"Gendering" History Discussion August 1996

Editor's Note: Perhaps the following will begin a gender discussion on the "gendering" of history.

...HABSBURGer Claire A. Nolte (cnolte@manhattan.edu) is the author of the article "Every Czech a Sokol!": Feminism

and Nationalism in the Czech Sokol Movement," which appeared in volume 24 (1993) of the Austrian History Yearbook. She sends us this commentary on women's history and gender studies. KL

29 August 1996

Sauer, Edith. "Women's History in Austria: A Critical Assessment," Austrian History Yearbook, Volume 26 (1996): 261-287. A review article.

"Gendering the History Survey Course: Three Views," in Perspectives: American Historical Association Newsletter, Vol. 34, No. 5 (May/June 1996), comprising Kathi L. Kern, "To Feel As Part of History: Rethinking the U.S. History Survey," (7-8); Tracey Rizzo, "Written about the Body: Gendering the Western Civilization Survey," (9-10); Judith P. Zinsser, "And Now for Something Completely Different: Gendering the World History Survey," (11-12); and Peter N. Stearns, "Comment on Gendering the Survey Forum," (13).

As the articles cited above indicate, the challenge of gender studies has come to the field of history. in their attempt to assess the impact of this trend on teaching and research, the authors do not doubt the correctness, political and otherwise, of the new approaches.

Edith Sauer's informative and detailed analysis of the state of research into women's history in Austria contains much valuable documentation but is confusing in places, especially when terms such as "women's history," "gender history," and "feminist history," are used interchangeably. As the older, interdisciplinary "women's studies" has branched out into specialized fields, it has become necessary to define the relationship between gender studies and the traditional disciplines. The author believes that, in the area of history, the traditional hierarchy of events that created categories such as "general" history or "microhistory" are inadequate for women's and gender historians, for whom gender relations are always "substantial." For this reason, gender historians largely reject traditional branches of history because "of past disappointments and outrage, of understanding silence and distortion, and of rejecting a history whose hierarchy of values left no place for women or for reflections on the role of gender as a social category." (267)

Authors of "general history," described as "largely blind to the power of gender" (261), come in for special scorn. She argues that it would be futile for women's and gender historians to attempt to rewrite general history, since 'General' history will continue to exclude women (and not just women.)" (263). Social history appears a more promising field, with its emphasis on family and private life and its close connection with the anthropological approaches that have inspired much of the "gender-based" movement. Ultimately, however, the author believes that feminist historical research must distance itself from all traditional approaches because:

                A traditional history of events cannot be the goal of

                women's and gender history, even if it were to take

                account of women...Making women visible in history, as

                well as analyzing gender relations and structures based

                on gender, requires a critical and exact eye; it

                engenders an interest in detail as a medium of

                reconstruction and clarity, in the 'peripheral' history

                of one's own culture, and in the deconstruction and

                comparison. (267)

The second part of the article moves beyond theory to examine actual research in the field. Despite the call for gender-based studies, most of the work in the field has dealt with quite traditional topics, especially institutional and political history in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. (The author understands "Austria" to include only the German-speaking populations. There are no references to women's history from other national groups in the empire.) The author lists five categories of research, some seemingly selected at random. She states that the category entitles "Women's Movements" is the most popular subject for research, while the topics "Work" and "Education" still have many areas to be explored. The catchall topic "Sexuality, Forms of Cohabitation, Exclusion, and Criminality," while most popular with feminist theorists, has yielded few results in terms of actual research. (Research on "criminality" appears only in regard to witch trials.) The last topic, "National Socialism, Resistance, and What Followed" lists several interesting new studies from oral history research.

The articles on teaching that appeared in the AHA newsletter, Perspectives, echo many of the premises of Sauer's article, including its impatience with older forms of history. Kathi Kern argues for the creation of a new "feminist pedagogy" to replace the discredited "narrative" which, she argues, makes up the American history survey course.(8) As an example, she shows how to splinter "the unitary view of Reconstruction that many students had inherited from popular culture" in order to get students to confront...the analytical challenge of competing historical narratives." (8) (Many "traditional" historians will counter that they also attempt to teach the complexity of historical phenomena in survey courses.) Tracey Rizzo, in her piece on restructuring the European history survey course, echoes the call for a new pedagogy, declaring that "integrating women into the Western civilization survey is not the same as gendering it." (9) She suggests using debates, role playing, and small group discussions as pedagogical tools. Following this theme, Judith Zinsser declares in her discussion of the world history survey that a radical new approach is necessary in order to honor both men and women in history:

             I do not believe that the standard narrative organization

              for world, European, or U.S. history makes that

             possible...in order to gender the survey one must

             rethink history in terms of actions, interactions, and

             reactions, by women and men, between women and men, by

             women, and by men. (11)

She gives examples of techniques she uses to achieve her goals, including using terms such as "peasant men and women" in place of "peasants," and the grammatically-suspect "men and women slave owners" in place of "slave owners." All three authors agree that in order to "gender" the surveys, inclusivity, or in Kathi Kern's words, the "tyranny of coverage," must be abandoned in survey courses. Judith Zissner notes: "I gave up the idea that there is a fixed body of information to be covered. I decided that vivid encounters with a few cultures were more important than learning names and dates from many cultures."(12)

Peter N. Stearns, in generally laudatory comments on these presentations, nonetheless warns that "...it is clear that gender issues are much more pressing, much more contested, at some points than at others." (13) Clearly, we are living through one of those "contested" times and it remains to be seen whether, as Edith Sauer concludes, "[a] new consciousness has engendered a new history" (287), or whether gender history will prove to be one of the passing historical styles, like cliometrics or psychohistory, that have occasionally adorned Clio's body.


>From Angus Johnston angusj@panix.com 30 August 1996

Nolte's piece provided a useful general description of the four articles and raised some important points, but I think she may have given short shrift to Kathi Kern's Perspectives piece on the American survey.

As a grad student left to my own devices in teaching the first half of the US survey, I found that Kern's discussion of her changing strategies in devising a gendered (and "raced" and "classed") approach to the material both stimulated me to new approaches and reflected my own experiences with students' response to an inclusive survey. Kern argues, for instance, that when a gendered, multicultural approach to US history is presented as a fait accompli in the classroom (as, in effect, a new narrative) many students will rebel, and rightly so:

Students in the intro class? may know very little history," she says, but they do believe that "they know what history is and what it is not....I had provided my students with an alternative narrative of the American past without first convincing them that the traditional narrative was problematic, or for that matter, that it was a narrative."

Kern's response was to encourage the students themselves to wrestle with the competing perspectives and analyses, to let them see first hand that every narrative must be constructed, and is thus subject to critique. Through this approach, she gendered the survey not just through the presentation of traditional women's history topics, but also implicitly in every discussion through the use of gender as an analytical lens and the bringing of the perspectives of female historical actors into play.

Although Kern describes the use of historical simulations and similar devices, I think her basic prescription is no more complex (or revolutionary) that the substitution of discussion for lecture---"teaching the conflicts," as Gerald Graff calls it, getting student involved in the debates that excite us as historians.

Teaching history by discussion may not be a new idea, but Kern makes a compelling case for the argument that it is nowhere more called for than in a classroom where history is "multiethnic, multiracial and multivocal." I would add that such an approach, in bringing out and encouraging students voices, represents an opportunity to create a feminist and multicultural learning environment as well.

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