Celebrate Women’s History Month with HTTP
To celebrate the start of Women’s History Month, HTTP posters collaboratively consider why women’s history and Gender Studies are useful analytic tools for historians today and what challenges and opportunities the disciplines pose when communicating history to the public.
Joan Scott and Judith Butler open up new modes of thinking about what it means to be gendered. Both Scott and Butler, a historian and a feminist theorist respectively, have broadened our conception of what it means to be a ‘man’ or a ‘woman’ in the culturally constructed sense. This has a bearing on everything – from life opportunities to life choices; from interpersonal relationships to linguistic ones. It therefore impacts historiography: the history we write.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the emergence of social history and oral history sparked discussions about the role and place of women in society. The rise of Gender Studies also revived existing historical fields. As one feminist activist recently stated in an interview, “women are not a minority; they are 50%”. They are therefore half of the story. Yet women’s history falls under its own category because women are the ‘minority’ in historical analyses. This is not least because women are often absent from historical sources and records. As a result, our history reads as a history of men – as the common adage goes, ‘the history of great men’. There have been many efforts to reverse this trend. A recent example of this can be found in Jane Humphries’ economics history lectures, part of the Ellen MacArthur Lecture Series. In these, Humphries discusses the construction of a women-specific wage series. This is the first time that historians have constructed a key measure of economic history to include women.
As Judith Butler states, the othering of women places them outside our notion of the ‘individual’ – a term that is often used synonymously with ‘man’. Indeed women often assimilate this into their own vocabulary and self-perception as well. Categorical analyses of sex and gender are therefore paramount to challenging our own, often implicit gender biases: in relation both to ourselves and our societies.
A gendered analysis of historical actors is therefore useful beyond simply rehabilitating absent historical actors and correcting or adjusting existing historical narratives. Paying attention to ‘the other sex’ complicates and enriches our understanding of the past, as one that includes both men and women and is shaped by their interactions. A study of women is necessarily a study of men. It is no coincidence that historical scholarship is shifting from women’s to gender history; if history is the story of ‘great men’, then historians have also excluded men, and the role of masculinity has been largely ignored. The separation of men and women is a heuristic device – that is, a means of refining research questions and results. But above all, it is women’s situation in history – a situation which has been different from that of men since time immemorial – that calls for a separation. And while this difference subsists, the separation is required and necessary.
Alan Bennett’s wryly amusing drama, The History Boys, playfully illustrates this point. In one discussion about the nature of historical study, one of the titular boys’ teachers, Mrs Lintott, deplores the fact that almost no women get mentioned in the history curriculum, as history is taught on a ‘strictly non-gender oriented basis’. In traditional historical narratives, women are, at best, minor characters. ‘What is history?’, Mrs Lintott continues in indignation, ‘History is women following behind with the bucket.’ The characterisation of historical women demonstrates the need for women’s history, but also is itself ‘women’s history.
While these beliefs are not necessarily widespread, they are nevertheless unproductive to public discussions of women’s history. As Dr Amy Erickson says, we should no longer see women’s agency as surprising, but as the ‘new norm’. It ought to be merit-based and stripped of gender. Yet in our current world, we have not progressed to this point. And this makes women’s history all the more relevant and pertinent for our understanding as historians.
Kathleen Blee’s research on women of the Ku Klux Klan readdresses women’s history – and hers is not just a positive history. Indeed women’s history has transitioned from a victimisation narrative to a story of agency. As historians however, we need to consider women both as agents of positive and negative change. In communicating history to the public, it is vital that we fairly represent women’s participation in all activities.
During this next month, History To The Public will be showcasing women in a variety of roles and historical contexts. For as long as we have institutional, structural and systematic inequality, and continue to see women (in the words of Simone de Beauvoir) as ‘the second sex’, Women’s History Month is necessary and eye-opening.