The Gender of History: Men, Women, and the Historical Practice & the Rise of the Professional Woman in France: Gender and Public Administration since 1830. (Reviews)

By McBride, Theresa M. | Journal of Social History, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

The Gender of History: Men, Women, and the Historical Practice & the Rise of the Professional Woman in France: Gender and Public Administration since 1830. (Reviews)


McBride, Theresa M., Journal of Social History


The Gender of History: Men, Women, and the Historical Practice. By Bonnie G. Smith (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1998. viii plus 306pp. $17.95/paperback).

The Rise of the Professional Woman in France: Gender and Public Administration Since 1830. By Linda L. Clark (Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. xiv plus 324pp. $64.95/cloth)

Bonnie Smith begins her investigation into "the gender of history" with the metaphor of the mirror [pp. 2-3]. "Held up to the past, the mirror supposedly reflects bygone events more accurately than any other tool, showing nothing fanciful or imaginary." The image of the mirror's pure objectivity contradicts what we understand of the way history is written by a "knowing subject," whose own cultural perspective determines what gets written about the past, and yet this idealized image of "value-free" history continues to be the model. Since the 1970s, "historians of both women and people of color have assumed that their scholarship would eventually fit into the field of history as a whole." [p. 1] Male historians welcomed the arrival of women's history and research on gender until, in the mid-1980s, some began to argue that historical research about women had gone far enough, lest history's claims to the transcendence of bias be undercut, and to argue that the history of women and blacks threatened to "politiciz e" the field. The historian, as Lucien Fevre claims, sees nothing in history but history. [p. 2] As Smith suggests, when the historian has been a woman, "her self-regarding has appeared ... indicative of her vanity" [p.3] so that the feminist historians' claim to contribute a distinctive perspective seems to stand for "self-regard" rather than the idealized "invisibility" of the omniscient narrator. It is because "the mirror of history resists some efforts to reach gender neutrality," writes Smith, that she has attempted to reevaluate the role of women in the historical profession and the place of feminist historiography in the writing of history. Particularly for those who are tempted to think that little more can be gained by examining the gendered practice of history, Bonnie Smith has written a provocative and significant book, her goal not only to rescue the forgotten women historians of the 18th and 19th centuries, but to ask historians to take another look in the mirror.

History, writes Smith, quoting Jack Hexter, "has been mostly stag affairs." [p. 3] Even historians who entered the profession in the 1970s recall a male dominated profession in which both practitioners and students were overwhelmingly male. My own experience in a graduate program in which only one member of the graduate faculty was female and in my first years of teaching students who were three-quarters male confirmed this. But there were certainly many women historians before the 1970s, and reaching back into the nineteenth century, Smith uncovers many examples of women who were considered "amateur" historians, writing for a large, popular audience on wide-ranging topics. Smith cites examples such as Ricarda Huch whose history of the Thirty Years' War and whose biography of Garibaldi are shelved in libraries under "fiction" [p. 161]. In spite of the virtual exclusion of women from the ranks of professional historians, such "amateurs" often were performing the "unladylike" work of supporting their parents an d siblings. Women writers, writing for a popular audience, created a believable and resonant version of the past, often investigating topics considered too trivial by professional historians of the time. Another group of historians were the female half of "author-teams" such as Anthenais Michelet who through twenty-six years of marriage to Jules Michelet "did research and reported on it, wrote sections of Jules's book, discussed projects and recorded details of their daily conversations on topics for book, and offered her judgments on the work that was published under his name.

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