U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Gender Trouble at the 2016 S-USIH Conference

By Lilian Calles Barger

Joan Wallach Scott concluded in 1986 that bringing women or gender into history was inadequate. Since Gerda Lerner’s The Grimke Sisters from South Carolina: Rebels Against Slavery (1967) had launched the field of women’s history knowledge of women’s contribution to political, social and religious change had grown exponentially. Women and the accompanying gender analysis proved to be critical to understanding the history of the nation becoming both indispensable and illuminating. Scott’s much-cited 1986 essay “Gender: a Useful Category of Historical Analysis” noted that for many historians “‘gender’ is a synonym for ‘women’” and a way to soft peddle women’s history into “academic legitimacy.” The result was that men, standing in for humanity, in general, appeared to have no gender. Books that claimed to offer gender analysis boiled down to studies of women without demonstrating how such a category was established or maintained. Seeking to break this habit that had settled among historians Scott defined gender as “a constitutive element of social relations based on perceived difference between the sexes, and gender is a primary way of signifying relations of power” (Scott, Gender and the Politics of History, 1999, 31,32).

Scott helped us see through gender, instead of around it, as “the ways in which hierarchies of difference—inclusions and exclusions—have been constituted” (10). Gender analysis captured categories of difference and inequality of power in all realms of society and applicable to all fields of history. Under her criteria political, diplomatic, and economic history, arenas were men predominated from its making to its writing, were reinvented. Scott’s intervention also offered intellectual history, presumed by some to deal with timeless and neuter ideas, an opportunity to put gendered-flesh on those ideas. In the last 30 years, despite great strides, gender has often been applied in a circumscribed way to what women have done and thought. While much of this work is a fruitful corrective it runs the risk of a historical ghetto where the entanglements of gender (and women) is severed from broader historical changes.

We have also seen seismic culture shifts. Under the influence of theorists such as Judith Butler, Eve Sedgwick, post-structuralism, and the complications of intersectionality, the once unassailable categories of male/man and female/woman were demolished and gender became genders. Where one stood in time, place, and social position could redefine the gendered-self. These developments present the need for intellectual historians to re-examine how gender, as unstable and permeable yet also enduring, influenced past thinking about such ideas as citizenship, capitalism, science, race/ethnicity, social democracy, religion, and the political sphere in often-implicit ways.

Gauging how well gender as tool of analysis is currently being deployed by intellectual historians calls for reconsidering our methods and re-emphasizing some questions. Refocusing could bring attention to the symbolic use of “woman” and “man” in the formulation of ideas, resistance and alliances cross-gender social networks, or a comparative approach to how men and women articulated a particular set of ideas. We might consider the “woman behind the man” foregrounding the slippage between the ordinary and “greatness,” or how the enduring perception of masculinity in crisis influence the thought of particular era, e.g. what is gendered about the “crisis of man” discourse identified by Mark Greif? Of contemporary concern is how the idea of the feminization of American culture (e.g. the feminization of the workplace, poverty, and education) corresponds with the aggressiveness of the neo-liberal marketplace. The stakes in eliding gender, as a relative position of power, is missing its deep political consequences.

To help us think through the category of gender that easily escapes examination we have gathered a formidable group in the plenary panel, The Many Faces of Gender in American Thought: Considering Our Methods. The panelists will consider, once again and afresh, whether gender is a useful category of analysis in intellectual history and if it sheds light on understanding how our subjects received, constructed, and engage with ideas. The panel will also bring our attention to how gender as an analytical tool changes how intellectual historians read texts, the questions they ask and the conclusions they embrace.

Our panelists represent decades of historical thinking and include: Moderator, Caroline Winterer, Professor of History, Stanford University and Director of the Stanford Humanities Center, author of The Mirror of Antiquity: American Women and the Classical Tradition, 1750-1900; Mia Bay, Professor of History, Rutgers University, Director, Center for Race and Ethnicity, author of To Tell the Truth Freely: the Life of Ida B. Wells and a co-editor of Toward an Intellectual History of Black Women; Linda K. Kerber, May Brodbeck Professor in Liberal Arts & Sciences, the University of Iowa, her many books include, Women of the Republic: Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America and Toward an Intellectual History of Women; Kimberly Hamlin, Associate Professor of History, Miami University author of From Eve to Evolution: Darwin, Science, and Women’s Rights in the Gilded Age America; Charles Capper, Professor of History, Boston University, his books include Margaret Fuller: An American Romantic Life; The Private Years and Margaret Fuller: Transatlantic Crossings in a Revolutionary Age; Joshua R. Greenberg, Professor of History, Bridgewater University, author of Advocating the Man: Masculinity, Organized Labor, and the Household in New York, 1800-1840. Together they offer the best consideration of gender in intellectual history.

The conference committee is looking forward to bringing these scholars into dialogue with you and the lively exchange that will surely follow. To showcase current work, we welcome panel submissions featuring papers that deploy gender analysis, address feminist thought or gender theory. Proposals are due March 1, 2016.