U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Women and Gender in the Intellectual History Newsletter

This is a guest-post by Bill Fine, Professor Emeritus, University of Pittsburgh-Johnstown:

Recent blog discussions of women in intellectual history (here, here, and here) led me to some initial exploration toward making it a topic for historical discussion, something which so far as I am aware has not been done.

Here my aim is merely to stimulate further study by calling attention to what might be an important site for this project — the Intellectual History Newsletter, published in 24 annual issues from 1979 to 2002. [In its first six issues, it was called Newsletter of the Intellectual History Group.] In 2004 it morphed into the journal Modern Intellectual History.

The idea for the Group came out of the 1977 Wingspread conference on “The Tasks and Opportunities of American Intellectual History” organized by John Higham and Paul Conkin, which of course also produced New Directions in American Intellectual History (1979).

In the last issue of the Newsletter, editors Charles Capper and Anthony LaVopa summarized its career:

At a moment when the field was just emerging from its momentary partial eclipse by the rising tide of social history, the newsletter…served as a much-welcomed forum that has ensured intellectual history’s vitality, adaptation, and revival in a period of Western historiography notable for both its healthy pluralism and its sometimes-lamented frag-mentation. In its pages intellectual historians have argued the case for and provided examples of the history of mentalité, the social history of ideas, contextual intellectual history, the linguistic turn, cultural history, women’s intellectual history, and more.

I reviewed all 24 issues and started with something simple and straightforward, counting what I’ll call “items” — including articles, book reviews, course syllabi, conference reports, and individuals’ contributions to roundtables and symposia. Women produced 49 of the total of 246 items. [E.M. Hemming, the author of a conference report in #2, 1980, could not be identified, so was counted as male.] Over time, women became more prominent in the Newsletter: they authored only 10 items in the first 10 issues, but 30 in the last eight. Of course authorship is by no means indicative of an interest in women’s history, the role of women in intellectual history, identification as a feminist, etc.

All editors and co-editors of the Newsletter were male, but there were a few women on the editorial committee. Dorothy Ross served over the entire period, as did Joyce Appleby except for a few years in the late 1980s; Linda Kerber served in the early 1980s, as did Louise Stevenson in the later 1980s.

Women and/or women’s issues were particularly prominent in some issues:

– #15 – 1993 – 6 of 11 items authored by women in this issue, highlighted by a panel discussion on women’s intellectual history.

– #18, 1996 – 8 of 39 items in this issue, consisting mostly of a symposium on “Intellectual History in the Age of Cultural Studies.”

– #21, 1999 – women authored 3 of 11 items in this issue on “Subjectivity, Self-Culture, and the Market.” Susan Juster reviewed three books on witchcraft, all authored by women; and Mary Jo Buhle reviewed several books on the history of psychology, all authored or co-authored by women. In addition, Donald Meyer reviewed Buhle’s book, Feminism and Its Discontents: A Century of Struggle with Psychoanalysis (1998).

– #23, 2001 – 6 of 15 items in this issue on The Arts in Intellectual Life, which further explored questions raised by the growth of cultural studies.

– #24, 2002 – women authored 5 of 15 items in this issue on National and Transnational Liberalism.

Women and/in intellectual history first became an object of explicit attention in 1984 with Kathleen D. McCarthy’s article, “The Feminization of American Intellectual History,” IHN #6, 1984, 3-7. Three years later, Rosalind Rosenberg discussed “Twentieth-Century Intellectual History: Women and Gender,” IHN #9, 1987, 22-29. McCarthy reviewed books by Dolores Hayden, William Leach and Rosaline Rosenberg, which among other work has “begun to expand and refine our notions of the breadth, variety, and sophistication of the nation’s intellectual life,” as feminists are seen not merely “advancing the claims of their specific constituency, but as individuals who have helped to shape the larger contours of intellectual inquiry and social reform.” [7] Rosenberg’s essay went beyond calling attention to gradual blurring of the boundaries between the fields of women’s history and intellectual history to call attention to need for historians to explore “how changes in thinking about gender came about in the context of American intellectual history, how attitudes toward the personal, the emotional, and the sexual have affected intellectual debates in this century.” [24]

In the 1992 issue, Louise L. Stevenson of Franklin and Marshall College provided the syllabus for her Fall 1987, course on “Women and Intellectual Life,” IHN #14, 84-86. For the 1993 issue she wrote an article on “Women’s Intellectual History: A New Direction,” IHN #15, 1993, 32-38, which showed how a masculinized understanding of “intellectual” has blinded historians to the lives and thought of women. This article was one of three that year in a “Panel Discussion on ‘Discovering Women’s Intellectual History” at the American Studies Association meeting of November, 1992, in Costa Mesa, California. The others were Elisabeth Israels Perry, “The Women’s Voluntary Association as a Source of Women’s Intellectual History,” IHN #15, 1993, 39-44; and Charles Capper, “Comments on ‘Discovering Women’s Intellectual History,’” IHN #15, 1993, 45-47.

Also in the 1993 issue, Elizabeth Alice White reviewed Ann Douglas’ controversial book in “Sentimental Heresies: Rethinking The Feminization of American Culture,” IHN #15, 1993, 23-31; and Linda K. Kerber provided the syllabus for a University of Iowa course in Fall, 1992 on “Feminist Theory: Historians’ Perspective,” IHN #15, 1993, 66-70. [Kerber’s Toward an Intellectual History of Women (1997) was later reviewed in the Newsletter by Nancy F. Cott, in “Republican Motherhood Found, Revisited, Revised,” IHN #19, 69-72.]

As noted, #18 of the Newsletter, published in 1996, was mostly devoted to a symposium on “Intellectual History in the Age of Cultural Studies.” Seven of the 33 items were written by women, including, in alphabetical order, Joyce Appleby, “A Post-Opportunity for Intell Hists,” 4-5; Mary Kupiec Cayton, “Cultural History, Intellectual History, and the Problem of Agency,” 53-55; Deborah J. Coon, “Challenging the Sociological Turn, or, Preserving Intellectual History in an Age of Cultural History,” 57-61; Carolyn Dean, “New Directions in Intellectual History?” 40-41; Mary Kelley, “Thinking About Women Thinking,” 24-26; Dorothy Ross, “Deja-Vu All Over Again,” 61-62; and Joan Shelley Rubin, “Keeping Everlastingly At It,” 23-24.

Most of these did not address women or feminist issues per se, but dealt with the general implications of cultural studies for understandings of human agency and the continuation of intellectual history as a field or sub-discipline enriched and broadened by cultural history. Dorothy Ross expressed optimism about the future of intellectual history, which she said had already benefitted from the influence of social and cultural history, as seen in the work of Hollinger on scientific communities; Thomas Haskell, Mary Furner and others on intellectual disciplines; and greater attention to everyday life and experience, including gender and race. Carolyn Dean noted that intellectual history had moved away from a narrow understanding of canonical culture, one which, she said, “by definition excluded women and minorities.” [40] Mary Kelley gave the most attention to gender issues, noting the traditional focus on males in intellectual history and referring to the work of feminist theorists such as Judith Butler and Eve Sedgwick. [26]

In the same 1996 issue, Elizabeth Hedstrom, in “History and the Limits of Interpretation,” IHN #18, 89-97, provided a detailed report on a conference organized by Thomas Haskell at Rice University in March of that year. Participants included important figures such as Frank Ankersmit, Dominick LaCapra, Hans Kellner, Richard Wolin, John Zammito, David Carr and Robert Westbrook. Women, including Lynn Hunt, Carol Quillen, Joan Scott, Bonnie Smith, and Helena Michie, delivered 5 of the 14 papers. In Hedstrom’s summary, Smith’s paper on “Masculinity and the Limits of Interpretation,” was the only one to emphasize the “deeply masculinized methodology and professional identity” of history, so that “while there is room for reimagination or reappropriation, feminists unproblematically make use of historical scholarship at their peril.” [96]

In the 2001 issue, women authored 6 of the 15 articles treating The Arts and Intellectual Life, though a focus on gender issues was largely absent. These included Julia E. Liss, “The Culture of Politics and the Politics of Culture,” IHN #23, 2001, 71-77, a review of Christine Stansell, American Moderns: Bohemian New York and the Creation of a New Century (2000); Jeffrey C. Isaac, “Rethinking the Cultural Cold War,” IHN #23, 2001, 78-84, a review of Frances Stoner Saunders, The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters (1999); and Ruth Behar, “Blurred Genres: Autobiography, Fiction, and Ethnography,” IHN #23, 2001, 125-133, a detailed syllabus and bibliography from a University of Michigan anthropology course from Fall, 2000. The course included selections from Women Writing Culture, a book Behar had edited in 1995 with Deborah Gordon.

In the final volume, devoted to National and Transnational Liberalism, 5 of the 15 items were authored by women. Noteworthy items include Ruth H. Bloch, “Utopianism, Sentimentalism, and Liberal Culture in America,” IHN #24, 2002, 47-59, and Dorothy Ross, “Liberalism and American Exceptionalism,” IHN #24, 2002, 72-83.

Bill Fine

5 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Thank you Bill for reminding us of what has come before lest we launch into recreating the wheel. All the women mentioned are scholars of the first rank giving us a solid foundation. The variety of topics demonstrates that the application of gender analysis promises to enhance the history of American thought in a way that is integrated with the most important questions of our discipline. Great survey!

  2. What a great post with tons of work to use in thinking about women in/as intellectual history. Many of those scholars have been important influences for my own development and it is fascinating to see them through this one connection

  3. Thanks for this terrific post, Bill! A survey like this of women (and gender issues) in intellectual history in the U.S. (not, obviously, exactly the same thing as women (and gender issues) in U.S. intellectual history, but close) is incredibly helpful in thinking through these issues.

    There’s obviously a lot to think about here. But this post also makes me long for a similar look at the subdiscipline of intellectual history in the decade or so before Wingspread. I suspect that the place of women (and gender issues) in intellectual history at the moment of its post-Wingspread rebirth had a lot to do with the place of women (and gender issues) in social history, which had been both the ascendant subdiscipline in the 1970s and a critical conduit for both female scholars and work on women and gender issues.

  4. I’ll echo Lilian, Michelle, and Ben with a hearty thank you, Bill! I think all of us should have a full run of IHN and its predecessor newsletter on our shelves (my library doesn’t). This is a great starting point for further explorations on the subject at our site, as well as in one’s other work. – TL

  5. Thank you! Since I write about how women survived the last economic crash, I’m especially aware of the importance of the study of women because their sturdy and gallant history has so much to teach us today.

    Our great-grandmothers were tough and savvy women.

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