Archive | August, 2011

Welcome, from Three Feminist History Nerds!

19 Aug

A merry little trio are we, even though we now find ourselves scattered across three different states, at three different universities, in three different regions of the country.

Once upon a time, in a small MA program in California, our advisor and favorite women’s history professor Becky Kluchin suggested we form a writing group.  The sheer panic brought on by impending Ph.D. applications and thesis writing was all the motivation we needed to agree it was a sound idea, even if we didn’t know each other very well.  Fortunately, Becky is an excellent match-maker and we fell into easy, supportive friendships.  Completing our MA degrees would have been exponentially harder without one another.  More importantly, during that year together we developed relationships that are sustaining us throughout our academic careers (and our personal lives, too).

It is probably not the best idea to embark on a new project right now.  The breadth of commitments we have is already overwhelming.  In addition to the rigors of our history Ph.D. programs – courses, grading, teaching, language study, research, writing, prelims/exams/quals, conferences, panels, workshops – we also face a slew of other life responsibilities:  children, partners, cats, dogs, union organizating, feminist activism, and social lives that we try desparately to maintain.  Still, during one of our monthly phone chats, we agreed to add a blog to the mix.  We wanted a way to continue (and expand) the enriching conversations we began four years ago.

The title and blog Feminist History Nerds works in a few different ways.  First (and most obviously), this is a space to share feminist history.  Second, as Tom and Chelsea’s inaugural posts show, it is a place to consider what it means to be a feminist scholar and to do feminist work.  And finally, as graduate students, it is a place to work out the various curiosities, questions, and interests that arise as we go about our research and suss out our profession.  We are certain that with prelims afoot there will be no shortage of possible content (time, however, is another story).

Feminist History Nerds invites you to join us as active participants.  This project will work best for all of us if you contribute to the conversations we start and the questions we pose.  Comment, challenge, debate, share, and even join us as guest bloggers!  And of course ideas and opinions needn’t be related strictly to the work of an historian. We are at least as interested in how these ideas work outside the context of our research and university. It is a happy little feminist world we are creating here and we look forward to your company along the way.

19 Aug

In the event you were wondering about the Header image, here it is in full:

It comes from the June 26 – July 10, 1970 issue of Rat.  Started as Rat Subterranean News in 1968, this New York underground newspaper covered radical left politics of the era.  Radical women grew tired of the publication’s misogyny and in early 1970 they stormed the office and took control of the paper.  Rather than simply issue one women’s lib issue, these women ended up taking complete control of the publication and renamed it Women’s LibeRATion.

Is it problematic to identify with the history you study?

18 Aug

Last semester, in a graduate writing course, I worked on a paper about radical feminist group The Furies.  During peer review a colleague said he got the sense that I “really like” my subjects and accused me of glorifying them.  I make no secret of the fact that I too am a lesbian feminist.  While Tom ponders being a man doing women’s work, so to speak, I ponder the question, what does it mean to identify (too?) closely with my subjects?  To share their sexual identity and many of their political beliefs?

In this same course there were several other scholars studying people with whom they identified in some way: race, ethnicity, education, religion, region.  Not one of them had their credibility questioned in the way mine was on several occasions.  Ultimately, the critique ended with, “these were just 12 women living in a house together – how important can they really be?”  Aside from the fact that my analysis of their historical significance is in line with the other historians who have studied them in-depth, I explained the evidence of their influence every week.  Most of our classmates studied equally small groups or relatively unknown individuals and yet somehow their work registered as legitimate.  Lesbian history just wasn’t important enough to register.

The humorous part of an insult that implied my work is driven not by historical material but my own politics is that, it too, was politically motivated.  Clearly, this individual devalues lesbians to the point of historical insignificance while also singling out a lesbian feminist voice as somehow problematic and “other.”   The thing is, we are all political.  All historians are motivated in various ways by their identities and values.  And in some way, we all connect with the people in the narratives we construct.  A heterosexual man writing a history of the The Furies would not relate to the members as I did, but that does not mean he would not have opinions about the behavior, the politics they pursued, or the changes they were trying to create.  And I guarantee that as a man, such a scholar would consider and relate to the men from whom these women sought to separate.  The issue is not whether you identity with your subjects as I do, or question your place as a scholar of the subjects you choose,  as Tom does at times.  Rather, it is about the consciousness you bring to every step of the process.

Those who know me well understand that I am pretty self-reflective about how my personal identity relates to, supports, and yes, hinders the work that I do.  There were moments in my thesis writing a few years ago when my advisor stopped me and said, Chelsea, these sentences sound angry.  She was right.  It was a learning moment, and the start of a process in which I constantly engage in a dialogue with myself about the questions I am asking, that arguments I am making, the sources I am using, and so on.  Isnt’ that something we should ask and expect of all scholars?  And as much as this is a solitary process, it is a collective one too.  We share late night discussions in department hallways when a spark ignites a new perspective, we swap drafts of papers and chapters, we suggest books to read and scholars to engage, and we shoot off sleep-deprived and coffee-hazed emails in what seem to be moments of brilliance.  Ultimately, we learn to find our own voices by understanding those of others.  This includes the voices of the women I study.

Yes, I identify with the people I study.  With a critical eye I am the better for it, not simply because of our commonalities, but because it pushes me to engage in an honest, regular conversation with myself about who I am and the scholarship I produce.

What does a feminist historian look like?

16 Aug

Let’s get this party started, shall we.

I have a question: can a man be an historian of women?

On the face of it, and even under further scrutiny, the answer undoubtedly would be “heck yeah.” There are of course examples of very successful male historians of female history. And yet, I have moments of serious doubt. Interestingly, however, that doubt is based on very little empirical evidence or lived experience. I have maintained an interest in women’s history for most of my “career” and cannot recall but a single time when someone suggested my course of study was not a good idea. Throughout my undergraduate and graduate career I have taken many courses on the history of women in various fields and not once has an instructor or fellow student suggested that my presence was inappropriate. I have written graduate school statements of purpose, met with professors about my areas of interest and course of study, and visited libraries and archives with the express purpose of studying women in American history. Only once did someone raise a question about the propriety of my studying women in American history.

I recently joined the Western Association of Women Historians because (1) I am–well, all except the part about being a woman–and (2) I hope to attend if not present a paper at their annual conference (“Short Skirted Harpies: Sex and Gender in San Francisco’s 1892 Anti-Dive Campaign”) next May. I have avoided joining this illustrious organization for several years now because the thought of being a male among a group of primarily female historians makes me slightly uncomfortable. In my personal life, I have always been a bit of an outsider so I have learned to avoid situations where that feeling is easily exacerbated. But I joined in part to find out if that feeling of discomfort and the one time I was cautioned about my plans has merit.

I should like to clarify that I have a great deal of respect for the professor who cautioned me. He is a veteran of the profession to say the least and he made no mistake that he is primarily interested in my success and would not want to see me get stuck in a field that I will have a hard time finding it.

I suppose I could go on at great length about my own experiences and psychology (both of which are inextricable to the work of an historian) on the subject. In fact, as I write this post and attempt to organize the conflicting and deep-seated thoughts I have about the topic I am left with only the hope that this modest effort models and spurs the type of conversations this blog intends to provoke.

Can a man be an historian of women? I think so. I hope so. Because I do not have a back up plan or desire.