Bettering as Daily Struggle: A Case Study

It is quarter till 10 on Monday night, and I am curled up in an armchair exhausted. My nerves are frayed; I spent most of today burning with anger. It began before lunch, when, while banging out a mediocre essay for a tutorial on the question “To what extent did nationalism become a mass right-wing movement after 1870?” I realized that not a single book on my reading list was published after 1993, and not a single one was written by a woman. Of course, the first thing I did was look back at the footnotes of the essays I’ve written so far this term: in three essays, each with about 15 footnotes, I’d cited two women, neither of whom was a historian. My essay topics in both General History 1856-1914 and Disciplines, the Oxford history methods class, seem to assume that evolution in historical methods stopped around the mid-90s; General History, in particular, some chronological segment of which all history students have to take, seems preoccupied with dead white men. Of the six essay topics I’ve been given, none lends itself easily to the discussion of anything other than high-political history, and institutions to which women in the years 1856-1914 were denied access. Though I suppose this history is as orthodox as they come, it’s not what I’ve grown accustomed to understanding as the kind of history expected of me on the other side of the Atlantic, with its premium on originality, on primary-source research, on the significance of race, class, and gender, and on giving undergraduates a sense of what it is like to do history professionally today. Granted, this is probably more about Princeton, with its emphasis on independent work, than it is about the U.S.—but General History seems like a powerful step backwards in time. It’s nice to know what it would have been like to read modern history back when the subject was first introduced to this university, I suppose; but at the same time reading history in Oxford in 2011 should not be a time machine in itself. I am sure the whole café heard me at 4:30 this afternoon as, unable to get anything done for the past five hours out of stupefaction at the fact that not one of the seventeen books and articles on my reading list this week was written by a woman or in the past fifteen years, I ranted to my friends about how behind this university is, what a poor sense of what academic history is it is sending to its students, what it must be like to be a female Oxford undergrad for whom unbalanced reading lists like these are normal. I said unequivocally for I think the first time ever that I am glad I am getting my B.A. in the U.S.—that if I were doing it here, I would assuredly not only not be ready for grad school, I might not even think that it was possible for someone like me to be a historian.

And so anger fueled me back to the library from the café, anger made me stare at the computer screen and not be able to focus on the words or the ideas, and anger propelled me swiftly back and forth on my errands, through dinner, through more fierce unfocused staring. The tension didn’t dissipate until just now, when I read a pair of companion pieces in this week’s Princeton Alumni Weekly that respond to the findings of the Princeton Committee on Undergraduate Women’s Leadership about gender inequality on my home campus. Now, as Tony Grafton pointed out in his must-read Prince column today, the situation for women in Princeton, both students and faculty/staff, has gotten only better since 1969; in many ways, it is miles ahead of what I have encountered in the academic conservatism of Oxford. But in the PAW, Christine Stansell, one of the earliest Princeton alumnae, later a faculty member in the Princeton history department, and now a very eminent women’s history scholar at Chicago, reminds us with striking eloquency of the continuities as much as the changes—shoring up the accuracy with which the report from the CUWL pinpointed issues of persistent gender inequality on campus. And my colleague Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux, winner of this year’s Pyne Prize (Princeton’s highest undergraduate honor) for her work advancing the cause of feminism on campus, tells an inspiring story of her own hard work to make Princeton a better place, and her belief that as an institution it can become better. Reading the testimonies of Amelia and Prof. Stansell, I felt my anger at my reading list and the essay I spent much of today not writing melt away. Prof. Stansell, who got through Princeton at a time when it was not good to be a woman there and went on to have the kind of professional life that serves as a role model for aspiring historians like me, and Amelia, who has refused to believe that our work is done just because Princeton is a better place for women than it was when Prof. Stansell was an undergrad, reminded me something absolutely critical: that we convince by our presence.

And so if I want not only to be better, but to make things better, I need not to wallow in anger. Instead, I need to collect my thoughts, and I need to write a good, interesting, historically rigorous essay about nationalism. And then I need to walk into my tutorial on Wednesday and inquire of my tutor why my reading list is giving the impression that there are no women historians. And then I need to remember that when I have worked as hard as I can to be the best historian I can possibly be, and am still not satisfied with that, then I will be in a position to be a woman historian who stands before lecture halls of undergraduates, who mentors young women and young men who may or may not want to be historians themselves, whose books break up the monotony of male names on reading lists, who writes into the Princeton Alumni Weekly 40 years from now to remind the readers that our work is not yet done. From each according to her ability, to each according to her needs: I know what I can contribute to changing the culture of academic institutions. Sometimes there is a place in the world for teleologies—such as when day by day, step by step, slowly but surely, I can do my part to bend the arc of progress forward.

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