- The Past and Present of European Women’s and Gender HistoryA Transatlantic Conversation
From its inception, the Journal of Women’s History has been home to diverse ideas, methodologies, and perspectives. It has featured scholarship from around the globe and provided a welcoming environment for conversation and exchange of ideas. Therefore, when we were invited to provide an article on the status of European women’s history for this anniversary volume, it seemed to us that bringing together a group of scholars for a discussion was the best way of honoring the spirit and history of the journal.
As we set out to organize this conversation, the remarkable flourishing of European women’s history made our task simultaneously exciting and daunting. When the Journal of Women’s History was founded twenty-five years ago, the number of scholars working within this geographic field was still limited; while American women’s history had already taken root in the American academy, university courses and academic positions in European women’s history, whether in the United States or Europe, were still few and far between. Fortunately, that is no longer the case. Our list of potential participants in this conversation was delightfully long! In the end, we decided to select a group of scholars—some based in Europe, others in the United States—whose work represents not only various geographic and historical specializations within Europe, but also different methodological approaches, and institutional and national perspectives. We will briefly identify each contributor when her first statement appears; for fuller information, refer to the List of Contributors. Obviously, we could not cover the entirety of European women’s history, and the scholars who took part in our conversation reflect the geographic emphasis on Western, Central, and Northern European women’s history, and the chronological emphasis on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, that still dominate European women’s history.
Ideally, perhaps, our conversation would have been more free-flowing and open-ended, but in the interest of including a range of scholars from different locations and language backgrounds we chose to ask the participants [End Page 288] a set of specific questions to which they responded in writing. Each of these questions was outrageously expansive. And to make matters worse for our conversation partners, we asked that their answers be limited to just a few brief paragraphs. After receiving this first round of responses, we circulated them for further comments, after which we edited the written responses into the exchange that appears below. Even after the second round, participants felt the need to continue: to ask questions about, to elaborate on, to respond to, or to disagree with some of the comments. This is of course not the last word! Our first question read as follows:
“Europe” has played a different role as an object of history outside of Europe than inside. So the question, “What is European women’s history?” resonates differently, as do the understandings or conceptualizations of national histories, depending on the intellectual or institutional position of the historian. To what extent is “Europe” a meaningful category with respect to women’s history? Where/how does national or regional distinctiveness undermine “Europe”? What regional and local distinctions matter the most? How has this varied over time? How is European integration affecting the practices of European history?
As we anticipated, this question drew a range of responses that, while they reflect varying geographic and institutional bases, are never simply reducible to them. Ida Blom, Professor Emerita who long taught women’s history at the University of Bergen, begins with an acknowledgment of “European” cultural influences but quickly moves on to regional distinctions: “Historical traditions all the way back to Antiquity have left a mark on the understanding of gender—of femininity as well as of masculinity. The growth of the Christian religion and the conflicts with Muslim culture during the early Middle Ages also had an influence in forming European understandings of gender. But regional...