Saturday, 18 November 2006

gender history

Gender history is activist history (cf. those activist judges who have the gall to interpret the constitution). Received history is about men. White men. White, land-owning men. Rich, white, land-owning men. A few centuries ago, a Whig named MacCauley wrote a history of the world. This history began in Greece, presently moved to Italy for a millennium, headed a bit north, fuddled around for another millennium, and then arrived in Britain, culminating with the recent decisive political victory of the Whig Party. History pursued in this manner is now known as Whig history. To some extent impossible to avoid (for reasons of reader interest--not to mention researcher interest), such history clearly lacks objectivity. Howard Zinn is famous for providing, if not objectivity, then a certain gestalt anti-Whig history. Gender historians have the agenda of providing the female perspective on history, often with the method of examining the social roles of men and women, with especial attention paid those women (and sometimes men) who break from those roles in various ways. Gender is the (or a) lens through which the historian peers in the endeavor to explain or describe the events of the past. Sarah, being female, socialist, and feminist, is a strong proponent of gender history, though not to exclusion; she also favors material culture as contrasted with intellectual history--things versus ideas. History of science, a relatively new field previously occupied by books written by scientists with a fascination for things past--invariably men, rarely trained in historical methodology. Their works are invariably Whiggish and invariably fascinated by genius and revolutions in science (indeed, many such works are autobiographical). The past several decades have done much to update the field; one might suggest that a revolution has occurred in the history of science (that is, if one wished to endure the academic equivalent of a schoolyard beating). Nevertheless, the actors on the stage are predominantly men. The historian with sympathy for the gender agender, er, agenda, has five possible responses to the history of science: 1) impugn the field as a fundamentally gender-biased endeavor, 2) take solace in the fact that at least some of the historians are women, 3) artificially inflate the roles of the women who are actors in the standard history (there are many, and they are important. A history of Lavoisier would be incomplete without attention to his wife, who was an assistant in his lab and served as the public relations arm of his self-described Chemical Revolution by hosting extremely popular parties, present at which were other chemists as well as the political elite. But it would be misleading to make her the key figure in the Chemical Revolution), 4) find and highlight previously neglected women in science and remain generally dissatisfied [this is, by the way, the standard approach], 5) attempt to recast the enterprise of history of science in such a way as to include the activities of women.

I suspect that Sarah would favor the first approach, and perhaps rightly so. (5) is an approach that has worked well in the history of technology, but works less well in the history of science. A study of cheese manufacture, for example, can go beyond the industrial history of the Kraft company and discuss artisanal cheese-making, an activity pursued by women in many cultures, and with many interesting ties to gender roles. Indeed, any time the gender lens gives context to the activities under investigation, it is worth employing. I fear that in the history of science, especially prior to the 18th century, women will forever appear as ancillary characters purely because those activities we presently identify as having a connection to the development of those activities we term science were pursued by men and were not pursued by women. To recast the enterprise of history of science so that it includes the activities pursued by women is to recast history of science as history general. Just as gender is a lens, the Whiggish pursuit on the trail of activities related to present-day science is a lens. What is the historian to do? Turn to philosophy. That's what I do! But I do feel compelled to use the gender lens whenever possible. It is, after all, useful in providing one more perspective to complement that fractured form of objectivity now so very fashionable.

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