U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Gender and Intellectual History

by Brian M. Ingrassia

Recently I have been thinking about gender and intellectual history.  Without going into all the details, this reflection was prompted by Lauren Kientz Anderson’s post of October 31, in which she referred to her (perhaps) “infamous” post from last year on women in intellectual history. After rereading that 2011 piece—and the 47 comments it generated!—I started asking myself a few questions.  These are not necessarily new questions, but it might help to air them in one place and ponder their implications. First of all, why does it seem that relatively few women (compared to men) identify with the field? Second, is there something inherently “male” about the field? And a third, much bigger question: What is intellectual history, why do we do it, and what bearing might the answer to this question have upon the field’s ability to incorporate analysis of women and gender?

Regarding the first question, I posit a practical answer that at least one commentator has already suggested.  While there certainly are women historians who do intellectual history—especially the intellectual history of women, gender, or feminism—many (though not all) tend to identify, or be identified, as historians of women or gender. Of course, they use intellectual history methods primarily as a way to understand the place of women and gender in society more broadly, not necessarily as a way to understand only “intellectuals,” whether male or female.  In addition, there are practical incentives for scholars (many of whom are women) who study the intellectual history of women or gender to identify as historians of those fields rather than as intellectual historians. Quite frankly, there are many fewer academic positions in intellectual history than there are in women’s and gender history.  In the current academic job market, a young scholar has little or no reason to identify as an intellectual historian when s/he could identify as a scholar of a more professionally viable field such as women’s or gender history.
Regarding the second question, I do not think that intellectual history is inherently a “male” field—nor is it simply a place where men who reject gender or race analysis go for affirmation. Speaking from personal experience, I am a male who embraces gender and race analysis, yet I still think that it is important to study intellectual history. Nevertheless, there may be a grain of truth to the perception that intellectual history is for men because it is about men. Consider the obvious: in many historical contexts, especially before the twentieth century, very few women were considered intellectuals. To study the intellectual history of many time periods, one must focus largely, if not exclusively, upon men who were in a position to construct and disseminate discourses that were perceived as “intellectual” in nature. For those interested in the history of women and gender—including many female historians—this may not seem to be a worthwhile project, since it is just reinforcing androcentric models rather than critiquing or challenging them.
This is where things get thornier, and where I start to ask that third question. What is intellectual history? A few days ago, one guest blogger noted that we analyze the “history of ideas.” That may be a good definition of what intellectual historians do, but I think it compels us to ask more questions. Which ideas—whose ideas—do we analyze? Do we merely seek to understand ideas that were consciously appreciated as ideas in the times and places in which they were created? Or should we seek to understand the ideas of a number of different groups or individuals—including women—even if they were not necessarily seen as intellectuals within their own historical context?
If we define intellectual history as the history of ideas that were perceived as part of an avowedly intellectualdiscourse in their time and place of creation, then in many cases we have to restrict our analyses to male subjects. But if we interpret the field more broadly, then the methodology of intellectual history can be applied in many different contexts.  I will never forget the day in 2002 when one of my professors at Illinois—a prominent practitioner of the “New Social History”—propped his feet up on his desk and told a first year graduate student interested in intellectual history (me) that someday a historian would find a way to write the intellectual history of sanitation workers (i.e., the ideas of “garbage men”). Ever since that day, I have found his suggestion to be a fascinating one, and if I could only find the primary sources I might write such a study!
I suspect, though, that at least some of us would be turned off by this idea, or would suggest a caveat: If we write the intellectual history of sanitation workers, then we would have less time or energy to devote to those individuals who were consciously focused on the life of the mind.  On a related note, I suspect that maybe a couple of folks might (quietly) say something similar about studying the intellectual history of women: it’s interesting and important, but it could take our energy away from studying those individuals who were considered intellectuals within their historical context and thus shaped the most prominent discourses of their time and place.
So why do we do intellectual history? Is it so that we can understand how prominent individuals (academics, theologians, statesmen, cultural critics, and so on) shaped predominant discourses? Or is it so that we can understand how the ideas of diverse individuals or groups developed and changed over time?  We might frame this as an issue of canon—of whether or not we draw boundaries around the parameters of the field. Furthermore, how do we approach the history of ideas? Do we first strive to understand the inner logic of ideas and then place them in historical context, or do we strive to show how historical context has caused certain ideas (and not others) to emerge in a particular time and place?  The latter approach, I would note, is much friendlier to an analytical framework that consciously critiques categories such as gender, race, and/or class.
In short, is intellectual history a field that studies intellectuals, or is it a methodology that studies the history of ideas generated in many different cultural and social contexts?  In all honesty, I do not think that these are mutually exclusive categories—and many of us have probably pursued either at one time or another. Nevertheless, it is helpful to think about why we do what we do. And, admittedly, we should note that there are strengths and weaknesses to either approach. On the one hand, if intellectual history is a subject field that studies prominent idea creators (“intellectuals”), then it may be a more coherent field even though it will probably have less relevance for those scholars (especially women) who are interested in fields such as the history of women and gender. On the other hand, if intellectual history is primarily a methodology, then it may have larger utility to a wider variety of scholars even though its identity as a distinct, coherent field of study may be diminished.
These are just some thoughts, and I am sure I have said nothing new here.  But perhaps this will spark some interesting discussion about what we do and how that affects who identifies with this field.
Brian M. Ingrassiateaches American history at Middle Tennessee State University.  He is the author of The Rise of Gridiron University: Higher Education’s Uneasy Alliance with Big-Time Football (University Press of Kansas, 2012), as well as the new series editor of the Sport and Popular Culture Series at the University of Tennessee Press.

11 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Brian: Thank you for your thoughtful post. I generally agree with your observations about why there are not more women that self-identify as intellectual historians, but I think there is something much more important at play – the question of the gendered nature of ideas regardless of who espouses them, men or women. If one is interested in people who are recognized as making a contribution by forwarding ideas then intellectual history will be largely a history of men. As you noted, “in many historical contexts, especially before the twentieth century, very few women were considered intellectuals. To study the intellectual history of many time periods, one must focus largely, if not exclusively, upon men who were in a position to construct and disseminate discourses that were perceived as “intellectual” in nature.” Even here there are ways to do gender analysis, which is more significant that just adding women and stirring. We might examine how the symbolic woman is used, (as in Henry Adams’ concept of the dynamo and the virgin, or Williams James’ desire to perverse the martial elements in a “ Moral Equivalent of War,”) or identifying the assumption of a male social dividend or crisis that underlies many intellectual arguments. Or, closer to home, why are the “cultural wars” called a war? Is there a crisis of masculinity hiding there? I don’t pretend to know, but its still a question to consider.

    I think intellectual history is in need of more gender analysis and we could certainly benefit from some excursions into feminist theory to help illuminate our historical work. As one who works in the fields of women/gender and intellectual history, I think that defining the field more broadly as the history of ideas allows more room for gender analysis and would help free the field from the accusation that it’s about men for men. Perhaps this method would make intellectual history more attractive to women regardless if the subjects of our study are men or women.

  2. i should say, not represented as such.

    the suggestion about the intellectual history of sanitation workers is provocative. i would suggest that one way to distinguish intellectual history from the history of ideas is that intellectual history blends much more seamlessly into cultural history. this is maybe a way of agreeing with what lilian has written.

    at least for myself, much excellent intellectual history is about the limits that categories and current ideas imposed at different times and places on understanding and imagination, and therefore on concrete things like political action. one way to approach the limits–or, less provocatively, shape–of such categories is through cultural history, which is of course also the the history of gender, in ideas, practices, the construction of bodies, all that. intellectual history takes as one of its specialties, one might say, the investigation of self-conscious attempts to think outside of common limits. but when i think about excellent intellectual histories that i have read recently (take for instance the much-discussed *age of fracture*), cultural history is a crucial element of the story being told. the intellectuals make no sense outside of larger structures. and often times–increasingly, and it should be more so–these structures have everything to do with gender. from closer to my own specialty, judith surkis’ *Sexing the Citizen* is, sort of in line with joan scott, who has done work in a similar vein.

  3. It is one of the more interesting features of this blog that it spends so much time reflecting on its purpose and function. No other blog (I can’t say I’m so worldly wise as to all things web and the like) to my experience, is so introspective about its own meaning but I do think it is important and informative that it pauses periodically to take its own pulse.

    As to why it doesn’t attract as many women I would proffer that the word intellectual might present an obstacle. Intellectual carries a number of negative attributes. Let me list a few.
    1) To intellectualize is to over think (as though this were a malady)
    2) To be an intellectual is to think of oneself as above or better than, pretentious.
    3) To think about intellectuals and their ideas is daunting, difficult.
    4) Intellectual thinking is not practical, it is ethereal, abstract (tell that to pragmatists).
    5) Stereotypes of intellectuals connate a certain bookish appearance and personality.

    I’m sure there are many more examples that I’m not thinking about but I’m sure we’re all familiar with these.

    A few posts ago Ray Haberski denied the label intellectual for himself which surprised me. I didn’t think it worth a response at the time but upon reflection I think it may be worth thinking about. I first thought my understanding of the term might be wrong so I went to the dictionary.
    a : of or relating to the intellect or its use
    b : developed or chiefly guided by the intellect rather than by emotion or experience : rational
    c : requiring use of the intellect
    a : given to study, reflection, and speculation
    b : engaged in activity requiring the creative use of the intellect

    Do I discern a disconnect here? I don’t mean to be calling Ray out necessarily, the question applies to all.

    Is there reluctance to self identifying as an intellectual? If so, why and if it is so what does that say for Intellectual Historians? Do women identify less with the word intellectual than men?

    • Paul, you’re right to call me out on that comment. I have been thinking about the immediate response to it. In the context of the post you mention, I wanted to suggest there is a difference between the people we study and the group of historians (this blog) who study them. The definition you have here suggests that we think through our studies as intellectuals but then, moving above that, you get at the cultural problem of calling ourselves–declaring oneself–an intellectual. As Michelle says, we all have ideas and Gabe points to the idea of sanitation workers that provide rich resources for study.

      But Brian raises the crucial questions: by deploying methodology do we become intellectuals, intellectualizing culture or by identifying certain figures as intellectuals do we create distance between those people who do the intellectualizing and the rest of us who study them?

  4. It’s emblematic of the (disastrous) decline of social history that, in fact, there already is an excellent intellectual history of sanitation workers that goes unnoticed here. See Donald Reid, Paris Sewers and Sewermen.

  5. All people have ideas, thus even if intellectual history is narrowly defined, there is still such a tradition, in the vein of Carlo Ginzburg or Natalie Zemon Davis. The question is whose ideas count as who gets to decide whose ideas count? Traditionally important people get “ideas,” while the rest must be contented with “beliefs,” “traditions” etc (in a similar process by which peoples without written record get “prehistory” those w/ get “history).

    As to the questions “what do women want” in regards to intellectual, I can note that there was a strong antipathy towards “intellectual” in the U.S. women’s movement from which many of the first “generation” of historians to write about women came, leading them to shy from the label (preferring instead political historian). I’m thinking of Du Bois and Gordon as opposed to say Cott, but you’ll have to read the book, once it’s finished to learn more about that!

  6. These thoughtful comments are a real pleasure to read, as is the post that prompted them. Brian, thank you so much for contributing to our ongoing if somewhat desultory discussion of gender in/and/of intellectual history.

    In that connection, I wanted to call the attention of our readers to this stunning essay by Caroline Walker Bynum, from The Chronicle of Higher Education:

    Gender, Generations, and Faculty Conflict

    I think this is a must-read for historians who need to think about the ways that gender informs our work, our workplaces, and our working relationships.

    Newsflash, folks: that’s all of us.

    • And in all honesty — or at least all the honesty I care to muster at present — it is only fair to acknowledge that this was indeed a newsflash for me.

  7. Thanks all of you for your thoughtful comments. I am glad that I was able to help us get talking again about gender and intellectual history. Also: Michelle, I am looking forward to your book; Gabe, thanks for bringing up the book on Paris–it is due to my own training (primarily) as an Americanist that I was not aware of it!

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