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Telling Tales: Historians of Our Own Lives Lise Vogel The comments I make here flow from the puzzling experience I had reading and rereading these two papers in preparation for the Berkshire Conference session.1 My perplexity centered on the way the authors placed their analyses within the larger framework of the development of women's history and feminist theory over the past two decades. Although I had been actively involved during the years in which the new women's history emerged, I did not recognize the story they told. As I examined the pieces of the story that baffled me, I put the puzzle together another way.2 History and Theory In "Critical Theory and the History of Women: What's at Stake in Deconstructing Women's History," Louise Newman describes a developing antagonism between what she caUs women's history and gender history. Where historians of women explore "why specific groups of women share certain experiences," gender historians analyze "how gender (defined as a 'set of meanings constructing sexual difference') operates through specific cultural forms." Despite the apparent methodological and phüosophical guff between the study of women's experience and that of the representation of gender, Newman argues that the two approaches "might be integrated into one discursive practice." Such an integration, she believes, is the only way to produce understandings of the past that can empower us for the future. If historians do not succeed in melding analyses of experience and representation within their research, historical scholarship may degenerate into a disempowering practice "that aUows us only to watch from the sidelines as a new God, now in the form of Language, wreaks havoc on human Ufe."3 Luce Newman, Joan Wiltiams urges feminists to move beyond a düemma in contemporary scholarly interpretation. In "Domestidty as the Dangerous Supplement of Liberalism," she reads the work of Carol GUtigan primarily as "a status report on female gender ideology in the late twentieth century" and challenges feminists who adopt its framework uncritically. The powerful impact of In a Different Voice is best understood, she argues, as a refledion of internal conflicts felt by contemporary women, caught between "the mandates of two inconsistent ideologies—domestidty and UberaUsm." Where GilUgan's solution is a retreat to domestidty via the ethic of care, Williams's provocative rereading of GUUgan's inter- © 1991 Lise Vogel 90 Journal of Women's History Winter views suggests that the conflict could be an opportunity to mobilize a more effedive feminist sodal critique. In particular, the language of domestidty must be transformed "so that it no longer functions as the voice of the victim." (69) Both papers pose important questions, at least imptidtly, concerning the sociology of feminist knowledge. Wiltiams investigates the reception of GilUgan's work, focusing on its "stunning popularity." How is it, she asks, that GiUigan's essentiaUst understanding of womanhood "rings so true"? Why do so many women still read In a Different Voice "with a shock of seU-recognition"?4 Newman suggests that feminist knowledge has been produced in response to an ever-increasing awareness of theory, culminating most recently in feminist embrace of post-structuratism. A Straw Women's History In the course of addressing the substantive issues in their papers, Newman and Wiltiams touch very briefly on the origins and development of the field of women's history. Their papers rely on a version of this academic subspedatiys history that is apparently commonplace; indeed, Newman and Wiltiams present the fads as unproblematic. But the narrative they use—which Newman and Wiltiams have simply adopted, not invented, and for which they are therefore not reaUy responsible5—has serious problems. In order to consider what these problems entaü, I must first reteU the story. In the beginning, according to this widely believed account, there was women's history. These were the bad old days, when feminist historians had to stumble forward using what limited tools they could find or fashion. Despite their best efforts, these pioneers could not help but make errors. In particular, they made three. First, they viewed women as an undifferentiated group sharing an essential womanhood; that is, they ignored such fadors as race, class, ethnidty, age...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-2036
Print ISSN
1042-7961
Pages
pp. 89-101
Launched on MUSE
2010-03-25
Open Access
No
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