Gendership and Historiography Discussion (Nov 1996)

Query From: Karen Mahar kmahar@falcon.tamucc.edu 11 Nov 1996

I am posing the inquiry below on behalf of a colleague in the English department. Thank You.

I am interested in "gendership"--that is, from a writer's point of view, the conscious or unconscious conveyance of the writer's sex to the reader. From the reader's point of view, gendership is the conscious or unconscious understanding of the writer's sex as expressed through the text. So gendership is a message about the writer's sex, encoded in the text and decoded via cultural knowledge and language practices. When male writers use female pseudonyms ("Carolyn Keene") or female writers use male pseudonyms ("George Eliot"), then gendership is an obvious writerly construct. But everyday gendership, with writers writing under their own names, is still a construct and very complex. My questions for you historians is simply whether you can think of examples of gendership in scholarly historical writing. Are there historians, for instance, whose style announces that they are male or female? Is gendership part of the methodology of doing history?

Responses:

>From Ann McGrath a.mcgrath@unsw.edu.au 13 Nov 1996

Re: historiography in Australia, I am not aware of any work on the issue of self-consciously female or male writing, though it could provide an excellent study. 'Feminist historiography' describes a field which is usually understood to be written by women, but which can include male authors. The issue relates to the wider issue of self-revelation and exposing the author as part of the writing style, something rarely overtly done or discussed in our history writing. Greg Dening's Performances (Melbourne U Press & Chicago U Press) raises some of these issues in an exciting and inspiring fashion.

As one of the 4 authors of the first feminist general history of Australia, which was a consciously female-centered work, starting with the story of a birth, we were pronouncing our gender explicitly. Or is it more subtle indications that are of interest? Anyway, this book was by P. Grimshaw, M. Lake, A. McGrath, M. Quartly Creating a Nation (Penguin, Melbourne,1994). another history, the Oxford History of Australia is a multi-volume set, with volumes by male and female authors, which would provide interesting comparisons.

>From Tiffany Wayne tkwayne@cats.ucsc.edu 13 Nov 1996

I find this line of questioning very problematic. What is it that your friend is trying to get at? Perhaps literary theory (especially French feminist theory) is where you want to look. For myself, I find theories of :writing the body" very essentialist. As far as gender is concerned (as opposed to sex), I suppose that there have been certain topics considered "appropriate" for women to study historically but I don't think women limited themselves puposefully.

As for modern day historians, I would say that "gendership" is definitely not a part of historical methodology, per se. The furthest I can stretch is to think that some historians might present themselves as sympathetic to the group they study (whether women, laborers, racial-ethnic minorities)--an "insider's" perspective. But that is highly problematic and limiting as well! Certainly I don't think academic writing is the same situation as writing fiction or writing under pseudonyms, so that the sex of the author must be "decoded." I'm not sure where else to go with this. Someone else please enlighten me!

>From William B. Turner drturner@mindspring.com 15 Nov 1996

I don't think that the issue of gendership need be conflated with writing the body, nor do we need to think of it in terms of an explicit element of historical method. Indeed, overtly gendered writing is something that many historians might well deliberately avoid. But surely we have learned from many sources in the past few years that authors do not exert reliable control over their texts. Do the gendered meanings of texts necessarily have to be linked to the gender or the sex of the author? Isn't an important element of the feminist critique of standard western historiography precisely that, not only subject matter, but the very approach to writing history itself reflects masculinist assumptions? For example, Joan Scott's "Experience" gets to this point from an explicitly, but not exclusively, feminist perspective.

Also, what about such issues as whom one includes in acknowledgments? As a feminist scholar of feminist theory, I decided that consistency with my feminist commitments required me to write a long, detailed acknowledgments for my dissertation, and I hope to do the same when that project becomes a book. The isolated scholar who thanks only a few librarians, the "secretary" who "faithfully typed numerous drafts," and his proofreading wife at the beginning of his magisterial tome reveals highly gendered assumptions about the character of scholarly work. I think that Professor Wayne's criticisms of this concept rely on too great a focus on the individual authors, and not enough on the cultural context in which those authors write--a highly gendered context, whether we like it or not.

>From Tiffany Wayne tkwayne@cats.ucsc.edu 15 Nov 1996

In response to William Turner: I completely agree with the points you made regarding the gendered nature and assumptions of the scholarly enterprise as well as the gendered meanings of texts. Thank you for your insights, and it seems to me you've redirected the discussion toward a more fruitful line of questioning.

However, I was responding directly to the query posed which defined "gendership" as the "conscious or unconscious conveyance of the WRITER'S SEX through the text." That's why my response also questioned this focus on individual authors. Hope this clarifies...

>From William B. Turner drturner@mindspring.com 18 Nov 1996

Yes, I see that Tiffany Wayne is quite right--the original posting, which I clearly failed to read with sufficient care, refers to "the writer's sex" both from the perspective of the writer conveying and the reader perceiving. It does seem an odd choice, the more I think about it, although a productive confusion, leading to the question: does the combination of sex and textuality produce anything but gender? If so, what? If not, why refer to "sex" in that most textualized of relationships, the one between writer and reader? One approach might be to ask Professor Haswell, the English professor on whose behalf the original posting came to this list. But apart from Professor Haswell's authorial intentions, the question itself remains interesting.

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