Saturday, 23 February 2008

Women's History: a perspective

The reign of Queen Victoria is one of the great ironies of the historiography of the nineteenth century. Britain and her Empire were ruled by a woman and yet historians have, until recently, kept the lives of ordinary women 'hidden from history'. Yet the British suffragettes were the exception. The activities of some of the movement's leading figures, particularly the Pankhurst family, were well publicised at the time and have since achieved almost mythic standing. This too is ironic for had not the war intervened in 1914 historians may today be writing of the suffragettes of the Women's Social and Political Union as an heroic failure. It can be argued that the dominance accorded to the suffragettes, itself a consequence of the interpretative discourse established by Sylvia Pankhurst and George Dangerfield in the 1930s, has received a disproportionate amount of historians' attention and has, as a result, slanted the modern view of the whole women's movement. Politically active women were not typical of the female experience in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The 'publicness' and articulateness of suffragettes made them exceptional beings among their sex. Neither was politics central to the processes of social change affecting women. Politics was remote from the lived experience of most ordinary women.

It is important to begin by asking the question 'Why should we study women's history?' Although there is today recognition that there is a history of women we cannot take the question for granted. Women's history has made significant strides in the last two decades but it is still as relevant today as it was when first posed. History is a public and politicised discourse, a reflection of prevailing social and cultural attitudes. The male view of history -- history about men and men's activities in a public world of diplomacy, war and politics -- was long viewed as history. As historians have been primarily male this is not surprising with the result that the history of men was seen as universal history, the history of all humanity. Even socialist and labour historians who challenged the class bias of history and focused on the experiences and struggles of the working class omitted women from their discussion. Edward Thompson's attempt in his The Making of the English Working Class to rescue the working class from 'the enormous descension of posterity' has been criticised for its maleness. His approach is not unusual. Peter Clarke's Lancashire and the New Liberalism suggests the importance of the women's suffrage issue to the fate of British Liberalism and David Morgan's study Suffragists and Liberals supports this view. But women suffragists make only brief appearances in Morgans's book and are almost invisible in Clarke's. They remain unseen in Ross McKibbin's The Evolution of the Labour Party, a major study on the emergence of the party before 1914.

Part of the reason for this was the nature of the women's movement itself. The first phase, though not exclusively middle class or bourgeois in character, focused on improving the legal, educational and political status of women. It was essentially conservative in character, a search for the same opportunities as middle class men. It did not, in general terms, challenge the consciousness of women as women. It was concerned with women in a man's world addressing inequalities rather than male oppression. Fabian women recognised that fundamental change in the status of women would only come if the male-dominated economic system was challenged. This was a far more difficult process that campaigning for the vote or for admission to higher education. Arguably the first phase of the women's movement hit essential, but nonetheless 'soft', targets, areas that could not stand long against charges of illogicality and unfairness. This first wave of the movement produced some important scholarly works: Alice Clarke's Working Life of Women in the Seventeenth Century in 1919 and Ivy Pinchbeck's Women Workers and the Industrial Revolution in 1930 for example. These books, and others produced at this time, were not only not followed up by a spate of other studies, but were themselves soon ignored and forgotten. Only in the second phase of the movement did a renewed interest and curiosity about women's history emerge.

The dawning of the second wave of the women's movement, in the late 1960s and 1970s, raised the consciousness that women had been left out of the historical record. For the first time women seriously challenged the status quo and began to look to their past to throw light on their present. The critical questions historians asks were 'Why is it like this now?' and 'Has it always been like this?' There was an increasing recognition that to know the past was to understand the present. Women, it was argued, needed to look backwards to seek the origins and development of the wrongs, oppressions and inequalities which they suffered today[1]. This process, though necessary in helping modern woman define her individual and social consciousness, can be seen as 'Whiggish' in nature. The Whig interpretation of history, effectively debunked by Herbert Butterfield in the 1930s, suggests that historians need to look to the past to explain the present. There is a strong case for this approach to women's history since it enables challenges to be made to received 'truths'. A good example of this is the notion that 'a woman's place is in the home'. Historians have long led people to believe that this is an age-old axiom, based on a long tradition of men going out to work and women staying at home. Women's history shows how unhistorical this notion is. The domestic ideology was created in the early nineteenth century when middle class women were pushed into the private sphere of the home and men went out into the public world.

The contribution of the women's movement to historiography falls into the following areas.  First, it has pointed to the diversity rather than the sameness of women's experiences in the past. This shattered the notion that women's history is not worth bothering about because the lives of women have somehow always been the same. Part of the reason for this perspective of the history of women has occurred because their role was seen as monotonous and uniform because of its close identification with domestic chores and with childcare. The housewife's fight against dirt and dust, it was suggested, did not change much between the Middle Ages and the Industrial Revolution and when change eventually occurred it was the consequence of benevolent male technology in the form of vacuum cleaners and dishwashers. Childcare was also regarded as remaining basically the same and unaffected by outside factors. This whole view needed drastic reappraisal for a variety of reasons.  Secondly, Women's history is not exclusively domestic any more than men's history is exclusively political.  The private sphere cannot be divorced from the public. The study of the private sphere has implications for the study of the public world. A seemingly small pebble causes ripples across the whole pool.  Finally, women cannot just be tacked on to the mainstream of history. The whole shape of what we mean by history is radically changed by the inclusion of women and the new questions which have to be asked lead to a fundamental review of many of the basic assumptions of men's history. Feminist analysis of changing definitions of femininity over time show that masculinity cannot be assumed to be constant.

Like all forms of history, women's history can fall into polemic and propaganda. In many respects this can be explained by the ways in which women's history developed. Its place was not in mainstream academic institutions but at the margins of scholarship where it often took the form of an alternative history. Sheila Rowbotham's Hidden from History, first published in 1973, was the first book to make women's history available to a wide audience. The formation of the Virago Press was also an important development concentrating as it still does on feminist work including history. Throughout the 1980s women's history and other branches of women's studies enjoyed unparalleled growth. Yet it is important not to regard women's history as having firm footings within academia. Women's history was still not part of the mainstream, according to Deidre Beddoe. Its growth in higher education has depended on women staff, often appointed to teach other subjects but who have developed courses because of their personal enthusiasm. A survey in 1991 showed that women made up only 17 per cent of lecturers in history, 12.7 per cent of senior lecturers, 6.6 per cent of readers and there were only three women professors out of 134.

The emergence of women's history is intertwined with the emergence of the category of 'women' as a political identity and this has been accompanied by an analysis that attributed women's oppression and their lack of historical visibility to male bias. Unequal power relations within the discipline made charges of ideology dangerous to those who sought professional status and disciplinary legitimacy: if women historians wanted to be successful they had to play by the rules of male historians. It led to criticism from male historians that women distorted evidence to support modern feminist ideology[2]. Women's history was seen by some as subverted the true canon of history and as have political motivations that had little to do with serious historical study.

So where does women's history fit into history? Certainly it is part of the reaction of some historians to the traditional view of history, what may be called Rankean history after the great German historian Leopold von Ranke [1795-1886][3]. This traditional view of history can be summed up in seven points:

1. History is essentially concerned with politics or, in the context of women's history, the public sphere. The Victorian professor Sir John Seeley said that "History is past politics: politics is present history". History concerned the state; it was national and international rather than local [that was the domain of antiquarians]. Other areas of history, though not altogether excluded by this traditional paradigm, were marginalised in the sense of being considered peripheral to the interests of 'real' historians.

2. Traditional historians think of history as essentially a narrative of events while the new history is more concerned with the analysis of structures. The feminist writings of the first stage of the women's movement tended to by ignored because they focused on structures not events.

3. Traditional history offers a view from above concentrating on the great deeds of great men [and the occasional woman]. The rest of humanity was accorded a minor role in the drama of the past.

4. History should be based on documents. Ranke's great achievement was to expose the limitations of narrative sources and he stressed the need to base written history on official sources, emanating from governments and preserved in archives. The result of this was that other types of evidence were neglected.

5. History is objective. The historian's task is to give the reader the facts, or as Ranke put it in a much-quoted phrase, to tell "how it actually happened". Lord Acton, the general editor of the first Cambridge Modern History, believed that his readers should be unable to tell where one contributor put down his pen and another took it up. This was unrealistic when Acton wrote. However hard we try to avoid the prejudices associated with race, creed, class or gender, we cannot avoid looking at the past from a particular point of view. We have moved from the ideal of the Voice of History [singular] to that of heteroglossia [varied and opposing voices].

6. Rankean history was the territory of professionals who were almost exclusively male.

Women's history challenged each of these characteristics of the traditional approach to the past and its history. It is part of the expansion of the historian's universe and the increasing dialogue with other disciplines. It is part of the fragmentation of history. This creates problems of synthesis and it has certainly proved difficult to integrate women's history into any attempt at rewriting the universal history of the past. We have moved a long way from G.M.Trevelyan's definition of history as being "about chaps” but we still have a considerable way to go before we are able to produce a history of people.


[1] The current state of women's history and the ideological issues raised by it are best dealt with in Bryan D. Palmer Descent into Discourse. The Reification of Language and the Writing of Social History, University of Toronto, 1990, pp. 145-186 and Joan Scott ‘Women's History’, in Peter Burke (ed.) New Perspectives on Historical Writing, Polity, 1992, pp. 42-66.

[2] As if the meaning of evidence was uncontested and presented no problems about the position, point of view and interpretations of historians.

[3] Ranke was less confined by this than his followers were: just as Marx was not a Marxist so Ranke was not a Rankean!

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