History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism

By Judith M. Bennett | Go to book overview

Chapter 7
The Master and the Mistress

When women’s history began to take root in the 1970s, history departments in the United States and Europe were places where men communed with one another about the histories of other men, most of them well-born, Christian, and of European descent. These stag affairs are blessedly rare these days. More women and more people of diverse races, faiths, and social origins now populate history departments, and in at least some contexts, the practices of history now broadly consider women as well as men, poor as well as rich, and the full diversity of the human past. But the practices of history today are unavoidably tainted, even in the best of circumstances, by the masculinist foundations of our craft. When professional history began to emerge in nineteenth-century Europe, it took shape as a discipline of empirically minded men who denned themselves in opposition to an older, more popular history often authored by women. Some hundred and fifty years later, what constitutes “history” still draws on the nationalist and imperialist visions of the nineteenth-century European elite, as well as on the assumption that history-writing is properly the work of men. As Bonnie Smith and others have traced this legacy, the ideal of the male historian who transcends his own history-writing remains so compelling that “while we see powerful historians as men, we also see only truth, pure intelligence, and compelling explanation.” In other words, some voices in history are heard more readily than others. Although feminist historians might think that we “need only work harder for the truth to appear,” it is difficult for our voices to prevail in a historical discourse still tuned to “the fascinating self of the male historian, as the authority on the past.”1

History as a sign of masculinity troubles the project of feminist history on many fronts, but this chapter focuses on two especially important hurdles: first, the challenge of mainstreaming women’s history into our discipline’s master narratives, those teleological tales born of Victorian enthusiasm for change, progress, politics, high culture, and the deeds of great men; and second, the challenge of teaching a femi-

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