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Journal of Women's History 15.1 (2003) 167-171
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Room in Back:
Before and Beyond the Nation in Women's and Gender History
At the 2002 Berkshire Conference on the History of Women, a round-table session entitled "Gendering Colonial America, Making Women's History Colonial" was full to overflowing. Latecomers stood in the back and crowded into every corner. Granted, the panel was star-studded, the sole early American offering in its time slot, and one of only a handful all weekend for that matter. Given such factors, the planners had seriously underestimated the amount of interest and certainly the level of attendance. How do we square this disparity between expectation and fulfillment with Gerda Lerner's discouraging figure: a pitiful, single-digit, 6 percent of recent work examining the colonial period? Why is American (or, tellingly, U.S.) women's and gender history not colonial American history? Does the converse apply, that colonial American history is not women's or gender history? What do these categories mean and contain? Is women's history's theoretical and methodological approach simply less viable for the early modern era? And why does it matter?
Analyzing women's and gender history's modern orientation helps us see clearly the significance of the colonial Americas. This is not merely to beat the proverbial drum for attention to the period for its own sake, however worthy; rather, the era of colonial process and imperial contest supplies a useful template for crafting—and questioning—what Kathryn Kish Sklar calls the "new transnational history that lies before us." Colonial America provides the future of American women's and gender history not simply because it seems to plead like a fallow field for tilling, but because attention to the age before national identity became the dominant political and cultural currency illuminates the foundations of gender difference in the United States and forces us to consider those gender ideologies in a wider context. Likewise, attention to gender allows historians to understand better what, to quote literary scholar Michael Warner, "is 'colonial' about colonial America." 1
Assessing recent scholarship alone does not tell the full story of women's and gender history's modern bias. Take a moment to survey advertisements for women's history positions: nearly always defined as "U.S.," even if described in the finer print as open to period. Such uncritical use of the modifier "U.S." reveals underlying nationalist assumptions. Job ads aside, the field's orientation toward the nineteenth and particularly the twentieth centuries presents a chicken-egg sort of dilemma: are [End Page 167] the small numbers of projects examining the colonial period a result of the field's modern bias or its cause? The close connection between modern American history and women's and gender history seems to transcend the practical matter of sources. Lerner queried (to paraphrase), is the study of the recent past really more important and significant for scholarly inquiry than the more distant past? Most would respond with a rousing "Of course not!" and then continue to pursue modern-era projects.
Perhaps Lerner's question is best expressed as an interrogative, to which I venture the following answer: not of greater scholarly worth, but seemingly of greater political import, is modern American women's and gender history. After all, most of us inhabit, critique, and hope to improve the nation. It is the paradox of our so-called global age that national identities have become increasingly important as the world grows more "connected" through supposed extra-national avenues. In this respect, "globalization" has served only to reproduce and secure reliance on well-defined national categories—the idea of nation itself taken as a given. The transcendent political and cultural importance of the nation-state holds us in its historical and historiographical thrall, our largest questions remaining tied to American, meaning U.S., national identity. Sklar's website picks up in 1775; Ellen DuBois begins her political culture periodization with the "foundation of nationhood." Such a preoccupation is...