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.


6 Responses to “What does a feminist historian look like?”

  1. lesbian historian August 17, 2011 at 3:59 pm #

    Seeing as you’re one of the most dedicated, reflective, considerate feminist historians I know, I can’t imagine the field without you.

  2. Cookie August 19, 2011 at 2:22 am #

    I think a lot about my relationship to my historical subjects as well, as a white queer woman writing a dissertation about black ‘queer’ women in the early 20th century. As society and culture changes through time, the experiences, beliefs and identities of different groups change as well, so much so that I dare say we can’t know what life was “really” like for *anyone* in the past, even if they share aspects of our own identity. I *do* think our own experiences influence the questions we ask about our historical subjects – all the more reason to get feedback on your work from a wide array of people who can offer different perspectives. Don’t forget to give them credit.
    I went to my first African-American history conference this year and was [naively, I suppose] surprised to find that the majority of my fellow presenters were white as well. I then made the facile comparison to gender and thought how unlikely a similar situation would ever be with men entering the field of women’s history.
    Lastly, I would say, you mention that “being a male among a group of primarily female historians makes me slightly uncomfortable,” while you also list the many ways your identity is privileged. Well, I can’t say this experiment will increase your empathy or understanding with your subjects, but most people who are “the other” in some capacity are used to not being in the majority, and to being outnumbered. It really wouldn’t kill you to feel that way now and again.
    Thanks for your thoughtful post.

    • twodonnell August 19, 2011 at 4:19 am #

      Cookie – thank you for the thoughtful comments as well! You make an excellent point and I think you are quite right about whether we (historians in my case) can really identify with their very distant subjects. In fact, I am currently reading quite a bit of Native American history and many authors offer that same caution. I also appreciate your suggestion that my discomfort might be useful in some ways. That thought has crossed my mind on occasion although I try to repress it since it feels a bit presumptuous that I could (with my privileged identities at my back) really understand being “the other.” But, again, you are quite right, it’s a valuable and personal lesson in historical empathy. You rock!

  3. Chris Deutsch August 19, 2011 at 8:29 pm #

    I too am a man who studies women’s history, though unlike Tom, I followed my sources (as the saying goes) and turned to women’s history as a result, though for semantic reasons I tell people that I study anticommunist, conservatives, antiradicals and gender. In short, I never set out to find women as a topic but turned to it when I found the right primary sources. I also have considered my own past as a relatively privileged white male and its effects on my scholarship thus far. I wonder if I am paternalistic or I read my own gender anxieties into my sources. I then hate the fact that I CAN be paternalistic!

    Meeting the spiral of self-doubt head on: in the end, I personally think that our being men in the field is good as it sets us apart. When we demonstrate nuance of analysis and understanding of our subjects, we demonstrate our own maturity and seriousness as scholars. I can say with pride that I will let my work stand for itself and I know you can too!

    As for the association, I too will wait for year three or so before attempting to join, as I want to develop as a historian first.

    • twodonnell August 19, 2011 at 8:52 pm #

      Solid rationales, Chris. I’m adopting that line of thinking. You’ll definitely have to join us when time permits as a guest blogger. In fact, at some point, we’re going to do try and do a roundtable/forum (ala AHR) and one of the topics I am interested in is whether gender history should be a separate discipline or integrated into the broader field of history. Your comment suggests a research driven approach to the question that suggests the importance of gender to your particular topic and thus integrated into other topics. Who knows, it’s a question that has been bugging me since I started at Davis. Thanks for the comments!


  1. What does it mean to identify with the history you study? « feminist history nerds - August 18, 2011

    […] 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 […]

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