Feminine Gender, Past Imperfect

By Martin, Tony | History Today, April 1997 | Go to article overview

Feminine Gender, Past Imperfect


Martin, Tony, History Today


We publish below the winning entry of the Longman/History Today Essay Prize, answering the question: `Is 1990s history still too much his-tory and not enough her-story? How far should historians take into account political correctness and past injustices to groups in presenting their versions of the past?'

* The great Dutch historian Pieter Geyl once called history `an argument without end'. It is never a closed book of settled truth but an ongoing debate. Historical analysis involves constant re-evaluation of past events and must incorporate new perspectives and insights for heuristic purposes. Here Multiculturalism and the `Politically Correct' movement were originally presented as a genuine challenge to the conservative status quo in a healthy pluralism, reflecting the historical contribution of women and ethnic minorities.

Unfortunately, multicultural thinking and the PC tendency have imposed a false historicism which is even more guilty of distortion than academic curricula of the past. The call for greater pluralism and diversity has, ironically, resulted in a more rigid orthodoxy than existed before: PC seeks to marginalise pivotal historical figures and key events, emphasising egalitarianism and sociological perspective instead. This is history without heroes -- and heart.

How and when did the Politically Correct tendency emerge? Ironically, the term originated back in the 1960s when sexist and racist remarks were sarcastically referred to by conservatives as being `politically incorrect'. It was only in the mid-eighties that PC emerged to acquire rubric status in America, with conservative commentators using the term in a more serious context to describe what was perceived as a systematic threat to free thinking and expression on US university campuses. Since then Political Correctness has expanded to penetrate into the highest levels of government itself. Its influence, like other modern trends, has extended across the Atlantic: in some London bookshops `herstory' shelves stand beside those of `history'.

Two powerful polemics are worthy of note on the PC issue. Robert Hughes, in his Culture of Complaint -- The Fraying of America (1993) mounts a convincing attack upon the practitioners of political correctness and multiculturalism from the standpoint of the democratic Left. While conceding that the US academic establishment had ignored the historic contribution of women and ethnic minorities in the making of modern America, Hughes identifies an obsession with victimhood within the PC Culture of Complaint that actually undermines empirical analysis of historical events because all truth is deemed subjective. Multiculturalism threatens America's foundations, for the country is now in danger of disintegrating into feuding minority groups. The `Balkanisation' of America also concerns the Harvard historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jnr. A lifelong liberal and civil rights supporter, Schlesinger condemns the new orthodoxy of Political Correctness in The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society (1992). America, he feels, is being tribalised by radical multicultural education, including Afrocentrism, which promotes ethnic separatism among minority groups. The success of the New World experiment lay in creating one nation from many: `the American creed'.

No rational person can argue with the vision attributed to Political Correctness: a better, more inclusive society free of sexism and racism, with greater recognition accorded to women and minority groups for the purpose of achieving increased tolerance and international understanding. There is also no doubt that historians, traditionally, have shown excessive conservatism, even racism, when dealing with the cultures of Africa and the Third World. Arnold Toynbee in A Study of History, written over half a century ago, claimed that the black race `was the only one of the primary races... which has not made a single creative contribution to any of our 21 civilisations'. …

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