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Journal of Women's History 15.1 (2003) 164-166
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Tackling the Contested Categories:
Culture, Race, and Nation in American Women's History
Reading the panel discussion has reminded me of my debts to the pioneer scholars in the field, and it has also helped me to see my specific location in the field of women's history. Unlike the scholars on the panel for whom their introduction and commitment to women's history was inseparable from their own participation in second-wave feminism, I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s outside of the United States and never had a first-hand experience of U.S. second-wave feminism. Consequently, while the second wave is quite central to the way I think about U.S. women's history, the agenda and/or the problems of the second wave have not defined the way I conceptualize women's history in the same way they have for my predecessors. Furthermore, although I read almost no texts by or about women throughout my undergraduate curriculum at a Japanese university, by the time I entered graduate school in the United States in the early 1990s, women's studies had already become a well-recognized field and feminist inquiry an established tool for historical analysis in the American academe (at the graduate school I attended, anyway). On the one hand, I was fortunate to be able to take for granted that women's experiences, gender analysis, and feminist politics would be incorporated into all of my and my colleagues' works, including those that would not be identified first and foremost as "women's history." On the other hand, the set of epistemological questions postmodernism raised and the politics of knowledge postcolonial studies addressed have posed a more immediate and continuing challenge in both my development as a scholar and my presence in American academe as a "woman of color."
Gerda Lerner's concerns about the seeming depolitization of women's history scholarship derive in part, I believe, from these differences—historical, political, cultural, and disciplinary—between younger historians like me and the pioneer women's historians on the panel. Because my primary disciplinary identification has been with American Studies rather than history, and because I came into the field well after the so-called literary turn of historical scholarship, I have been trained to think of "culture" as inherently political and "politics" as encompassing realms of life beyond voting booths, picket lines, and women's organizations. As numerous scholars in such fields as social and cultural history, anthropology, literary criticism, and cultural studies have demonstrated, cultural representations [End Page 164] are sites of negotiation between those who assert and perform their identities and the forces that contain those assertions and performances. Thus, historians who focus on cultural representations (including myself) assume that analyzing "culture" reveals, among other things, the relations of power involved in the process of its production and consumption, which have political implications for women's lives. Yet we should caution ourselves that, in order for such studies to actually advance women's positions in society, an analysis of representations must effectively combine textual reading with a materialist analysis of their context. We must also be aware that the focus on women's identities, subjectivities, and psyches as expressed in cultural productions such as literature should not move us away from working to dismantle the structural operation of patriarchy and engaging in collective action as women. While we tend to take our own feminist politics for granted, those of us who did not have to fight as hard as our predecessors may sometimes subsume the collective struggle under the discussions of representations, identities, and subjectivities, and we must take Lerner's warnings seriously.
The issue of race and ethnicity raised by several members of the panel has made a definite mark in women's history. Nancy Hewitt's discussion of the evolution of her thinking about race and women's history exemplifies the overall development of the field. Current scholarship goes far beyond simply...