Shame on Us Menfolk for Having Ever Thought Otherwise
It’s funny how some insights, once painfully acquired, become painfully obvious. Under all of its various guises, women’s history is for everyone. Not all of us need to be experts in it; but none of us should ignore it.
The study of the recorded past has tended to be the study of those in power. The study of history has thus been – and to a large extent remains – the study of men. Because women have been marginalized from power throughout most of the recorded past, they have often been excluded from narratives about what has mattered throughout human history and why things are the way that they are.
Considering that most people throughout the past, recorded and otherwise, have not been men in power, historians have been wearing some significant blinders by overlooking women and the powerless. This has begun to change, but a few years of attention after centuries of neglect hardly counts as equal treatment.
To the extent that those of us who study the past (and who study the study of the past) hope to derive knowledge and truth from that study, our vision will continue to be limited unless we consider those on the margins. Otherwise, we cannot claim to understand the whole picture clearly or even blurrily.
Indeed, it is in integrating an awareness of gender into our research and into our teaching that we historians have the potential to make the most rich use of and bear the most abundant fruit from women’s history. In so doing, we have the potential to shed fresh insight and relevance on contexts that might otherwise pass as over-studied for our fellow scholars or dull for students. Women’s studies can and should flourish as a viable sub-discipline, but it belongs to all of us.
I recall with some embarrassment the first paragraph of the first graduate seminar paper I wrote that included gender as its primary object of analysis. It was a long-winded apology and explanation of why I, as a man, had any business addressing the historical relevance of a particular woman’s experience of womanhood. Today I know the best answer: why not?