I wonder if progressive historians tend to be more favorable to “change over time” than “continuity” when studying the past.
John Fea’s great piece and the comments on it have crystallized something for me that I think is important to reflect on, both for teaching and living. Fea asks the pointed question quoted above, relating it to a recent debate over whether or not Jefferson was a Christian, which he admits brings a theological rubric into a historical space. He wonders whether
the progressivism of many in the historical profession also functions as a type of theological or ideological view of the world that shapes their approach to the evidence.
The comment that really resonated with me came from Ann Little, who noted that historians of women, gender, and sexuality often emphasize continuity over change. Fea noted that the same could be said for historians of race.
The reason all of this struck a chord with me is my recent experience teaching history of sexuality in the U.S. for the first time. I’ll do a longer post on that class and its issues at some point this summer, but I think it’s fair to say issues of continuity and change were at the heart of it, not just by design, but by the assumptions student brought to the class. Again, I’m going to expand upon this as I rethink both that class and my history of women class, but I think that it’s important to note a realization that many people (particularly women) had as they got to the end of the semester in history of sexuality.
Everyone coming to the class had assumed a narrative of “progress,” which I’d work to disrupt, as Little suggests, by pointing out continuities and explicitly rejecting the “repression to liberation” model in the structure of the course readings. For many students, who’d come to the class thinking it would pretty much cover the 1960s to the present, when progress happened, studying “backwards” periods was deeply frustrating. Many came to see continuities across time, or at least moderated their ideas of how much “progress” had been made.
The one thing many students came to argue, by the end of the semester, was that the most important continuity across time was the idea that women were inherently untrustworthy – to the point of that they could generally be assumed to be liars – and could especially not be trusted to know or admit to their own desires. Early on, my students read a chapter from Sharon Block’s Rape and Sexual Power in Early America, and there was the universal uproar over how horrible and backwards the 17th and 18th century conception of rape was. Reading primary sources from Ephraim Wheeler’s rape trial didn’t do much to change that view. But as the semester proceeded, students noted that they kept finding the assertion’s of Block’s subjects brought up over and over again – that women were manipulators, that they secretly wanted it, that women of certain classes and racial backgrounds really can’t be raped, that if a given woman hadn’t wanted it she would have fought harder or killed herself rather than be raped.
Not everyone in the class gave the same weight to this continuity. The women in the class, for the most part, attended to the discourse around rape and, more fundamentally, women’s inherent (un)trustworthiness, and men, for the most part, pointed to the changing laws surrounding rape as an indication that American society now saw rape as a serious crime and was willing to believe women and prosecute men.
For the students who saw this continuity, it helped them understand so much about their own lives and the conversations they hear about women in public life. Often, people say history helps us understand how we got to where we are, a statement which seems to suggest that change is what historians seek to understand. For my students, realization of this continuity, and the weight it seemed to place on so many of them, helped them understand how we got to where we are in a very different way.