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Women’s History

In response to:

Only Women from the April 11, 1985 issue

To the Editors:

Lawrence Stone’s review of two books in women’s history provides a revealing commentary not so much on the work he discusses as on his view of the entire field. About what other subject would even as consistently audacious a scholar as Professor Stone presume he could speak as God?

Undoubtedly Professor Stone will reply that his Ten Commandments were meant to be humorous and that my inability to laugh marks me as one of those tiresome feminists who can’t take a joke. Even if we grant, however, that the first section of the review was informed by a certain attempt to be cute, we can analyze its import seriously. After all, the tone and form of a text is as much grist for the historian’s mill as its explicit thematic content. In its detail and its overall impact the first section of the review not only suggests the marginal position of women’s history in its relationship to “traditional” history, but reinforces and reproduces that marginality. Despite Professor Stone’s seemingly sympathetic nod to equality at the end of his review (when he refers to “our achievements to date in partially remedying an ancient and systematic injustice done to one half of the human race by the other half”) and despite his generally fair treatment of the books under review, his stance as Law-Giver dominates the entire piece. The impression left is that a great authority has deigned to comment on some works that are by their nature minor, that his is the only standard of judgment possible, and that the subject matter and its historians will never quite measure up. That the editors dubbed the piece “Only Women” was a quite fitting (if unintended) commentary on the message the review conveys.

Of course reviewers often assert their authority and insist on the centrality of their standards; it is Professor Stone’s explicit patriarchal posture that is astonishing. His choice echoes Western cultural representations which identify Law and paternal authority and which link the need for female subordination to the inherently unruly and lawless feminine character. The “thou shalt nots” spell out his view of what women’s history is by listing what it should not be: no separate treatment of women; no feminist ideology; no heroine worship; no single-variable analysis; no exaggeration of the influence of gender as compared with power, status or wealth. Yet there is no call here (or in other of Professor Stone’s critical reviews) for an end to the separate treatment of men as historical subjects; for an elimination of theoretical insight in general historical interpretation; for a curtailment of hero worship in political narratives; for a consideration of sex and marriage in the lives of (male) workers or statesmen; and for the evaluation of gender as a factor in relationships of power, status, or wealth.

The asymmetry of Professor Stone’s criteria is striking. The fact that he seems not to be conversant with serious theoretical writing by women’s historians (who have dealt with many of these issues) is disturbing, as is his refusal to engage with them in a discussion of how traditional history-writing may have to be changed if women are to be included as historical subjects. Here, too, there is a striking contrast to other of his reviews which acknowledge different ways of thinking about history and then dispute them—the debate in these pages with Michel Foucault, his exchange with E.P. Thompson, his Past and Present essay on narrative are examples. But these are all his fellow practitioners, to whom he implicitly grants a certain legitimacy, however angry they make him. In the review of women’s history, in contrast, Professor Stone refuses to engage in debate, he simply states the Law. One can only conclude that it is precisely because he is speaking not to equals, but to women about a less serious enterprise—women’s history—that Professor Stone uses the voice of God.

Those who have taken the conceptualization and writing of women’s history seriously can thus only be dismayed by the import of Professor Stone’s review. Its gesture is one of condescension and a certain bemused tolerance, but only if the Father’s rules are obeyed. Since neither book violated all Ten Commandments, it is difficult to know what punishment is in store for the disobedient. At best, they probably would not be reviewed in The New York Review of Books. But even for the obedient the rewards are meager, for they bring with them always the reminder that women’s history is a subordinated enterprise, receiving, but never in a position to make law; following, but never contributing to the elaboration of standards for good history. That, at least, is the overwhelming message that Lawrence Stone sends. Is it any wonder that those who are the object of what may be his humor cannot respond with a smile?

Joan W. Scott

Brown University

Providence, Rhode Island

Lawrence Stone replies:

When I came to review the two books on women’s history, I had first to sort out in my own mind what criteria, special to this genre or general to any kind of history, ought to be applied. Having done so, for patently facetious rhetorical purposes, I put them in terms of “commandments’—never imagining for a moment that anyone would suspect me to be claiming to speak for God or Moses, or indeed anyone but myself. There was consequently no intention to appear either arrogant or condescending. But if offense is taken by someone like my friend Professor Scott—whose cool judgment and scholarly credentials in women’s history I greatly admire—then I can only offer a sincere apology: peccavi.

I am glad that Professor Scott believes that my review of the two books by women and about women was “generally fair.” But how can this be, if my “stance as Law-Giver dominates the entire piece”? She also draws skeptical attention to my final observation, which I would like to repeat since I attach great importance to it. I spoke of “an ancient and systematic injustice done to one half of the human race by the other half.” Are these the words of a male chauvinist, and what is Professor Scott’s evidence which enables her to dismiss them merely as a “seemingly sympathetic nod to equality”? I confess that I am as wounded by this suggestion of duplicity as she is angry with my “commandments.” Perhaps she should check out my record in working for equal treatment of women in academia.

Commandment” one, which seems to have given her most trouble, clearly applies, pari passu, also to men. My expectation is that women can and will write better history than men have done in the past, since they will be writing about all the human race instead of merely half of it. The only possible defense of the male-oriented bias of history, as written by men so far, is that for centuries the main subject matters were high politics and war, in which women have usually played no more than walk-on parts. Similarly it was not unreasonable to write history exclusively about women in spheres from which men have been largely excluded. But the moment the field of history was broadened, the idea of writing only about men or women became, and remains, rather absurd. In most areas of life where the genders have been closely interactive with each other, Professor Scott would surely agree that gender exclusiveness in history is self-defeating.

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