U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Towards an Intellectual History of Women

I was visiting Linda Kerber’s essay collection by that name (1997) this week and came across this passage;

“Indeed, whatever topics we were drawn to, everyone who taught women’s history perforce became an intellectual historian. We had to ask what different generations had meant by the terms they used: how they had conceptualized the categories of male and female, man and woman, or how the meaning of the term ‘feminism’ itself had changed over the course of the century. When people in the nineteenth century spoke of ‘The Woman Question,’ what did they mean? Does woman suffrage’ mean the same as ‘women suffrage’? Over the decades, the conceptual questions grew in complexity. To what extent have concepts like ‘feminism’ been implicitly located in racialized standpoints? What is the difference between sex and gender? To what extent is gender a social construction? To teach even the most basic narratives, we had to engage these questions. That was true in the early 1970s and it’s even more true now; feminist scholars cannot ignore theorists of language or historians of ideas.”

It sometimes seems that we take gender analysis for granted and don’t see it as automatically a form of the history of ideas–ideas about self, cultural proscriptions, and the ideas that motivate society. Do you view gender analysis this way? Is gendered analysis the thing that defines the intellectual history of women? Are we reifying gender difference by defining an intellectual history of women?

7 Thoughts on this Post

  1. well as you and I have discussed so many times there is a difference between women as “intellectuals” i.e. people who produce stuff historians call as ideas as opposed to gender as a category of analysis. I’m less invested in the labels and more in seeing both sorts of things happening, exploration of what is produced by women “qualifying” as “ideas” and analysis of intellectual history including gender

    as to “reifying” heck I understand myself as a historian of women so I reify all the time

  2. I guess what I’m trying to ask is–are there modes of thought that we would call distinct to women? Or should we concentrate on “conservative,” “liberal,” etc. modes of thought and include women in those frames? How does studying women change our perception of those other categories? That’s why I liked Kerber’s essays, because she makes the argument that studying women transforms our prior understandings. In my research, does Derricotte think differently because she lives in a body gendered female and had experiences because of the way the society interpreted that body? Was her transformation of the idea of “accommodation” into “cooperation” done because she was a woman? How do you make these kinds of analyses without saying things like “well, women think like x”…”women are more cooperative, so Derricotte gravitated toward that point of view in way that her male colleagues did not”…I don’t like making claims like that. But I do think it mattered that Derricotte experienced life and thought about herself, as a woman.

  3. yikes, well no I don’t think we make arguments along the lines of all women think X. I do think that the embodied experience of individuals which encompasses gender of course does condition the ideas they express as well as in some cases how they express them. I think gender is one of many complex variables though in that equation. When I write I try to ground (followingCott) in context ie. I almost never write about free floating idea, but always look at context in which they are expressed. One of the things students notice when I teach intellectual history is that the women authors the African American authors and some others don’t sound like the white dudes. We have long discussions about why that is, and in many instances it is context, relationship to social movement specifically, that conditions how the “ideas” come out.

  4. that’s a provocative citation from Kerber. it makes me think of Joan Scott–both the work she’s done recently and her trajectory from (old fashioned?) social/labor history into gender (as a useful category of analysis) and now into…a sort of history of the idea of women’s history? (disclaimer: i haven’t read much of her newest book)

  5. Lauren, you write: “Or should we concentrate on ‘conservative,’ ‘liberal,’ etc. modes of thought and include women in those frames?” Would you elaborate on this point? These terms are floating signifiers like most, and women, including feminists, have laid claim to them just have men have. So I guess I don’t really get where you’re going with this. It’s one thing to subject the history of these terms to historical analysis that uses gender as one category of such analysis. But the way you phrased that sentence I quote above makes me think you assume them to be inherently (dare I say “essentially”) male terms or concepts.

  6. Eric – yes Scott is to my mind the exemplar of the emergence of intellectual history out of women’s history.

    Andrew- not male, but also not very useful when analyzing anything more than words on paper. if you attempt to correlate ideological strands of feminist thought with activism it doesn’t work at all. At best these labels are heuristic, and at worst they’ve served to divide activists.

  7. Thanks for the comment Andrew. I hadn’t realized my own assumptions when writing that sentence. Kerber argues that her gendered analysis of the Revolutionary Era changes the very basic categories of analysis that had been employed before her study. So I guess I’m asking whether gendered analysis changes our categories or whether we go with the categories that existed before gendered analysis (and in that sense, perhaps conservative and liberal were typed male–thinking from a historiographical point of view, not from the content of history–but not in an essentialist, never changing kind of way). To rephrase, do the categories that existed for men also apply to women? Or do women change the conversation? Obviously, this isn’t an either/or question. It would be better to say–when do the categories we previously applied only to men also apply to women and when does consideration of women change the conversation?

    These questions strike me as a bit old–i.e. at the additive stage of historiography. But maybe they are still relevant?

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