On the Uses and Advantages of a Gendered Historiography

It seems evident that a gendered historiographical approach will be eminently directed towards furthering both the feminist and the LGBTQ cause – causes which, in the recent political turmoil surrounding a ‘war on women,’ sadly seems to be more pressing than ever. Once again, therefore, we find ourselves assaying a historiographical approach which adresses a current issue and emphasizes aspects of a contemporary problem. Might that not indicate that all historical writing is, ultimately, but a stake in a set of contemporary struggles?

A gendered historiography, as Joan Scott makes us aware, faces two challenges simultaneously. In the words of the linguistic turn parts of feminist historiography belong to (Scott: 1066) (at least the ones inspired by the so-called ‘Third Wave’ of feminism), it has to give an account of the historicity of both signififers and signifieds. That is to say that a gendered account of history will question the power it narrates, i.e., manifestations of power which actually happened (1059), as well as question the power of the narrative (1058). Introducing the category of gender into historical writing, therefore, will result in accounts of the differential articulation of genders and sexes; it will narrate that these always appear in the plural; that the difference between them is the constitutive factor of them; and it will give accounts of how this difference is being turned into a hieracrchy (1054).

What Scott does not mention explicitly, but is introduced by the selection of the texts for our reading is that the supposed binary of sexuality is, of course, in turn a historically specific configuration, and thus immediately questioned by the introduction of homosexual practices. John D’Emilio’s provocative hypothesis on these is that homosexuality as we know it is not older than the demise of the nuclear family (D’Emilio: 468). That is to say, the separation of a family discourse centered on emotional stability and reproduction, and a sexual discourse liberated from these constraints (470), enables the growth of an urban subculture building identities based on sexual orientation (471). Of course, the opposite side is articulated by the same token (473).

Generally, what homosexual complications of feminist discourses can and do show is the polysemic nature of the linguistic and social, and precisely not natural, articulation of sexuality. Consequently, George Chauncey emphasizes the social nature of homosexuality (Chauncey: 190), as well as its polysemy (192). He also makes us aware that the latter is conjured and evoked, rather than suppressed, by discourses trying to enforce a specific definition of homosexuality (195, 206), rigidly opposed to heterosexuality – to a point where even so-called medical evidence is introduced to uphold social norms (203). Furthermore, Chauncey shows that the consideration of aberrant sexuality reveals it as a set of distinctive practices (191) bordering, and thus implying, and thus unsettling, its bordering social formations: heterosexuality (196) just as much as Christian charity (201). Finally, Chauncey insists on an account of history in which Foucault’s repression hypothesis – that power is always negative, limiting, and prohibiting – is complicated by the complicity of established institutions (here: the Church) in non-standard practices (199).

History, we might conclude, is structured by binary oppositions in which the terms articulate each other. It is also structured – or rather, unstructured, raw, untamed; problematized – by halos of concepts, implications, norms, practices, and deviances surrounding these. The recent proliferation of letters added to what once was the Lesbian and Gay cause is an indication in this respect. The fundamental problem of all such activist and interventionist histories is, of course, that their goal – the end of the hierarchical opposition between male heterosexuality and all other forms of sexuality – immediately leads to the vanishing of the problem which permitted the solution to be a solution; and hence leads to an end of the activism. As for historiography, though, that can be discarded as merely a minor problem.

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