Feminism and Political History

Article excerpt


Traditional political history told stories about men and masculine actions performed within narrowly defined political institutions. Political historians equated politics with parliaments and (mainly male) parliamentarians, and thus overlooked political activities that fell outside these parameters. Beginning in the early 1970s, this view of political history was challenged, first by feminist attention to "women's history" and later by the "gender turn" in the social sciences and humanities. In seeking to make visible women's political activities outside conventional masculine institutions, feminist scholarship revised scholarly understandings of what constitutes politics. It thus played an important role in widening the scope of political history, discussed elsewhere in this special issue. With the development of more sophisticated conceptual approaches in the late 1980s and early 1990s, feminist scholars demonstrated the significant place of gender in political discourse and knowledge. Gender was relevant even in high politics and in spaces in which women were absent, as men were also scrutinised as gendered subjects. Feminist work has made rich contributions to key areas of interest for political historians, including political culture; activism and mass protest; nationalism, national identity and nation building; citizenship; the state; and public policy. Feminist histories have been particularly adept in exploring the links between politics and culture, and in uncovering the intersections between the "public" sphere, associated with masculine action, and the feminine "private" sphere, in a manner which critiques and problematises any stark division between the two.

Nevertheless, the influence of feminist scholarship on political history as a narrowly defined field has been less than transformative. While feminist scholars have engaged extensively in work that has enriched understandings of politics and political history, they have often done so from outside the recognised field of political history, and are not identified as "political historians", due in part to the interdisciplinarity of feminist scholarship. This article traces the contributions of feminist scholarship to political history and the reasons these are not always acknowledged, then goes on to consider why recognised political historians--those concerned with mainstream politics-tend not to incorporate gender analysis and insight into their work. It argues that despite the rich potential of political history as a province for feminist analysis, work undertaken within this discrete field often remains blind to feminist perspectives, indicating the enduring influence of restrictive conceptions of politics.

Feminism, the "Gender Turn" and Australian History

The "second wave" of feminist activism saw significant challenges to male-dominated political, social, and cultural structures. Feminism was a driving force in forging new styles of political action and new scholarly understandings of the definition of "politics" and the nature of power. (1) Traditional conceptions of politics focused narrowly on the formal organisation of power in society. The feminist slogan "the personal is political" represented a challenge both to conventional definitions of politics and to socialist/radical understandings of politics that focused on contestations between capital and labour. (2) It forged an understanding--long before anyone cited Foucault--of the ubiquitous, dispersed nature of power and the "political" nature of power relationships in all areas of society including workplaces, trade unions and the family. Feminist scholars continue to politicise a wide range of experiences: "feminist scholarship" is not a homogenous category but points to a very diverse and evolving field encompassing a range of different approaches and concerns, and has included engagements with questions of race, class and sexuality that have problematised the category "woman". …