Foxes and Hedgehogs; or, An Excess of Guilt and What to Do About It

I have been following avidly blogger-historian Notorious Ph.D.’s series of posts on “The Fox and the Hedgehog,” an Aesopesque woodland-creatures metaphor for two kinds of scholars: foxes, whose expertise emphasizes breadth over depth and could encompass projects on completely different thematic areas; and hedgehogs, who burrow deeply into one subject area and become experts in that subfield. Across the historians’ blogosphere in the past couple weeks, there’s been a lot of discussion about areas of specialization, workload, and the gendered manifestations thereof, and Prof. Notorious neatly synthesizes it all in a question I find critical and salient:

… we all choose whether to be foxes or hedgehogs, but women’s/gender/feminist(/queer/?) historians who want to be foxes may feel that there is a moral obligation to be a hedgehog. If we don’t do this very important work, who will?


Now, I know that there are plenty of women’s historians (and in other fields too, of course) out there who are joyful hedgehogs by choice; we owe them a great deal as both scholars and feminists. And I also know that women’s history is a subfield big enough that you can be a fox within it. But I’m not talking about them — I’m talking about the feminist fox who feels pressured to be a hedgehog, to continue working in a field that is politically and/or personally important to her, when she’d rather be off writing about municipal institutions or poison or siege techniques of the Hundred-Years’ War.

Prof. Notorious included “queer” with a question mark, not certain whether the politics of queer history are quite identical to the politics of feminist history, but I think there’s some overlap. Since I decided that I was going to write my undergraduate thesis on gay men, and indeed since I became publicly known as something of a professional queer, I’ve been making my way through very related dilemmas without clear ethical answers. For months I have been trying to balance my fears of being ghettoized as someone who writes on queer issues (both in my undergraduate department and when I apply to grad schools) with my conviction that the stories I want to write need to be told; and to balance my belief in the good and necessary work of queer studies with the growing sense that I won’t want to work on queer topics for the rest of my professional life. In recent weeks, too, I’ve found these dilemmas compounded by an additional one: I’ve realized that my thesis project will be more focused and easier to pull off in a year and a hundred pages if it only deals with men-loving men, and not women-loving women during the same period—but what political disservice does that do to the Sapphic sisterhood, of which I’m theoretically a member? Do I have an ethical obligation to tell the stories of lesbians and proto-lesbians? If my thesis will be about queer men, do I need to ensure that one of my pieces of junior independent work is about queer women? Am I really just a sexist pig, like one of my friends told me in eleventh grade when I told her I hated being a girl?

Of course, the answer which Prof. Notorious gives, and the answer which I rationally know is the most sensible, is that we should write what we want to write, we should study what we love, and we shouldn’t feel bound by any sort of artificially-constructed external standard of what we “ought” to study. Prof. Notorious wisely writes that “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you have to,” and I think that she is right that women can write about men, and teh gayz can write about teh strayhtz and maybe everyone will end up more sensitive about each other in the process.

I’d add that in my experience, the most important work of visibility and tolerance is not done through academic study of people-who-aren’t-straight-white-men, but rather through convincing by our presences: being there for our peers (in my case) and our students (in the cases of the professors whose blogs I read and who are my mentors in real life) and making it clear that women or queer people—or people of color, or others who are left out of the straight-white-men version of history—really do have a place in the world. Of course, always being there to be the poster child for minority identity can let you in for the pitfalls which the blogger-historians have been describing of being overwhelmed by a false moral responsibility to spend all your time teaching tolerance, but I am tempted to say that it is the least you can do to spend just a little time being present so that the people around you can take courage from it. I am always the most moved and inspired—and confident—when I spend time in an academic setting (a classroom, a meeting, a departmental function, or even a dining hall meal) with people who look like me. This world does a very good job of tricking me into believing that because I am a woman, or because I make a professional and social identity out of identifying as queer, or because I am not conventionally attractive or feminine, I will not be successful, respected, or taken seriously. Reconstructing how 19th-century men-loving men understood their sexual identities is fun and engaging and illuminating about 19th-century culture, but it has never moved and inspired me the way seeing a woman who looks like me in a position of academic success and power has done. Even if I don’t—as I probably won’t—turn out a hedgehog, writing about the historiography of homosexuality forever, I hope that I can devote the same political energy to being there for my students (when I have some) as my professors have been there for me.

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