The Moment of British Womens History: Memories, Celebrations, Assessments, Critiques
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About forty years ago, historians of women began to claim a place for their subject as a distinct scholarly field. This movement emerged particularly powerfully in Britain, its early preoccupations and questions shaped by the feminist movement, the New Left, and especially by Thompsonian social history. A clutch of brilliant young feminist scholars uncovered the forgotten claims and achievements of women Chartists, Owenists, suffragists and social reformers, their work enabled by and further fostering a raft of innovative and successful (if financially fragile) networks, institutions, and publishing ventures. At the meetings of the London Feminist History Group and through chance encounters in the Fawcett Librarys rediscovered and rich collections, in early issues of Feminist Review and History Workshop Journal, through Virago Presss publication of new scholarship on women and the rediscovered fiction and historical records of earlier periods, and in the struggle to found womens studies courses and programs, this new field took shape.
That early flowering of British womens history was symbiotically bound to American developments from the start. Strong transatlantic feminist ties brought young American women scholars to London, and the better-funded and to a degree more anarchic structure of American higher education also made space for collaboration. The Berkshires Conference of Womens Historians, Feminist Studies and other new journals, and the Conference of Womens Historians, fostered exchanges, friendships, and paradigms. Graduate courses and then graduate programs in womens history and womens studies emerged, launching a generation of women into the profession. Through the seventies, womens history also engaged with, and was reshaped by, well-founded criticisms of its blindness to imperial legacies and racial hierarchies; paradigms asserting the primacy of patriarchy jostled with those relying on the triumvirate of race, sex, and class. Connections to literary criticism on the one hand, and to sociology on the other, turned Victorian ideology and male-dominated social structures into major foci of research. Then, suddenly, structuralist explanation was under challenge from within, as scholars turned to Foucault, Saussure and Lacan for a theory of difference less tied to physical bodies and material or state structures. Some of the fields prominent early founders changed course; gender history had arrived.
Today, that moment of womens history seems both present and a long way off. The fields founders and pioneers are now retiring. They leave impressive accomplishments an academic landscape in which women as subjects of study and gender as a useful category are taken for granted; positions, programs and professorial chairs in the UK and US alike; rich scholarship stretching across three generations. But institutionalization and what we might call analytic complexification has also changed the field in many ways. It seems a good moment for celebration and acknowledgement, then, but also for reflection. How does this field now look to some of its early pioneers? How has mentorship and school-formation worked? What have successive generations taken from earlier generations work, and how have they transformed it? What happened to those early institution and networks? What has been gained and lost through the process of institutionalization? What has happened both to the place of the feminist imperative within history, and to the relatively privileged place of Britain within that scholarship?