Historian Alice Kessler-Harris asks in yesterday’s Chronicle of Higher Education, “Do We Still Need Women’s History?” She reflects on the shift in the study of “women’s history” to historical perspectives on “gender:”
The shift to gender has had long-range implications. As the history of women, and more recently the history of men, has become a subset of the history of gender, as historians increasingly investigate the practical and ideological implications of belief systems about the nature of men and women, so gender has increasingly become an important explanatory agent : a necessary part of the historian’s interpretive arsenal. Our more-enlightened colleagues and younger members of the profession now assume that all history has gendered components, and that, as they look for explanations for how and why things happened, gender will necessarily be part of their explanatory framework. *** [Historian Laura] Wexler and other scholars demonstrate the explanatory potential embedded in gender, and reveal why the topic “women” is now so often dismissed as too narrow and subjective a category to illuminate historical processes. Where the history of women is seen today as having celebratory content : its effort is to find our lost ancestors and restore them to a place in our memories : that of gender offers an analytic framework within which to view the sometimes abrasive relations of women and men.
Gender is a tempting and powerful framework. Far more inclusive than the category of women, it raises questions not so much about what women did or did not do, but about how the organization of relationships between men and women established priorities and motivated social and political action. Where the history of women can be accused of lacking objectivity : of having a feminist purpose : that of gender suggests a more distanced stance.
I am struck by Kessler-Harris’s assessment that the study of women has less currency among historians than does the study of gender. Is the same true in the law? Have courses on “Women and the Law” been replaced by courses on “Gender and the Law?” Do law students and faculty members view courses and studies of “Gender and the Law” as having a more “distanced stance” than courses and studies of “Women and the Law?”
My personal impression is that many students and professors consider a focus on “women” to be old-fashioned. Stating one’s interest as as “Women and the Law” seems old-school — yes, feminist (and therefore someone must have an ax to grind, right?). “Gender,” by comparison, has a hip, fluid, twenty-first century, moderne connotation. But is the evaluation of “women” vs. “gender” anything other than a high-theory rehash of the (unhelpful, in my view) attempt by self-proclaimed “third wave” feminists to distance themselves from purportedly ideological constraints of “second wave” feminism? I had long thought that these were two sides of the same coin. But Kessler-Harris’s article made me wonder for the first time whether an emphasis on gender is a form of anti-feminism.
A copy of Kessler-Harris’s full article from the Chronicle article is here (subscription site – sorry).