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Jill Liddington


4 January 2001

University of Leeds
Centre for Interdisciplinary Gender Studies: Working Paper 1
Feminist Scholarship: within/across/between/beyond the disciplines


Jill Liddington

Feminist engagement with the discipline of history has a long, rich and important pedigree. The nineteenth-century awakening, twentieth-century suffrage renewal, and the second-wave women’s liberation movement in the 1970s, have all prompted feminists actively to interrogate accepted versions of history and to construct newly imaginative ways of history-reading and history-writing. And with the postmodernist millenium-end, this energetic engagement shows absolutely no sign of diminishing. Indeed, with the powerful intervention over a decade ago of American historian Joan Scott’s notion of ‘gendering history’, we now see feminist history’s coming-of-age. One recent review of Scott’s new collection, Feminism and History (1996), captured this current intellectual excitement: the collected essays ‘demonstrate that gender studies have become the leading edge of academic history. It is the site not only of brilliant empirical work, but of the most advanced reflection on the nature of history as a discipline.’ (1)

The the launch of CIGS in the late 1990s therefore offered a particularly opportune moment to review critically the positioning of gender studies and history. For, despite the creative proliferation of historical work, some key issues still stubbornly remain. There persists a dramatically uneven acceptance of feminist frameworks within some more traditional history departments; at the same time, there is also an intellectual tension still between older-established women’s history and newer gender history; and third, the crucial contribution of the discipline of history (especially early modern and medieval scholarship, moving beyond feminists’ well-trodden paths through Victorian and Edwardian England) to Gender Studies still sometimes needs asserting. Here, it is only possible to summarize briefly some of the achievements and some of the shifts of theoretical framework, focusing on the last three decades and especially on the current ‘golden age’ of gender history.


When Ray Strachey’s classic The Cause: a short history of the women’s movement in Great Britain (1928) was published, it reflected certain key characteristics of feminist history-writing. First, it sprang from Strachey’s own suffrage activism, rather than from an academic perspective; second, it was a personal and arguably partisan account; and third it offered a very broad historical sweep indeed - from Wollstonecraft to the 1920s.

When the second-wave movement re-emerged in the UK, influenced by dramatic developments in the US, it titled itself the ‘women’s liberation’ rather than feminist movement. Similarly breaking with the past, feminist history around 1970 sprang initially from a historiographical tradition unconnected to Strachey’s older suffrage liberalism. Inspired by, but also reacting against, labour history, socialist-feminist writers in the UK - notably Sheila Rowbotham - forefronted radical ideas and working-class women’s lives. In the Preface to her influential Hidden from History: 300 Years of Women’s Oppression and the Fight Against It (1973), Rowbotham makes these origins clear:

This book comes very directly from a political movement [and from]... discussions in women’s liberation and on the left about the situation of women in contemporary capitalism... I have tried to explore both what has been specific to women as a sex and the manner in which class has cut across this oppression. (2)

As well as stressing both class and sexual subjugation, the work of Rowbotham and other feminist historians of the early 1970s was characteristically recuperative - quite literally uncovering and celebrating the stories of radical and working-class women which had been previously ‘hidden from history’. Such work was also characteristically ‘written from the margins’, rather than springing from within the historical establishment or higher education institutions, but originating in women’s liberation groups or in community-based classes.

Rowbotham’s Preface ended: ‘In writing about such a wide sweep of our past I am necessarily skimming the surface of things, piecing together what I can find from diverse sources, most of them secondary. I am turning up the top soil in the hope that others will dig deeper’.(3) And so they did. Much of the work that Rowbotham inspired at this stage was embedded within an English empiricist tradition, based upon detailed historical research, turning to little-known - or even unknown - local and regional primary sources.

I was among those inspired. Living in the Manchester area in the mid-1970s, I began to uncover the neglected story of the radical suffragists from Lancashire, whose commitment to the Votes for Women campaign sprang from their industrial experience in textile mills and factories and from their involvement in the early labour and trade union movement. These weavers, winders and tailoresses took their grassroots suffrage message to women at the factory gate and the cottage door, to the Women’s Co-operative Guilds and trade union branches. Drawing upon little-known archival sources and upon tape-recorded interview with the last surviving daughters of these suffragists, in One Hand Tied Behind Us (1978) Jill Norris and I unearthed the forgotten history of the courageous radical suffragists. (4) It was indeed an instance of the ‘digging deeper’ that Rowbotham had flagged; and it formed part of a 1970s renaissance of women’s history, rooted in both women’s liberation and labour history, which gave weight to both sexual difference and to class.(5)

Many of us stayed for a long while within this very English empiricist history-writing frame. However, it was soon challenged by a rather differently theorized approach to women’s history: this drew upon radical feminism rather than the labour movement, emphasizing the concept of patriarchy and sexual difference rather than class. A collection edited by Australian writer Dale Spender, Feminist Theorists (1983), illustrate this: it offered an angry critique of how patriarchy and men’s power had erased women’s intellectual traditions and achievements:

Theorizing is something men do - so they say... Theories are also something male theorists have used to justify numerous forms of oppression... Only one sex controls information in our society. Totalitarian regimes are in a position to put forward their own version of the facts... And patriarchy is a totalitarian regime. It is the dictatorship of the male. It can put forward its version of the facts and erase alternatives.(6)

The debate about patriarchy indeed energetically engaged feminist historians.(7) But both socialist-feminist and radical-feminist frameworks shared a key perspective. They both firmly and purposefully placed women centre-stage in the historiographical record. This positioning had the advantage of providing an inspiring and accessible starting point for completely new readers and writers, students and teachers. A new generation of women, coming from girlhoods shaped by governessing Jane Eyre and nursing heroines, readily identified with such luminous Victorian figures such as Charlotte Bronte” and Florence Nightingale. Across the country, women’s history courses sprang up, often organized by the local WEA or university extra-mural department, as part of a broader Women’s Studies course. Local feminist history groups flourished as contagious enthusiasm spread to rediscover what had been ‘hidden from history’ took hold.(8) Publishers, notably Virago Press, reissued in paperback out-of-print or neglected feminist classics - including Strachey’s The Cause (1928, 1978). In similar mode, History Workshop: a journal of socialist historians retitled itself in 1982 a journal of socialist and feminist historians.

But critics might - at least retrospectively - identify certain disadvantages with this rather unproblematized rediscovery of women’s achievement and women’s voices. Such critics might point to women’s history’s developing within a descriptive rather than analytical framework; of providing an essentialist account of women’s unifying characteristics and experiences, rather than what was varied and diverse - particularly race, sexuality, religion and nationality; and of permitting itself to remain in a continued marginal position within universities and academic institutions. Traditionalist historians might with impunity continue to teach history as they always had, with perhaps a part-time tutor just coming in to ‘do’ a session on women’s history - and feel they had thus ‘done women’.

Then, in the mid-1980s, feminist historians in Britain began to hear from the United States of a new and distinctive voice, setting a rather different agenda and asking a different set of questions. Joan Scott’s highly influential essay, ‘Gender: a useful category of analysis’ (1986) had enormous impact; it was reprinted in her Gender and the Politics of History (1988), becoming, one historian suggests, ‘probably the most cited historical work of recent times’.(9) So what new was Scott offering? To express it simply, Scott changed the emphasis of interrogation from empirical ‘what?’ to post-structuralist and highly theorized ‘how?’ questions. The enquiry was no longer so much ‘What did women experience, and what did women, do in xth century in y culture?’ but rather ‘How (and by what processes) in xth century in y culture did gender help construct distinct masculine and feminine meanings and identities?’ Scott’s own words are worth quoting; gender:

means knowledge about sexual difference... Such knowledge is not absolute or true, but always relative. It is produced in complex ways... Its uses and meanings become contested politically and are the means by which relationships of power - of domination and subordination - are constructed....
It follows then that gender is the social organization of sexual difference.... Gender is the knowledge that establishes meanings for bodily differences. These meanings vary across cultures, social groups, and time... History...provides a means for understanding and contributing to the process by which gender knowledge is produced.....

I found it imperative to pursue theoretical questions in order to do feminist history. This resulted, I think, from my sense of frustration at the relatively limited impact women’s history was having on historical studies generally...

Perhaps the most dramatic shift in my own thinking came through asking questions about how hierarchies such as those of gender are constructed or legitimized. The emphasis on ‘how’ suggests a study of processes, not of origins, of multiple rather than single causes, of rhetoric or discourse rather than ideology or consciousness...

The story is no longer about the things that have happened to women and men and how they have reacted to them; instead it is about how the subjective and collective meanings of women and men as categories of identity have been constructed. (10)

Clearly, we have already entered new and challenging territory. Old certainties no longer carried unquestioned weight. Analysis of rhetoric and discourse to discover how meanings of female and male had been constructed took priority over ‘what women did’. For Scott, the construction of masculine identities became as crucial an historical research project. as the construction of feminine identities.

Scott’s impact on the practice of feminist history - directly, but probably especially indirectly in the UK - has been considerable. Leonora Davidoff and Catherine Hall’s influential Family Fortunes: men and women of the English middle class, 1780-1850, (1987) placed the construction of gender identities at the book’s centre, looking at both feminity and masculinity in the making of the middle class. They wrote: ‘the principal argument rests on the assumption that gender and class always operate together, that consciousness of class always takes a gendered form’. (11) The controversial study was, as it were, labour history meets Joan Scott in industrializing middle-class Birmingham. Linked to such research projects, a new British journal just called Gender and History began publication in 1989, edited by Leonora Davidoff.(12) And not long after, when the University of Leeds launched its original Women’s Studies degree, the core history module was simply entitled Gender and History.(13)

The newer and more intellectually rigorous ‘gender history’ perspective threw down a challenge to traditional academic historians and history institutions, making it now more difficult to ignore the gendering of history.(14) And it produced, and continues to produce, some very significant history - for instance, reinvigorating political history and eighteenth-century history. But, at the same time Scott’s intervention triggered considerable controversy, even angry outcry and backlash. Some feminist historians resented what they saw as a watering-down of the original premise of foregrounding women’s experience and achievements, by allowing ‘gender history’ to be written by men, or to elide into studies of masculinity. Others, both teachers and taught, writers and readers, objected strongly and vigorously to the impenetrability of much of the post-Scott history-writing: in place of women’s-history accessibility came gender-history’s obscurantist po-mo textual game-playing. Moreover, in the face of so much theoretical emphasis on fluctuating meanings, slithering identities and on diversity rather than commonality, the very original category ‘woman’ seemed almost to have dissolved before some readers’ eyes. Among Scott’s most vociferous critics was American academic Joan Hoff: in ‘Gender as a Postmodern Category of Paralysis’ she attacked poststructuralism’s influence upon women’s history as depoliticizing and divisive, ethnocentric and elitist. Furiouis, Hoff claimed that now:

Material experiences become abstract representations drawn almost exclusively from textual analysis; personal identities and all human agency become obsolete, and disembodied subjects are constructed as discourses. Flesh-and-blood women, of course, also become social constructs, according to poststructuralists, with no ‘natural’ or physiological context except as a set of symbolic meanings constructing sexual difference. (15)

In the UK, there was a not disimilar reaction, though expressed with more English moderation. In 1992, a second journal, Women’s History Review, was launched – in part, the first editorial made clear, as a critical response to the new emphasis upon gender. While acknowledging:

many new insights to be gained from contemporary deconstructionist views of the non-essentialist and internally fractured nature of the category ‘woman’, we must not let emphases upon the differences between women obscure the unequal differences and power relationships between the sexes...

There is always the danger that in the headlong rush to use the term ‘gender’ rather than ‘women’ we may be de-radicalising our politics, weakening the potential alliances between all women and adopting a more neutral stance where equal consideration is given to men and women and to issues around masculinity and feminity....

Our primary focus is on women. (16)

Others, more grumpily but no less pointedly, have enquired of gender historians - such as Scott - what, if any, original, readable history they have produced recently, since they discovered postmodernism: (I would suggest the answer perhaps lies with their intellectual inspiration rather than directly with original scholarship).

I myself have found the shift of emphasis from women’s history to gender history theoretically very invigorating, if sometimes uncomfortable: rather like a cold shower, best if kept to brief splashes – but then afterwards so bracing. For instance, in my own research on the diaries of Anne Lister of Shibden Hall, Halifax (1791-1840), I have found it helpful to move from a narrative frame that asks ‘what did this remarkable woman do?’ towards a more analytical frame asking ‘what were some of the ways in which such a remarkable woman achieved all she did, and what boundaries did she encounter?’ Thus the processes identified include Anne Lister’s impeccable gentry class credentials and ancient inherited acres; the mediating role of professional men - lawyers, doctors, even clergymen - flattered to be patronized by the landed elite; and the absence of a legal framework or polite public language for lesbianism (unlike male homosexuality) through which Anne Lister’s critics might express their censure. But while gender allowed her to enjoy successive lesbian relationships, it of course also placed very definite boundaries around other activities: Anne Lister was excluded by gender from not only the franchise but also from universities, the magistrates’ bench, from the freemasons, and from practising law, medicine and religion.(17) I feel that posing ‘how’, rather than just ‘what’, questions greatly enriched my critical engagement with the diaries.

Certainly, beyond introductory levels of teaching, it is now invaluable to introduce students to notions of gender and gendering. However, much impressive feminist history currently being written refuses any rigid dichotomizing between either women’s history or gender history. The approach of women’s history certainly remains one of the best ways of introducing the subject, enthusing all new students by touching on the real lived experiences of their lives - whether health, jobs or politics.(18) Certainly, I would argue we need the perspective of both women’s and gender history – citing, for instance, the conferences run by the Women’s History Network (formed in the early 1990s) and Women’s History Review’s reinvigorating of suffrage historiography.(19) Another example would be the history of women’s work and, for instance, debate about the relative weight given to patriarchal continuities and economic change.(20)


Interdisciplinary Gender Studies must - and of course usually does - incorporate insights drawn from the discipline of history. And women’s history and gender history fruitfully draw from other disciplines too - in particular, economics, politics and sociology, literature and art history.(21) For instance, one of the most exciting women’s suffrage books published in the last dozen years, Lisa Tickner’s Spectacle of Women, was written by an art historian and analyzes the Votes for Women movement’s dazzling creative and cultural interventions.(22) But history remains a key discipline - some might argue even the key discipline - within Gender Studies; this is in part because of historians’ meticulous attention to sources, and to their critical contextual reading of both primary and secondary evidence (so avoiding lazy presentist assumptions that, for instance, no ‘woman ever owned anything at all before the liberating moment of the Married Women’s Property Act’. )

Some problems remain. Despite Scott’s ‘gender history’ intervention, and despite the coming-of-age developments over the last decade, some older universities still retain considerable levels of resistance: not so much a glass ceiling, more a chilly glass igloo. As late as 1994 one eminent feminist historian described this history snobbery:

from the perspective of many British university history departments, where there is much patient waiting for feminism...to just turn right round, and go away... [As] the historian of women...watches the display of overwhelming indifference with which the historical gates are held against what she is assumed to represent, she feels like a bimbo from hell, a true descendant of Mary Wollstonecraft, Horace Walpole’s ‘hyena in petticoats’.(23)

Despite the persistence of this chilly silence still among certain unreconstructed enclaves at the start of the new millenium, women’s history and gender history continue to produce some of the most exciting and stimulating work. The contributions of economic historians and historians of women’s work, historians of suffrage and sexuality, historians of political and constitutional thought, all continue to have considerable impact on how we think about the past and how history is taught. Feminist history is no longer the minority enthusiasm it was in the 1970s: it has been popularized and mainstreamed. Some may regret this as dilution of an earlier purity, but most feminist historians will probably want to celebrate this golden-age achievement. One index of this mainstreaming impact on the profession was the excellent conference on ‘Gendering History’ run by the fairly conservative Royal Historical Society (RHS) in 1996; and now the new RHS president-elect, professor of early medieval history, is someone committed to the study of women’s history. With the advent of this golden age of feminist history, the mutual dialogue between historians based within history departments and Gender Studies feminists in, for instance, CIGS becomes even more crucial. A two-way dialogue within and between the disciplines, indeed.

I would like to thank Jean Gardiner, Katrina Honeyman & Sasha Roseneil for comment on an early draft.

1 Kevin Passmore, review of Joan Wallach Scott (ed.), Feminism and History, OUP 1996, in Women’s History Review, 7:2, 1998, p. 265; italics added.

2 Sheila Rowbotham, Hidden from History: 300 Years of Women’s Oppression and the Fight against it, Pluto Press, 1973, p. ix; the book does not refer to Ray Strachey (or, more surprisingly, to Millicent Fawcett, the Liberal leader of the suffragist movement); likewise, Strachey omits radicals like William Thompson, included by Rowbotham. Both, of course, take a broad chronological sweep.

3 Rowbotham, Hidden from History, p. x.

4 Jill Liddington & Jill Norris, One Hand Tied Behind Us: The rise of the women’s suffrage movement, Virago Press, 1978; new 21st anniversary edition, Rivers Oram Press, 2000.

5 Other examples include Doris Nield Chew (ed), Ada Nield Chew: the life and wiritings of a working women, Virago Press, 1982; Jill Liddington, The Life and Times of a Respectable Rebel: Selina Cooper 1864-1946, Virago Press, 1984; both books recorded the life-stories of two of the working women introduced in One Hand.

6 Dale Spender (ed), Feminist Theorists: three centuries of women’s intellectual traditions, Women’s Press (1983), p. 1; another example is the London Feminist History Group, The Sexual Dynamics of History: men’s power, women’s resistance, Pluto Press, 1983.

7 Sheila Rowbotham, ‘The trouble with “patriarchy”’; Sally Alexander and Barbara Taylor, ‘In defence of “patriarchy”’, in New Statesman, 21/28.12.1979 & 1.2.1980.

8 For instance, I was involved in co-founding with Jill Norris a Manchester Women’s History Group [c]1975; it was perhaps too early to be sustained, but within a few years a newly-formed group flourished and still survives. Deirdre Beddoe, Discovering Women’s History: a practical manual, Pandora Press, 1983, listed feminist history groups in Birmingham, Liverpool, London, Manchester, Sheffield and Wales.

9 Passmore, Women’s History Review, 7:2, 1998, p. 261.

10 Joan Scott, Introduction, Gender and the Politics of History, 1988, pp. 1-7.

11 Davidoff and Hall, Family Fortunes, Hutchinson, 1987, p. 13.

12 I was a member of the journal’s editorial collective.

13 Co-taught by Katrina Honeyman and myself.

14 Eg Hannah Barker and Elaine Challus (eds), Gender in Eighteenth-Century England: roles, representations and responsibilities, Longman, 1997.

15 Joan Hoff, ‘Gender as a Postmodern Category of Paralysis’, Women’s History Review, 3:2, 1994, p. 159.

16 June Purvis, Editorial, Women’s History Review, 1:1, 1992, pp. 5-7.

17 Jill Liddington, Female Fortune: land, gender and authority: the Anne Lister diaries and other writings, 1833-36, Rivers Oram, 1998, Afterword, especially pp. 248-50.

18 For instance, ‘Ways into Women’s History’ level 1 course, School of Continuing Education, the University of Leeds.

19 Eg Laura Mayhall, ‘Creating the “Suffragette Spirit”: British feminism and the historical imagination’, Women’s History Review, 4:3, 1995.

20 Eg Pamela Sharpe (ed), Women’s Work: the English Experience 1650-1914, Arnold, 1998.

21 Also note CIGS contributions from Medieval Studies, plus the History & Philosophy of Science.

22 Lisa Tickner, The Spectacle of Women: imagery of the suffrage campaign 1907-14, Chatto and Windus, 1987.

23 Both quotations from Carolyn Steedman, ‘Bimbos from hell’, Social History, 19:1, 1994, p. 59.

24 Recent examples include Amanda Vickery, The Gentleman’s Daughter: women’s lives in Georgian England, Yale University Press, 1998; and Amanda Foreman, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, Harper Collins, 1998.