¶ … discloses to the reader something of what happened during the era under discussion. But it also reveals at least as much about the era in which the history was written. What is considered significant enough to mention, what events are seen as causative rather than incidental, who are the true villains - all of these things may change from one generation's historical account to that of the next, and not because new facts have come to light.
The authors under consideration here ask us to reconsider the nature of history in general as well as to reexamine the particular places and times that they are writing about. They seek to use substitute key theoretical concepts for the traditional chronological structure of history, asking us to consider not what came after what but who had power over whom, and how these social relationships are the causative elements of (each) history.
Central to the work of the five historians examine here is the category of gender. Scott writes most analytically about it but each of the other four (even if more implicitly) incorporate and depend upon her definition of gender as something that is almost entirely - but not quite entirely - divorced from biological sex. Gender is for each of these authors a shorthand way that "natives" have of dividing the world into categories of power. And while in most cases the gendered category of woman is analogous to the category of powerless, the worlds investigated here demonstrate that history is not quite so neat. Certainly the gendered categories of male and female correlate with access to and denial of political power, but Caulfield and Guy especially demonstrate that women too have power.
While from our position in the postmodern West, we might be inclined to dismiss such traditional-within-a-patriarchal-culture female power as the guardianship of honor as being realistically related to any type of "real" power, Caulfield and Guy (and indeed all five historians) argue that this is too simplistic a reading of the ways in which gender and power interact.
What is most compelling about these narratives is their simultaneous ability to ask us to question the complex ways in which gender identity and power relations based on gender are continually renegotiated in these historical milieux while at the same time asking us to reexamine the entire enterprise of writing history.
Moreover, it is perhaps necessarily true that all history is teleological; after all, one is always writing it from what is at that moment the end-point of history. Thus historians, no matter how hard they may try not to be, are always in fact writing the same story, a story that begins at different points in the past certainly but that still and necessarily ends up with themselves, with us, with the here and now.
The entire practice of historiography would seem to argue that people seek to understand the past in some measure to shed light on the present, and as the needs and particularities of the present change so the historian looks at the past differently. This is not a question of political or other form of bias (although certainly different biases also shape the writing of history, as they do everything else). Rather, this is simply a truth about the practice of history.
Scott explores some of these issues vis-a-vis the subject of women in history, but her remarks have a far wider currency. She is here talking about "women's history," but her comments might be applied to any one area of history - Civil War history, for example, or the history of technology - as each subfield within history tries to come to terms with the challenges of postmodernism.
The production of this knowledge is marked by remarkable diversity in topic, method, and interpretations, so much so that it is impossible to reduce the field to a single interpretative or theoretical stance. Not only is there a vast array of topics to be studied, but in addition, on the one hand, many case studies, and on the other hand, large interpretive overviews, which neither address one another nor a similar set of questions.
The authors that we are studying here are certainly not afraid to plunge themselves into the complexities of different forms of discourse, to battle the intellectual dragons of postmodernism and feminism and deconstructionism with intelligence.
Even though in many ways they seem to have determined that there is no longer any legitimate way to create authoritative texts now that the Modernist age is over, they remain firm...
History, and the readers of history would be much be better served if historians were to be content simply to explore a particular time and place without trying to link what happens in that moment to the most important events in world history.
The most useful template to employ in reading the work of these authors is the investigation of the intersection of gender and history (which is to say, gender and power) in the work of Joan Wallach Scott, who forces us to examine the many ways in which woman have been written out of history.
This is not only the fact that women have been omitted from the formal historical record - we do not know what the (female) farmers or laborers or queens or nuns were doing in nearly the degree that we know about what their male analogues were doing - but as Scott argues that gender itself has in many ways been erased from the historical record. By assuming a neutrality and a normalcy for the actions of males, these actions/perspectives/philosophies and epistemologies have become subtly ungendered by many historians (and many readers of history) so that rather than any action being the result of what someone of a particular gender and age and race and historical moment has performed it has taken on a Jungian pan-human quality to it.
This is dangerous, all of these authors would argue, because such a de-gendering (along with all other forms of neutralizing of human agents) tends not only to erase many members of the human race from the historical record but it also has the effect of disguising the true nature of power relations among humans. And if history is about anything, surely it is about the nature of power relationships.
History has often been written in such a way that those who do not have power are silenced; such a silencing removes from the historian the necessity of writing about the often-less-than-savory ways the putative heroes of historical discourses have treated those with less structural power than themselves.
Another strategy associated with "her-story" takes evidence about women and uses it to challenge received interpretations of progress and regress. In this regard an impressive mass of evidence has been compiled to show that the Renaissance was not a renaissance for women, that technology did not lead to women's liberation either in the workplace or at home, that the "Age of Democratic Revolutions" excluded women from political participation, that the "affective nuclear family" constrained women's emotional and personal development, and that the rise of medical science deprived women of autonomy and a sense of feminine community.
One of the other important questions that Scott poses for us is how it is that history can be reformed; what is it that historiography can do to history to allow it to exist simultaneously as an essentially Modernist trope in which a single version of a story is considered authentic and authoritative and other versions wrong as well as a Postmodernist trope, in which various forms of a story are privileged?
Again, while Scott's remarks refer specifically to the inclusion of women in histories what she is saying has a much broader application, referring to all of those groups whose stories and perspectives have traditionally been excised from history.
How could women achieve the status of subjects in a field that subsumed or ignored them? Would making women visible suffice toe rectify past neglect? How could women be added to a history presented as a universal human story exemplified by the lives of men? Since the specificity or particularity of women already made them unfit representatives of humankind, how could attention to women undercut, rather than reinforce, that notion?
Caulfield, Guy and Seed each suggest ways that women as well as ideas of both gender and race can be added to history in a way that both honors the agency of women and rewrites history in a substantive way. They move beyond traditional that patriarchal distinction of virgin and whore in their analysis,…
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