QOTD (2011-02-24)

While in fact the real, very best quote of the day so far is that Whitman, apparently, called Symonds “wonderfully cute” (or so Eve Sedgwick says in Between Men), I do have another lengthier one that’s worth sharing. I was rereading Joan Scott’s classic AHR review essay from 1986, “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis,” and found this paragraph worth quoting:

The subject of war, diplomacy, and high politics frequently comes up when traditional political historians question the utility of gender in their work. But here, too, we need to look beyond the actors and the literal import of their words. Power relations among nations and the status of colonial subjects have been made comprehensible (and thus legitimate) in terms of relations between male and female. The legitimizing of war—of expending young lives to protect the state—has variously taken the forms of explicit appeals to manhood (to the need to defend otherwise vulnerable women and children), of implicit reliance on belief in the duty of sons to serve their leaders or their (father the) king, and of associations between masculinity and national strength. High politics itself is a gendered concept, for it establishes its crucial importance and public power, the reasons for and the fact of its highest authority, precisely in its exclusion of women from its work. Gender is one of the recurrent references by which political power has been conceived, legitimated, and criticized. It refers to but also establishes the meaning of the male/female opposition. To vindicate political power, the reference must seem sure and fixed, outside human construction, part of the natural or divine order. In that way, the binary opposition and the social process of gender relationships both become part of the meaning of power itself; to question or alter any aspect threatens the entire system.

In Oxford, where I’m in with a much more random sample of history students than I generally am when I choose my classes more freely at Princeton, I’ve been encountering for the first time in years intelligent people who nevertheless are skeptical about the utility of gender as an analytical paradigm in the study of history. I can talk all I want from my fairly narrow area of expertise about how the history of Oxford itself can only be understood through its centuries of homosociality, and that today’s Oxford owes itself in large part to the university reform of the masculinized, Hellenist-in-all-kinds-of-ways Victorian intellectual age. But that hasn’t been sticking among those who do really largely understand history in terms of kings and emperors, wars and revolutions. I hope Scott’s words, then, can speak to the inextricability of not just gender, but society and culture, from the histories of even the most canonical dead-white-men history. And I hope that I, in turn, can learn to be a better teacher, to improve my ability to interact intellectually with those who come from different backgrounds to mine, with different assumptions about the meaning and practice of history. If the theories and methods I use and concepts I explore in my research don’t seem important, that’s because I’m not teaching them well enough.

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