Today I attended the launch of the new Gender, Women and Culture seminar. The first part was a sandwich lunch and the honouring of four important Oxford historians with the unveiling of their portraits in the History Faculty. The historians in question are:

Professor Jose Harris

Dr Barbara Harvey

Professor Dame Olwen Hufton

Dr Joan Thirsk

Three of them were in attendance (Joan Thirsk unfortunately died last year). Short speeches were given in their honour, and I found it very inspiring to hear about the groundbreaking work these women have done.

The second part of the meeting was a roundtable, to which I contributed. I was asked to speak for a few minutes on the theme of “What is the future of women’s history?” This was an interesting question for me, as I would normally position myself as working within gender history, as at present I largely research men and masculinities. Gender history and women’s history do not have the same agenda, and sometimes they can sit together a bit uncomfortably. Once I would have said that gender history is the successor of women’s history; now I am not so sure. I think there is still a space for history that is explicitly women’s, and that politically it is important to have that space. Methodologically and intellectually, though, I probably sympathise most with the general approach taken by gender historians. I thought for quite a long time about what I wanted to say; I didn’t think that predictions about what medievalists might research next was something I could frame in a way that was necessarily very fruitful. So instead I thought about social media, and last night I wrote up a few notes to use today. So here are a few thoughts that I had, presented here informally.

The future of women’s history

Like many historians nowadays, I keep a blog. Last week I received the following comment on one of my entries:

“You feminists are really paranoid, aren’t you? You can find any convoluted excuse to bring up rape. Wait. Am I raping you right now by criticizing you?” 

The entry this comment was left on was a piece where I linked the manifestation of rape culture in today’s media with representations of rape and victim-blaming in medieval texts. My blog-writing is openly interested in the intersections between my work in gender history and my political position as a feminist; as well as writing about my own research, I also blog on topics such as pedagogy within gender studies. My blog is by no means terribly popular; my posts usually receive between a few dozen and a few hundred hits. All the same, writing it has allowed me to have contact with people I might not otherwise have met; I have chatted with academics from all over the world, and also had feminists from other fields of work leave me thoughtful and useful feedback that has influenced my perspectives. And now and again I will get a hateful comment of the sort I have just read.

The reason I bring this up is partly because the future of women’s history is about new networks of communication, particularly social media; and partly because women’s history is and will continue to be influenced by the intersection between writing the history of women, and being a woman historian. As the introduction to the new Oxford handbook of women and gender in medieval Europe says: ‘feminist scholarship on the Middle Ages is at once scholarly and political.” Particularly if you are a young female educator, you will often be assumed to be interested in gender issues because you can somehow “relate” to them, while older (usually male) colleagues get on with more serious academic business, which they of course have no personal biases about! While usually the criticism you get will be subtler than the hateful comment I received on my blog, the implicit message is often essentially the same: you are allowing your personal life to colour your academic perspective. Some academics of gender history have accordingly tried to create more critical distance. While gender theory is often highly political, historians’ use of it has sometimes had the effect of seeming to theorise out the traditional feminist role of women’s studies. That seems to be the implicit worry in the introduction to the Oxford handbook I mentioned, where the editors opaquely write “we…hope that our new histories will not drown out the old”. I think that what Judith Bennett and Ruth Mazo Karras were getting at there was that they don’t want gender history to take the place of women’s history; that women’s history still has a place in medieval studies, and in the political lives of academics.

The women and men who write women’s history are not apolitical in their approach – and nor, I think, can they afford to be, when women make up under 35% of history faculty in the USA and only 1 in 5 full professors in the UK are female. Many of the issues currently being discussed in medieval studies with regards to women resonate with not only researchers, but also the students they teach.  Topics such as the value of women’s work, roles within the home, sexual violence and gender presentation come up repeatedly in research and teaching about the middle ages: not just because these are fruitful areas of enquiry, but because these questions often strike a chord with students and teachers.

So much of the study of the middle ages has been dominated by analysis of high status white men, and it could be argued that the recent interest in, for instance, studies in masculinities – the area where I currently work – is merely a fashionable academic gloss on a return to privileging male experience. There also seems to be a fear that problematising and theorising gender identity will risk sidelining the real oppressive history of medieval patriarchy and the palpable impact of sexism on the lives of medieval women. Yet at the same time, scholars are aware that to ignore new developments in analytical frameworks and theoretical approaches risk stagnatising the field. And gender history opens up windows into groups marginalised by their sexual and gender identities that do not fit under the sub-discipline of “women’s history”. There are scholastic tensions here about the limitations of women’s history and a feeling that it constricts our worldview. Hence the introduction to the Oxford handbook – intended very clearly as a hefty 600 page statement on the “state of the field” – simultaneously apologises for and defends the lacunae in scholarship there presented. Gender history and women’s history do not, in medieval history at least, always make entirely comfortable bedfellows.

I think that part of this issue is political. In medieval history, while women’s history began in the early twentieth century, it was not until the late 70s and 80s that it became a vibrant and dynamic field under the auspices of several prominent second wave feminist historians, many of whom are still writing today. These historians often still write as if third wave feminism – the movement that began in the 90s that aims to decentralise white western female experience as the default feminist position – is something new. The term ‘intersectionality’ – the interactions of multiple systems of oppression or discrimination – was coined in 1989 by the African American scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw as a way of understanding how race, gender and socio-economic status intersect in the experiences of the lives of black women. Yet this term has only quite recently entered the mainstream of feminist discourse, and since medieval studies seems to lag a few years behind the mainstream in terms of developments in feminism and gender studies, it is still still entirely possible to write books on medieval women that implicitly assume white heterosexual Christian women to be the default “she”. I don’t think this will be possible for much longer.

My prediction about the future of women’s history is that social media will have a far greater impact than many people expect. Not because all historians will start blogging or tweeting – while many of my fellow medievalists do this, many more still shy away from it, perceiving it to be faddish. But as I said, those of us who work in gender studies and women’s history are often people who also identify politically as feminist. And the new movement in feminism, the fourth wave, is happening online. Whether the fourth wave is distinct from the third wave or is an extension of it is a matter for debate elsewhere. What is clear is that the internet provides a global forum for debate and activism in a way that was not possible before. According to research by Columbia University, women aged 18 – 29 are the power users of social media. Many women now have a public voice, and these women are often from groups that are marginalised. Some of the most active feminists on twitter are trans, people of colour, and queer. These activists can easily make articles go viral – they read, circulate, and critique material, making their approval and criticism quite apparent. The intersection between feminist audiences and academic audiences online is often quite substantial, and material that might once have been restricted to a small elite audience is now being circulated and discussed online in all kinds of formats.To provide an example, an enormously popular website that has sprung up is Medieval People of Color. The purpose of this blog is to critique historiography that has whitewashed the history of medieval Europe. This blog began on the popular social media site tumblr, more commonly associated in the public imagination with porn gifs and clips of Doctor Who. Its huge success demonstrates firstly that there is widespread appetite for non-mainstream historical narratives, and also that the problematising of those narratives is no longer the exclusive purview of the academy. I remember a comment left by a woman who said she cried when she saw images of medieval black women in aristocratic clothes, because she had never really imagined women like her having a place in the past in Europe that wasn’t as a slave. Yet as the owner of the blog, Malisha Dewalt, notes, such images are rarely seen in classroom situations – she shared many examples of images where non-white figures had been cropped out of reproductions in text books. The historiography of my field is historically racist and sexist. But with greater resources available online, and a voluble and politically active internet community, people are no longer willing to take this sexism and racism at face value.

I’m not saying that social media will or indeed should set the agenda for women’s history; but the kind of discussions that can now be easily started because of the rise of social media give voice to people who should be part of the movement forward of women’s history, and that what it means to be part of the ‘academy’ is changing in ways that can only be positive for the development of feminist history.