Defining The Historian: Modern Feminism

So, 2012 was a strange year for feminism, it seems to have been dismissed by popular culture, while at the same time experiencing a huge resurgence and taking advantage of new media to reach a wider audience, connecting women across the globe. Campaigns such as Everyday Sexism, and The Women’s Room have championed the reality of women’s lives, bringing attention to issues that we often seem to ignore. Seeing this new animation within the movement has been really exciting. It has also caused me to give serious thought to a definition that I’d never really given considered before – my own identity as a woman, as a feminist, and as a historian. Why don’t I want to call myself a feminist historian?

That might sound a little ridiculous to some of you. Historians are renowned for painting themselves into happy little boxes: political historian, economic historian, post-structuralist feminist historian with Marxist leanings – the list, and accompanied navel gazing, is endless. Defining oneself as belonging to a particular area or theoretical school is often seen as one of the fundamental building blocks that decide what sort of historian you are going to be, and, more importantly, what sort of history you are going to write. It is something I have resisted for many years. Each label, whether it is that of a structuralist, or a post-structuralist, a Marxist, a feminist, or a Hegelian, limits – I believe – its writer’s ability to fully engage with their historical subject, and to see it from as many angles as possible. We become defined by a set of ideals that we did not create, and interpret the evidence of our research through parameters that may not have influenced our subjects or even existed in their time. This self-projection into historical analysis is highly destructive. In its worst form it can lead to research being dismissed because it challenges the beliefs we hold about a certain movement or person.

I also haven’t yet found a theoretical framework that I fully agree with. I know I am a child of the Annales School, I believe history must incorporate other disciplines and be written as histoire totale. I think there is still a case for the application metanarratives, possibly even more so now, due to the influence of technology and global dialogues via social media. But I also think Spengler’s views on socio-cyclical theory and history deserves attention. I like Plato, Kant, Barthes, and Machiavelli. I like bits of both the structuralists and post-structuralists, and we all know that anyone who gets labels as a postmodernist is just someone no-one else understands.

So why have I resisted the feminist label? Surely, as a woman, and as a historian incorporating women’s history, it should be the easiest label in world to accept? Why haven’t I? Well, I think my resistance comes down to perception. I don’t solely work on women’s history, I am equally fascinated by the history and experiences of the men I research. I believe we have to look at all the characters involved in our historical narratives to fully understand the issues and interactions between them. But by accepting the label of feminist historian I would be expected to subscribe to a set of beliefs and ideas about events in history, in the period I work on, which restrict my arguments and analysis. To be a historian, I need to separate myself from any political agenda, and arguing for that analytical freedom doesn’t make me less of a feminist, just as arguing for freedom from any political ideology doesn’t make a person less of patriot. We must be allowed to criticise our social movements from within, without fear or prejudice.

I am a passionate feminist, I am also a passionate historian, and I do not believe that separate one from the other makes me less of either. If anything it increases my understanding of the struggles women have fought through, and my determination to educate others in the hope we build a society that is equal and open to all.

Studying history has taught me that women have been challenged the perceptions of society since the dawn of time. We didn’t suddenly wake up during the twentieth century and decide things should be different due to some grand universal epiphany. From the beautiful love letters of Heloise, to Abigail Adams, women have acted and expressed themselves with the same passion and intelligence as men for aeons. But for many people, feminism begins in the nineteenth century. It is a successful campaign consisting of three clear waves of attack, each resulting in greater legal, economic and social freedom for women. Because it is so close to our own historical memory women are still identified as 1st, 2nd or 3rd wave feminists, depending on their role in the campaigns chronology, and which belief structures they wish to challenge.

I belong to the third wave, believing utterly in the maxim that ‘being liberated doesn’t mean copying what came before but finding one’s own way– a way that is genuine to one’s own generation’. Against second wave beliefs I have no issue with pornography or the sex industry, if it is the women’s personal choice and not a result of coercion, intimidation or addiction. I believe a woman has a right to chose what happens to her own body. I also believe that she has the right to do so without the fear or threat of violence or aggression. I believe in equal pay, social and economic freedom, and that opportunities should be open to all regardless of gender. I know I am incredibly lucky; I have an independence and education my Victorian contemporaries could only have dreamed of. But, if history has taught me anything, it has taught me that the fight is not over. Perhaps the problem is that feminism has become seen as passive, so many battles were fought before my generation came along; we have the vote, we are supposed to have the power of the law against sexual discrimination and sexual aggression. But just because we have these rights doesn’t mean we are using them. Education – one of the main tenets of the Suffragette campaign – is something we need to use to inspire and enthral the women around us. To teach both men and women that to be a feminist – to be proud of being a woman, and to demand to be treated with respect by another human being – is nothing to scared or ashamed of.

So yes, I am a feminist and I am a historian. But don’t label me a feminist historian; those things need to be separate for me to be able to do either justice. But there is one label I would be proud to have, because it means you are an active fighter. I would be proud to be a Suffragette. Maybe that’s what’s beginning to happen with the movements like Reclaim the Night. Maybe this is the New Suffragette Army in its infancy. I wonder where it will go next?