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

March 16, 2009, 1:58 pm

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 a
t 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.

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