History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism

History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism

History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism

History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism


Written for everyone interested in women's and gender history, History Matters reaffirms the importance to feminist theory and activism of long-term historical perspectives. Judith M. Bennett, who has been commenting on developments in women's and gender history since the 1980s, argues that the achievement of a more feminist future relies on a rich, plausible, and well-informed knowledge of the past, and she asks her readers to consider what sorts of feminist history can best advance the struggles of the twenty-first century.

Bennett takes as her central problem the growing chasm between feminism and history. Closely allied in the 1970s, each has now moved away from the other. Seeking to narrow this gap, Bennett proposes that feminist historians turn their attention to the intellectual challenges posed by the persistence of patriarchy. She posits a "patriarchal equilibrium" whereby, despite many changes in women's experiences over past centuries, women's status vis-a-vis that of men has remained remarkably unchanged. Although, for example, women today find employment in occupations unimaginable to medieval women, medieval and modern women have both encountered the same wage gap, earning on average only three-fourths of the wages earned by men. Bennett argues that the theoretical challenge posed by this patriarchal equilibrium will be best met by long-term historical perspectives that reach back well before the modern era. In chapters focused on women's work and lesbian sexuality, Bennett demonstrates the contemporary relevance of the distant past to feminist theory and politics. She concludes with a chapter that adds a new twist--the challenges of textbooks and classrooms--to viewing women's history from a distance and with feminist intent.

A new manifesto, History Matters engages forthrightly with the challenges faced by feminist historians today. It argues for the radical potential of a history that is focused on feminist issues, aware of the distant past, attentive to continuities over time, and alert to the workings of patriarchal power.


I first came to feminist history in the 1970s as a way of reconciling my two full but contrary identities at the time. In one, I was a lesbian feminist, absorbed by activism at home and in the streets. In the other, I was a studious medievalist, training under the guidance of male professors, most of them priests, at the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies. Radical feminist by night, medievalist by day; feminist history brought my two selves together. As I recall, the reconciliation was less than perfect. Among some feminists I felt awkward about the elitism of my education, the snottiness of my diction, and the maleness of my chosen profession. And at both the Pontifical Institute and the University of Toronto I encountered a steady stream of students and professors who dismissed feminist history, not to mention abortion rights, lesbian self-determination, and the other struggles that nourished my political soul. But there was one aspect of the reconciliation that was always a perfect fit: I never doubted that my work as a historian was important work for feminism. In the 1970s it seemed crystal clear that one of the battlefronts of feminism was women’s history, where feminists—both in the academy and outside it— were reclaiming a lost past in their research, empowering students in their teaching, and using historical insight to inform feminist strategy.

This book seeks to recover some of the clarity of that 1970s ideal of a seamless union of history and feminism—and to add depth to it. In the thirty years since I first pulled a history book off the shelves of the Toronto Women’s Bookstore, the history of women and gender has developed into a recognized academic field, institutionalized in departments, conferences, journals, and presses, and mature enough to participate in the creation of such newer fields as lesbian history and the history of masculinity. Feminism, even though it has waxed and waned in popularity, has also grown immensely, its theories becoming more sophisticated and inclusive and some of its tenets now realized in the legal codes, educational curricula, and everyday . . .

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