Gender Matters: My Lesson for Women's History Month

By Kelly Baker

Okay, so I am a little late to the party. It is already March 14th, and I am just getting around to my own reflections on National Women's History Month (NWHM). I even missed International Women's Day, but I think President Obama had it covered. (Historiann, the better blogger, already commented on the sausage fest that is the National Endowment Humanities Medal winners.) Timely, I am not.

The theme for NWHM this year is "Our History is Our Strength." As a historian and as a woman (I wonder why I feel the need to say both?), this theme resonates. History, we know, functions as a legitimator to claims about men and women in our public culture as well as scholarly cultures See Bonnie Smith’s The Gender of History: Men, Women and Historical Practice (1998) for a rousing discussion of how history as praxis is gendered. Moreover, the reclamation of women in history, the analysis of the fluidity of gender in different historical spaces and places, and the ability to analyze how gender functions as code for power relations are all crucial to understanding not only the place of women in American culture but also the constructions of womanhood/manhood and the consequences of these constructions. History becomes a possible tool of empowerment and agency because of its weight, its veracity, and its power to present our pasts to us. Women’s history month as a concept bothers me, though. Much like the critiques of Black History Month as separate space/history, I fear the limiting scope of one month as women’s month. The tagline in my head proclaims, “Women’s History, just a month every year!” My criticism is not original or new, but the concept of one month as the stand-in for the whole of women’s history is problematic. And it encourages the popular belief about history as “his-story,” a tired joke that still matters. One month a year cannot possibly d0 justice to the lives of American women and women globally, but I will take one month if the other possibility is no inscription of women’s history on our calendar year. I want celebrations of women’s history as history, unavoidable and required, rather temporary, demarcated and different. Women’s history is American history, and it is clearly American religious history.

Recently, I find myself describing my work as not just American religious history but also gender history. The mantle of gender historian is not new for me, but there is a new stridency. Yet, I find myself reading recent historical works and asking, "Where's gender? Where are women in religious institutions, movements and practice? Why don’t we discuss masculinity more?" When I feel really sassy, I ponder, "How can one do work in the twenty-first century without at least gesturing to gender?" I am not asking for much, an awareness of the social constellation attached to sexed bodies would be a good start. Perhaps, a glance at Judith Butler's Gender Trouble or Bodies That Matter, an occasional use of Michel Foucault on power, or hell, a nice lengthy description of how men and women in a variety of religious movements practice, believe, embody or “live” religion in relation to their gender. Gesturing to gender is better than ignoring the centrality of social and religious value attached to sexed bodies. Religious folk are not just what they believe or do. They have bodies. Bodies matter. Sexed bodies matter.

My teaching has forced this issue, like so many others. There is new pressing urgency to the import, and likely centrality, of gender to religious studies. Since I am teaching a gender and religion course, I feel like my whole semester is a women's history celebration while simultaneously a desperate mission to emphasize the centrality of women's history and gender history to religious history. Much like Catherine Brekus in her introduction to The Religious History of American Women, I wonder why American religious history still seems impenetrable to women's history, gender theory, and my current pet peeve, discussions of masculinity and men constructed as men. Gender matters, but convincing one's peers can be a zero-sum game. (To see my take on the problem of women and leadership, click here.) Why, I wonder, is it possible to ignore Ann Braude's salient and punchy statement, "Women's history is American religious history"? She's right. Almost fifteen years after her essay appeared in Retelling U.S. Religious History (1997), what gives? Braude eloquently showcases the sheer presence of women in American religious spaces. Women were the “people in the pews” for the majority of American history. By dismantling the popular thesis of feminization, Braude showcases that women did not “feminize” churches because their presence was the constant, not the presence of men. Braude’s insight should be foundational to explorations of American religious life alongside critical theories of race, class, and market. Perhaps, my stridency rears its ugly head here or not. What I want, if I could convince the historiographies of American religious history to bend to my will, is honest engagement of the impact of gender on the religiosity of American men and women as well as increasing attention to fluidity of gender identity in the historical past and the contemporary period.

Moreover, I want to pass out Joan Scott's famous essay, "Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis" (1986) to anyone who doesn't attempt to describe and analyze (or please theorize) gender. Scott's masterful article articulates how gender had evolved as an analytical tool from studies of women to an idea that the study of women was the study of men to how gender was viewed as a cultural construction. For Scott, descriptive analysis was not sufficient to affect historical paradigms. Descriptive analysis cannot cut it, so Scott critiqued previous models that centered on origins of patriarchy, which relied on physical differences between men and women and perpetuated essentialism, Marxian analyses, which explained gender as only the by-product of changing economic structures, and the prevalence of psychoanalysis, which was influenced by French post-structuralists and object relations theory. Scott called for a historicization and deconstruction of the binary opposition of gender rather than relying upon an assumption that exists. Scott proposed a new definition of gender, which was an element of social relationships based on perceived sex differences as well as a “primary” way of articulating power relationships. Thus, Scott threw down the gauntlet rather than assume gender in our analyses, we must question the opposition between male and female and to see what is at stake when gender is used to legitimate a position. What Scott is proposing is to see how gender is constructed and how it is deployed. She urges historians to examine what happens when someone invokes gendered language. What's at stake? What’s gained by invoking gender? The better question might be: What is at stake in avoidance?

Thus, to celebrate women’s history, I will be posting blurbs about my favorite women’s and gender historians in American religious history for the rest of March at my website. Please feel free to send your suggestions to me.

[Cross posted at]


Anonymous said…
Class, too. Just as important as gender, and maybe even more left out of American religious history.
Kelly Baker said…
Thanks, Emily. And Anonymous, I agree that class is under-theorized and under-represented in ARH, too. I wonder how we can do scholarship that takes account of class, race, gender and religion in effective ways.
Historiann said…
Kelly, bring on the "strident!" Bring on the "militant!" (That's the other adjective that gets attached to women calling attention to women's/gender issues.) I love your final question about what's at stake when we avoid thinking about women/gender in our histories.

I find it really telling that the first comment on this post fails to address any of your points about women's and gender history and asks instead "what about class?" Hilarious. It's only women and scholars of gender who are expected to address every other single issue of injustice on the face of the earth before we're permitted to talk about the most ancient of all of our unjust hierarchies. Only women have to solve every other problem first before we're allowed to address the one we all live with, day after day.

Don't get derailed. Stick with the subject, and stick it to them.
Kelly Baker said…
Historiann, my use of strident was purposeful, but I think I like militant better. Moreover, I wonder what kind of strategy avoidance is. Is it purposeful or not? Does it matter? Why are gender scholars supposed to keep more "balls' in the air than others?

And yes, "stick it to them" is my new strategy. Gender matters, darn it. How about I make t-shirts?
Historiann said…
T-shirts, but given the subject here, I don't really want to imagine a t-shirt with "balls" in the air!

Anonymous said…
If we looked at a list of book and article titles and subjects over the past decade or two in American Religious History, I wonder how many would concern themselves with gender, how many with race, and how many with class? I think Historiann's comment is an obfuscation. The Anonymous above (not me) made a good point, and I don't read the comment the way Historiann did. Race and gender are extremely important. Race, gender and class do not exist in isolation from each other. Historiann's comment suggests that one needs to choose, that one may study gender without attention to class and calling forth class gets in the way of studying gender. Would that the world were so simple.
Kelly Baker said…
Anonymous (no. 2), I don't think Historiann's point was that we should study any of these topics (race, gender or class) in isolation, but rather, the burden that falls upon certain types of scholarship (gender) and not others.

For instance, do we require folks who study gender to run the gauntlet of analyses by also including race and class? Are there other types of scholarship that get a proverbial free pass because the topics of inquiry *aren't* about class, gender or race? (I am not sure that there are topics by which this is possible.)

Of course, gender, race, and class do not exist in isolation. Historiann is not saying we should choose, but rather, scholars *do* preference certain types of analyses. Good scholarship attempts to manage these competing concerns, which leads to richer and more complex histories. The question becomes which types of analyses are favored in American religious history.

As far as gender goes, Catherine Brekus's introduction to _The Religious History of American Women_ in which she counts books, articles, etc. (which I am posting on later today).

Moreover, Sean McCloud's _Divine Hierarchies_ points out to the necessity of class in our scholarship. Class is becoming more important to the way I envision ARH, but this also means unraveling the tangle of ways in which gender, race and class inform one another.