Monthly Archives: October 2014

Writing History in a Necessarily Gendered World, and Singing French Songs

One of my favorite songs begins, “J’ai un problème d’intégration.” It was stuck in my head as I read through Scott’s “Symptomatic Politics.” The artist, Anis Kachohi, is (funnily enough) of partially Moroccan descent–rather appropriate, given the readings, and rather an appropriate opening line. Maybe this pleasant association made me more amenable to the readings, but I enjoyed the time I spent with Scott. I wish I had the opportunity to read these articles before reading Steedman, actually. I think I may have been better mentally prepared for Landscape for a Good Woman if I’d been exposed to Scott beforehand. But, at least it gave me something useful to look back with.

So, then, if it wasn’t Anis or my fevered brain, why did I enjoy Scott so much? She was clear, and she followed a form with which I am familiar. In “Gender: a Useful Category of Historical Analysis,” she made reference to the work of historians and explained how she believes feminist critique could and should be applied. I read this as a historiography essay, showing how others have and do practice gendered history, why it is important, and how it is applied. I liked that, so much more than I can say. I’m one of those weird ones who enjoys reading literature reviews or “state of the field” essays. I felt prepared to read more after starting with this.

Likewise, I found myself enjoying “Symptomatic Politics” for the very same reasons. Scott wrote in an engaging manner to lay out a very linear and readable article. She began with background, provided context, and then finally provided her critique. This piece was the perfect example of what she explores in “A Useful Category of Historical Analysis,” where gender is inextricably bound up with class, ethnicity, politics, regionalism, language, etc. It was a very nice example of the method I’d just read, and I was silly pleased.

I found myself thinking ever so much as I went through these articles, and wound up with a long list of questions. Instead of analyzing or critiquing the writings, I think I’ll instead pose my questions and continue thinking on them.

How are we accommodating non-Western societal philosophies into women’s or gender studies? What histories are being composed or already exist there? How can that inform our future Western histories? Aren’t we always working through the lens of our present to create a meaning on a past? If so, how have the stories feminist historians have told changed over the years? Likewise, we’re working from a socio-cultural fixed point; how does that impact our histories?

If we, like Anis, have a problem with integration, then how can it be overcome? By continuing to integrate and bind women’s and gender histories into and with class, culture, race, politics, etc.? Or through another channel? By acknowledging that all actions are carried out in a necessarily gendered world, is anything substantively gained without additional action?


Filed under Historical Methods Assignment

Landscape for a Good Woman, or Why It’s Better to Just be an Orphan

I do not think I remember ever reading anything quite like Carolyn Kay Steedman’s Landscape for a Good Woman. It made me think so many questions as I went along. Is this a gendered reading? Is it an analysis of the implications of the class system in England? Is it both? It must be, right?

All I know is: I prefer Foucault, I miss his fluidity and abstraction and even his nothing. I resisted the definitions and implications that Steedman created, or rather that she believes exist. As I read, I felt like a cage was being built around me. Instead of steel bars, though, it was built from life experiences and the perceptions of strangers and pressure to feel emotions that I have never felt, or to have thoughts I have never thought.

I grew up in a fatherless home. Yet, to me, I never knew about a “patriarchy” until I was in middle or high school. For me, my mother wasn’t my mother: she was my parent, and all you needed to make a family was one parent. I never felt the things Steedman implies that all girl children feel at some point during their lives. I found myself having to acknowledge the validity of the experiences recounted in this book, and yet fundamentally maintain that just because you share a trait doesn’t mean you should have similar experiences. I realize that my feeling of being caged is rooted in my own ideals and perceptions, and is not necessarily a construct of this work. This is me attempting to be reflective rather than reactionary. Is it working?

Throughout this book, Steedman is analyzing her memories as a primary source, which is both intriguing and potentially problematic. I can see this as being troubling because you cannot compare personal memories with those of other people—you cannot collect or curate their memories the same way you collect and curate your own. You can compare your memories from a time to your memories from another time, yet again you cannot contrast or compare them with other similar sources. Memories are difficult to contextualize. In fact, what I found most difficult about this book was the lack of context. I kept wondering if other mothers and children in similar situations had similar experiences and emotions. Steedman implied that was the case, but didn’t offer any examples.

I found myself wondering how much her mother’s situation had to do with being a child of World War I, just as I wondered how much Steedman’s situation had to do with her being a child of World War II. I wondered how much both situations had to do with the economic depressions of the early 20th century. All of these topics were touched on—“They happened,” Steedman seemed to say, “but that’s not the story.” I think that, perhaps, they played a larger role in creating a cultural and emotional climate than they were given credit for.

Throughout my reading, I had to keep pausing, flipping back to the first few pages, and reminding myself: this book was published in 1986. I can appreciate where it rests in the historiography of Women’s Studies, and how radical it was when first released. I can see how important it is to exist and to be exposed to it. But, now it is 2014. How has Women’s and Gender Studies changed since 1986? Has it changed? Is there a landscape for good Women’s Studies, or does there even need to be?



Filed under Historical Methods Assignment

“…la fou soulage, guide, guérit:” Translations and Language in History

“Ceci n’est pas une pipe,” or “This is not a pipe.” Right? Two completely different statements strung together with two completely different intents by markedly different individuals. And, yet, here we are thinking that they offer the same meaning. Reading through “What is Enlightenment” was challenging for me. Yes, it was certainly due in part because Foucault made all sorts of philosophical references that I’m not familiar with and used German without explanation, but also partly because the original French was offered beside the English translation. And, as I read, I found myself becoming increasingly frustrated. I’ve taken a bit of French, and while I’m not one to judge a fine translation, there are certain nuances to language that are lost during translation. I prefer reading Rimbaud in French, for example. I might struggle with it sometimes, but there is so much more original intent in his French words; so many implications and connotations are removed when words are filtered through a translation.

As I continued reading, my frustrations grew. By translating Foucault, we were imposing a system of linguistics that didn’t always quite fit his original words. We were embedding an English mentality and set of symbols and connotations on his writing that wasn’t there originally. Who were we to alter his intent? And, yet, without the translation, I wouldn’t be able to most fully understand the basic notions he was exploring. I could see the conflict, and appreciate both sides. At this point, I sat down my papers, turned away from my computer and said, “Well, crap.” In that moment I realized I was subconsciously applying a belief in the “linguistic turn” and poststructuralism while completing my reading. As Gabrielle M. Spiegel said in her AHA Presidential Address in 2008, “We may legitimately take, I believe, the hallmark of deconstruction to have been a new and deeply counterintuitive understanding of the relationship between language and reality—counterintuitive in the sense that deconstruction’s framing of that relationship imposes so many layers of mediation that what we experience as ‘reality’ is seen to be a socically (that is, linguistically) constituted artifact or ‘effect’ of the particular language systems we inhabit, thereby undermining the materialist theories of experience and the ideas of causality and agency inherent in them.”[1] When I read this address, I highlighted this sentence because I thought it would be important to remember for class. I certainly didn’t intend to apply it to my reading so unconsciously, resulting in my complete shock when I realized what I was experiencing. After all, I don’t like the Analytic philosophers. All they do is confuse me.

So, I turned back to Foucault and I asked, “But how does this relate to what I’m doing with history?” I can appreciate that I need to learn about historiography and different theories applied to history over time—and I find that learning very interesting. I can understand how Marxist Theory is applicable to history, or how a familiarity with the conventions of cultural anthropology can help shape a more full historical analysis. Yet, I found myself struggling to apply Foucault. I certainly found myself sympathizing more with Spiegel’s statement that poststructuralism isn’t wholly sympathized with today, since it is arguably “overly systematic” in its critique of human behavior and language.[2] I do not believe I will deeply engage with poststructural analysis in my work, but I did realize something important—French-to-English translations can be as equivalent to an act recounted as history as “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” is to “This is not a pipe.” Not to be confusing, but the frustration I experienced with the loss of original intent or meaning or voice during a translation can, and arguably should, also be felt whenever a bit of history is historicized. When a person, event, act, etc. is studied, interpreted, and placed within a context, we are translating it and forcing into that translation all of the baggage that we as individuals and members of society carry with us. This is exactly why historians cannot deal in facts, and exactly why they shouldn’t want to.

And now, if you don’t mind, I’m going to go back to Foucault. I think we have more to talk about.





[1] Gabrielle M. Spiegel, “Presidential Address: The Task of the Historian,” American Historical Review (February 2009): 5.

[2] Ibid., 9.

[3] Title taken from Arthur Rimbaud’s Une Saison en Enfer.


Filed under Historical Methods Assignment