Monday, February 16, 2009

Animated: Literary History and the Journal of Women’s History

Recently, I had the opportunity to hear Annette Gordon-Reed, the presidential historian and author of the winner of the National Book Award, The Hemingses of Monticello, talk about her work on that book at Columbia’s Archiving Women symposium. Gordon-Reed said that one of her greatest challenge in telling the story of Sally Hemings was making her “animated in history.” She talked about the challenges of using the archive to find information about Hemings that described a living, breathing, moving, walking, thinking person. Much of the initial information she encountered about Hemings in the archives she examined included only short references to Hemings. For instance, she described Jefferson’s journal of talking about sending Hemings for a medical treatment. When Gordon-Reed went and researched further the treatment she learned that Hemings was sent away from Paris for six weeks for this treatment and that it was for the time a very elaborate medical intervention. Gordon-Reed’s challenge in writing the book was to tell this story with Hemings as the central character though, according to her, little within the archive animated Hemings as a person. I found this story compelling because of the challenges that it suggests about research and writing; it shaped my thinking in selecting a journal for consideration for this class and this essay.
How does history animate people? How does it tell stories in which the “facts” from archival material become a narrative that interests and compels readers? And, where are these stories published? More specifically, in what journals are there stories with emerging knowledge about lesbian history? These questions became the basis for my investigation of journals about women’s history.
Immediately, I identified three journals that I thought would be of interest: Gender & History, Women’s History Review, and the Journal of Women’s History. Gender & History is a journal that began publishing in 1989. It is co-edited by Karen Adler, Ross Balzaretti, Regina Kunzel, Ruth Mazo Karras and Sarah Chambers; Kunzel, Karras, and Chambers are at the University of Minnesota, while Adler and Balzaretti are at the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom. Gender & History describes itself in this way:
Gender & History
is now established as the major international journal for research and writing on the history of femininity and masculinity and of gender relations. Spanning epochs and continents,
Gender & History
examines changing conceptions of gender, and maps the dialogue between femininities, masculinities and their historical contexts. The journal publishes rigorous and readable articles both on particular episodes in gender history and on broader methodological questions which have ramifications for the discipline as a whole.
In addition to scholarly articles, Gender & History includes an extensive book review section. From the self-description of the journal, which from the use of the word “now” in the first sentence is not the originary statement, the work of Gender & History specifically seeks to examine, not sex, not history in relationship to women, and not feminism, but questions of gender and of the relationships between gender roles (femininities and masculinities) in historical contexts.
Women’s History Review began publishing in 1992 and is based in the United Kingdom with the primary editor being June Purvis at the University of Portsmouth. There are three deputy editors, Joy Damousi at the University of Melbourne, Australia, Kathryn Gleadle at Mansfield College, Oxford, UK, and Pamela Scully at Emory University. The journal describes itself in this way:
Women's History Review
is a major international journal whose aim is to provide a forum for the publication of new scholarly articles in the field of women's history. The time span covered by the journal includes the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries as well as earlier times. The journal seeks to publish contributions from a range of disciplines (for example, women's studies, history, sociology, cultural studies, literature, political science, anthropology, philosophy and media studies) that further feminist knowledge and debate about women and/or gender relations in history. The Editors welcome a variety of approaches from people from different countries and backgrounds. In addition to main articles the journal also publishes shorter Viewpoints that are possibly based on the life experiences, ideas and views of the writer and may be more polemic in tone. A substantial Book Reviews section is normally included in each issue.
This description of Women’s History Review positions itself as a feminist journal seeking to “further feminist knowledge” about women in history. While Gender & History positions itself within the discipline of history and with a particular relationship to gender constructions, Women’s History Review positions itself as more interdisciplinary and with a particular relationship to feminism. The description of Women’s History Review also puts into relief one of the questions within the field: is it dedicated to the history of women or the history of gender relations? This question carries valence among all three of the journals about women’s history.
In some ways, the selection of a journal and the review of other related journals raised a series of broader questions. What constitutes “women’s history”? Is it women’s history or gender history? What are the implications of each of those? Is “women’s history” constituted as a sub-discipline? If so, what is it a sub-discipline of? Women’s Studies? History? In relationship to these questions, are the questions of the genealogy of the inquiry. Gender & History began in 1989, Women’s History Review began in 1992 and the Journal of Women’s History began in 1989. What is the significance of this time period? Or perhaps it isn’t significant as I note there was a journal, Women & History, that published from 1982 until 1987. I raise these questions, however, because the selection of a journal also turned into a question of the history of the mode of inquiry which interests me—and this is only in relationship to the relationship between feminism and history without even delving into either the history of lesbians or the history of sexuality.
Ultimately, I chose the Journal of Women’s History as the focus for this essay for two reasons. First, I came to the journal through a “Book Forum” on Tani Barlow’s book, The Question of Women in Chinese Feminism. Barlow’s book, which I read last semester for class, is a dense one and very far outside of my reading experience and knowledge. The essays published in the “Book Forum” were fascinating for the insight that they gave me into this book and the new ways of thinking about it through the writing by scholars with expertise in the subject matter. The “Book Forum” is a regular feature of the Journal of Women’s History in which scholars contribute articles that consider a significant book in the field in a sustained way – and then the author of the book writes a response to the inquiries, critical, productive, and evocative, that are raised. The articles within the “Book Forum” extend beyond traditional book review, which are a feature of most scholarly journals that I’ve read. In the “Book Forum” of the Journal of Women’s History, the articles build a deeper engagement with the book in question by offering multiple perspectives and by having an intention to not only inform scholars within the field about new books being published but also to engage in dialogue within the field among various scholars, including the scholar whose book is discussed. This seemed to me at the time I first read the “Book Forum” on Barlow to be an extraordinary model for shared inquiry and public dialogue within a field.
The second reason I selected this journal is because Leila Rupp, whose work I admire, had been editor of it for a substantive tenure. The Journal of Women’s History was founded in 1989 by Christie Farnham. The current editors are Antoinette Burton and Jean Allman both from the University of Illinois. They became the editors in July 2004. The Journal of Women’s History describes itself as follows:
Journal of Women's History
is the first journal devoted exclusively to the international field of women's history. It does not attempt to impose one feminist "line" but recognizes the multiple perspectives captured by the term "feminisms." Its guiding principle is a belief that the divide between "women's history" and "gender history" can be, and is, bridged by work on women that is sensitive to the particular historical constructions of gender that shape and are shaped by women's experience.
This text is both from the website for the journal hosted by the publisher and from the physical journal itself. I wonder about the first sentence as there is bibliographic evidence of other journals of women’s history that preceded it, though perhaps they were not “international” in focus. The second sentence of this statement by the journal is quite provocative. I find the suggestion that there exists in the world an “imposition of one feminist ‘line’” interesting and the journal’s refusal to impose that line interesting as well. Finally, it is the third line of the statement that suggests a middle road in this controversy between “women’s history” and “gender history.”
While the issues that I reviewed of the journal during the past five years exhibited that tension between “women’s history” and “gender history” within the “field,” there are other observations about the area of study that I found more fertile and provocative. First, however, I want to describe some of the regular features of the journal, which I think reflect some of the concerns – and political and intellectual commitments of the field. In addition to scholarly, peer-reviewed articles published in the journals, there are regularly proceedings from conferences of interest to people studying women’s/gender history. These dossiers are assembled both from modified transcripts of programs as well as from papers presented at public fora and then revised and submitted. In addition, there are “dialogues” published about issues of interest and concern to people within the field. There are submitted and reviewed articles that are gathered and published together under a broader rubric of inquiry, such as “Women’s History in the New Millenium” or “Working in the Home: Continuing the Discussion of Women’s Labors.” As has previously discussed, there also are both book reviews and the “Book Forum.” In addition, a new recurring section of the journal was introduced within the past five years titled “In the classroom.” In this section of the journal, there are articles that address teaching issues in “women’s history” at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. Finally, there are regularly abstracts of books published that are of interest to scholars in the field as well as titles, authors, dates, and institutions of dissertations published in “women’s history.” All of these things cohere within the journal to produce the concept of a discipline or sustained mode of inquiry that is called “women’s history.”
Three issues emerged of interest to the field and to me in the issues of the journal that I examined. First, there is an impulse currently in the journal, which I call “feminist appraisals of feminist history.” In volume 16, number 1, published in 2004, there was a dossier under the title, “Women’s History in the New Millenium: Continuing the Conversation on “Compulsory Heterosexuality.”” This dossier included reflections from Adrienne Rich on her piece, first published in Signs in 1981 as well as Ruth Vanita, Geertje Mak, and Erica R. Armstrong. This dossier along with subsequent ones, including one in volume 16, number 2 titled, “The Future of Women’s History: Feminism’s History,” demonstrates the commitment of the journal to exploring not only to “women’s history” but in many ways to a history of feminism. By publishing a consideration of Rich’s essay, which is primarily a literary essay, the journal works to explore the history of feminism. In many ways, the journal’s engagement is not only with “women’s history” or feminist history, but also with analyzing, “whither feminism?” as noted in essays published in 2003 from a convening by the Sophia Smith Collection in 2000.
In addition to these “feminist appraisals of feminist history,” from 2002-2004, there was a great deal of thinking about “where have we been” as a discipline and “where are we going.” Part of this line of inquiry seems to result from the passing of the journal from the long-term editors, Rupp and Guy, to the new editors, Burton and Allman. Another part may be a natural transition within the discipline, which had sustained publishing for a decade, a milestone that invites assessment. Yet, I don’t think that this impulse was entirely self-referential. The journal, in its assembly of articles, seems concerned not only with the state of the field academically and intellectually, but also with the state of feminism as an activist enterprise. I don’t think that this concern is at the amplitude of say, the journal of the National Women’s Studies Association, but it is more concerned about the state of feminism as an activist formation than say the Differences.
Another overriding concern in the field from the Journal of Women’s History is about archives. There is a great deal of critical work published that thinks about archives. In a dossier titled “History Practice: Finding Women in the Archive” in volume 20, issue 1, published in the summer 2008, a variety of scholars submitted articles on the topic. This dossier originated as a panel at the 2005 American Historical Association meeting. The articles in this section reflect a broad range of interests in the subject for historical research and a common commitment to exploring and sharing the methodology of archival research. In this issue, Sherry J. Katz wrote an article titled, “Researching Around our Subjects: Excavating Radical Women;” in this article, she explores “researching around” as a methodology of archival research for writing about radical women.
John Hopkins University in indexing this journal provides the following labels: Gay & Lesbian Studies; Gender Studies; History; Sociology; Sociology & Social Work. There is something substantial that is missing from this index, however, that struck me in my review of the journal. There is an extremely strong relationship between history and literature in the Journal of Women’s History. For instance, a recent “Book Forum,” took Martha Vicinus’ book Intimate Friends: Women Who Loved Women, 1778-1928 as it’s subject and included responses to the book from Ruth Vanita, Christine Jacobson Carter, Jacqueline Murray, and Valeria Korinek. In a volume 14, issue 4, there was a dossier on “Women and Gender in Modern India: Historians, Sources, & Historiography” that was from a symposium held at CUNY in March 1999. This issue also included a review by Anna Lindberg of Sangeeta Ray’s book En-gendering India. Ray’s book is primarily literary criticism, but the author of the review, recognizing the interest of the audience in the connections between literary history and women’s history draws these connections nicely, particularly in relationship to the dossier in the issue.
This relationship between literary history and women’s history is what interested me the most in the journal. In thinking about books that I admire from authors like Siobhan Somerville, Ruth Vanita, Martha Vicinus, the Journal of Women’s History points to new scholarly directions to situate my work not only in relationship to English and literature, but in relationship to history. As Martha Vicinus wrote in her response to the essays about her recent book,
I agree with Ruth Vanita that lesbian studies, if one can call so varied a field by one name, is at a point where we need new approaches. We certainly need more nuanced studies of individuals, of periods, and of places. I have ultimately concluded that the history of sexuality is best understood when it places female sexuality in the context of the complex identifications that mark all women’s lives, whether or not they include such familiar categories as religion, class, race, age, friendship, marriage, and motherhood.
I take this as a challenge for my own work.

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