What's New in Womens' History

Linda Gordon


The question raised by this conference brought me to a surprising conclusion: that the feminist reconstitution of knowledge no longer seems to me so radical a break as it once did. In history, and probably in other fields, as well, our critiques of old scholarship, and our attempts to construct a new scholarship, seem to me rather to follow in paths already opened. That does not, I think, belittle or weaken the feminist contribution. On the contrary, the emphasis on the uniqueness and novelty of what we are doing may reflect the bravado of inadequate confidence.

In attempting to reconstruct history, feminists do no more and no less than many groups battling for political power have done before. If history is the king of the political arts, its power to legitimate sovereignty is frequently under attack and must constantly be defended. From the classical world to Tudor England to the Reagan administration, ideologues write and rewrite histories of their imperialisms, successions, and legitimacy, with an eye to raising money for armies. Opponents counterattack, now scoring points as the rulers reveal their hypocrisy, now writhing in helplessness, unable to reach the masses with their counter arguments. The stakes may be higher today, but the ability of the dynasties to buy historians is greater, too.

Naming the new women’s history “herstory” does us no favor. Implying that we are the first to fight this ideological battle deprives us of a history we already have. Indeed, I would venture to say that the rhetoric of the uniqueness of our intellectual project reflects a growing distance of scholars from the totalizing tendencies of a strong political feminist movement, and its desire to incorporate, even to subsume, other radical traditions. But most historiographical progress—perhaps most intellectual progress—proceeds by rearranging relationships within old stories, not by writing new stories. The old stories have been ours, too—women’s, not only men’s—although that is a contested point, and I will return to argue it shortly.

I hardly need to mention that the feminist retellings of the past are stimulated by feminist political challenges to present-day structures and relationships. I may, however, need to mention that there was a first wave of women’s history in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. If this first wave was forgotten, it was not because it was modest. Elizabeth Cady Stanton reinterpreted the Bible. Alice Clark began to rewrite the rise of capitalism. Their influence was negligible, but within the academy the evidence is not overwhelming that we have had much more influence in the last decade. I respond with a cold sweat when I remember how completely this first wave of history was suppressed. When I became a feminist and began, with a group of historians turned feminist, to find out something about women’s situation in the past, I discovered these books, dusty, in the Widener library stacks, untouched for decades. It is not good for the ego to contemplate a similar fate for one’s own work. Only the continued existence of a strong feminist movement will make our own work remembered long enough to contribute to other generations.

Because of the hiatus in the feminist political tradition, the new wave of women’s historians had to regain some lost territory. For a second time we had first to render the invisible visible, the silent noisy, the motionless active. In doing so, we were answering a call from a massive and powerful women’s liberation movement for useful myths and countermyths. Yet, and here is an optimistic sign, we left that task more quickly than our nineteenth-century ancestors did, they having produced scores of volumes of sketches of great women, descriptions of their country childhood, and tributes to their mothers. As historians, we were soon dissatisfied with myth making, perhaps because the movement that gave birth to us was less elite (as were, for many of us, our own social origins); we moved to less glorious and also more ambivalent analyses of the past. Very soon many women’s historians, and no doubt other feminist scholars, experienced friction with (or, worse, distance from) the social movement that had given birth to their careers. It frequently happened to me that the women’s movement offered questions and topics, but my answers did not confirm all the slogans I had helped write.

Existing in between a social movement and the academy, women’s scholarship has a mistress and a master, and guess which one pays wages. Undermining to some extent the co-opting effect of the academy, the rudeness with which women are treated there recreates some of the material conditions that provoked our social movement. But in history, at least, both academic and political impulses have been channeled at times into two different purposes, two poles of philosophical assumption and self-consciousness. One pole of energy, assimilated to the empiricism that dominated most history writing in this period, directed us to rectify past errors. Women’s historians sought to proclaim a truth heretofore denied, disguised, distorted, defamed, and thereby to expose the meretricious lies of earlier mandarins. This goal, of course, presupposed the possibility of a truth, achieved through historical objectivity, and where this goal was dominant, women’s historians used and assimilated the work of the new social history. Another pole, rejecting the possibility of objectivity and accepting the humanistic and story-telling function of history, stimulated us to create new myths to serve our aspirations.

I would like to find a method in between. This in-between would not imply resolution, careful balance of fact and myth, or synthesis of fact and interpretation. My sense of a liminal method is rather a condition of being constantly pulled, usually off balance, sometimes teetering wildly, almost always tense. The tension cannot be released. Indeed, the very desire to find a way to relax the tension is a temptation that must be avoided. Neither goal can be surrendered. It is wrong to conclude, as some have, that because there may be no objective truth possible, there are not objective lies. There may be no objective canons of historiography, but there are degrees of accuracy; there are better and worse pieces of history. The challenge is precisely to maintain this tension between accuracy and mythic power.

For the historian, the tension is further maintained by the nature of our sources. Among the particular constraints on the activity of producing history which embodies both truth and myth, is the finite, capricious, mottled nature of the evidence. Historians can be trained to creativity and imagination in the search for evidence, in sensitivity about what can constitute evidence, but we cannot always enlarge the available evidence through hard work or great intelligence. Moreover, we are not at ethical liberty to pick and choose among the shards available; our equivalent of the Hippocratic oath enjoins us to present all, or a representative sample, of the evidence relevant to a given inquiry; to search hard for the same; to seek out bits of evidence that might defeat our argument. These are neither outmoded nor unrealizable standards; nor are they standards inappropriate for feminists. They embody quite usefully the tension that we should seek to maintain between verifiable, fact-based truth and myth.


In our feminist version of this old task of reconstituting history, in negotiating between demands for truth and demands for myth, we encounter several issues at once old and new, feminist versions of traditional epistemological questions in history and politics. I would like to comment on four of them.

Domination and Resistance

In the history of women’s history, the greatest of our contradictions has been that between domination and resistance. Sometimes we feel impelled to document oppression, diagram the structures of domination, specify the agents and authors of domination, mourn the damages. Sometimes we feel impelled to defend our honor and raise our spirits by documenting our struggles and identifying successes in mitigating the tyranny. Neither aspect corresponds uniquely to myth making; rather, we need different myths in different situations. In the history of women’s history, Simone de Beauvoir and Mary Beard have stood respectively for each tendency, each with its shortcomings. In defining us as the other, de Beauvoir invited us to confront our pain, our jealousy of men, our humiliation. Her bravery was extraordinary. Mary Beard, much less well known, the clubwoman, the reformer, the no-nonsense capable matron, has been a far less attractive figure, because she wrote and embodied women’s capability, not their fragility.

At other times the duality appears identified with the structure vs. agency debate in Marxism. This debate unfortunately has often been reduced to a schema in which structural analysis implies determination, while analysis in terms of human agency implies indeterminacy or contingency. Here, too, the dichotomy is not so neat. Usually it is the dominant groups who can have individual agency, while the subordinated appear locked in “structures.” The feminist critique, like that of good labor history, demands the recognition of structure and agency on all sides of a power equation.

My impression is that despite the long history of this historiographical problem, historians today have difficulty writing interpretations of the past that encompass both domination and resistance. Structural analysis is presented as deterministic, while discussion of women’s agency is misunderstood as victim blaming. Power itself becomes a pejorative. I remember some early second-wave feminist rhetoric and poetry calling for an end to power, indeed equating female beauty and kindness with the rejection of power; and I still read too many histories of female experience as powerless, which is false and impossible. To be less powerful is not to be power-less, or even to lose all the time. Analysis becomes moralistic rather than historical. Women’s oppression is assumed to make us all angels, without character flaws.

Political or Social History: Redefining Power

A more recent contradiction in the new women’s history is sometimes formulated as an argument between political and social history. To review a bit of the history of our discipline: once the only history was political or diplomatic (as studying interdynastic struggle has been called). It was history, by definition—the epics and apologia for kings. The age of democracy produced the so-called social history, a most revealing misnomer, for social means the hoi polloi, the commoners, we who have no individuality. At first social history was like imperialist, primitive anthropology: writers chronicled the quaint culinary, marital, and folk customs of the peasantry. Recently there have been a revival of social history and a contest for its meaning and purpose, in which historians on both ends of the continuum between fact and myth participate.

In the last few decades, particularly through developments in demography, social historians tended to study aspects of life seemingly removed from political domination. They studied household structure, marital patterns, friendships, childbirth. Political historians charged that the result was a romanticization of oppression. Eugene Genovese criticized some black history in this way. In women’s history, the poles were identified as political and cultural history. Ellen DuBois, for example, criticized some of Carroll Smith-Rosenberg’s work for photographing the positive aspects of the culture of the oppressed with a focus too close to show the framework: the prison bars.

Social or cultural historians have had several responses. One is, of course, that political historians still look only at the queens among us. Moreover, since the power of the rulers is far easier to see than the power of the ruled, the political/social history distinction tended to coincide with the domination/resistance dichotomy. Political historians charged that social history meant denial of oppression, constriction, suffering; social historians charged that political history missed the sources of popular cultural autonomy. It could hardly be true that the concept of a women’s culture per se denies the problem of oppression. On the contrary, the imposition of concepts such as oppression often masks the specificity of women’s own understanding of their condition.

Transcending this unproductive polarization requires, I think, that we integrate into the debate a critique of the definition of the political. If political is to do with power, there are ways in which the masses are involved in political activity and political relationships in their daily lives. There is no reason why questions of power, even the measurement of power, should not be fit into descriptions of, for example, women’s writing, mothering, housework, or leisure. But here, too, I find that feminists cannot take unique credit for challenging definitions of the political as having to do with state power. Nonfeminist libertarian social theorists began the exposure of hidden forms of power, although male supremacy remained invisible to them; while many feminists have, as I just argued, denied power, which is just another way of mystifying and thus upholding it.

The responsibility to situate one’s work in an adequate analysis of power relations is not merely a problem for historians. While all scholarly work, in these postencyclopedic days, requires some specialization and particularity, that does not mean that any scholarly topic, any unit of study, is legitimate. It is not legitimate to define a topic that by its very boundaries creates a distorted view of reality. I am reminded particularly of women’s scholarship that begins with the caveat that only white, or only middle-class, women are here included, as if the statement justified the exclusion. Similarly, choosing topics or sources of information that allow us to see only domination or only areas of women’s autonomy can be illegitimate. Our collective goal ought to be to advance a theoretical framework to our scholarship that transcends the victim/heroine, domination/resistance dualism and incorporates the varied experiences of women. We need, I think, work that insists on presenting the complexity of the sources of power and weakness in women’s lives.


In the 1980s, perhaps the dominant emphasis in women’s studies scholarship has been on what is generally called “difference.” I have severe reservations about this emphasis because I fear that “difference” is becoming a substitute, an accommodating, affable, and even lazy substitute, for opposition.

A development of the single greatest theoretical contribution of second-wave feminism, the notion of gender, difference is a code word that has now taken on two meanings. The primary meaning is that women have, according to discipline, a different voice, a different muse, a different psychology, a different experience of love, work, family, and goal. To varying degrees, all the disciplines have been involved in demonstrating not only the existence of that difference in experience but also the difference that recognizing it makes in the whole picture.

“Difference” may be hegemonic today, but it is not without critics, and it has not always defined feminist work. Feminist scholarship has another edge, examining the imposition of difference—i.e., gender—as a squeezing of possibility, and protesting the exclusion and subordination of women in the name of our uniqueness. Different but equal may be the gender version of separate but equal. Indeed, the very notion of difference can function to obscure domination, to imply a neutral asymmetry. The difference motif is not characteristic of all disciplines: strong in literature, psychology, and philosophy, it by no means dominates in history, sociology, or anthropology. Moreover, the difference motif does not seem to me to have the same meanings in all disciplines or in all pieces of work. In some, the discovery of hidden voices dominates; in others, it becomes a language of distinction, of dualism; in still others, it is used to define the nature of the feminine. Indeed, the meanings of difference can range from the essential to the trivial. In much historical and social-science work, for example, we are identifying the varying forms of labor and relations that produce certain patterns of response, making the difference a derivative rather than a primary category. Moreover, in other contexts, difference takes on another meaning, that of difference among women, a meaning nearly opposite in implication—but more on that later.

If one uses the notion of “difference” as an organizing principle, one can periodize the entire history of feminism in terms of the domination, in alternation, of an androgynous and a female-uniqueness view of women’s subordination and liberation. The eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century Enlightenment feminists, religious and secular, tended toward an androgynous vision of the fundamental humanity of men and women; that is, they emphasized the artificial imposition of femininity upon women as part of a system subordinating, constricting, and controlling them, with the result that “women,” as a historically created category, had had their capacities as well as their aspirations reduced. By contrast, the later-nineteenth-century feminists tended toward a female moral superiority view. They applauded what was different in women, and while they were not always biologistic in their assumptions about how we became different, the process of differentiation was less interesting to them than the result: a world divided between a male principle of aggression and a female one of nurturance. Motherhood was for them the fundamental defining experience of womanhood.

In our second wave of feminism, a similar movement from androgyny to female uniqueness occurred. The early women’s liberation movement, both radical and liberal, emphasized equal rights and equal access for women to previously male privilege. In the past decade, we have seen again a celebration of women’s unique and superior qualities with, again, an emphasis on mothering as both source and ultimate expression of these qualities. But it is not as if an acute shift occurred from one perspective to another; rather, this duality persists continuously within feminism. Moreover, it can be described and evaluated according to one’s point of view: one historian might see a conflict between libertarian opposition to gender and sentimental acceptance of a separate sphere for women; another might see it as male-stream abstract egalitarianism vs. the assertion of an alternate female value system. The implications of each perspective are also contextual. Denial of difference can mean inauthenticity, while assertion of difference can mean retreat from supporting women’s transcendent aspirations. Put another way, love of difference can mean a retreat from anger at the limitation of possibility, while hatred of difference can mean self-hatred for women.

One of the worst things about the emphasis on difference is that it allows the development of new “fields” and the adoption of new styles of critique that do not fundamentally challenge the structure of the disciplines. It does not force the reinterpretation of all existing interpretation on the basis of new evidence but instead creates, potentially, pockets of women’s literature, women’s psychology, women’s morality, and so forth. That is not an argument against separate women’s studies programs; it is an argument about what should be the content of our women’s studies.

Science, perhaps because it excludes women most determinedly, and perhaps also because it is the most violent and destructive of disciplines, has evoked the most radical critiques of its basic assumptions. I am skeptical about whether such critiques can be applied directly to history. Neither do I like the segregation of women’s history, its establishment, so to speak, as the description of a parallel course on which women ran through time. One main reason women do not, did not, keep to a separate track is, of course, the institution of heterosexuality. Institutionalized heterosexuality simultaneously helps to create gender and thus difference, and set limits on that difference. Lesbians and straight women alike, we are members and participants in all sorts of heterosexual institutions—economic, educational, cultural, and commercial—which construct our identity, willy-nilly.

Women’s history is not just different, it is critical; it is against men’s history. One reason the discourse about difference matters so much is that through it, feminists debate the conceptions of domination and resistance. Both seem to me drained of their experience, of the ways in which they matter so much, when they are rephrased in terms of difference.

Another meaning of difference, which equally results from feminist debates about oppression and resistance, points to differences among women. It is directly related, and negatively so, to the first meaning of difference, for the emphasis on a unique female voice almost always becomes an assumption of a homogeneous female voice. Naturally, people get angry at arrogant uses of “we.” The women’s movement becomes several women’s movements, both because new movements are stimulated by older ones and out of rage at the pretensions of some to speak for all—worse, at the replication of elitist patterns within our work and society. Thus, if the multiplicity and variety of feminist perspectives are a strength and a richness, they are also a reflection of inequality among women.

One response to this disunity has been a flowering of narratives of varieties of femaleness. Historians do that to some extent through the documentation of individual lives and collective conditions, visible particularly in the publication of many oral-history “biographies” and autobiographies. These works are supplying sources that other historians may incorporate into larger studies. But too often these narratives do not criticize the generalizations we have made about femaleness, and instead confine themselves to the assertion, in a liberal relativist way, of variety. Indeed, by implication, they sometimes deny the legitimacy of generalization. Too often the response to Afro-American women’s analyses, for example, is a tolerant acceptance of difference rather than an attempt to integrate that experience as part of our whole approach to the study of women.


Everything I have said so far skirts the issue of whether there is a feminist methodology and epistemology. In history writing, one could look for feminist or different female methods of 1 ) defining what counts as evidence, 2) collecting evidence, 3) generalizing from specifics, and 4) drawing conclusions. Only in the first category do I see any unique contribution—I repeat, I am speaking only of methodology—in women’s history. But the question of what counts as evidence is far more substantive than methodological, really. I consider as evidence material once thought of as outside history—gossip, menstruation, latrines; but historians once considered black people outside history, too. Critics of science have raised the question of a gendered methodology most forcefully, but when applied to the social sciences or the humanities, a critique such as, say, Evelyn Keller’s critique of male science is not clearly a uniquely female method. The incorporation of the subjectivity of the object of study is a theme that has been raised by sociologists, anthropologists, and historians for decades, men as well as women. It is a method that I recognize in my own work; I listen very hard to my subjects, and operate on the assumption that their own self-interpretation is likely as good as mine, or at least worth a respectful hearing. But that does not seem to me different from the methods employed by Herbert Gutman, say, in his reconstruction of slave families, or E. P. Thompson in his interpretations of working-class religion. Good historical listening embodies a critique of the concept of false consciousness. But this critique was raised by anti-Leninist socialists before we second-wave feminists argued it; and feminists have also been involved in branding disagreements as inauthentic.


I would like to clarify what I take to be the political import of what I am saying. In order to do that, my working definition of feminism, as a historian, needs to be specified. It is clear to me that an ahistorical, unchanging definition that posits a fixed content for feminism won’t do, because it cuts us off from our tradition, or, rather, narrows that tradition to a part of itself. Feminism is a critique of male supremacy, formed and offered in the light of a will to change it, which in turn assumes a conviction that it is changeable. What counts as feminist is markedly different today from what was considered so two hundred years ago. Moreover, as I have argued, there is today a great variety within feminism, and we should expect, each of us, to disagree with much that is feminist. If every feminist scholar knew something of the history of the feminist tradition, that might serve as a corrective to dogmatism, if nothing else.

If there are contradictions within feminism, it should be understood that there are traditions of female thought, women’s culture, and female consciousness that are not feminist. Female and feminist consciousness stand in complex relation to each other: clearly they overlap, for the female is the basis of the feminist, yet the feminist arises also out of a desire to escape the female. That seems to me an inescapable tension.

I have wanted to raise here a troubling question. Throughout various parts of feminist scholarship today, historical and otherwise, there is an attempt to reach a false resolution of the tension I have just defined, a resolution that would obliterate the distinction between the female and the feminist. It seems to me important to claim both. The female is ourselves, our bodies and our socially constructed experience. It is not the same as feminism, which is not a “natural” excretion of that experience but a controversial political interpretation and struggle, by no means universal to women. I find a tendency to celebrate the female and to distinguish ourselves as sharply as possible from the male, in method as well as substance. This tendency is then mixed with, and sometimes supported by, the inadequate integration of women’s experience as victims of oppression with our own voluntary, responsible activity against it. I cannot evade the question whether a scholarship focused on liberation must not also criticize, and even reject, part of what is constituted female. If it does not, then we may be sacrificing the understanding of gender, reverting to an operating assumption that some eternal female principle defines our destiny beyond our control.

Gordon, Linda. “What’s New in Women’s History.” Feminist Studies/Critical Studies. Teresa de Laurentis, ed. Bloomington: Indiana UP. 1986, pp. 20-30.