History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism

By Judith M. Bennett | Go to book overview

Chapter 1
Introduction: Feminism and History

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.1 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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