Making 'herstory' their story

September 17, 1999

It's time women's history became part of a wider gender history, says Penelope Corfield.

Should the flourishing field of women's history become part of a wider gender history? Yes, it should.

Women's history, studied by men and women, encompasses all aspects of the history of women. It has produced some outstanding studies - from surveys such as Olwen Hufton's The Prospect Before Her: Women in Western Europe, 1500-1800 (1995) to monographs such as Amanda Vickery's The Gentleman's Daughter (1998).

But, contrary to the hopes of some (but not all) pioneers of the subject, women's history has not produced a separate "herstory", distinct from the rest of history. Why should it? The point of studying women was to restore them to the big picture, after they had been long neglected. As Sheila Rowbotham said: women had been "hidden from history". Now they are being rightly restored.

The absence of a separate "herstory" means women cannot be studied in isolation. Their history is an integral part of the wider process. The history of women impacts on the history of men and vice versa. Combining the two makes gender history, which allows historians to explore the varying social roles that have been allotted - by the complex forces of biology, economics, culture, custom and laws - to the different sexes.

Some feminist historians argue women's history should not mutate into gender history, but that a clear distance should be kept between the two. In their view, maintaining a separate women's history field offers the best chance for the formulation of a specifically feminist "herstory", outside the "malestream". Gender history, because it also deals with men, must be contaminated.

But calling the subject gender history does not mean a return to the old sexless history, when men were taken to be the only key actors. Gender history focuses on how all identities are formed by society. It also raises the question of whether changing roles for one gender are always accompanied by contrapuntal changes for the other.

Few analysts of women's history today are pure essentialists, believing in a separate and constant female identity. Renaming the subject "gender history" focuses on the social construction of the difference between men and women.

Nor does it signify any sudden loss of confidence in the historical importance of female agency. It emphasises the potential of a multi-gendered "humanist" field of study. Women's history cannot be reserved as a separate field for feminist study, not least because modern feminism has become so eclectic and diversified. Definitions have become highly subjective. So one historian may consider herself a feminist, yet will not be accepted as such by others.

An ecumenical and pluralist gender history also provides a helpful analytical framework for men's history, bringing it in from the cold. Otherwise, it should presumably be left to languish, awaiting the advent of a separate masculinism.

The advent of gender history does not betray women's history by delivering it into the hands of a despised "malestream" of knowledge, as some feminist historians claim. Knowledge is too multifarious, interactive and ever expanding to be pigeon-holed into a "malestream" (bad) and a rival "femalestream" (good), just as it does not fall into separate streams for people classified by race, class, religion, politics, looks, physical ability, intelligence and so on. Gender history will deepen, not betray, the study of women and men in history.

Penelope Corfield is professor of history at Royal Holloway, University of London.

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