On Engendering History

Margaret D. Jacobs, April 1998

To the Editor:

As a historian who researches, writes, and teaches about "gender" and "women" (as well as race, sex, and a good deal more) in American history, I feel compelled to respond to Norman B. Ferris's recent letter to Perspectives (January, 1998, p. 48). Mr. Ferris would feel particular sympathy for some of my undergraduate students, whom I not only subject to my "narrowly focused" lectures several days a week, but whom I also asked to write a response to his letter. What follows are their major points as well as my additional musings.

First, many of my students in "Women's History in America" since 1848 pointed out that Mr. Ferris seems to believe that the only reason some junior historians are studying "gender" and "women" is because "it is a hot topic." Sandra Littletree agrees that it is indeed unfortunate if historians are giving papers on "gender" and "women" simply to be trendy. According to Littletree, historians "should put their energy into researching [the topic of gender and women] because of a profound interest in it, not because it is the 'thing' to do." Indeed, my own interest in the subject of women's history emerged not from a desire to be fashionable or marketable, but from a passionate curiosity. My experiences in graduate school and at conferences suggest a similar motive on the part of other historians who pursue these topics.

Second, many of my students took issue with the assumptions of Mr. Ferris that conference papers, articles, and books that deal with gender presumably have nothing "significant to say" and are "narrowly focused." Erika Sallee writes, "I take offense at the thought of issues such as 'gender' and 'women' being considered 'narrowly focused.' Until recently, such issues had been largely ignored.ŠWe are left with half of history virtually untold; this hardly seems 'narrowly focused' to me." Vickie Jost seemed to agree. "The classes on gender studies in history that I have been takingŠdo not seem to be narrowly focused to me," she writes. "Since Professor Ferris is male and retired, I doubt that he has attended any classes on gender studies, so how could he form a valid opinion?"

As for Mr. Ferris's assumptions that historians who are interested in gender and women do not engage in the "relentless exhausting pursuit of numerous archival and manuscript sources to sustain momentous new knowledge or theories about history," my students had several observations. Many students remarked that we may not be able to find sources that yield a complete view of women in history in the traditional sources found in archives. As Yvette Hinojosa put it, "most 'archival and manuscript sources' are narrowly focused on the story of white males." Women's historians must be imaginative, innovative, and enterprising to track down sources that can give us a fuller, richer picture of history. For example, Nell Irvin Painter could not simply go to a neat and orderly set of first-person letters and diaries to accomplish her brilliant reconstruction of the life of Sojourner Truth.

Other students, like students everywhere, questioned the value of reading through thousands of pages of manuscript that hundreds of other historians had already mined thoroughly. "If Professor Ferris desires to dig through archival sources, already sifted through numerous times by past historians, he is welcome to it," writes Sallee. "Women's history is new and challenging to me." Larry Kohut asks, "What is momentous new knowledge? Is it based on the thickness of the book, or a ponderous pile of archival and manuscript sources?ŠThirty pages of inspiring and life changing research that raises more questions than answers, is more momentous than 400 pages of historical drudgery that represents the historian's bloated ego and puts the reader to sleep."

What my students may not realize is that historians of gender and women often rely on those same "ponderous" manuscripts but approach them with new questions and fresh perspectives. I find that some of the most "momentous new knowledge" about American history is to be found in the pages of books that deal with gender and women. The topic of colonial Jamestown has been incredibly enriched by Kathleen Brown's enterprising Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs, a book that shows, among other things, the central role of gender in the institutionalization of slavery. The study of the welfare state in America has also been broadened and deepened because Linda Gordon and other historians have brought a fresh analysis--centered around gender and women--to this subject.

Finally, some students tried to put Mr. Ferris's letter into a larger historical context. "The field of history evolves from one school of thought to another," Kohut writes. "Sadly thisŠoften leaves the less progressive species of 'historicanthropolopieos' to become extinct. These creaturesŠdo not walk into the archival tar pits quietly. Therefore, we can hear Ferris and his fellow colleagues bellowing and urging the next generation of 'historicasocialopious' to come back to the other sideŠ.The new generation will ignore them and will create a new world of historical study and research. At least until the next generation." Like Kohut, Lou Ann Krienke "could not help but imagine [Mr. Ferris], heels firmly entrenched in the ground, rope about his waist attempting to pull him into today, while he insists on staying exactly where he is."

In my mind, there is no reason to pronounce one generation of historians or their work "extinct," however. Krienke summed up my own view: "no one is forgetting ['traditional' history]; they are simply expanding historical horizons to admit the women who played such an important part inŠhistory."

Although I disagree with Mr. Ferris's view regarding the supposed "insignificance" of gender and women in history, I must thank him for contributing a letter that generated a provocative and productive discussion in my class.

—Margaret D. Jacobs and the students of History 352 (spring 1998), New Mexico State University.