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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.