surprised that no none has commented thus far on the resonance of Bennett's title with the work of another Judith B. -- Judith Butler. Is the title "History Matters" a rejoinder to "Bodies that Matter"? Given Bennett's interest in a more traditional social history methodology, over cultural history that's heavy on "linguistic turn" theory, should we see the title as a reclamation of sorts: No, History matters, not abstract philosophy about bodies and genderqueerness!

Perhaps the resonance is wholly unintended, but given Butler's prominence generally, and of course especially within WGS circles, I find it hard to believe that Bennett is not fully aware of it. My interpretation of the title may also be entirely off base, but I still think the echo is intentional and does mean something. Anyone else have thoughts?

squadratomagico said...

Or am I acting precisely like a cultural historian, and trying too hard to decode hidden meanings in the text?

Another Damned Medievalist said...

tangentially related ...

Historiann said...

Squadratomagico--good call. Butler would perhaps differ especially with Bennett's somewhat retro notion that women qua women are connected across time and space by shared conditions, since Butler has argued that "woman" is not a unified political subject. Bennett compliments Butler's insights on p. 9, but says "they have limited practical resonance," and later (with reference to postmodern gender theory in general), "what a muddle!" (17). So, you may be on to something, Sq.

I've wondered why the book was called "History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism," instead of "History Matters: Feminism and the Challenge of Patriarchy," since one of her major themes is the resilience of patriarchal systems across time and space, and even 220 years or so after the birth of feminism as an intellectual and political movement.

tenthmedieval said...

But doesn't a "master narrative" imply that anything that falls outside of it is marginal, just as the search for the "normative" in family history and the history of sexuality makes everything outside of it "deviant?"

This is a bigger problem than just in feminist history. I would fully see the point of describing phenomena that didn't ultimately lead anywhere in the long-term (the anarchists at Barcelona in the Spanish Civil War, the Children's Crusade or whatever pet example you may have) as `deviant', just as I would try and argue for their inclusion as a demonstration of possibilities of alternatives to the master narrative. But the fucntion a master narrative performs is that it describes the transitions of greatest significance for the greatest number of people. Part of the problem with some of our master narratives is that they forget the second bit (i e. the peasant labouring population, or of course women, both of whom need to be included for the `greatest number of people'). It doesn't stop the deviations being interesting, but there's things that were deviant from a norm and then there's things like, well, being a woman, that just get ignored and the two things need distinguishing. Of course this is what you were saying, Squadratomagico, but I wanted to say it some more with ungendered examples :-)

Anonymous said...

I think Bennett's use of the phrase "lesbian-like" was meant to add creativity in finding the lesbians of the past.

Since I posit lesbian life as central to all historical eras, my delight is in reading what lesbians have to say about history
in general. I'm delighted also to read that so many lesbians are now in tenured positions to begin with.

And lesbians were a big part of history departments in women's colleges going back to the early 20th century.

I don't like any word that erased WOMEN as central, however. It's why I don't like gender studies, queer theory or other labels that don't place women as central to the story of human beings.

Someone on an earlier thread said that men wouldn't be interested in classes that focused on women. I don't think that's true, I believe it's simply a reflection of internalized sexism on the part of the academic women teaching.

The sexual element of lesbian existence is overemphasized, because we wouldn't focus on whether nuns had sex with their male priest colleagues, we would take it that you can be "virginal" in the heterosexual sense of the word, but lesbian in attachment to women. Bennett's ideas aren't the be all and end all, but I appreciate her creativity overall, and of course, when I checked out the book, the very first chapter I read was the lesbian chapter. Again, for me, lesbians are central to everything in life. All else is "the other" to me.

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