Erin Bartram

doomed to distraction

Tag: women (page 1 of 2)

The Year of Writing Dangerously

Well, folks, it’s the one year anniversary of this website, so it seems like time for me to think about what I’ve done.

I say that I’ve been “writing dangerously”  not because anything I’ve written here has been particularly provocative, but rather because doing anything other than keeping your head down and publishing your ass off is often framed as “dangerous” for young scholars, particularly those of us living life on the job market.

All in all, I’ve liked the space I have here, and I’ve liked what I’ve done with it. People often ask me if my writing here takes a lot of time, the unspoken question being “Does this take away from your real work?” I can honestly say no, it doesn’t take a lot of my time, but that’s mostly because the things I write about are things I’m already thinking about. Sometimes I poke at a draft of something for a while, but most of the time, I’ve thought it through in my head by the time I sit down to write.  Heck, the anniversary of this blog was actually two days ago, but I wasn’t ready to sit down and write this till today, so I didn’t!

I’ve written a lot on teaching, and some on the intersections between the past and the present, and now I write about both of those things on other blogs too: Teaching United States History and The Daily Context.  I have also written a bit on the strange historiographical and disciplinary conventions I find myself tangled up in. Those have been some of my favorite pieces to write, and they’re the ones that will always stay here, I think, because they’re so central to my scholarship.

I can’t say what any of this writing has done for anyone out there, but I think it’s done some things for me. It’s certainly helped me practice writing in a different voice, to such an extent that I can really feel the shift between this voice and the more scholarly voice I use in other forms of writing. Sometimes it feels like I have a bad kickdown cable, honestly. But I think being aware of these different voices has helped me refine each one, just a little.

It’s also just helped me think better. My high school had signs in all the classrooms that said “Writing is Thinking,” and I’ve done a lot of thinking through writing in this space. As a result, I’ve put a lot of in-process thoughts out into the world, which is sometimes tough, and I know that some might find it dangerous for an early career scholar. But really, isn’t every bit of writing we put out into the world unfinished in some way? As long as I don’t claim that what’s here is the equivalent of peer-reviewed writing – and it is most certainly not – I think I’m okay with it.

So, in this age of data, let’s look at what people read.

My most-read piece was this description of think-alouds, the assignment I use in my intro classes. Second, another piece on teaching, “Teaching religious n00bs and skeptics.” which also received the most comments by far. Both posts deal with something that I think we don’t talk about enough when we talk about teaching – the assumptions our students bring with them when they enter our classes and approach the texts we give them. I remember the Twitter conversations that erupted over the second post, mainly from scholars who were aghast at the lack of religious knowledge my students generally bring to the classroom. But my goal with both of these – and indeed with all of my posts on teaching – was never to shake my head at “kids these days.” I cannot claim to have figured out how to deal with my students’ assumptions and blind spots, but it seems fruitful to continue thinking about them and comparing notes with each other.

The #3 piece on my list of the most-read is one that I really liked, but that generated almost no response at the time, so I was really surprised to see it ranked so highly. I didn’t think many people read it! It was a piece I wrote just before Christmas about my frustration with the “Hillary didn’t win the working class” narrative, a narrative built on ideas about labor, race, and gender. She did win the working class, and she did talk about labor issues, but since the dominant image of “the worker” in America continues to be a white man with a wrench (or a coal miner’s helmet), policy proposals delivered by a woman that aimed to help workers who were also women, people with disabilities, immigrants, and non-white Americans were written off as things for special interests, not “American workers.” I actually think the piece holds up even better all these months later.

There are two pieces I wish more people had read and engaged with: last fall’s “The planks in our own eyes” and the more recent “Confessions of a horse shed historian.” The first dealt with my discomfort as a historian of Catholicism in the broader field of American religion, and the second with my discomfort as a historian of things non-religious in the field of American religion. I understand why some people might have worried that I was attacking their scholarly priorities; I can assure you that was never my intention. But I do think the people who engaged with both were generally those who, I suspect, feel these same discomforts in their own scholarly lives, and I hope my giving voice to them was helpful.

We’re always telling our students to think about audience when they read a text. When I started here, I wasn’t sure who my audience would be, or even if I’d have an audience. I’m still not actually sure on either count. But I’m going to keep doing it, and if anything I’ve written or anything I write in the future is interesting or helpful to those of you who do read, I’m going to count that as a win.

Confessions of a horse shed historian

David Hall famously wrote of the “horse shed  Christians,” those people in early New England who, during service, were just as likely to be out back by the horse shed talking about the price of wheat with their friends as they were to be in the church listening attentively.  I’m stretching the metaphor a lot for the purpose of this little essay, but I hope you’ll go with me.

Much of the time, I feel like a horse shed historian of American religion.

I am an editor for H-AmRel, I list religion as one of the things I study, I did a comps field in it. But while I’m usually always at the first service, by the second one I find myself out at the horse shed, talking about other things with other historians.

To some extent, we’re all like this. We often have a primary field and several secondary ones. Knowing a few fields well is key to formulating productive research questions, and usually those fields are defined by theme, by geography, and by time period. Specialization is not only the way the academic discipline works, it’s prudent.

I think about the history of the 19th century in America, including Americans abroad. I think about the history of women. I think about the history of ideas. I think about the history of social status. But it’s really only when operating in the history of American religion scene that I feel as though I’ll never be a full member, in the old New England sense.

I have discerned two distinct markers of full membership. They are not explicitly stated anywhere, and indeed many of you reading this might recoil at the suggestion that they exist and have power, but I hope you can hear me out. It strikes me that if a historian can manage one of these things, they can scrape by and get full membership. Having neither means I probably know you from the horse shed.

First, if you’re not a historian of mainline/evangelical Protestant Christianity or conversant enough not to embarrass yourself when talk turns to Protestant theology and church structure over drinks at a conference, you’re not a full member. Understanding Catholicism, Judaism, Mormonism, Buddhism, etc etc etc beyond a few notable events or figures is optional.

The argument one might make here is that, for better or worse, Protestant Christianity has dominated American public life and institutions. If you’re going to be a historian of religion in America, you have to know this stuff. And I’ll grant you that, to an extent. But the LDS church is about as American as you can get, and Catholicism is the largest denomination in the country and has been for a long time. Knowledge of neither is sufficient or even always necessary for membership.1)Most of what gets discussed on H-AmRel is Protestant-related, and anecdotally, I know that many of my friends who study American Catholicism don’t subscribe to the listserv. This is not to deny that people who study Protestantism and Catholicism and Buddhism in America have different goals and frameworks. I also know that there are historic reasons why the listserv is what it is. But it is something we should be aware of – the listserv about “American Religion” is not a place where many different religions get discussed.

Second, and to my mind more important, is that if religion isn’t the central topic and driving force of your scholarship, you’re not a full member. This, I find, is as applicable when I’m among historians of Catholicism as it is when I’m among historians of Protestantism. I find it more the case among historians of religion than any other historians I work with. It is also, unfortunately, much harder for me to articulate and explain, but I’ll give it a whirl.

We have all these fields, and most of us work across fields all the time, because people in the past lived “across fields.” But most of us have a place we start from. A thing that we want to know more about, more than anything. The framework in which we operate. Talking with other historians of religion, I have heard scholars (who were not there) described as “not really a historian of religion” or “not really a historian of Catholicism.” These comments indicated that religion was not central enough to a particular scholar’s work for it to “count,” that history of religion wasn’t the singular place from which the scholar formulated their questions and departed.

Religion often seemed pretty central to the books we were discussing, so at first I was confused. How could they not really be historians of religion? Sometimes, it was because the book wasn’t a certain percentage about religion. What was the right percentage? That was for them to know and for me to find out, apparently. Sometimes, it was because the historian had written a book in which religion played the central role but had also written a book in which religion didn’t play the central role, even if it was there. Sometimes, it meant that their work on religion didn’t give sufficient attention to The Institutions Where Religion Happened and The People Who Defined What Religion Was. Sometimes it was just that the history of religion was forced to share the page with the history of women.2)Who are not – I repeat, not – The People Who Defined What Religion Was.

This is why I find myself at the horse shed.  I didn’t go to grad school to study the history of religion explicitly, though I had done extensive work in American Jewish history in college. I didn’t have a department with any prominent historian of American religion. I listen attentively and hope no one asks me my thoughts when conversation turns to Joseph Bellamy. But I found a dissertation topic that interested me, and a good part of it was about religion. I wrote it, and now I’m revising it for publication, and I know it’s not going to be about religion enough to count. 3)Even when I’m doing religion, the people I study were Unitarians (but weren’t Channings) and Catholics, so I’m already sort of on the fringe.

My study of the history of religion has been and continues to be fruitful and fascinating, but I don’t think it’s ever going to get me to full membership because it’s never going to hit both of those markers. Moreover, I’m not actually sure I know whether there’s any topic that I always want to know more about, other than the 19th century in America, which might be a problem.4)A friend of mine in college who went on to do a PhD at Chicago once said to me: “It’s just that nothing after the 11th century really makes any sense to me, you know?” A much as I have felt compelled to convince historians who don’t focus on religion that what I study is important and worthwhile, a thing many of us have had to do, I have also felt that I had convince other historians of religion that what I study is enough about religion – and not too much about other things – for them to care about it.

Sometimes my students complain that there’s “too much religion” in US I, and of course I know that relative to how important religion was to the people I study, there’s actually far too little. Part of the reason that this issue of full membership is so frustrating to me is that it seems to work against the goal that many of us have: to help others understand how important – how integral – how integrated – religion was and is in the history of the United States. It feels like these markers of full membership exclude lots of people from scholarly conversations that would help further this goal. And to put it bluntly, if historians of religion are going to complain all the time that “regular” historians don’t pay attention to our work, I should never have to hear, or feel, like certain scholarship about religion isn’t about religion enough. That’s the stuff that sends me to the horse shed, folks. And you know what? It’s not bad out here.

 

 

References   [ + ]

1. Most of what gets discussed on H-AmRel is Protestant-related, and anecdotally, I know that many of my friends who study American Catholicism don’t subscribe to the listserv. This is not to deny that people who study Protestantism and Catholicism and Buddhism in America have different goals and frameworks. I also know that there are historic reasons why the listserv is what it is. But it is something we should be aware of – the listserv about “American Religion” is not a place where many different religions get discussed.
2. Who are not – I repeat, not – The People Who Defined What Religion Was.
3. Even when I’m doing religion, the people I study were Unitarians (but weren’t Channings) and Catholics, so I’m already sort of on the fringe.
4. A friend of mine in college who went on to do a PhD at Chicago once said to me: “It’s just that nothing after the 11th century really makes any sense to me, you know?”

Enough to drive you crazy if you let it

One incessant refrain in the weeks since the election has been how Democrats – and Hillary Clinton in particular – failed to reach out to “working people” and secure their votes.1)This presumes that policy positions were the subject of media coverage in this election season, which they were not. This claim is dubious, but the narrative resonates because of specific, historic ideas we have about who is a worker. Even if we take “working people” to mean people who earn less money, Clinton won those who made less than $50,000 a year. Clearly “working people” is coded white, for white Americans, for politicians, and for the media. To understand white bodies as the laboring bodies that matter in America is unsurprising, given the continued refusal by many to recognize that our economic system was built on enslaved labor. Thankfully, some columnists and activists and many historians have tried to push back against the conflation of the white working class with the working class in general, though to little avail.2)This alone is reason enough for me to find these political and academic calls to drop “identity politics” ridiculous, and rather offensive to boot. There has been a lot of analysis of the way that racial views and nationalism shaped how people voted, even as the drumbeat of “it’s just economic anxiety!” continues. I don’t think that’s the whole story, though.

WPA poster, 1936, LoC, https://www.loc.gov/item/98518393

There seems to be another angle that suggests itself, listening to the constant talk about how HRC couldn’t connect with working people. On paper, it seems strange. The Democratic platform was certainly pro-worker, and Clinton and her husband are far better examples than Trump of the social mobility through hard work and education at the center of the American Dream. And I don’t think we can explain it away by the fact that she became a member of the elite by working in an elite profession; both her husband and Obama did the same, but when Obama rolls up his sleeves and says “workin’ people,” lots of people buy it – or at least bought it when he campaigned, which is what counts for the purposes of this examination.

Still, Hillary Clinton talked about jobs a lot. But Hillary Clinton doesn’t look like what we imagine the American worker to look like, and she talks about American workers who don’t look like what we imagine either. I think this played a much bigger role than anyone is willing to recognize. There is a pair of ideas about women and work that dominate the narrative in America, that women’s domestic labor isn’t real work, and that women only started working outside the home “recently.” Clinton and the Democratic platform pushed back against both, but they’re incredibly hard to crack.

I know they’re hard to crack because women’s labor – productive and reproductive – is at the center of many of my classes, and my students are very resistant to recognizing it. The idea that women only recently began working for money outside the home is incorrect – and quite obviously incorrect if you think about it for more than 5 seconds – but that doesn’t seem to matter much. If you need examples of women’s paid, skilled labor stretching back centuries, scroll down to the bottom.* The important thing to be aware of, though, is how much and in what ways women’s paid labor – and therefore a woman who labored for pay – has been seen as “less than,” “unnecessary,” and degrading to men and their labor. Of course, this was often reframed as paid labor itself being degrading to women – so let’s let them be ladies, amirite?3)Let me be clear – I’m not saying women themselves don’t buy this argument. They do, and the ways that they do have been examined by lots of historians looking at how race, class, and gender operate together.

The issue of women’s domestic labor being a valuable economic contribution is also a difficult one for people to wrap their heads around, given our contemporary understanding that work is a thing you do for wages. I often fall back on the line: “If you’d have to pay someone else to do it for you, it’s work.” It’s why it’s so hard for students to see the economic drawbacks in the shift to wage labor for women, particularly for black women in domestic service, whose skills in the domestic arts were simultaneously impugned and sought out. I always have to prompt students to think about what those wages have to pay for – childcare, in particular – and what is left to do when one gets home. Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for that other work that society frames as duty rather than labor!

Since women’s labor, in and out of the home, still remains excluded from political discussions, for the most part, it’s actually important that we stop and recognize this year’s campaign for who they talked about when they talked about workers.4)Lean In does not count. Let’s be real here. Instead of talking about nostalgia for the white, male, industrial laborer who dominates the narrative (if not ever the actual economy), Clinton talked a lot about people in service work, which dominates our economy, but is often excluded from the narrative. The policies she advocated – paid family leave, affordable childcare – would help men and women alike, in all sectors and fields.

Because women have continued to do most of the housework even as they’ve increasingly shouldered the burden of bringing home the bacon, these policies read as “women’s issues” rather than “economic issues.” These policies could only be read that way because we have yet to reckon with women’s labor, paid and unpaid. That they came from a candidate who was vilified for taking pride in her paid labor and scorned for rejecting the kind of domesticity demanded of her as First Lady seems sadly appropriate.5)Over the summer, in a column written in support of her, Nick Kristof still singled her out for wanting to make money, a characteristic he saw as “unseemly.” No, I can’t give you the citation because I’ve used up all my NYT articles for the month!

For all Clinton reminded us that women’s rights were human rights, it seems clear that we’ve yet to recognize that women’s rights are labor rights too. If we as a culture saw women’s work as economically valuable, equal to the labor done by the men on WPA posters, when a woman talked about affordable childcare policies, she could be seen and understood as a worker advocating for workers, not just a woman talking about “niche” issues. I don’t think it was Clinton’s money or her lack of work experience in heavy manufacturing that prevented her economic policies from “exciting the base.” I think it was that she didn’t “look like a worker,” and that she dared to promote policies that dignified women’s paid and unpaid labor.6)What about Elizabeth Warren, I hear you saying. First, I think if she ran for president on these policies, she’d face a similar backlash. She hasn’t made a name fighting for affordable childcare, though; she rails against banks, the enemy of the working man. I think that makes a big difference. Mary Lease was given a platform to criticize banks and railroads, after all, and she couldn’t even vote.

So many election post-mortems have told us that “working people” just saw Donald Trump as more authentic and in touch with the values of workers, and that the people who rejected Hillary would have voted for Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders or some other mythical candidate who always looks pretty much the same, funnily enough. If we’re going to buy that argument, let’s at least be honest with ourselves about what we’re saying.

———————————

*In the earliest weeks of U.S. women’s history, we read about women who ran inns and pubs, women who were midwives (who were working to bring home the bacon even when their husbands ended up in debtors’ prison!), women working as paid servants, and women who were being held in bondage, valued for their productive and reproductive capabilities. We see women being paid a pittance to work in textile mills, watching one of their major economic contributions – cloth production – be industrialized and their work “deskilled” in the course of a generation, even as they are explicitly sought out by employers for their expertise. We see these same women taking to the streets for decent wages. We see women working as teachers and tutors, taking in laundry and boarders, and working in munitions factories in the Civil War. Sweatshop labor on the Lower East Side, prostitution, the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, Rosie the Riveter, flight attendants, pink collar workers, Norma Rae, 9 to 5, and the constant, hidden force of domestic labor. The litany is endless.

 

References   [ + ]

1. This presumes that policy positions were the subject of media coverage in this election season, which they were not.
2. This alone is reason enough for me to find these political and academic calls to drop “identity politics” ridiculous, and rather offensive to boot.
3. Let me be clear – I’m not saying women themselves don’t buy this argument. They do, and the ways that they do have been examined by lots of historians looking at how race, class, and gender operate together.
4. Lean In does not count. Let’s be real here.
5. Over the summer, in a column written in support of her, Nick Kristof still singled her out for wanting to make money, a characteristic he saw as “unseemly.” No, I can’t give you the citation because I’ve used up all my NYT articles for the month!
6. What about Elizabeth Warren, I hear you saying. First, I think if she ran for president on these policies, she’d face a similar backlash. She hasn’t made a name fighting for affordable childcare, though; she rails against banks, the enemy of the working man. I think that makes a big difference. Mary Lease was given a platform to criticize banks and railroads, after all, and she couldn’t even vote.

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.

ct-klan-march

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.

shocked

 

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…

its-happening

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.

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.

 

“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 5b: new project for Women’s History

In addition to coming up with a new term project for my survey classes, I wanted to find something new to do in U.S. Women’s history as well.  In that class last fall, I had students write two short papers, neither of which required outside research. Broadly speaking, they asked students to take the material we’d worked with and make arguments about intersectionality and change over time. Both papers worked, in a sense, but the change over time stuff was still a bit of a struggle; for many students, that conceptual framework was still rather foreign at the end of the semester, which led to the flattening of time in their papers, so to speak.*

I also think that the familiar structure of a paper can provide too much opportunity for vamping and fluffing and avoiding telling me what a given source is actually saying. This line of thought has  shaped the new assignment I’m thinking of: a small digital project that will integrate another assignment from the class that worked well and that we all liked – keeping commonplace books.

I gave all of my students notebooks at the start of the semester that they used for copying over and commenting on passages from our primary and secondary readings. In addition to helping students think about what constituted a “meaningful” quote, they also were a great way to think-pair-share and start discussion in general.  Many of my students liked the process, and most of them said they noticed themselves getting better at picking out the good stuff. They loved it when they discovered that a bunch of other students picked the same quote.

I had considered digital commonplacing using Tumblr, but ended up going with the hard copy, and I will stick with that, but given the good things I’ve heard about public writing, I want to do something with that in the digital realm. My thought is that students could each use WordPress to curate (ugh, that word) a set of excerpts drawn from the class materials, with accompanying analysis/contextualization, beginning around the midpoint of the semester. They would then have to comment on each other’s posts, and as the final “paper,” produce a sort of introductory essay post that would guide the reader through the selections. It’s not much of a deconstruction of form, but it might work? I think I need to ponder a bit more.

I know there’s a strain of thought that says things like blogging take away from formal writing (i.e. essays) and that we can’t “let students off the hook.” I don’t think I’d be doing that. I don’t know that the stakes are very high for an essay, no matter how “formal” it is, that students know will only ever be read by me. Moreover, in our webinar on Hypothes.is annotations, we discussed the merits of public versus private annotation, and Jeff McClurken argued that he finds that student writing is more careful and considered when it’s public.

Is writing for the public a thing they’re going to have to do in their adult lives? Absolutely! If it is, we should be teaching it and having students do it. Frankly, if not doing it right can get you fired someday, it’s as least as important as the five paragraph essay. I suspect some of them will find it challenging to write for the public like this – after all, when they write for me, they’re writing for an “expert.” It’s challenging to write about a complicated thing for a non-expert audience. I also suspect this form, with appropriate guidance and comments from peers, might also help strip away so much of the extraneous material we find in papers. Wishful thinking? Perhaps. In need of more thinking? Certainly! I’d love thoughts

*Side note: Teachers of history need to talk about this and think about this more. Chronology and causality are so important to us and function as second nature, and we assume they function the same way for students, but I can’t be the only one who has to explicitly say that history papers showing change over time should, for the most part, be in chronological order. I don’t think students turn in papers that go all over the map chronologically because they’re lazy, I think that chronology just isn’t as  innate as we hope it is. I talked about this so much in one class they bough me a Tardis travel mug.

 

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