U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Testing a New Society for an Old Problem


The following is a guest post from Mary Ellen Lennon, a new member of S-USIH and a chair and commentator for the 2011 conference.

The email heralded the auspicious news: the reception of my 40.00 check makes me an official dues-paying (if not card carrying) member of the Society for U.S. Intellectual History. Coupled with a welcoming email from Delta confirming my flight to NYC, it looks like I am just one unpacked bag away from throwing myself into your community of scholars. But I find myself pausing—a pair of socks in hand—in the wake of the 42 message string commenting on the “Where are all the women?” post. As someone deeply interested in issues of gender equality, I am discouraged by the string of comments. It wasn’t a conversation; it was a bunch of comments hastily splattered on the wall. I know a blog isn’t a polished academic paper. Someone once described it as “rigorous chatting with friends at a bar when you grab a sleeve and cry, ‘Hey, I have this thought that is not fully coherent yet…can I lay it on you?’ and then two hours of animated conversation later you finally realize what you really want to say.” But if this counts as “rigorous chatting with friends at a bar,” I would have left for the dance floor hours ago.

I am struggling with the blog string because important issues have been raised with grave implications, yet 42 messages later, there are no conclusions or, as I will argue here, no clear instructive questions that could lead to thoughtful conclusions. Issues of gender and diversity demand clearly articulated questions and rigorous analysis. This is not some patriarchal, antiquated or “male-discourse”-driven bar positioned to keep “feminine-minded” academics out of the conversation. Clear questions followed by focused conversation demand accountability with a rigor that inexact expressions of feelings (unaccompanied by evidence or even the suggestion that evidence is needed) do not. Let me be clear: questions concerning gender representation and diversity of content are essential to the health and legitimacy of this Society. As a new member who studies African American and gender history and teaches intellectual history surveys, I am invested in hearing an accounting of the strengths and weaknesses of this group that I have just joined. Serious accusations have been leveled: does the Society prove unwelcoming to women? Does the Society ignore gender analysis in its blog and in the content of its annual meeting? These are specific questions that are clearly welcomed by the organizers. But the “mushiness” of the blog string undermines this investigation before it has even begun. This is why I feel compelled to voice my criticism of the blog string: I am arguing that this moment provides a test of whether S-USIH can carry out academic discussions regarding gender. I don’t want the Society of the blog to fail this test. It is too important.

I am arguing that the blog string’s continual reference to “feelings,” “unproven senses of things” and continual retractions of anything that remotely sounds like a clear and focused critique prevents the kind of valuable self-reflection and true collaborative conversation that furthers the academic, political and personal project of equality. In the original post and in many of the replies and “re-explanations” of “what I meant” there are too many important questions asked, yet never addressed; too many accusations veiled by self-effacing apologies, yet never honestly argued; too many important words like “gender,” “masculine,” “feminist,” “essentialism,” and yep, “argument” and “collaboration” that are carelessly tossed about without reference to the many intellectual conversations that precede this blog and could, I argue, provide coherent lifebuoys of discrete, specific questions in this stormy sea of inchoate emotion. A “feeling” is a legitimate place to begin academic inquiry but it is not enough. Until we can articulate what is amiss, we can’t act to fix it.

Before I can even think about the blog string, then, I need to understand what the original blogger is asking. She does not feel she belongs in this group and this blog entry asks why. She argues that her feeling is tied to her gender and her subject of study (African American intellectual history.) Therefore this is a critique (yes it is, despite apologies, self-doubt and compliments to the organizers.) No apologies needed! A critique is a good thing for the self-assessment of an organization but it is useless without a careful measuring of evidence. Yet, starting with this original post and continuing throughout the string of comments, I could not find a careful consideration of whether any of these accusations of gender bias and rejection of diversity are true or not.

For example, in paragraph 5 Lauren Kientz Anderson argues “my people are not your people.” Reading this, especially as a fellow scholar of African American history, I am concerned. But she drops the point immediately. Is she asserting that fellow S-USIH readers and/or the Society’s organizers dismiss or discourage scholars who study women and issues of gender and African American history? If Anderson has raised something worthy of an investigation, let’s hear how we should go about investigating it. I know that there was a plenary session on African American history in last year’s conference and this year there seems to be a focus on Women and Intellectual History, but is there a larger lack of diversity in the content of the blog? This is a hugely important accusation that must be asked and answered with rigor. Is the subject matter of the blog not “diverse enough”? Or is there a categorical rejection of race and gender as a category of analysis in the academic work of the organizers? Say it…and I will engage and evaluate.

It seems to be said…sort of: “I have an unproven sense that intellectual history can be the bastion for men who reject gender and race analysis.” Let’s tackle this. But let’s be specific. No matter how “nice” the organizers may be, this is an important critique that deserves a thoughtful evaluation. To say this without a careful evaluation of the conference panels and the blog posts ends the conversation before it has begun; vague comments paralyze. The paragraph’s last sentence warning that S-USIH members might turn (or have already turned) “insular and angry” (without a careful accounting) is simply irresponsible. Did Anderson mean to suggest that the Society, its officers and its members are turning insular and angry? No one in the blog stream countered this concern; yet as I sit here contemplating this new organization I have joined, I wonder if is this an accurate description? How do we investigate if her instincts accurately describe the blog, the Society and the field of intellectual history? Let me be clear: to reject gender and race analysis in the study of intellectual history would be impoverished work indeed. Yet, this posting and the blog stream that follows never tries to even suggest concrete ways to evaluate if this “sense” about the disposition of the Society and the field is true. So, without any critical examination offered, I am simply left looking at the published program for November where I find myself excited about the diversity of panels featured, including the work of very talented female scholars I am eager to hear.

What is my argument here? By the blog stream and the dichotomy of “styles” set up by the original post, I can imagine many of you are defining me as clearly “combative,” or as a woman “comfortable” with a so-called “masculine” discussion style. But I reject this. Academic discourse—civil conversation where thesis-driven arguments and evidence are required—serves the feminist agenda…in addition, I would argue, to aiding in the realization of a more democratic society. Questions of representation and gender analysis are extremely important. I take them seriously. The ultimate goal should be to strengthen the Society, its blog and its conference. But what I am arguing is that the informal style of blog writing can actually serve to damper diverse collaboration and dialogue. A retreat to feelings and “unproven” senses actually makes the conversation uninviting to others who also really care about these issues. By the sheer number of polite “thank you”s it is clear that respecting everyone’s feelings is of utmost importance to all. But I wanted to join the Society because of the excellent academic work of many of the organizers, the excellence of so many of the papers at the annual meeting and because I not only saw the blog as open and inviting to all but rigorous in its analysis of the world in which we live. If its not, let’s fix it. But let’s be clear on what is broken.

Let me end on a question: How could this conversational blog string have gone differently? I would suggest sticking with specific questions and contemplating ways to evaluate our concerns. Such specific questions popped up in the string: Andrew Hartman asked why intellectual history attracts more men and women and Michelle Moravec offered a working hypothesis about structural elements of blog community membership that could be explored further. What is to be done? can be asked after an evaluation of what was originally queried by David Watt: “I am simply trying to figure out the situation in which we find ourselves.” Finally, I would sincerely suggest that there be a more careful discussion about words and phrases like: “gendered ways of speaking,” “essentialism,” “innate” tendencies, and “hyper-rational” “masculine” academics. In another community to which I belong, a thoughtful discussion (yes, with intellectually stimulating disagreements) occurred over several recent books on “brain organization theories” and the science of sex differences. Such a conversation I think could help us more thoughtfully explore the suggestion that female academics might write, talk and are therefore received differently than men.

14 Thoughts on this Post

  1. You are right. I did make vague accusations without evidence and that was irresponsible. I apologize for this and will erase the original blog post if there are no objections.

    I wanted to avoid being too specific and so descend to name-calling or something like that, but I see now that the reverse is in fact worse because it casts the net blame too wide.

    Let me try to be concrete.

    I have had conversations in which men have worried about the marginalization of intellectual history, which to me feels (sorry, that’s the word that comes) like pleas of reverse discrimination.

    I watch the stats on the blog. If famous (white) men are mentioned, the stats fly up. When I write about black women, there are few comments and few visits. But this is also true of other posts. The only woman I can remember being mentioned on the blog, that I didn’t write about, is a single post on Susan Sontag (which does periodically get hits). There have been posts about a few men of color that I didn’t write, but not many. That is because these are not in the research interests of our main blog writers, not because they don’t necessarily care about them.

    I and a few other members on S-USIH are trying to increase the diversity of the membership of the society and the blog. We had a long meeting just today to brainstorm ideas, one being to share blog posts with particular people and groups if they would be of interest. But there needs to be a diversity of posts to point them towards. This is something we’re talking about–perhaps guests posts like yours. I hope you will post again. The plenary last year on African American history was my idea. I am very glad to see the plenary on US Women’s Intellectual History. I have presented on African American history at every USIH conference. One year the only audience member was my advisor. The other years haven’t been much better. That is why I say “my people are not your people”–but that happens to other people just as much at other conferences. What can I say about it other than how it makes me feel?

  2. Lauren, pretending it never happened doesn’t help anything. And given that this is the internet, it won’t actually be erased anyway.

    I think the only way to satisfy your concerns is to have more people posting about more stuff here. As the society matures, that should happen. As it matures, too, the blog may not remain its exclusive voice. That likely also will broaden the reach and scope of the society and bring in more people.

    On one level there’s a disconnect between the blog and the conference. The blog is continuous but has a circumscribed ambit. The conference is much more expansive, but only meets for two days of the year. Which one represents the society? (Or should I say, which one is SUSIH and which one is sushi?) They both do, but in different ways, and they give different answers to the issues here.

    There are plenty of ways to be unrepresentative; gender’s but one. The first two conferences, there was barely anything before 1900. That’s a lot of American history to leave out. But that wasn’t by design, that was simply where the society was then (and it wasn’t even a society!). What happens going forward will depend mostly on what the executive board decides about what the blog and society should be. Will the blog become something like Crooked Timber, where a lot of people post? (I don’t follow academic blogs, so I don’t have more examples.) Will the society have other outlets? What will the publications committee publish? Clearly, there’s more to be done for US Intellectual History to live up to its name. But whoever wants something done must take part, lest they rue what happens when they don’t.

  3. Before I get into my comment, I’d like to take a minute to welcome Mary Ellen to the society and the blog.

    I am glad that she raised the points that she did, as I saw the discussion much the same way. I did not see it as an academic space in which conversation, though informal, was marked by a commitment to specificity, evidence and rigor. Lauren’s concluding remark that she can only talk about how things make her feel, quite frankly, suggests that she still does not see Mary Ellen’s point. There are many other things that she, and all of us, can talk about: in particular, evidence and argument.

    And Lauren’s comment that a concern for the academic and professional status of intellectual history feels to her like reverse discrimination, is, quite frankly, dumbfounding. We are in the Society FOR U.S. Intellectual History. Why would one of its bloggers and founding members not be in favor of the very thing it exists to promote?

    This claim appears to reflect an assumption that intellectual history is, by its very nature, dead white male history. This is one of the presumptions that the group was originally founded to dispel! Maybe Lauren thinks that we are hypocrites who only give that goal lip service. Or maybe she thinks that, despite our best efforts, U.S. intellectual history is a tough sell for people who study the subjects she mentions, or that the very nature of the subject tends to exclude them. It is literally impossible to figure out what point she is actually trying to make. This was, I believe, Mary Ellen’s initial observation.

    The idea that “my people are not your people” should be true for anyone who does academic work. I’m not sure I’ve seen prominent figures from the book I’m working on–people like Stephen J. Field, Henry Wallace, or Howard Jarvis–ever mentioned on the blog. (And I never know who any of Ben’s Straussians are.) When I used to write here more frequently, my own posts got very few comments, and I cannot recall a single one that ever generated any sort of a conversation. But I don’t think that makes me or the things that I study unfairly marginalized.

    As a result of the interests of the writers and readers, the blog has developed its own identity, which veers toward contemporary politics and social thought and, I would say, midcentury thinkers. Andrew has made it a place to go when thinking about the culture wars, and Ray has written a lot about religion. I care about some of those things more than others. If it turned out (and I am making this up) that Andrew’s posts got more hits or attention than Ray’s, would we call the blog anti-religion? I wouldn’t think so.

    For the sake of argument, let us assume that Lauren is right, and that the blog readers and writers are not as interested in African-American or women’s intellectual history as they are in other forms of U.S. intellectual history. I don’t think that this, by itself, is necessarily all that interesting or important.

    That (alleged, hypothetical) observation might *become* important if we wanted to put it in some other frame. If, for example, we were committed to having the blog represent all of the major disciplines with U.S. intellectual history, then this evidence would suggest that we’re not doing it. If, in another example, it were alleged that the blog gave women or African Americans the impression that they, qua women and black people, were not welcome in the society, that would be something that no one would want. But there is a big difference between saying that a certain subject doesn’t capture the readers’ or writers’ interests, and that the people who study that subject are not welcome. The second one is clearly a problem; the first one, I suspect, would raise a debate as to whether it is a problem or not. But I have not heard anyone present any evidence at all that it is the second one that is being talked about.

    So what is being talked about?

  4. Lauren, please don’t delete the post. It’s already going to live forever in Google, so we might as well keep the conversation visible and available to those who might wish to refer to it in subsequent discussions. The post and the ensuing discussion(s) may turn out to be an important “moment” in the growth of the S-USIH. It doesn’t make good historical sense to erase it.

    If this were a private blog, or a personal blog, I could see deleting the post. I erase posts all the time on my blog — most often, it’s posts that, once they’re a few weeks old, read more like cryptic and unremarkable diary entries than the sort of informal personal essays for which I began the blog in the first place.

    But every once in a while, when I take down a post, it’s because I really shouldn’t have put it up there to begin with. It’s not that I can’t or won’t discuss my “subject position” on my blog. But writing on the internet means writing to and for not just strangers, but also colleagues, co-workers, co-habitants, family members and friends — not to mention future employers. I try not to say anything online that would unnecessarily injure or offend any of these people. Instead, the blog is a place for me to practice personable professionalism.

    Every once in a while, you’ve got to say what you’ve got to say (viz. my post on David Blight’s boxer shorts.) But I usually find that I can say what I’ve got to say in a way that would be reasonably appropriate in a casual conversational setting with colleagues who are by and large following the conventions of academic discourse, even if the forum is somewhat informal.

    This approach to blogging doesn’t make me a humorless or heartless bore with no personality — there are other perfectly good explanations to account for that.

  5. [And – crap – half my copy/paste got lost on my comment, which was not intended to end on a personal note, for pity’s sake.]

    I think some of the points raised by Mary Ellen here [and now by Varad and Mike, I see] about the unsubstantiated claims and the implicit assumptions in the blog post and in the comments need to be discussed, and they need to be discussed in a way that — as Tim rightly pointed out in response to one of my comments — adheres to the basic “language rules” of cordial but critical academic discourse. I think this generally means reading carefully, using terms with some precision, making logical arguments on the basis of evidence, not drifting into ad hominem attacks, and so forth. In the specific case of this blog/topic, I think it means not resorting to appeals personal experience / feelings / impressions in lieu of other evidence.

    I suppose this is me calling for a “masculine style” of argumentation. But, as I see it, I am really just calling for something like informal, casual, friendly, BUT recognizably academic discourse.

  6. It hasn’t so far felt reasonable for me to participate in this conversation. I do not self-identify as a US intellectual historian. My training, my formation, and the main lines of my research are all in European intellectual history. Cards on the table. Other than my own reading, this blog is perhaps my only sustained engagement with the field of US intellectual history, whatever that turns out to mean. But I am interested in these things, and have now read a certain amount, however idiosyncratically and incompletely.

    That said, I am, like Mary, a newly due-paying member of the society for US intellectual history. So, a few observations.

    Mike: It seems to me that there is not really a parallel to make here between religion and race, in terms of subject-matter. You write,

    “For the sake of argument, let us assume that Lauren is right, and that the blog readers and writers are not as interested in African-American or women’s intellectual history as they are in other forms of U.S. intellectual history. I don’t think that this, by itself, is necessarily all that interesting or important.”

    Isn’t this to reproduce within an academic space longstanding arguments about markets and social domination? We just happen not to be interested in such-and-such a topic (and there are so many topics we happen not to be interested in!). But it just happens that these people we aren’t interested in are among the groups most systematically deprived of civil rights and cultural status in US history. And, I should say, not just Mike, also Varad—one needn’t be a gender essentialist to believe that it is problematic to assert that sharp under-representation of one gender is, in most situations, a more significant kind of under-representation than others. Gender is *not* “but one” kind of under-representation. Or at least there is a very strong case to be made there.

    Mike goes on,

    “That (alleged, hypothetical) observation might *become* important if we wanted to put it in some other frame. If, for example, we were committed to having the blog represent all of the major disciplines with U.S. intellectual history, then this evidence would suggest that we’re not doing it. If, in another example, it were alleged that the blog gave women or African Americans the impression that they, qua women and black people, were not welcome in the society, that would be something that no one would want. But there is a big difference between saying that a certain subject doesn’t capture the readers’ or writers’ interests, and that the people who study that subject are not welcome. The second one is clearly a problem; the first one, I suspect, would raise a debate as to whether it is a problem or not. But I have not heard anyone present any evidence at all that it is the second one that is being talked about.”

    So, two things here. On the one hand the idea that this blog was never supposed to be representative, and so can hardly be faulted for not being. Sure, but the argument I make above applies. Second, I agree that there is, in principle, a big difference between not being especially interested in the history of black women (since that’s at least one of the things we’re talking about here), and in discouraging people who talk about black women from doing so. But I think in practice there’s much less of a difference, or anyway it can be very difficult for the person talking to an empty room to tell the difference. Maybe I’ve only really got one point here, and that’s the point.

  7. These are complicated and difficult issues—echoes everywhere and everyone speaking for other people. And I understand that this very society has taken concrete steps to expand traditional, handed-down, definitions of intellectual history. This discussion is exactly why it’s brave and good and dangerous to attempt to constitute such a society at all.

    For me, as a relative outsider, it would be helpful to have some context, both intellectual and professional-disciplinary (that is, more questions like the ones Mary asked). As I said, I am mostly a Europeanist. In my own field, there are serious problems, in my view, with the disciplinary and professional re-enforcement of boundaries that, in principle, everyone wants to cross. This is almost never something that one person does intentionally to another person. It’s about institutional structures and how they are reproduced. This is the politics of knowledge that is maybe familiar from discussions about the globalization of academia, but it takes all kinds of forms. My question, and this really is a question, is then this: to what degree, in fact, are African-American intellectual history and US intellectual history separate disciplines? Are the disciplinary structures too loose on either side for one to say?

    To ask this is to bracket the question of gender and comm studies and other things that have been discussed here, but I think a cold-light-of-rationality type of answer to that question would, for me, be clarifying about the status of some of these other questions. Does anyone here believe there is a fact of the matter about this? If there is, I’d like to hear about it, I think it should frame this whole conversation. If there isn’t, then, it seems to me, this is exactly where a fact of the matter is getting made, and in a strong sense what matters is not intentions or, yet, facts—or to put it differently, although it clouds things, it is, despite what Mary has suggested, very important to talk about feelings and impressions.

  8. I need to get back to grading, but for the moment let me chime in and agree: please don’t erase the post!

    First, it was a valuable contribution.

    Second, as noted upthread, you really can’t totally erase posts on the internet.

    Finally, I personally feel that there’s something unethical about erasing blog posts that have been up for any length of time. We don’t have a policy against doing so on this blog. But I’d strongly be in favor of adopting one for the future if my fellow bloggers agree.

  9. Eric writes: “Isn’t this to reproduce within an academic space longstanding arguments about markets and social domination? We just happen not to be interested in such-and-such a topic (and there are so many topics we happen not to be interested in!). But it just happens that these people we aren’t interested in are among the groups most systematically deprived of civil rights and cultural status in US history.”

    There might be more to your point if that’s all the writers on the blog weren’t interested in, but if you look, it turns out that they’re “uninterested” in most of American intellectual history if you consider it in total. None of the bloggers focuses on the American Revolution or the Early Republic. Why? Because they all do 20th-century stuff. No one here writes much about science, which is surely a valid subject for intellectual history. I could multiply examples of what doesn’t get covered here, but all that would do is reinforce the point that the bloggers write about what they’re interested in, and what they’re interested in more or less is the stuff that they research. Which is exactly what Lauren does! You seem to imply that it’s somehow suspect to be uninterested in certain things, which is a dubious claim. Mike certainly has the better of the argument here.

    Further: “And, I should say, not just Mike, also Varad—one needn’t be a gender essentialist to believe that it is problematic to assert that sharp under-representation of one gender is, in most situations, a more significant kind of under-representation than others. Gender is *not* “but one” kind of under-representation. Or at least there is a very strong case to be made there.”

    Maybe. But this is the US Intellectual History blog, and given that context, probably there are kinds of underrepresentation that are more important than gender. Remember, we’re talking about something whose evidentiary base is what five people write about on a blog. And the whole discussion was started by someone musing about who was and was not posting on a Facebook page. Small sample sizes like that inevitably lead to distortions. Generalizations from such a modest data set are likely to go astray. Especially when the other public face of the society, the conference, gives another view.

    On the other hand: “My question, and this really is a question, is then this: to what degree, in fact, are African-American intellectual history and US intellectual history separate disciplines? Are the disciplinary structures too loose on either side for one to say?”

    That may well be *the* question here, at least the one Lauren is trying to ask. I have no idea what the answer is, I am not really a US intellectual historian either. But that one seems like one that’s well worth addressing, since it might actually get us somewhere.

  10. “The idea that ‘my people are not your people’ should be true for anyone who does academic work. I’m not sure I’ve seen prominent figures from the book I’m working on–people like Stephen J. Field, Henry Wallace, or Howard Jarvis–ever mentioned on the blog. (And I never know who any of Ben’s Straussians are.) When I used to write here more frequently, my own posts got very few comments, and I cannot recall a single one that ever generated any sort of a conversation. But I don’t think that makes me or the things that I study unfairly marginalized.”

    What Mike said, in the above and in his post as a whole.

  11. Dear Colleagues:

    I very much welcome this post by Mary Ellen Lennon. She asks four related questions that I think we might try to consider:

    1. Does the Society prove unwelcoming to women?
    I hope not. We have certainly made efforts to broaden the appeal of the Society to women and, as a result of these sustained efforts, the number of women attending the conference has increased dramatically in the last three years. As the 2012 conference chair, I hope that we can continue that trend and reach an absolute parity of participation at the 2012 conference. If the trajectory from the past three years continues, we might.

    2. Does the Society ignore gender analysis in its blog and in the content of its annual meeting?
    I think the Society self-evidently does not ignore gender analysis (or racial analysis) at its annual meeting. The plenary sessions devoted to these issues during the last two conferences are indicative of the broader attention paid to racial and gender analysis at all levels. Would I like to see attention to these subjects increase? Yes. Are they ignored? No.

    The blog is no different. Are these subjects ignored? Again, no, partly because Lauren Anderson addresses issues of race on a frequent basis. When I was on the blog, I occasionally raised issues of race. Gender, too, makes frequent appearance, as do posts specifically addressing the thought of women (even when they themselves do not discuss gender). In my recollection, we have had posts devoted to Nancy Fraser, Joan Scott, Seyla Benhabib, Hannah Arendt and others (you can google the names using the search function or just type in gender and a bunch of posts come up). Would I like to see more posts of this sort? Again, yes. Are these subjects ignored and are the organizers of the Society in any way hostile to the subjects on the blog? No.

    3. Is the subject matter of the blog not “diverse enough”?
    I’m not sure. Diverse enough according to what standard? Or diverse enough to what end? The nature of the blog is that people post about what they are working on and thinking through. Gender and race come up frequently in Andrew Hartman’s posts because they relate to his work on the culture war. Anderson’s work is obviously centered on issues of race and gender. Other contributors address the issues less because race and gender are less central to their work.

    With the formation of the Society, the purpose of the blog is changing. It is a very visible face of the Society, but it is not the Society. Anderson seems to equate the blog with the Society, which I think is a mistake, and to assume the blog’s function is as a gateway into the Society, which I also think is mistaken. The conference is the gateway into the Society. So the purpose of the blog needs to be clarified, and then the question of whether the subject matter is “diverse enough” can be addressed.

    To be continued in a next comment.

  12. 4. Or is there a categorical rejection of race and gender as a category of analysis in the academic work of the organizers?
    No, there is not. Some of us have written explicitly on race and gender (of my two published articles, one is centered on race, the other on gender). Others have not addressed these issues as forthrightly, because their focus is elsewhere and no one’s work can be about everything. But there is absolutely no categorical rejection of race and gender as categories of analysis in the academic work of the organizers or in our vision for the Society. We want to create a big tent for intellectual history. We reject the white male elitism that some have seen as a central aspect of intellectual history as it was practiced in the past. And we are working very hard to ensure that the Society achieves that goal. As Andrew Hartman said in the original facebook string, we still have work to do. But I think Lauren Anderson raised some serious accusations in a particularly irresponsible way and deserves a clear response. I hope that my comment makes clear the commitment that I see the Society has to diversifying its membership and the subjects that its members address, even as I reject many of the unhelpful charges in the original post. And I can assure everyone that the 2012 Conference will continue the Society’s commitment to a big tent for intellectual history.

  13. I posted some thoughts on the “big tent” up on Lauren’s more recent thread of that title. However, this thread seems to be the place to post a meta-observation about the way that this discourse on gender has unfolded.

    I can’t be the only person who noticed how the discourse changed once a woman entered the conversation as a guest blogger.

    Mary Ellen correctly, in my view, pointed out that there are significant weaknesses and leaps of logic in Lauren’s original post and in her style of argumentation. In doing so, she focused, as one should, not on Lauren as a person but on the language of her post itself — how its claims were presented and supported (or not), how its deployment of terms seemed confused and problematic, etc., etc. Basically, Mary Ellen wrote the kind of post that we see often here on USIH, where one author challenges another author’s ideas and argumentation.

    And after Mary Ellen wrote this post, the tenor and the rigor of the comments addressing Lauren’s argument have changed significantly, as we can see from the caliber of comments on this very thread.

    It’s almost as if having a woman stand up and say, “This is a poorly conceived and poorly presented argument” gave everyone else some kind of “cover” to speak up and strongly challenge the claims that Lauren has made in her posts and comments on them.

    So what is that all about?

    And yes, I anticipate some responses like, “Well, this was the first time I had a chance to sit down and address the issue,” or, “I have been working on my own stuff, and I would have responded in exactly the same way much earlier if I had had the time.” Yes, I get it.

    But, in all seriousness, why is it that regular bloggers/readers/commentors — myself included — have held back on any serious and systematic and direct challenges to Lauren’s assertions until a woman led the way? We took on each other’s assertions in the threads, but we were all rather careful, I think, not to come across as too “strong” in our response to Lauren.

    This phenomenon suggests to me that the blog does, in fact, suffer from a “gender problem” of some kind. What that problem is, precisely, or how it can be fixed, I can’t say. But, for me at least, a collective hesitancy to bring the same level of critical discourse to Lauren’s posts that we often bring to everyone else’s is highly problematic.

    Has anyone else noticed this, or am I once again a complete outlier?

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