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.