Challenging the Boundaries of Women’s History and Beyond

Nine African American women seated on the steps of a building at Atlanta University. Part of Du Bois’s presentation at the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1900. (Photo: Thomas E. Askew, Library of Congress)

Earlier this year, the Coordinating Council for Women in History issued a statement condemning the all-white male conference held at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. In our statement, we challenged readers to look beyond the conference convener Niall Ferguson’s excuse that the all-white male conference was merely coincidental, the accidental result of packed schedules. Viewing the conference through Ferguson’s critique of the changes in the discipline of history in the last several decades suggests a deliberate omission. According to Ferguson, history is in decline because the content has changed from concentrations in such traditional subfields as diplomatic and international history, legal and constitutional history, and social and economic history. Increased concentrations in histories of women, gender, race, and ethnicity, as well as environmental history and cultural history are too parochial, Ferguson claimed. He argued these histories interest a mere handful of students. Such provincial approaches to history combined with their overtly political platform, Ferguson continued, account for undergraduates’ growing disinterest in history.

Ferguson’s defense and the Stanford Conference are not isolated events. They reflect a much broader pattern within the discipline where minority scholars and scholarship on women, race, and gender are marginalized. I am concerned about present-day dismissals of women and gender histories, including at the 2018 American Historical Association Meeting in Washington, D.C. where the basis of a senior white male professor’s scathing criticism of a graduate student’s paper was that he “does not believe in gender.” On the other end of the spectrum, belief in Black inferiority has been accepted as legitimate scholarship. The American Historical Review’s decision to assign Ansley T. Erickson’s book on racial inequality in American public schools to Professor Raymond Wolters, whose work and review of said book reflects his belief in white supremacy, illustrate how academic institutions give platforms to racist ideas and discriminatory practices. Wolters’s critique of Ansley’s failure to engage debunked pseudo-scientific theories that link intelligence to race shows the ongoing purveying of racist ideas by the academy. Many academics contributed to race science in their erroneous attempts to prove Black inferiority. As an example, the founding of modern gynecology depended on racialized medical ideas about Black women’s bodies. The Medical College of Georgia, along with the work of such physicians as Drs. Paul Eve, Charles Meigs, and James Marion Sims, diagnosed and treated patients according to their belief that Black bodies were inferior to white ones. The glaring contradiction, however, was that these said doctors experimented on Black women because they deemed Black people to be stronger than white people and were therefore less immune to the painful experiments to which they subjected Black women.

The work and legacy of Ulrich Bonnell Phillips is especially important to recall historians’ role in producing racist scholarship and its long-term dangers. Phillips’s 1918 outrageous claim of the beneficial effects of slavery on Blacks, an “inert and backward people,” haunts us today in everything from textbooks and movies, to statements by politicians, celebrities, and ordinary folks. Kanye West’s uninformed remarks that slavery was a choice and a North Carolina middle school assignment that instructed students to explain why “Africans made good slaves” are examples of the persistence of Phillips’s docile slave thesis.

It is therefore not simply enough to issue apologies and statements of regrets on these occasions, which are endemic rather than unique to our discipline. Academics must be critical of our own culpability as purveyors of racism, sexism, and other prejudices and hold accountable those seeking to justify the status quo rather than analyze it. As academics writing about such subjects as women and race, considered too parochial or political by traditionalists, we must persist anyway. It is not only the personal that is political; our histories that grow out of our realities are political too. It is only through the democratization of history that we challenge prejudicial histories and uproot the flawed assumption that the only history that matters is political, diplomatic, legal, and constitutional.

I often turn to the publication story of Deborah Gray White’s now path-breaking book Ar’n’t I a Woman? Female Slaves in the Plantation South for inspiration and courage to research and write Caribbean women’s history. Ar’n’t I a Woman? barely saw the light of day because publishers feared there was no “audience for books that connected black women’s thoughts and experiences to the history of other Americans.” Within the academy, historians doubted the contributions of Black women, and few deemed a study of Black women a worthwhile subject. Suspicious of the trustworthiness of Black women’s records, reviewers questioned the veracity of manuscripts on Black women. Reviewers doubted Black historians writing on such topics as slavery and civil rights and questioned their objectivity.

Framed as lacking in objectivity, biased reviewers derail histories that fall beyond traditional boundaries, crippling them before they have had an opportunity to establish themselves as history. Yet, we must be attentive to instances when objectivity is used as a marginalizing tool and masquerades as critical analysis. We must also challenge the assumption that objectivity is neutrality and historians are mere conduits, transmitting the absolute truth about the past, and that objectivity requires historians’ detachment from their subjects. White men historians who wrote (and continue to write) great white men history could claim no such disinterest. We must focus attention on the historian’s subjectivity and the contributions of histories grown out of the subjective realities of the historian. What fresh insights do such subjectivities yield?

At the end of Ar’nt’ I a Woman?, Gray White explained, “History is supposed to give people a sense of identity, a feeling for who they were, who they are, and how far they have come. It should act as a springboard for the future.” Gray White’s search for identity and historical purpose placed Black women as historical subjects and reconfigured the field of history. Any attempt to understand any aspect of American life is incomplete without critical attention to Black women and their enslavement.

As women historians, and historians of women, we must persist in talking back and challenging limiting visions of who constitutes worthwhile historical subjects. The mushrooming of trans history is another important example of historians writing back. I read with excitement and inspiration the May 2018 publication of Perspectives on History, with the cover title, “What is Trans History?” Outlining the stories of scholars whose research into trans history commenced in part because, in the words of the late trans historian Leslie Feinberg, “I couldn’t find myself in history. No one like me seemed to have existed,” the piece offered a brief and important synthesis on what trans means for the study of history. Trans history comes full circle to Simone de Beauvoir’s assertion that one is not born a woman, but becomes a woman. Categories like race and gender are not “fixed” but fluid, “subject to change and altered by changing conditions.” In his recent book, Black on Both Sides: A Racial History of Trans Identity, C. Riley Snorton cautions, however, that trans is not simply a category of gender to be discovered. Trans, as in transversal, is an approach to history that disrupts traditional emphasis on linearity in history. Narratives of Native genocide, the Middle Passage, and slavery cannot be written as if they “belong in the past.” The “collateral damage produced,” in the words of Saidiya Hartman, lives in the “afterlives of slavery.”

Women’s history has come full circle, but in another direction. When a group of historians organized the Coordinating Committee of Women Historians in the Profession in 1969, and later joined with the Conference Group of Women’s History to become the Coordinating Council for Women in History, it did so out of frustration with the exclusionary practices of white male historians. The combined organization insisted that women as historians and women as historical subjects mattered. Although our organization and sub-field continue to fight battles for inclusion, as the Stanford conference makes clear, we can mostly agree that women’s history is an established field in its own right. As we witness the struggles of allied subfields like trans history, we must now be conscious that our own established status does not become a stumbling block. The tensions among women, gender, and trans history must be productive ones that valorize different ways of “knowing and being.”

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Sasha Turner

Sasha Turner is Associate Professor of History at Johns Hopkins University. She is the author of Contested Bodies: Pregnancy, Childrearing, and Slavery in Jamaica (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017). Follow her on Twitter @drsashaturner.