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By Katherine Burke
I am not a Women’s Historian.
I am a Historian with a focus or specialization in gender.
Before we go further, the title is mostly facetious. Mostly. I am not a Woman’s Historian, just as others are not delineated as Basketball Historians. I am not a scholar only versed in the nuances of women. I am a historian that focuses on gender. I am a historian who recognizes and understands the impacts that gender plays upon the greater historical timeline.
Why is the definition of a “women’s historian” so irritating? It makes the norm a “historian,” and the deviance a focus on women. The other is a discussion of women. The other is attention paid to the privileges of those with historical and sociopolitical power.
The other is not important.
At this current point in scholarship, the common attitude is that historians who do work with gender should delineate themselves as Women’s Historians (notice the capitals) because of the absolute lack in scholarship that focuses on simply the struggles and triumphs of women in history. They say that most history has focused upon men in the world, and great men at that. While this is understandable – and certainly true – it does more harm than good. It is similar to watching “Basketball” and “Women’s Basketball.” What part of the NBA automatically defines the sport as for men and men alone? Why add the qualifier to the act of basketball? And similarly, why add the qualifier to history? What makes the history of women not enough to fit within the greater context of the subject? Those questions have a multitude of answers, based in historical oppression, culture, class, and religion, but to put it simply, the separation is incredibly harmful to the future of this profession.
A counterpoint emerges when considering the length of time in which women did not exist within historical narratives. The study of women is recent, yes, but the redefinition of past stories that were written by, for, and about men to include minoritized genders is coming. However, the point remains: the delineation of men having the “normal” history and women having to create narratives separate from and outside of “history” comes when the qualifier is added.
Another aspect to the terms of Gender Historian comes with the automatic assumption that I only research and write about the lives of women in history. This calls to mind the work of Dr. Jackson Katz who argues that socially, there is a connotation that gender is associated with female, race with African-American, and sexuality with homosexuality. In all instances, the experiences of the dominant group are discounted. While I do not think that men have gotten the ‘short staff’ in history when talking about their experiences within the greater timeline of the world, an understanding of history as it relates directly to their gender has not been studied. With rare exception, the influence of gender on politics, economics, and the social lives of people in the past has not been a large area of study.
One such exception – Kristen Hoganson – analyzes President William McKinley and the Spanish-American war, with special attention played to the impact that gender and masculinity played in the beginning of the armed conflict. In American history, the specific traits of masculinity that make for the ideal president have always played a part in the greater history of the nation, whether recognized or not. Images of McKinley without a backbone and stylized to be overly feminine spread throughout the United States because of his reluctance to enter the country into another war, for which he was convinced the nation was not ready. The pressure eventually became too much, and he bowed to the pressures in Congress to allow for a greater armed military conflict to begin.
This theme is not new. Even less studied is the impact that gender politics played upon our early American presidents. Martin Van Buren, the eighth president and often named as one of the most ineffectual, was the founder of the modern American party system. But, because of his feminine mannerisms and practices, he was maligned and destroyed in the media, leading to his fall from power and continued associations with the terms ‘fop’ and ‘dandy.’ In the modern age, President Bush (the senior) was portrayed as weak, ineffectual, and clearly lacking in good old-fashioned American masculinity when dealing with the crisis in Panama. These themes of gender, politics, and – especially – war are incredibly important and worth examination.
Also consider the place of gender within the public education system. Think back to your high school history textbook. Off in the corner, what was there? A small box stating, “women also did something during this time period!” For years, the extent of gender history was the inclusion of that small box within the greater historical story of (generally) wealthy white men changing the world. The separation of Women’s History and History – or to some circles as Herstory and History – not only marginalizes the contributions women have made, but also takes away from the greater story in which men and women have an equal part in the telling of their history.
So please, don’t call me a women’s historian. It’s just as strange-sounding as telling someone they are a men’s historian. Instead, understand that while history has marginalized the impact of gender, there are people who are attempting to change that. Gender does not simply imply women. Gender also refers to men, agender, genderqueer, and the gambit of possible identities and expressions. Our choices and how society views those choices indicate more than historians often give them credit. And in this, gender historians attempt to reconcile our past.