Journal of World History 11.2 (2000) 357-361
[Access article in PDF]
The Gender of History: Men, Women, and Historical Practice
The Gender of History: Men, Women, and Historical Practice. By BONNIE G. SMITH.Cambridge, Mass. and London, U.K.: Harvard University Press, 1998. Pp. viii + 306. $35.00 (cloth).
Over the last two decades a respectable number of articles and books on the connection between gender differences and the rise of scientific history have been published. Scholars such as Kathryn Kish Sklar, Natalie Zemon Davis, Bonnie G. Smith, Joan Scott, and others acknowledged the former contributions of women to historiography and studied the gendered contours of the historical profession. The history of Western historiography became enriched with lists of many, almost forgotten women historians in Europe and North America while the concept of gender introduced a new approach for understanding the process of professionalization in the historical field.
Bonnie Smith has integrated her own research of years, and that of others, into a fascinating and daring monograph which sheds light on the historical practice in Western society between 1800 and 1940. Smith explores the hypothesis that professionalism in historiography is based on discredited voices and devalued narratives. Although The Gender of History offers information about men and women historians, Smith elucidates above all the vulnerable representation of the women. In dialogue with the popular amateur vision that scientific history took shape as a matter of national importance, as a genderless universal truth, and, simultaneously, as a discipline mostly for men.
Yet, in the early nineteenth century, historical writing was an unsettled field. Many genres were pursued, such as epic poetry, historical drama, novels, and travel books. Historians did not belong to a specific, professionally trained group. Novelists, monks, journalists, intellectuals, jurists, and theologians wrote history books with different contents and approaches. To overcome the startling experiences of the revolutionary period, historical writing related more to the dead than to past time. Instead of facts and knowledge many historians were [End Page 357] focused on bridging a gulf, on healing painful wounds that came from suffering and death. In two breathtaking chapters Smith shows the remarkable historiographical position of women writers in this period.
From the American and French revolutions to 1860, the historical writings of women reflected the multiple traumas and dilemmas, not only of war and revolt but also of rape, out-of-wedlock pregnancy, venereal diseases, risky childbearing, and beatings. Moreover, the money-generating writers suffered marginalization from "proper" womanhood. Confronted with the discourse of universal equality along with the codification of their inferiority, these amateurs strove for escape and survivorship in three genres: social history, cultural history, and travel narrative. For instance, when in 1804 Napoleon refused Germaine de Staël permission to live in France, she traveled widely during the years in exile, getting information for her works. Madame de Staël, whose genius inspired many women of the nineteenth century, used opium while writing books such as Corinne ou l'Italie (1807) and Considérations sur les événements principaux de la Révolution française (1818). Her work De l'Allemagne (1810) was suppressed by order of Napoleon and published in England. Preferring the world of tombs, monuments, song, and poetry, De Staël conflated different genres and avoided the linear political chronicle. Her "narcohistory" articulated the unthinkable as romantic difference. This drugged, even erotic epistemology became the opposite of modern historiography and constituted also the grounds for a new category: the amateur. Another example was countess Ida Hahn-Hahn--a writer of travelogues and emancipation books--who roamed about Europe after her divorce, forced out by her husband in 1829. Beaten, mentally abused, and abandoned, she expressed some of her feelings in Venezianische Nächte (1836) and Zwei Frauen (1845).
Referring to the psychologist Laura S. Brown, Smith states that constant coercion, denigration, and inequality perpetrated on women affected their historical writing, which often served as a counternarrative or cover to what went on in their violent lives. This situation produced a particular historical timbre, a specific methodology, and a rigorous...