doomed to distraction

Tag: sexuality

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.

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.



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.

“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.

Thinking about teaching 4: History of Women/History of Sexuality

In addition to my U.S. survey classes, which I examined in earlier posts, I also taught 200-level courses on the history of women in the U.S. in the fall and history of sexuality in the U.S in the spring of this past academic year. I’ll be teaching history of women again this fall, which is reason enough to revisit it, but the two courses proceeded so differently as to be worth some reflection and examination.

I taught history of women as a one night, 2 hour and 20 minute class, and history of sexuality as a two day a week, 75 minute class, but the basic goals and structures of the courses were the same. Rather than lecturing, which I don’t do, I had my students students read one journal article/book chapter each week as well as 2-8 pages of primary sources I curated. The classes were entirely discussion based.

In women’s history, I had students keep commonplace books to keep them accountable for the reading, to give them a resource for paper writing, but primarily to encourage reflection and careful reading. In history of sexuality, I had them do brief reading reviews for everything they read instead, trying to answer the questions historians ask of secondary and primary sources as preparation for class. Again, this was mostly to encourage them to think about the readings rather than skim them, as a way to encourage better discussions. Both classes had two short but broad papers where they got to examine themes of their choice, and in both classes students had to pick extra articles to read and present on in class.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but women’s history was broadly a successful class, and history of sexuality was…not. Women’s history made me feel like I was a great professor and history of sexuality made me feel like a Grade A failure. But I think it’s important to note that the course design was very similar, a fact which led me to ponder, all throughout spring semester, what the heck was making the difference. Things that I think impacted the success, or lack thereof, of these two courses.

  • Time of year. I don’t think we can say that fall or spring courses are inherently “better,” but I think spring courses that are primarily upperclassmen have challenges that fall courses do not. I also was able to spend more devoted time prepping women’s history in the summer.
  • Size of the class. History of women leveled off at 12 people; it was capped at 15, and filled, but some people dropped. History of sexuality had a cap of 20, which I over-enrolled because demand was so high, but by the end of the semester it had leveled off at 17.  I have obviously run hundreds of discussions with 25, 28, and 40-person classes, but perhaps the five person difference in this class made a difference.
  • Assignments: Women’s history loved the commonplace books, and I’m looking to do something digital with them this fall. History of sexuality loathed having to write down scope/argument/sources and author/audience/form/argument every week. I suspect that might have also been the case had I assigned women’s history to do the same.
  • Composition of the class I: Women’s history had five history majors in it, sexuality had two. The majors didn’t necessarily have any content knowledge, but they knew how historians thought and what their goals were, and that is helpful.
  • Composition of the class II: Women’s history had history majors and a blend of students majoring in English, sociology, psychology, and even musical theater. History of sexuality was dominated by students majoring in psychology and sociology. Many of them told me flat out that reading for an argument was unfamiliar to them – they were used to looking for terms – and they did not like having to read primary sources at all.  (I don’t buy the idea that they’d never been asked to read for argument before, but that’s how they understood their college experience and it shaped our interactions.)
  • Composition of the class III: Women’s history was all women. History of sexuality was about evenly divided. Imagine the ways that that divide might shape the dynamic in these two courses as taught by me, a 33 year old woman in her first year at this university and the only woman in the history department. Everything you are imagining is correct. I had expected some of this, especially having read Historiann’s post on her own history of sexuality class, which I read in preparation for teaching this course. While my students didn’t complain too much about the amount of rape, the class discussions of childbirth, nursing, menstruation, and tampons had a distinctly different feel to them.
  • Expectations: For women’s history, what students expected they’d learn in the class was pretty close to what they got, if a bit longer in duration. In history of sexuality, the expectations were not at all matched by my course, a fact which was clear to me immediately. But I couldn’t change it, and wouldn’t have, and here’s why.

I think the biggest difference in the classes, the thing that shaped the tone of the discussion in the long-term and confounded expectations, was the argument I was making and how students felt about that argument.

In women’s history, most students expected to start either in the mid-19th century, or more commonly, with suffrage, because “women couldn’t really do anything before then, right?” Starting, instead, with colonialism – with Kathleen Brown talking about gender and race and Nina Dayton talking about abortion in colonial Connecticut – was very disruptive, but the class seemed to like it. They were amazed and interested to find out this history that had been “hidden” from them, something that went doubly for the non-white members of the class, who were surprised to see race emphasized so much in the course.

There were still dominant narratives that we struggled against all semester – most notably the idea that there was a point at which women “started to work” – but for the most part, they were receptive to the complicated narrative I present about the experiences of being a woman in the U.S. Sure, they complained in the evaluations about the level of reading, but discussions were lively and engaged, they knew each other’s names, and in general, I think we all looked forward to class each week.

The first indication I had that expectations were mismatched in history of sexuality was when a student said, at the start of the first class, “So, this isn’t the class where we go to a strip club?” Some had clearly taken the course thinking it was human sexual behavior or the like. My activity for the first day – building a word cloud of the things we might talk about in a class on the history of sexuality – helped me see that they had a very limited sense of what the history of sexuality meant.  They expected the class to start in the mid-20th century somewhere, “when the sexual revolution happened,” and that many of them thought it would primarily focus on gay Americans. Once I realized that second part was really causing some students difficulty getting on board with the class, I was able to work in a lot of discussions about how just as men have a gender and white people have a race, straight people have a sexuality, and in fact the construction of the idea of sexual orientation was part of the story we were telling.  I think I did make some inroads there.

The larger issue, however, was this issue of when the history of sexuality “starts,” which was very much wrapped up in ideas of repression and liberation. We started the course by reading the three introductions to D’Emilio and Freedman’s Intimate Matters to get a sense of how the field had changed, and I made explicit that repression to liberation was not the argument this class was making. That really bothered some students. They thought it was wrong to study anything before some indeterminate point at which things became “liberated,” and if they were going to have to read about “backwards” views, the only appropriate form of analysis was to stand in judgment of those people. When confronted with secondary and primary sources that contradicted the previously-held narrative, a small subsection of the class was fascinated, but most of them were annoyed, and almost offended. I vastly underestimated how important it would be to some students to feel like they were of the post-60s period that “invented” liberated sexuality.  And when you already Know the Truth of the past, like many of them did, you read that Truth into everything you read.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, female students seemed to give up the “liberation” narrative much more easily, and I think that was as much a result of hearing male peers talk about sexuality in and out of the classroom as it was any specific content they learned. But I think that for many in the class, the point of looking at sexuality through a historical lens was utterly lost.  I know that I emphasized how important and central that was at the start of the class; many of them just rejected my reality and substituted their own. I had no way to respond to that.

The one common issue in both classes was that while they were both mid-level history courses, most of the students had not had any history since high school. In re-thinking women’s history for the fall, I need to think more about how to teach historical thinking skills in the course. I spend so much time on them in my intro classes, but in a situation where those aren’t pre-requisites, I have to figure out some other way of teaching them better alongside the content and argument of the course.  I think that with a greater understanding historical thinking, students in history of sexuality would feel more comfortable letting go of dominant narratives.


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