- Who Counts as the Subjects of Women’s History?
This issue includes a variety of intellectual projects and contributions: four articles; a book forum on Afsaneh Najmabadi’s Professing Selves: Transsexuality and Same-Sex Desire in Contemporary Iran (2013); a roundtable on women and gender in French colonial history; and finally, a book review essay that examines a quintet of new books on women in the French empire. Each of these works responds in some fashion to the question, who counts as the subjects of women’s history? If women’s history began as a recuperative project of writing women back into history and thereby constituting them as subjects, the next step was to identify the blind spots of race, class, sex, and sexuality that undermined this mission. This commitment not only requires uncovering new forms of documentation and rereading previous narratives. It also demands interrogating the conceptual categories and potentially false universals that have predetermined historical subjecthood. The essays in this issue explore both the recuperative project of adding female subjects to histories that did not include them, and a determination to reflect on the exclusionary mechanisms—institutional, ideological, discursive, and quotidian—that have obfuscated the lives of Dalits (“Untouchables”), immigrants, racial others, transgendered individuals, and colonized subjects.
But there is another theme that undergirds this issue. Several essays contain personal narratives and historiographic accounts that reveal the significance of feminist mentors, colleagues, and collaborators who have created space for writing women’s history, acted as sounding boards for ideas and who, in some sense, have borne witness to one another. This issue is therefore an homage to the trailblazers of women’s history, our continued questioning of received dicta, and the sharing of ideas in feminist community. It is also a reminder of the exclusionary mechanisms that have hindered—and continue to hinder—women’s historians as we practice our craft and work to bring our insights, methods, and subjects to the paradigmatic interpretations privileged by the discipline.
Shailaja Paik’s opening article is framed with reference to blind spots and historical invisibility. In “Forging a New Dalit Womanhood in Colonial Western India,” she states that both the nationalist history of India and the history of the women’s movement have ignored the contributions of Dalit women: “the colonial government, social reform movements, and the feminist movement were little concerned with the Dalit question and denied Dalits a space to critique gender, caste, and untouchability. Unlike middle-class, upper-caste women, Dalit women moreover never figured as subjects or agents in the historical accounts of anticolonial nationalist [End Page 7] struggle or women’s reforms.” Paik therefore seeks to uncover Dalit women’s agency and subjectivity, first by rereading the work of Jotirao Phule and B. R. Ambedkar, two radical men who interpreted the “woman question” through the lens of the “interlocking technologies of caste and gender oppression.” The reforms of Phule and Ambedkar—based on secular education, the development self-respect, and the political potential of the family unit—were not received blindly, however. Dalit women appropriated these discourses, contested them, and “sought to transform themselves in everyday lives.” They moreover injected the “micropolitics of personal experiential details” into the structural critiques of gender and caste that the Dalit radicals had made. While at times Phule and Ambedkar offered contradictory messages about Dalit women’s gendered roles in the new nation, on the whole, these discourses “enabled Dalit women’s individual and collective agency.”
Two articles on immigration follow Paik’s study. In “Arabic-Speaking Immigrants Before the Courts in Tucumán, Argentina, 1910–1940,” Steven Hyland Jr. argues that the sources historians typically employ to uncover the immigrant experience in Argentina and elsewhere—mutual aid societies, cultural organizations, and the immigrant press—give an incomplete portrait of community life and reveal far more about economic and social elites. He turns instead to court proceedings on homicide, sexual assault, and divorce to illuminate the lives of the laboring poor among the Syrian and Lebanese colony of this northwestern province. The vivid details he extracts from these documents permit a gendered analysis of the Argentine legal system’s response to crimes of...