Erin Bartram

doomed to distraction

Thoughts on Continuity

I wonder if progressive historians tend to be more favorable to “change over time” than “continuity” when studying the past.

Source: Do Historians Privilege “Change Over Time” Over “Continuity?” | the way of improvement leads home

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.



  1. My experiences teaching history of sexuality at Baa Ram U. are similar to yours–except my students are perhaps even more frustrated at our insistence on teaching so much early American history of sexuality, which is mostly stories about rape and men being executed or tortured for same-sex activities. Pretty depressing!

    I wrote about the history of sexuality class surveys after the first semester Ruth Alexander and I taught the class for the first time:

    • Erin Bartram

      June 1, 2016 at 11:13 am

      I read that post of yours as preparation for teaching this class! I haven’t peeked at my evals for this class yet, but I’m anticipating something like this. One thing that they voiced frustration with during the semester was material like Nina Dayton’s “Taking the Trade” and especially Edmund Morgan’s “Puritans and Sex,” pieces that contradicted the narrative that “liberated sexuality” and “progressive values” were inventions of the contemporary America they feel a part of. Some students were almost offended by the Morgan piece, though they didn’t disbelieve it.

  2. I’m glad you posted about Fea’s piece, that was definitely one of the things I wanted to talk about with you. One of the things that I find most interesting in the continuity vs. change debate is the way that we often see continuity on one half of the equation while seeing change, perhaps even extreme change, on the other side. For example, laws against bestiality have been in place for the entire existence of white settlement of New England. But they were originally based on religious doctrine enshrining the separateness of man and beast. If humans had sexual relations with animals, it threatened that separation. Therefore, it was illegal and morally abhorrent. Bestiality is largely still illegal in the US and seen as morally abhorrent, but for an entirely different logic: because animals cannot consent to sexual activity. Continuity in the laws, but change in the logic. Alternately, we’ve seen continuity in the perceived untrustworthiness of women while seeing a variety of different laws emerge to deal with that untrustworthiness. As a political scientist, I find those sorts of situations fascinating! (We see it with some water and health policies too – Florence Nightengale thought clean drinking water was crucial to good health, not because she believed in pathogens in the water, but because of the miasma theory of disease).

  3. I tend to emphasize continuity as well, though in courses that are (at least by their catalog description) more general in their scope than some of the ones you are talking about here. I find that students are often frustrated (and in extreme cases, disheartened) by the realizations that a) change is not a one-way street, and b) things don’t change quite as much as they had thought. I think this is an important point to try and communicate to students, although it’s important not to run too far in that direction – things do change a lot, after all!

    One difficulty I often encounter is that things are often changing and staying the same (for a lack of a better phrasing) at the same time. That is, my students are able to see how arguments about (for example) the moral laxness of the working class persist over time – but struggle to see how making those arguments in, say, 1830 is different than making those arguments in 1890 (or 1950 etc.). I think that often times, once students see a thread like this (people are always complaining about how things were better in the past!), they lose sight of how those arguments change depending on the surrounding context (which I think goes back to one of the persistent problems of teaching history – context).

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