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JOY PARR GenderHistory and Historical Practice I remembersomeyearsago sittingwaiting for a facultyseminarto begin,when a well-published colleague entered,bemused.In a newly arrivedpacketof reviews his mostrecentofferingwasbeingdescribed, andtohismind dismissed, asdefinitive. 'Whattheymean,'he muttered, 'is that I havelaidto restinterestin the topicfor at leasta generation.' We alltittered, butno onewasmindedto dispute hisconclusion. We eachhada repertoire of settled certainties strungoutalongclear chronologies. Thesewereour stock-in-trade in the lecturehall. We had learned, whencalleduponbythemediaor bylegalcounsel, to be succinct , declaratory, and unambiguous.We understood these strategic artificesof expertise to be companionable and saving necessaries at the lecturn, before thecamera, in thewitness box. • Butequally weagreed, at least then, that as scholarsthe 'definitive' would remain for us elusive, always at somedistance beyond ourreach. We beganfrom certainordinaryold-fashioned premises. As the historicalrecordis nevercomplete, thepractice of ourcraft,no matterhow refined,will neverallowus entirelyto reclaimthe pastworldsthat are thefocus ofourhistorical imaginings. It isnomarkofgood scholarship to claimthatthehistories wewritearedefinitive, ortowritein waysthat disguise the limitationsof the portraitswe render,sothatothersmake false claims to definitiveness on our behalf. Such stances refuse the invitation to revise whichasscholars weperpetually areobliged to extend. Scholarship is to openratherthan extinguish questions, to discomfit ratherthanenshrine bothsettledcertainties andthe collective practices I On thiscomplexity, in thecase of expert witness testimony in women's history, see RuthMilkman,'Women'sHistoryandthe Sears Case,'Feminist Studies •2 (•986): 375-400;'Women's HistoryGoesonTrial:•oc v. Sears, Roebuck andCompany,' Signs •i (•986):75•-79;AliceKessler-Harris, 'EqualEmployment Opportunity Commissionv . Sears,Roebuck andCompany: A Personal Account,' Radica! Histo• Review 35(I986): 57-79;JoanScott, 'Deconstructing Equality versus Difference: Or, theUses of Poststructuralist Theory forFeminism,' Feminist Studies •4 (I988):33-5 ø. TheCanadian Historical Review 76, 3,September •995 øøø8-3755/95/øøø3-o354 $m.25/ø¸ University of TorontoPressIncorporated Gender History andHistorical Practice 355 they sustain.In this we, in that seminarroom, shareda carefully schooled, if thusparadoxical, consensus. Lately, historians' ranksappear to be dividingon thesematters. Thesehonourable traditions in the historians 'crafthavebeencalledintoquestion by seniormembers of our profession in their responses to the workof a youngergeneration of scholars in genderhistory, culturalstudies, andthe 'newest'of the new social history. The vehemence of the response by oldercolleagues to this newwork andtheirclaimsthatsuchstudies will betheundoing{totakeup only selected recentsuggestions} of the nation,or of feministpolitics, or of academic freedom, aresurprising. Asscholars ourworkhasalways been with indeterminant qualities ratherthansolidsubstance, our published studiesa seriesof interimreportsfrom an ongoingsearch,craftedto resistclosure. Our knowledge is notdefinitive but,asWalterBenjamin argued in the x95os, always somuchmorelike 'a memoryasit flashes up ata momentof danger' thana thorough reclamation of thepast'the wayit reallywas. '• TheEnglish historian Carolyn Steedman catches this obligation well:'Thewritingofhistory, whichdoesindeedcometo condusions andreachends... actually moves forward through theimplicit understanding thatthings arenotover, thatthestoryisn'tfinished,can't everbe completed for somenewitem of information mayalterthe accountasit hasbeengiven. In thiswaythewritingofhistory represents a distinct cognitive process precisely because it is constructed around the understanding thatthingsarenotover,thatthestoryisn'tfinished: that thereisnoend.'Whilehistorians sharethestated objective of exhaustiveness ,shenotes,'theyproceed uponthepathof refutation bypointingto exceptions andto thepossibility of exception. The practice of historical inquiryandhistorical writingis a recognition of temporariness andimpermanence ? The practice of gender history hasfocused attention onthistemporarinessand irapermanence. Hereinliesits greatest contribution, and the sourceof its mostsustained, invested, and determined opposition. For the interpretive possibility it engages, thatmanliness andwomanliness aresocially constituted andcontinually reconstrued in specific historical conjunctures, goes'all the way down' to the body itself, 4 featuring biological knowledge asculturally constructed, drawing interpretations of 2 WalterBenjamin, 'Theses onthePhilosophy of History,' in Illuminations, ed.Hannah Arendt, trans.HarryZohn(NewYork:Schocken x968 ), 255 3 Carolyn Steedman, 'Lath•orie quin'enest pasune; orWhyClioDoesn't Care,'in AnnLouise Shapiro, Feminists Revision Histo• (NewBrunswick: Rutgers •994), 9t, 92 4 LindaNicholson, 'Interpreting Gender,' Signs 2o (x994):83 35 6 TheCanadian Historical Review thenaturalintothehistorian's domain,anderoding thegroundthatonce sustained absolute and universal claimsfor a 'humannature'existing transhistorically. Historianshave a long-standing fascination with claimsbasedin nature, with argumentsthat certain political systemsand military organizations were naturallysuperior,that certainclasses or raceswere bornto rule. It hasbeenan indispensible and honourable partof the historian's worktotakehumanactivities presumed eternal,or inevitable, or natural,andtotracetheprocesses bywhichtheyhavebeenmadeand changed throughtime. This taskhasincludedattempts to understand whyandhowuniversal andabsolute truthshavebeeninvoked, howcertaintyis madeoutof uncertainty, andto whathistorical effect.Yetlately thishistorical inquiryintotheconstruction oftheahistorical, thesearch to understand how,by whom,andin whoseinterestsomepartsof the contemporary are established asbeyond temporality, ratherthanbeing accepted asintegralto the historian's work,hasbeencalledcorrosive of the historical project,andthe historical subject, itself.Highlighting the partialness of our understanding of...


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