Old Passions, New Visions
issue 247 - September 1993
Old passions, new visions
Barbara Taylor takes a snapshot of women’s history
as it reaches a far-from-complacent maturity.
1969 A big left-wing history conference was meeting in Oxford. There were women there, but few spoke. In a tea break some women clustered together. ‘What about a conference on women’s history?’ someone said. The idea caught hold but when Sheila Rowbotham stood up at the end of the plenary and began ‘We thought it would be a good idea if anyone here who was working on women’s history...’ she was interrupted by gales of laughter. Another feminist historian, Sally Alexander, remembers how embarrassed she felt. ‘What was so funny about that?’ she recalls women murmuring to each other. ‘Did we say something wrong?’
1993 In England last December we had a women’s history conference – to celebrate the bicentenary of Mary Wollstonecraft’s feminist manifesto A Vindication of the Rights of Woman – with over 400 attending and many more trying to crowd in. In the US this June the Berkshire Women’s History Conference expects at least 2,000 participants to hear over 500 papers on subjects as diverse as ‘Women and Global Integration’ and ‘The Economic Productivity of Medieval Jewish Widows’. All over the globe, but particularly in Europe and the Americas, books, journals and courses devoted to women’s history are springing up. A recent volume carries articles on developments in India, Japan, Australia, Nigeria, the former Soviet Union.1 So, whatever our diffidence back in 1969, women’s history has proved to be neither wrong nor funny.
Such achievements do not come without struggles, sometimes bitter ones. Women’s history was born from the prickly womb of the Women’s Liberation Movement. There had been historical work done on women, much of it by feminists, in earlier decades, but it took second-wave feminism finally to put women’s history on the intellectual map. Its presence there, throughout the 1970s and well into the 1980s, was an overtly political one: as historians of women, we saw ourselves as part of feminism’s intellectual shock troops, our work contributing to the movement’s broad offensive against male domination.
‘Women have come to revolutionary consciousness by means of ideas, actions and organizations which have been made predominantly by men,’ Sheila Rowbotham wrote in 1972 in the preface to her pioneering Women, Resistance and Revolution. ‘The language which makes us invisible to “history” is not coincidence, but part of our real situation in a society... which we do not control.’ Rendering our history visible, then, was crucial to the struggle to achieve greater control over our destinies. ‘Women’s liberation brings to all of us a strength and audacity we have never before known.’
Women had been Hidden from History – the title of another of Rowbotham’s immensely influential early books – and our task was to bring that hidden history to light. This reclaiming role for women’s history remains important. Prior to the 1960s, few standard history texts even mentioned women, much less made our lives and struggles the object of independent scrutiny. In England the development of social history in the 1960s and 1970s broadened the focus of historical investigation to include working people, the poor, the politically disenfranchised – yet even here (and even among its most radical proponents) little interest in women was evident.
The history of the family, which also emerged over this period, was written largely without reference to the specific experience of women or to power relations within the family unit. By the 1970s the growing presence of women in the field was changing this but as late as 1980 it was still possible for a leading male historian to deliver a conference paper surveying family history without mentioning a single article or book written by a woman. (An extensive supplementary bibliography was graciously provided the next day by three of the women present.)
As this last example demonstrates, mere ignorance was not the only obstacle women faced in making our history visible. Men, many of them eminent scholars, were often bigoted in their responses. An early conference of feminist historians in Germany was nearly invaded by an angry group of male professors who went on to denounce its organizers as fascists (an accusation echoed by some right-wing American academics today). An Australian feminist historian recalls an episode at Sydney University in the mid-1970s when a group of students asked that women’s history be included in their courses, only to be told by one senior man that he saw ‘no more reason to include women than cats or dogs or canaries’. Every feminist historian I know has stories of such encounters with men among whom arguing for women’s history often produced ‘the same look on their faces... as appears after an off-colour joke’.2
It was in this strongly politicized – at times polarized – atmosphere that the task of uncovering women’s past was undertaken. Imbued with a militant partisanship, we sought in particular to rediscover the lives of ordinary women, to ‘look beyond the “famous” individuals... to the mass of their contemporaries’ as Anna Davin put it in 1972, in order to expose ‘modes of oppression... and forms of resistance’.3 Our interpretation of women’s past turned on studying the operations of what soon came to be called patriarchy and women’s (covert as well as overt) opposition to it. No parade of scientific objectivity here: we wore our anti-patriarchal politics on our sleeves, or at least on our book covers, and made advocacy of female freedom the sine qua non of our historical scholarship.
Looking back, I still don’t have much problem with this. We were often wrong, of course, but at least everyone knew what we were being wrong-headed about. And we argued vociferously amongst ourselves. In England disputes broke out over whether men or capitalism had been responsible for women’s oppression; over the meaning of ‘patriarchy’ and whether it was an appropriate category of historical analysis; over the place of sexuality in the feminist tradition.
At about the same time feminist historians in the US were debating whether the celebration of feminine modes of thought and behaviour was inherently conservative. Did history reveal that all women’s differences from men were entirely a product of gender-based oppression, or did we really have modes of being which were not only different but perhaps also (it was argued) better? This age-old debate within feminism shifted into a new register in the late 1980s with the work of ‘poststructuralist’ theorists like Denise Riley who in her controversial Am I That Name (1988) argued that ‘woman’ was a cultural category rather than a natural fact, a product of cultural-linguistic conventions rather than psychology or biology.4
The argument stimulated rows which still go on, but what it reflected was the growing recognition that women’s history could not be understood outside the wider milieu in which sexual difference acquires social meaning. As a result there was a shift toward gender history. In 1985 the socialist/feminist History Workshop Journal carried an editorial arguing that women’s history was becoming ghettoized; now was the time to declare ‘a feminist commitment to reconstructing the history of men as a social group and gender category’ in order to rewrite the historical record in toto.
But if gender history is the way forward, what exactly is it a history of? The question, apparently simple-minded, has proved to be anything but. The challenge to any common-sense notion of its meaning has come not only from poststructuralism, with its radical critique of ‘women’ and ‘men’ as cultural fictions, but also from psychoanalytic perspectives. These are increasingly influential within feminist philosophy and literary theory, and are now taking hold in historical work as well. Freud’s famous argument that women are not born but made – that it is through unconscious processes that a little girl born with no psychological gender becomes subjectively female – has prompted many feminists to explore the unconscious dimensions of gender.
Where post-structuralist theorists tend to place most emphasis on the assignment of gender positions by symbolic codes, psychoanalytic feminists stress the role of unconscious fantasy in the formation of feminine selfhood and social identity. Whether this formative process is pre-mapped in certain respects by the realities of biology is a continuing source of controversy. In a recent article Sally Alexander describes work being done in England, Germany, Italy and America by feminist historians who are applying psychodynamic concepts of inner reality and subjectivity in their research.5
Lyndal Roper is currently writing a history of witchcraft in which she is using psychoanalytic arguments about fantasy and psychopathology to interpret the place of magic and diabolism in sixteenth-century women’s lives. And my own work on the history of feminism now employs the psychoanalytic theory of identification as a way of interpreting the fantasies of gender which underlay the early feminist project.
These are new theoretical challenges to conventional views of gender, and of history. But the impulse behind the interrogation of the concept of ‘woman’ is not just theoretical. For if womanhood is not (only) a biological category but also a cultural and historical one, what does this mean for a politics of ‘women’s’ liberation? Whose liberation? In the struggles for women’s emancipation, who has counted as ‘women’?
Second-wave feminism originated in the Anglo-American white middle-class, still its heartland; it has embraced an ethos of universal female suffering and struggle which has masked its specific class, ethnic and national provenance – and also the sexual orientation of most of its proponents, since until the 1970s feminism was largely heterosexual. Probably the most significant challenge facing all styles of feminism today is to this notion of a single female identity, to a concept of universal womanhood which subtly blurs lines of difference and in so doing obscures real divisions of privilege and power.
Black women, lesbian women, women from working-class backgrounds or from imperialized nations: all have been asserting the specificity of their historical experience and making new demands on the intellectual and political fabric of feminism, re-weaving it as a cloth of many colours. With their strong emergence into the historical field, there comes once again a phase of reassessment and rethinking; a time of transformation in the present which is forcing new examinations of the past.
Women’s history has left the age of innocence: moving toward the twenty-first century, it is simultaneously more powerful and vexed, more challenged and challenging, than any of us, back in 1969, could have imagined possible.
Barbara Taylor is the author of the award-winning Eve and the New Jerusalem.
1 Writing Women’s History: International Perspectives, K Offen, RR Pierson, J Rendall (eds), London 1991.
2 Alan Graebner, quoted in Liberating Women’s History, BA Carroll (ed), Chicago 1976.
3 Anna Davin, ‘Women and History’, in The Body Politic: Women’s Liberation in Britain 1969-72, M Wandor (ed), London 1972.
4 Am I that Name: Feminism and the Category of ‘Women’ in History, Denise Riley, London 1988.
5 Sally Alexander, ‘Feminist History’ in Feminism and Psychoanalysis, E Wright (ed), Oxford 1992.
Help us produce more like this
Patreon is a platform that enables us to offer more to our readership. With a new podcast, eBooks, tote bags and magazine subscriptions on offer, as well as early access to video and articles, we’re very excited about our Patreon! If you’re not on board yet then check it out here.