U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Are the Culture Wars for Women? (Guest post by Bethany Nagle)

Are the Culture Wars for Women?

by Bethany Nagle

At the AHA meeting earlier in January, I had a chance to attend the panel on the historiography of the culture wars, recently featured on this blog.  Now, to confess: my original motivation to attend this panel was not a passion for, or interest in, pursuing research in the Culture Wars. I chose to attend this panel because I had read Andrew Hartman’s book just a few weeks earlier in a graduate historiography course.  So I was familiar with the topic from my reading and felt I could engage well with this specific panel.

Because of the variety of issues addressed by the speakers, from political battles to education controversies, one would think this kind of panel would draw a diverse audience.  However, as I glanced around I noticed only a few women.  Female graduate classmates of mine mentioned how the panel seemed intellectually stimulating and were excited to follow tweets about the panel and hear my thoughts afterwards. These classmates are all women. But where were the women in the audience for this panel?  I became particularly nervous that as a first time graduate student I was in the wrong place.  Yet as Hartman continued to speak, I knew I was in the right place.

Perhaps the lack of female attendance stemmed from the title, “Are the Culture Wars History? New Comments on an Old Concept.” Maybe conference attendees were worried this panel would be heavily skewed to political history and less to cultural history.

Natalia Mehlman Petrzela thinks that something like that might explain why so few women were in attendance during the Culture Wars panel. “I was also surprised and somewhat disappointed to see how few women were in attendance,” she said. “What’s interesting is that if I talk about the exact same thing but call it ‘history of education’ rather than frame it as political history, the audience tends to be more female. Especially given the fact that political history is one of the most important and widely read subfields – is it even a subfield?! – we need more women writing political history, being the subject of political history, and being heeded as our work suggests different ways of understanding what ‘politics’ is and how our conventional definition of it has left out many voices. Otherwise, our historical understanding will suffer.”

So—how important is the way we frame these panels? Is the title alone enough to blame for the lack of women in the audience?  The panel was sponsored by the American Society of Church History; did that have something to do with the mostly male crowd? Did the gender composition of the panel have something to do with the makeup of the audience?  Or maybe the notion that liberals are losing the culture wars is widely accepted, and female attendees chose to spend their time at panels, roundtables and paper presentations with more open-ended connections to their own research.

Or maybe this shows that while historians are concerned with what narratives are being told, who is telling them, and are conveying the voices of minority and oppressed groups, our audiences generally expect that history written by men will be mostly about men.

This first struck me during my first semester of graduate school. Out of twenty-eight books for two classes (both taught by men), five of those books were written about or by women. Considering the many outside factors when creating a syllabus, I brushed this off, knowing that my professors were trying to create syllabi that met their needs for the course.

But while at the AHA conference, this issue of gender, authorship, and subjects occurred to me again. A flawlessly timed article by Slate published on January 6th began a conversation about the same thing: men dominating not only the authorship of historical books, but also the subject matter of these pieces of writing. The title of this article, “Is History Written About Men by Men?”, was a perfect fit for the thoughts crossing my mind and the gendering of audiences at the AHA conference.

Accompanying the Slate article was a telling visual that displayed the dominance of men as subjects and authors in the history field. Slate mentions that of the bestselling historical trade books in 2014 polled by BookScan, two of twenty-three were written by women. Another poll was created from 614 works of history from 80 publishing houses that were posted on the New York Times Combined Print and E-Book Nonfiction best-seller list in 2015. 75.8% of these books alone had male authors.

Throughout “Is History Written About Men by Men,” the authors consider the idea that women’s history generally does not sell. Sports, presidents and wars often sell most successfully. And while many publishing houses may recognize this problem, there is little they feel they can do about it. In the article, Andrew Kahn and Rebecca Onion touch on the gendering of education in the United States; the idea that certain elements of society push women towards literature and men towards politics and history is something they see reflected in almost any bookstore.

I am interested in how this gendering of publishing in the historical realm aligns with the gendering of the Culture Wars panel audience at the AHA conference.  The scholars who presented at the panel focused around both politics and education.  But judging from the audience, it was a discussion that was of interest almost exclusively to men.  Why?

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Bethany Nagle is a first year graduate student at American University pursuing a Master’s Degree in Public History. She currently works as an Education Initiatives Intern at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and as a Historical Interpreter for Social Media on the documentary Feiga’s Choice.

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Hi LD–Sitting with the panelists, I noticed the same thing. At first I thought, “Oh, I’m at the AHA,” because attendance at panels at the American Academy of Religion (which is attend every year) is often more evenly divided between men and women. Religious Studies classes also typically have more men than women, in part because religious congregations of virtually all sorts are composed mostly of women. But I think something else is also going on, which sociologist Peter Berger and others have hinted at in their writing about death and religion, namely, that death and war have historically been male preserves. Men kill and die in wars in far greater numbers than women. Men control the apparatus of capital punishment and are far more likely to be executed themselves. So I think the gender gap at the panel also had something to do with the metaphor of war. One more thing: there HAVE been culture warriors who were women (Carry Nation, Anita Bryant, Phyllis Schlafly) but throughout our history the overwhelming majority have been men.

    • Stephen, thanks for this comment — though in this case I’m just the managing editor of this post; the author is Bethany Nagle. I will add her byline beneath the post link to avoid confusion. (And don’t worry, you’re not the first reader to reply to the post editor — it’s a hazard of how our post formatting works.)

      I wondered about the metaphor of war as a means of audience (self) selection, and it seems that Natalia Mehlman Petrzela has had a similar experience, judging from her quote in the piece. (And I see that in formatting this for posting, I cut off her full name, so I will fix that too!)

      Interesting to know that the AAR is generally a more “even” crowd.

  2. Bethany, good question. If you had been at the 2015 S-USIH conference you would have noticed the small number of women in attendance even though they were fairly represented on panels. What is it about intellectual history that seems like a barrier to women? Good news. The 2016 Conference at Stanford will feature a plenary panel, “The Many Faces of Gender in American Thought: Considering Our Methods” to address a multitude of questions in intellectual history. I hope you will attend and offer your thoughts at that plenary. I believe the opportunities for new scholarship attending to gender (and this is not code for “women”) as a useful tool of analysis are not exhausted. Thank you for your observation.

  3. I’m not a historian and I’ve never been to an AHA conference, except perhaps once briefly years ago (things get blurry after a while). But I find it somewhat implausible that the use of the word “wars” or the war metaphor in a panel title would dissuade women from attending. N.M. Petrzela suggests women are (much) less interested in ‘political history’ than ‘cultural history’ — again, as an outsider to the profession, this strikes me as odd. I’m not saying it’s wrong, I have really no idea, but it just seems a little weird. And btw I would note, as most people reading this already know, that Andrew Hartman’s book is quite centrally concerned with the rise of feminism and related matters as part of his narrative of the history of the ‘culture wars’.

    If this had been a panel on military history (a field long somewhat out of fashion in most professional historical circles), I could see it attracting mostly men, as women have traditionally not ‘done’ military history in the same numbers as men (I’m sure there are a few women military historians, but outnumbered). However, as this wasn’t military history and the title used “wars” metaphorically, that explanation doesn’t apply.

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