Erin Bartram

doomed to distraction

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What’s the state of our nation?

Over the Thanksgiving weekend, I was fortunate enough to see Hamilton (thanks, Corinne!), and it absolutely lived up to expectations. As I’ve mentioned earlier, I’ve made my peace with the musical, despite some quibbles with the interpretation of the period it presents, and thought about how it might impact my scholarship and my teaching. I thought I was done processing Hamilton,  But then I saw it in the Age of Trump, and I hope you’ll indulge me in what is a rather naive and self-indulgent examination of the feelings it provoked.

To have (black) George Washington pointing at us all while singing “history has its eyes on you” was chilling in a way I did not expect. Lately, it’s felt like everyone in the U.S. is conscious of this, whether they think history will look on this as a moment of triumph or tragedy. I thought that I might see history with the election of the first female president, something I now doubt I’ll see in my lifetime, but since the election, the gravity of this historical moment has weighed on me in a way I couldn’t have imagined before November 8. When I can summon up black humor, I joke that I’ll change the subtitle of US II to “Laws and programs that are currently being repealed.”  But it doesn’t feel like a moment for humor, no matter how black.

Instead, we’ve all been doing what we can, and one of the things I can do is teach. The problem is…my teaching has seemed exceptionally flat, even futile, since the election, and I’ve been trying to get a handle on why. Certainly I think that much of my teaching serves to complicate narratives of progress and perpetual freedom that many of my students come in with. I think it’s important to show students just how hard fought certain freedoms have been, and how much resistance there has been (and continues to be) to rights that many of us take for granted.  I still think that’s an important part of teaching United States history and I will continue to do it.

Since the election, though, I have realized on a much deeper level how fragile and susceptible the “American experiment” was and is. We know this intellectually, and as an early Americanist, I suppose I’m really supposed to know it. I think I always knew it on an intellectual level in my teaching life as well, since I’ve often had students arguing that Japanese internment was a good thing, or that there must have been a way to reform slavery without ending it that would have made it “okay” for black Americans, or that it would be better for all women to stay home since they were the natural caregivers, or that we should reintroduce literacy tests.1)This last point is made all the more fascinating by the fact that some argue this even after they’ve failed a sample literacy test from the 1960s.

In response to this, I’ve tried to teach about historical contests over civil rights, and human rights, and the equality of individuals before the law. I’ve hoped that showing students how the “other” is a shifting category might give them pause, especially when they realize their immigrant ancestors were considered “other,” even as they are now considered “American.”

It doesn’t feel like enough right now. Or maybe it doesn’t feel like the right approach. Before the election, I argued that we needed history, not just civics, but in this moment, I don’t quite know how to go forward in the classroom. Despite a full awareness that much has been broken in our country’s past – often much more severely than at this moment – it feels like something just broke and I didn’t know how much I counted on it till it did.2)Shout-out to the two people who got this allusion to another political musical, revival edition.

This feeling of brokenness made me realize that in teaching all the ways the U.S. hasn’t lived up to its stated ideals, I may not ever have been clear enough  with my students – or myself – exactly what those ideals have meant to people, and what they’ve created when they worked.  But I don’t mean the ideal of individual liberty, something my students spend a lot of time thinking about. Instead, I’ve been thinking about whether my teaching really examines ideals like “the common good,” “the public interest,” “accountability,” and “public service.”

These are all concepts shaped by specific historical forces, and have often been deployed in ways that served to divide, rather than unite, but they are important concepts nonetheless, even if the specific terms aren’t in our founding documents. Some would argue they’ve never been true ideals, or not consistently held to, or have often been held up as ideals merely as cover for larger foreign policy goals, and I might agree somewhat. But I would argue they’ve been ideals, and that hewing to them even somewhat has been an important part of maintaining the norms that have sustained the experiment.

In talking to friends who’ve seen Hamilton, there’s always a discussion of the points at which everyone cried during the performance. I didn’t cry at Laurens’ death, but I did cry throughout “It’s Quiet Uptown,” along with the rest of the theater, because how can you not. I can’t even listen to that on the cast recording without crying. And I cried when Eliza told us about the orphanage. What caught me off guard, though, was my reaction to a line in a song that’s never really resonated with me before.

When Laurens walked downstage, with his pint held high, and sang “Raise a glass to freedom, something they can never take away,” a completely unexpected sob caught in my throat. In that moment, instead of understanding that as a paean to individual liberty, I felt deeply how precarious freedom is without the norms of civil society – or even the most modest commitment to the common good – to support and sustain it.

References   [ + ]

1. This last point is made all the more fascinating by the fact that some argue this even after they’ve failed a sample literacy test from the 1960s.
2. Shout-out to the two people who got this allusion to another political musical, revival edition.

Women’s history commonplace blog drafts

As I mentioned last week, my women’s history students are creating blogs inspired by commonplace books. This project not only requires them to produce public writing, but to make the draft stage public. To that end, they have had to put up draft versions of all the contextualized quotes they want to examine, and they are now accepting comments from their classmates, from me, and from the general public.  In a sense, they have selected sources, written a rough outline, and now have come to office hours to discuss the project and think about how to focus and refine their arguments. Except the office hours, the discussion, and the final project are public.

My request to you, dear readers, is that you look at a couple projects and maybe make a few comments. Ask them more about the sources they’ve chosen. Ask them how they compare. Ask them whether including other perspectives would be valuable.  Ask them where they see change. Even just ask them to explain things more deeply. You don’t have to do an exhaustive job, but my hope is that knowing that other eyes are on their projects will be invigorating and helpful to my students. What they have done here is risky – it’s not just public writing, it’s public drafting – and so I hope their bravery is rewarded.

Angela and John both discuss labor in women’s history.

Several students are discussing aspects of family: Jillian on the role of “wife,” and Heidi on childbirth and motherhood. Marissa talks about the history of women and sexuality.

Michael and Christine are both working on women’s voices and their calls for rights.  Relatedly, Caroline is thinking about women’s objectification and exploitation, and Clarissa is thinking about the emotional and spiritual labor of women.

Another cluster of students is examining race, ethnicity, and immigration: Julia on immigration, Nina on women and education, and Holly on women and the struggle for racial justice.

The cowardice of “no strong convictions”

Many of us in Connecticut were horrified – but not surprised – at video of a post-election gathering at which someone in Klan robes rode around a bonfire waving a Trump/Pence sign while onlookers laughed and cheered. Some, however, including the first selectman, downplayed the seriousness of this.

A town leader downplayed the vile bash. “I think it was just some young people who made a big mistake trying to get attention,” East Windsor First Selectman Bob Maynard said. “I suspect they have no strong convictions and no really racial overtones — I think they were just enjoying the moment. That’s what I suspect, but we’ll have to see what they have to say.”

Now, one reason he might do this is because to him, this sentiment isn’t that weird. And anyone from Connecticut who has an honest bone in their body would certainly agree this isn’t surprising. Many of my high school classmates proudly wore Confederate flag belt buckles; we knew school was out every day when one classmate drove out of the parking lot and blew his horn, which played “Dixie.” I had no understanding of what any of it meant, because like many rural white Americans, I knew almost no black people and my education largely failed to impress upon me anything meaningful about the painful racial history of the country, and of my own state. East Windsor police were quick to point out that this wasn’t part of a Klan rally, it wasn’t “planned,” but that shouldn’t make anyone feel better. It should instead remind us of how readily available these symbols and behaviors are. Should we feel more comfortable with the fact that someone just happened to have these robes at hand for an election celebration? Or that someone thought “Before I go out, let me get some bedsheets and whip out my Singer sewing machine.”

Town leaders claim this is someone with no strong convictions. I would reframe that analysis a little. They’re certainly a coward, but they have convictions, and we need to be honest about that. If we aren’t, we’re even worse cowards.

The other thing that seems particularly important in understanding this incident is the history of the Klan in America. Most Americans think of the Klan as an anti-black organization in the years following the Civil War. That was the first iteration, but it was not the only one. The rise of the second Klan in the 1920s was built on anti-black, anti-Jewish, anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant, and anti-feminist sentiment. That Klan found support in the industrial North, and it found political legitimacy. Many people in Connecticut now hold views or belong to groups who would have been seen by the Second Klan as un-American.


Klan march in Washington, D.C., 1926. Photo taken from the archives of the Library of Congress. 

If you are interested in learning more about this, a great place to start is with the writings of Kelly Baker. You can read an interview with her about her book Gospel According to the Klan here.

But I also offer you this, something that my students in US II read. This is Imperial Wizard Hiram Evans, writing in the North American Review in 1926, in a piece called “The Klan’s Fight for Americanism.” Take some time and look at the language used here. We don’t have to see organized Klan rallies to know that the fear and anger that impelled the Klan are still an important part of social discourse today. (ETA: This great post by Graham Stinnett at the UConn archives about the Klan in CT in the 1980s.)

The Klan, therefore, has now come to speak for the great mass of Americans of the old pioneer stock.  We believe that it does fairly and faithfully represent them, and our proof lies in their support.  To understand the Klan, then, it is necessary to understand the character and present mind of the mass of old-stock Americans.  The mass, it must be remembered, as distinguished from the intellectually mongrelized “liberals.”

These are, in the first place, a blend of various peoples of the so-called Nordic race, the race which, with all its faults, has given the world almost the whole of modern civilization.  The Klan does not try to represent any people but these.

There is no need to recount the virtues of the American pioneers; but it is too often forgotten that in the pioneer period a selective process of intense of rigor went on.  From the first only hardy, adventurous and strong men and women dared the pioneer dangers; from among these all but the best died swiftly, so that the new Nordic blend which became the American race was bred up to a point probably the highest in history.  This remarkable race character, along with the new-won continent and the new-created  nation, made the inheritance of the old-stock Americans the richest ever given to a generation of men.

In spite of it, however, these Nordic Americans for the last generation have found themselves increasingly uncomfortable, and finally deeply distressed.  There appeared first confusion in thought and opinion, a groping and hesitancy about national affairs and private life alike, in sharp contrast to the clear, straightforward purposes of our earlier years.  There was futility in religion, too, which was in many ways even more distressing.  Presently we began to find that we were dealing with strange ideas; policies that always sounded well, but somehow always made us still more uncomfortable.

Finally came the moral breakdown that has been going on for two decades.  One by one all our traditional moral standards went by the boards, or were so disregarded that they ceased to be binding.  The sacredness of our Sabbath, of our homes, of chastity, and finally even of our right to teach our own children in our own schools fundamental facts and truths were torn away from us.  Those who maintained the old standards did so only in the face of constant ridicule.

Along with this went economic distress.  The assurance for the future of our children dwindled.  We found our great cities and the control of much of our industry and commerce taken over by strangers, who stacked the cards of success and prosperity against us.  Shortly they came to dominate our government.  The bloc system by which this was done is now familiar to all.  Every kind of inhabitant except  the Americans gathered in groups which operated as units in politics, under orders of corrupt, self-seeking and un-American leaders, who both by purchase and threat enforced their demands on politicians.  Thus it came about that the interests of Americans were always the last to be considered by either national or city governments, and that the native Americans were constantly discriminated against, in business, in legislation and in administrative government.

What seems most important here is not what a particular iteration of the Klan stood for, but the ways in which it has expressed the fear and hatred of dominant groups who feel threatened by social change. In that sense, it should not be surprising to anyone that someone might put on the white robes in this moment. If the Klan is, and has been, a way for “real Americans” to assert their dominance, this incident in East Windsor shouldn’t surprise anyone. Sadly, the weaksauce condemnation and shock of town leaders and people around Connecticut isn’t surprising either.



No one’s shocked at what happened in East Windsor. But lots of people don’t care because to care would mean self-examination. And the willingness of so many to avoid self-examination is something to be ashamed of.


Commonplacing women’s history

I wrote earlier this summer about my use of commonplace books in my women’s history class, and about how I hoped to turn that practice into a project for the class. Well…


My students have each chosen a theme to explore, and are busy selecting and contextualizing passages from primary and secondary sources. By the end of the week, there’ll be lots of blogs to read. But those blogs won’t be complete, and hopefully they can get some help from you, dear reader (readers? if I’m optimistic?)

One of the things this project is meant to do is to open up the drafting process. To that end. the posts that my students put up at the end of the week are intended to be drafts. Then, with the help of comments from me, their classmates, and any of you who’d like to chime in, they will revise their posts and write an introductory essay for the blog, all of which will be due by the end of the semester.

I’m asking them to be really brave; they’re not just creating a project for the public, they’re explicitly presenting unfinished work and opening themselves up to critique from the public. I know they’re a bit scared. I have high hopes, though.

I know it’ll be the weekend before Thanksgiving and we’ll all have a lot on our plates, but when I post the blog list later this week, if you could take a moment and look at one or two and offer some thoughts, I’d appreciate it greatly.



The weight of history

This election has led to a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth over the state of the electorate, and I’ve seen a lot of people arguing that the voting population in the United States needs more civics education. In many ways, I agree; I don’t think most voters could explain the mechanisms of our government or the reasons those mechanisms purportedly exist, and it would be great if they could. It would be great if people had more knowledge about “how the government works,” or rather how it’s supposed to work, but I don’t think that’s the solution.

We’re in the middle of this national conversation about what kind of country we want to be. People are thinking a lot about what it means to live in a pluralistic country. They’re thinking about what their vote means to them and to others. They’re thinking about the role the government should play in the economy. They’re thinking about the appropriate balance of power between the federal government and the states. They’re thinking about the importance of civility in political discourse. They’re thinking about gender relations and sexual assault, or trying very hard not to. They’re thinking about whether our government should prioritize the will of the majority or the rights of the minority.

These can be theoretical questions, and we can talk about the general consensus drawn from the values in our founding documents, and we can talk about how we would answer them now. But we don’t have to talk about them just as abstract issues, because they aren’t. And we don’t have to only think about how we would answer them today

This election has also led to a lot of historians freaking out. We’re not freaking out because “history repeats itself” (it doesn’t) or “we should learn history so we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past” (ehhhh not really), we’re freaking out because we feel the weight of history in this election so acutely. The ability to feel the weight of history in everything you do is kind of exhausting, but weight exists because of gravity, and right now, the weight of history serves as a constant reminder of the gravity of the choices we and others make.1)I don’t think historians are the only ones who feel the weight, but I think we tend to have a broader and more detailed understanding of the past than most people.

So I don’t think it’s enough to know that we have the right to vote and we should use it. I think it’s important to also know that most of us wouldn’t have had the right to vote in the past. I think it’s important to know how hard those in power have worked to keep new groups from obtaining – and then exercising – the right to vote.  Without the history of Shelby County v. Holder, the Voting Rights Act, Jim Crow, the 19th and 15th Amendments, Dred Scott, Jacksonian democracy, and dozens of other things, the importance of the right to vote is missing so much.

I don’t think it’s enough to know that the electoral college exists and that creates swing states. I think it’s important to know why the electoral college was created – and why states even exist. Without the history of colonies, of the Articles of Confederation, of the Constitutional convention, the 3/5ths clause, the direct election of senators, and the ongoing discussion about federal vs. state power – including a civil war – the importance of the electoral college can’t be fully understood.

I don’t think it’s enough to say that religious liberty is a central right in this country. I think it’s vital to know the earlier drafts of the religious freedom clause, and that non-Protestants were excluded from office holding, and that there was a political party dedicated to keeping Catholics out of power because they were seen as un-American, and that the Klan hanged Jews, and that we’ve only had one non-Protestant president, and that people wanted to burn Warren in effigy over Abington v. Schempp. Without that, it’s easy to glibly say we’re a nation founded on religious liberty; I’d prefer we were realistic about how poorly we’ve lived up to that ideal, or whether that ideal has ever really been the ideal.

It’s certainly not enough to say we’re a nation of immigrants. We are, but Franklin worried about the influence of the German population, and native-born Anglo-Americans worried about the influence of the Irish, and they harassed and killed and banned the Chinese. To say we’re a nation of immigrants and celebrate that without acknowledging Know-Nothingism, anti-colonial activists who raised the specter of Filipino immigrants, the Asiatic Barred Zone, the Johnson-Reed Act, the Klan’s hatred of Italian and Jewish immigrants, the internment of Japanese-American citizens, the bracero program…that is to pointedly ignore the fact that we may be a nation of immigrants but we’ve never really liked it.

And to say this is a landmark election because one of the candidates is a woman…well, you’d stand out, because the gravity of that fact has not been acknowledged or even comprehended. Certainly there’s been celebration of the suffragists, and some mention of Shirley Chisholm, but without an understanding of coverture, of women’s unpaid labor, of anti-suffrage, of the racist and classist divisions within the suffrage movement, of women’s exclusion from jury service, of the use of gendered language to take down male politicians…without all of that, it’s easier to brush off this moment as not that historic. And if you know the history of women in America, you understand that people brushing off women’s excitement in this moment is pretty much par for the course.

This semester, I’ve had a lot of great conversations with students, in and out of class, about how coming to understand how people like them in the past were treated has led to a greater understanding of their place in America today. A Catholic student realizing people like her weren’t always considered American. A black student realizing the contradictions within the idea of paternalistic slaveholding, and the way that myth shapes discussions today. A class full of women realizing the level of physical and emotional violence and exploitation that was visited on women in Early America, and coming to the sickening realization that the way rape was framed at the turn of the 19th century is not too different from the discourse they know.  Almost all of my students realizing that they would have been excluded from voting until 1972, even though they were paying taxes and going to war.

Civics education is good, and we should have more of it.2)Though we should also acknowledge that many who are citizens historically would have been excluded from citizenship, and that many never wanted to be citizens in the first place. It helps you understand how and why – theoretically – the government is set up as it is, and how it’s supposed to function today. History helps you understand how and why – historically – the government has been set up as it has, and how it was supposed to function. But it also tells us who it was supposed to function for, and who it was supposed to exclude, and how liberty and justice have never been for all, and how lots of people liked it that way.

I can admire the theoretical construction of our government, and think “the Founders” were really smart dudes, but I can’t escape the fact that when I go into the voting booth, I am doing something that they couldn’t have dreamed of, something that they would have seen as wrong – not “more perfect” at all. Others can enter the voting booth knowing that people like them have been killed for the right to vote. And many of us should enter the voting booth knowing that people like us have killed to prevent other groups from voting. That is what history provides – an understanding of the weight of the past we’ve been carrying with us, often unknowingly. Perhaps if more of us could feel the weight of history, in time, the burdens would be lighter for us all.

Tl;dr Support history education so Kevin Kruse’s fingers don’t fall off contextualizing everything for us on Twitter.


References   [ + ]

1. I don’t think historians are the only ones who feel the weight, but I think we tend to have a broader and more detailed understanding of the past than most people.
2. Though we should also acknowledge that many who are citizens historically would have been excluded from citizenship, and that many never wanted to be citizens in the first place.

The planks in our own eyes

This is a post that’s been percolating in my brain, and in my academic writing, for a long time. The latest uproar – and the terms of the uproar – over leaked Clinton campaign emails with comments about Catholics has made it clear it’s as good a time as any to put these thoughts out there.

The criticism of these comments, which you can read about extensively in other places, hinges on the idea that Catholics will be offended by the characterization of their religion as “the most socially acceptable conservative religion,” espousing “severely backwards gender relations.” As Patty Miller points out in her recent RD piecemany American Catholics think their religion has severely backwards gender relations.  Much of the outrage is coming from non-Catholic Republicans, undoubtedly aware that Catholics are breaking for Clinton, and more significantly, against Trump. To argue that all Catholics would be offended by these comments is to be deliberately obtuse about the state of American Catholicism. Many historians commenting casually on Twitter have been able to easily compare this “offensive” language to the views of American Catholics, and see the complicated nature of that faith in this moment.

When it comes to our scholarship, though, historians of U.S. history are generally really bad at this. Really, really bad. Frankly, a lot of the work in American history reflects assumptions about Catholicism that are not the product of nuanced historical analysis.

In so many ways, the historical literature tacitly replicates Anglo-American arguments about the nature of Catholicism. The idea that Catholics, without the freedom of individual conscience, were incapable of being full participants in American democracy was an important one in 19th century America. That idea often shapes what voices from the past historians think they need to listen to, since it goes without saying that Catholics had to do what the Pope said and therefore we don’t really need to listen to what American clergy and laity thought. If we do, those thoughts are seen as the products of “bad” Catholics rather than a legitimate diversity of thought within the Church, shaped by local contexts but also by differing interpretations of doctrine. In a sense, many scholars seem to think there was a lack of diversity in Catholic thought (or that that diversity wasn’t allowed) till Vatican II.

Now, the literature on American Catholics and the relative diversity of their views is rather complicated, of course. Anyone who’s read the introduction to D’Agostino’s Rome in America knows what I’m talking about! We want to be able to say “American Catholics” felt this. And there is a reason for this impulse.

The problem is that specialists know that this requires nuance. There’s not even a clear “Vatican” position on anything; read about the history of the writing of the Syllabus of Errors, for Pete’s sake! Specialists also know that this is inherently transnational history – scholars of Catholicism were doing that before it was cool – but in American history, we have a lot of trouble doing that in a nuanced way.

The problem is that Catholicism and its structure are tacitly held up as a foil to American Protestantism – particularly evangelicalism – without a lot of attention to how Catholics themselves spoke and acted and understood their faith, because it’s easy to say “well they weren’t allowed to contradict Church teachings, so if they were, it still doesn’t tell us about ‘Catholicism.'” This circular argument, rooted in the contrast between Catholicism and Protestantism, shapes a lot of scholarship. I’m working on a piece right now on Catholic publishing in 19th century America, and much of the literature on evangelical publishing and its distinctiveness holds up Catholics as an example of unitary thought and self-censorship. These claims are rarely cited, but of course they don’t need to be. Everyone just “knows” what Catholicism is and what it stands for. The structure of the Church, and the political use of that structure in American culture, allows historians to ignore the complexity of historical American Catholicism, often without realizing it. When American Catholics disagree with European Catholics, or with other American Catholics, the tacit belief that disagreement is wrong and not tolerated within the Church shapes how those disagreements are analyzed. Since everyone “knows” there really isn’t liberty of conscience in the Church, those who disagree are bad Catholics, and their disagreements are not treated with the same legitimacy as disagreements among Protestants.

Everyone knows what Catholicism is, and so no one is really pressured to think critically about it. It’s why everyone thought they had the “answer” to my dissertation right away, or questioned the premise. I studied American converts to Catholicism in the 1850s, and the reactions usually fell along a few lines.

  1. Why would any rational American become a Catholic?
  2. Oh, they probably were anxious and wanted a religion that would control them/tell them what to do.
  3. Oh, this was women? Yeah, they were probably attracted to the aesthetics and music, right? [Obviously the misogyny in this answer deserves its own analysis, but let me tell you, it was not uncommon.]

While Moxy argues that we should be attentive to the demographic nuances within Catholicism (go read her whole thread; it’s great!), I’m arguing that we should also seriously reconsider how we study Catholicism, and in particular, how some deeply-embedded and problematic ideas about Catholicism shape our scholarship, even scholarship that is not explicitly about Catholicism. Especially that scholarship. The inherited ideas I’ve discussed here serve to perpetuate this idea of American Catholics as somehow separate from American culture, which means their view on a subject can be cordoned off or even ignored. Moreover, it means that everything American Catholics did in the past gets attributed to their transnational faith culture, rather than their local/national culture, further perpetuating this sense of them as slightly exotic. When we exclude the largest denomination in the United States from our analysis on this basis, we’re not writing the best histories. It also means some really amazing scholarship that’s being done gets ignored because it’s about Catholicism and therefore not enough about America.

You might be saying “receipts!” I haven’t cited much because I didn’t want to look like I was setting up authors as strawmen, but I’ve posted a PDF of the introduction to my dissertation in which I lay some of this out in more detail, with footnotes, in the About section. That being said, a lot of this is drawn from experience – conversations in my department, at conferences, online – as well as published secondary lit and popular culture. I am more than happy to entertain disagreement on the subject, and I’d love to hear what other scholars – especially junior ones like me – think about this.

Always changing, therefore never really changing

I’m teaching a chapter from Sharon Block’s Rape  and Sexual Power in Early America tomorrow in US women’s history, and I know that when we talk about it, much of the conversation will center around how shocking early American ideas about power and consent and sex are. And then, across the semester, we will come back to Block’s arguments, over and over, and I’ll have to see my students confront the fact that the discourse Block presents is not that unfamiliar to them. This paragraph, in particular, really gets to them.

This dual construction of women’s sexual role – always resisting, therefore never really resisting – had a powerful result: women could not be trusted to judge or represent their own consent. Accordingly, the discourse surrounding rape repeatedly implied that men had to determine a woman’s consent for her…Because women could not admit their true desires – they said one thing but meant another – they could not be trusted….Because women could not be trusted either to be honest or to be faithful, women’s consent had to be surrendered to men’s judgment, whether through marriage or through limitations on their claims to rape. (40)

We’ll keep coming back to this passage, and this argument, as we make our way towards the present. We’ll look at it in the last week when we’re reading Katie Roiphe. Usually I like it when my students see connections between the past and the present. In this case, I wish they saw fewer connections.


Whose stories we tell, or, how Hamilton made me think about my scholarship

Why was I resistant to Hamilton at the start? Because when I was starting my dissertation, just sketching out what it might be, one of my peers said “Oh…so it’s just a biography?”

I know, that sounds a little petulant. Maybe it is a little petulant. But I think it’s also important for how we conceptualize and pitch projects, and how we speak to a general audience. No one would say “Oh, it’s just a biography” if your subject were A. Ham, and it was clear to me that in this case, the colleague believed that my work would be no more than a reconstruction of a life, and also that that life was not important enough on its own to merit a biography. I am in no way saying that it is worth a biography, or that it isn’t. What I want to think about a little, though, is how we conceptualize what lives we study and how we frame our analysis of a given life. I don’t have this all figured out, so I hope you’ll indulge me while I think out loud a little bit.

( Full disclosure: It is not surprising that I am hung up on the issue of microhistories, given my adviser and some of the other scholars I worked with in graduate school. I have also not re-read his article on microhistory or re-contemplated Jill Lepore contemplating Noah Webster’s hair in years. Maybe I should have done so before spilling my thoughts out here.)

To me, biographies center the person and their life experience, while microhistories use a person (or event) as a lens to explore a particular historical moment. Context is important in both cases, but its weight and role is different in each; in the former, its primary function is to help us know the central figure better, while in the latter, the central figure is there to help us know *history* better. There are certainly books that would call these broad strokes into question, and there are arguments to be made that the two overlap/intersect. There are obviously a variety of approaches within the genre of biography, but I’m not sure the distinctions matter as much for this discussion. I would say, though, that biographies published for a popular audience are probably at the extreme end of the spectrum I’ve drawn here. I hope you’ll grant me the broad contrast for the sake of argument.

So my dissertation was…a biography? It certainly didn’t do the microhistorical things I think it can and eventually will do. But there always seems to be a qualification on a dissertation anyway; it’s an underdeveloped form of whatever it might become eventually.1)It’s not a book, I know, but try explaining to your non-academic parents that this 375-page thing you wrote is not something your peers consider a book.  As I work on the manuscript, I find myself revisiting all of these questions about biography and microhistory, and Hamilton has helped me focus my answers a little bit by making me think not just about what approach serves my subject best, but whether or not every subject is seen to “deserve” the biographical approach.

My dissertation was not the first time I engaged in thinking about the difference, in form and function, between a biography and a microhistory, and the possibilities of biography writing in general. Before coming to graduate school, I worked as an assistant to Nancy Milford, who had written well-regarded biographies of Zelda Fitzgerald and Edna St. Vincent Millay. When I worked for her, she was beginning a biography of Rose Kennedy, and over hundreds of cups of tea in her Washington Square apartment, I first thought very seriously about what it might mean to write the life of a woman in the past.

Though Nancy was writing about women who were privileged, wealthy, and/or influential, I don’t think those biographies were easy sells. Kennedy and Fitzgerald were both famous by connection to influential men. Millay, while utterly fascinating and well-connected in international circles, isn’t exactly a household name (unless you take the Staten Island Ferry every day). As I talked with Nancy about how to conceptualize a biography of Rose Kennedy, it was clear she believed that this interesting person had a life worth knowing about, and could illuminate the historical changes she lived through. I think she *had* to talk about context more, both because the context was often less familiar to a general audience, and because that was part of the “why” of the book.

I don’t think Nancy – or in fact most biographers of women – can get away with the “character” argument that seems to drive the most popular biographies of men. In these biographies, “character” is often shorthand for “how did this person use the immense power they had.” It can also be “were they even aware of the immense power they had and did they do anything about that,” but I don’t think that’s usually how it works. In this sense, some biographies of women seem to shade closer to microhistory because they have to in order to justify their existence, though they can trace the “look at the obstacles she overcame” narrative, one that is common with male biographies as well.

Moreover, biographies – especially those of famous men who left an extensive paper trail – seem to get to deal with something that historians don’t always know how to grapple with: personality. We all know that when our best friend reacts to something in a particular way, we don’t think “Well, that’s to be expected from a middle-income white woman from New England raised by working-class parents who is also grappling with her sexuality in geographical location generally unwelcoming to people whose behaviors deviate from traditional gender roles.” We do, a bit, but we also say “Oh, you know how she is!” I have sufficient evidence to feel confident in saying I know Jane’s personality – and how it rubbed many around her the wrong way – and writing her life meant understanding how her personality found expression in a particular place and time.

Much of my initial frustration with Hamilton was at the fact that – because of the form and because of the subject – Miranda didn’t have to justify the existence. The idea that this was a Founding Father not getting his due was sufficient. Why should anyone care about Jane’s personality? Or her character? She didn’t establish a financial system, after all. She barely even rates a mention in most books on her famous family because she never married and wasn’t a published author. People often talk about reading a biography that inspired them. If anything, a biography of Jane evokes empathy rather than inspiration; the pain of being a smart woman with no filter in a man’s world does seem to transcend time. But it doesn’t feel like that’s enough – she’s not enough – even though I find inspiration in the empathy itself.2)There is a “power of her sympathy” joke in here somewhere but I can’t make it work. Jane is not allowed to be fascinating in her own right, and has to show something. That’s fine, honestly. I can use her as a lens, and I want to. And I can accept that I’ve got to make an argument as to why her story and her life matter.

Moreover, “academic” historical biographies are different from many popular ones, though, and I think most historians who write biographies would argue that they are *not* looking to “praise great men.” I would largely agree with them. But as I move through the manuscript stage – the time when we make things bigger no matter what we started with – I find there are still perceptions among scholars about who is worth a biography or a microhistory that echo the tropes of popular historical biography. I find myself struck by the contours of the argument I have to make as to the relevance of the work and the limits that others are quick to place on my subject’s analytical usefulness. Frankly, making the argument that this woman and her experiences tell us about antebellum American culture, without any further qualifications, feels like “too much.” To put it bluntly, I’ve observed the following patterns in how we casually talk and write about individuals in the past.

  • men tell us about “America,” women tell us about women
  • New Englanders tell us about “America,” Southerners and Westerners tell us about regional culture
  • Protestants tell us about “America,” Catholics tell us about Catholicism and maybe also the Irish
  • white Americans tell us about “America,” non-white people tell us about…a variety of things, but rarely America

It’s obviously not as simple as that, but I think when we’re confronted with a dominant versus a non-dominant group, our analytical brains go in different directions; for the dominant group, we go broad, and for the non-dominant group, we go narrow. There are good reasons to consider whether members of non-dominant groups can tell us something about a majority experience, but that should make us consider a) whether that majority experience is inherently more “American,” and b) how to grapple with the fact that women were half the population even if they weren’t the dominant/powerful group.

These ideas about who tells us about America are powerful; when I was getting ready for my dissertation defense, the big claims I was making about America in the 19th century crystallized for me one day, and my next thought was “But she’s a woman, her experience can’t be representative.” Of course I don’t really think that, but the fact that I immediately thought “Don’t make too much of this person’s life” made me rather sad.

So as I write my manuscript, am I writing a biography or a microhistory? Often the tipping point for framing and methodology seems to be how famous and well-documented someone is. Is this a deep dive into someone important’s papers, or is it detection, recreation, and illumination of an obscure figure? Jane is somewhere in the middle; her writing is well preserved, though not as well as that of much of her family, but she’s not important in any of the ways that 19th century Americans (and later historians) understood  women to be “important.” Is she just another privileged white woman in the middle of the 19th century? If she’s not important enough to get a biography, is she distinct or unique or interesting enough to get a microhistory? And if she does rate a microhistory, what is the scale of the claim I can make?

It’s this last issue about scale that’s really troubling to me. I guess what I’m stuck with is the fact that there are books about men who convert to unconventional religions in the 19th century, and those books make an argument that those men tell us about America. If a white man’s experience of becoming a Shaker in the 19th century tells us about America – and I have no doubt we’d all say that it does – is there any reason a white woman becoming a Catholic can’t also make a similarly broad argument about America? There shouldn’t be, but the pressure to constrain the argument seems to be there anyway.

Ultimately, my question is this: can I write a book that’s about a woman who becomes a Catholic and make a claim about America and have that claim taken seriously? Or will my book be understood as “women’s history” and “Catholic history.” Both are good things, and things that I am doing. But is it possible to say more and have it register?  That’s the microhistorical challenge I’m facing, and perhaps I’m inflating it, but I suspect I’m not.

I’ve painted with some broad strokes in making my claims here, and I hope you will view them with indulgence. I’d love to know how others who’ve written in this genre have conceptualized their projects and whether they’ve wrestled with these issues too.

References   [ + ]

1. It’s not a book, I know, but try explaining to your non-academic parents that this 375-page thing you wrote is not something your peers consider a book.
2. There is a “power of her sympathy” joke in here somewhere but I can’t make it work.

Teaching Resolutions Fall 2016

  1. Talk less, listen more – My classrooms are all discussion based, with no lectures, but you know how it is…you get really excited to talk about what you thought was cool in the readings, or you want to tell them this other contextual information that will totally blow their minds, or you end up re-teaching by lecturing rather than by dialogue. Maybe these things don’t happen to some people, but they happen to me. I’m always working to zip it. This involves letting the question hang longer than I’m comfortable with, while encouraging students to speak up if the phrasing or the level of the question is unclear.
  2. Be fairer – For me, this means sticking to the rules I set for the classroom. Or, to put it another way, have high but fair expectations for my students and hold them to it. I don’t think I’m a hard-ass, actually, and I have a fairly generous policy for missed/late work; the problem is that I am somewhat-easily persuaded to bend those rules. The rules that I have are not arbitrary, though, and they’re not to please me. They’re so everyone is prepared and ready to participate. In classrooms that are discussion based, this matters so much, and maybe I need to do a better job of explaining why. I don’t want students to have read the day’s materials for any reason other than I want them to be prepared to talk and listen to their peers. When I start bending the rules for things that really don’t deserve rule-bending, I introduce further inequities into the classroom. That’s unfair to my students. NB: I know that some of this is that I just don’t like conflict, even with my students. Some of that’s gender/age related, and some of it’s just me. But I need to figure out my way through it.
  3. Be more meta – As I mentioned earlier, I think “history at the college level has to be meta,” and I think it’s really needed right now. Students come to  my US I and US II classes, and to women’s history, with a set of ideas about what history is, whose history matters, and what history is for. So I’m going to listen more to the stories they’re telling me about the past in America and encourage them to think about where those stories came from, why they dominate, and how they’re being used. If they ask me why there’s so much “non-political” history in my classes, we’ll talk about what “politics” means and why a more expansive view of the term might help us understand the past (and present) better. If they want to talk about “Irish slaves,” we’ll talk about the history, but also about why that’s such a perennial response to discussions about black slavery. If they say “we study history because the past repeats itself” and “we study history to learn from it and not make the same mistakes,” we’ll talk about how we reconcile those two contradictory beliefs. If they say “history is just facts and I shouldn’t have to read primary sources,” well….we’ll talk about that too.

So, those are my resolutions for the semester. Sure, I want to keep on top of my grading (this is not that hard for me), and balance my research and teaching (sad trombone), but these three resolutions are ultimately not about me – they’re about my students, and about how I can better help them learn and grow into the fascinating people they’re becoming. I love the first day of the semester – my nails are done, their notebooks are blank, and no one’s behind on anything – but mostly I love thinking about how these strangers will, in such a short time, be people I know. They’ll be people with personalities and habits and lives that I might know something about. And we’ll be more than people in a room; we’ll be a community, with patterns and uncomfortable encounters and inside jokes. My resolutions are for them. I hope I can keep them. I’d love to know what your resolutions are too.

“Rules for Wives”

This list of Good Housekeeping’s 1955 “Good House Wife’s Guide” has been getting a lot of attention on ye ol’intertubes. What are those guidelines? 1.) Have dinner ready. Plan ahead, even the night before, to have a delicious meal ready, on time for his return. This is a way of letting him know that you …

Source: Rules for Wives, 1955 – Lawyers, Guns & Money

A great source, and a great post about how tricky it is to use sources like this from the past. In constructing and revising my US women’s history course, I have worked hard to use a wide variety of women’s voices for my primary sources, including women telling other women what to do. I assume this Good Housekeeping guide falls into that category, though there’s no author listed. I am not opposed to prescriptive literature, but I haven’t gone out of my way to include it, especially when it was written by men.

But it can be really hard to find a good diversity of women’s voices for the earliest years of the course. There’s a lot of prescriptive literature written by men about how women can be better, and a lot of court records written/shaped by men about how women have been bad. Race, status, and a host of other things intersected to make lots of voices unrecoverable. Not everyone could write their way out of hell.

Still, these prescriptive and legal sources provide a good starting point for thinking about women’s history for the same reasons they’re problematic; having students confront, right away, that they are dealing with a society in which women’s voices largely did not matter is a useful thing. And reading against the grain of these sources is a valuable exercise in itself. Considering why people made and enforced rules helps us understand the tensions and anxieties in a given historical time and place. If the law was designed to combat something that wasn’t even really happening, it can help us learn something about what the society feared, just like similar laws being passed today reveal the anxieties over women and their bodies in American society.

There are a few male-authored primary sources on my syllabus, and I love them. Landon Carter on breast-feeding is a kick-ass source that I use in tons of classes. On the one hand, we get to see how men sought to control women’s bodies in very intimate family settings, but on the other hand, we get to see that people in the past talked about these intimate realities – perhaps more than we are comfortable doing today!

Reading this post on Good Housekeeping‘s rules made me realize, though, that I don’t have any classic male-authored prescriptive literature on my syllabus, and I wonder whether I ought to. I would be interested in hearing how other people who teach the history of women, gender, and sexuality approach prescriptive literature.

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