Skip to main content
main-content
Top

About this book

The complaint of Catherine Morland in Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey, that history has 'hardly any women at all' is not an uncommon one. Yet there is evidence to suggest that women have engaged in historical writing since ancient times.

This study traces the history of women's historical writing, reclaiming the lives of individual women historians, recovering women's historical writings from the past and focusing on how gender has shaped the genre of history. Mary Spongberg brings together for the first time an extensive survey of the progress of women's historical writing from the Renaissance to the present, demonstrating the continuities between women's historical writings in the past and the development of a distinctly woman-centred historiography.

Writing Women's History since the Renaissance also examines the relationship between women's history and the development of feminist consciousness, suggesting that the study of history has alerted women to their unequal status and enabled them to use history to achieve women's rights. Whether feminist or anti-feminist, women who have had their historical writings published have served as role models for women seeking a voice in the public sphere and have been instrumental in encouraging the growth of a feminist discourse.

Table of Contents

Introduction

Introduction

‘Hardly Any Women At All’? Women Writers and the Gender of History
Abstract
The complaint of Catherine Morland in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, that history has ‘hardly any women at all’, is not an uncommon one and until fairly recently few historians would have disagreed. That is not to say that women were entirely absent from history or that historians of women did not exist before the 1970s. On the contrary, it is possible to document women in history from the time of Herodotus, and there is evidence to suggest that women have engaged in historical writing from the first century CE.1 Since the 1960s historians of women have continually reclaimed the lives of individual women historians, ‘recovered’ women’s historical writings from the past and established traditions of women’s history dating back to ancient times. An overarching impression remains, however, that women are somehow situated outside ‘history’.2
Mary Spongberg

Men’s History

Frontmatter

Chapter 1. The Classical Inheritance

Abstract
The cultural dominance of classical literature during the Renaissance established an exclusively masculinist cast to the study of history. Knowledge of a small corpus of classical texts created a cultural hegemony that regulated elite education and determined entrance into the law, the church and the civil service for 500 years. The ‘classical’ education saw women largely excluded from intellectual life, based as it was on an ideal of public life drawn from ancient Athens and Rome. This classical ideal was ideologically underpinned by a gendered notion of separate spheres. Not only were women denied the possibility of a classical education, but that very education reinforced the belief that the exclusion of women who from the public sphere was ‘morally correct’ and ‘in accordance with the whole tradition of western civilisation’.1 From the Renaissance onwards male scholars held a particular scorn for women who usurped the masculine privilege of a classical education and used the historical representation of women in classical texts to argue against the education of women and their entrance into the public sphere.
Mary Spongberg

Chapter 2. ‘All Histories Are Against You’: Women and the History Men

Abstract
Although classical learning formed an integral part of the intellectual heritage of the West, its authority did not go completely unchallenged, nor has its influence remained static since the Renaissance. The Reformation, the Enlightenment and the revolutions in science and industry that convulsed Europe between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries produced a climate of continuous intellectual tumult. The discovery of the ‘New World’, the rise of Protestantism and capitalism and the weakening of absolutist states all shaped a new sense of history. Innovation in science saw it challenge other knowledge systems and fundamentally alter the way in which the world was viewed. Between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries history moved away from its classical designation as an ‘art’ to become during the Enlightenment a ‘science’. Seeking the prestige and certainties offered by science, historians adopted its language and methodologies.
Mary Spongberg

Women’s History

Frontmatter

Chapter 3. ‘Above Their Sex’? Women’s History ‘before’ Feminism

Abstract
Women have always practised various means of recording history, but these practices have rarely been recognised as history. This chapter will examine the work of women as historical writers from the Renaissance until the French Revolution. It will demonstrate that although lacking in civil rights, with poor educational opportunities and with little access to the materials necessary to write history, a small but significant number of women engaged in the production of history throughout this period. Subverting traditional genres like biography and family history, women inserted themselves into historical narratives and subtly manipulated the gendered expectations of historiography. During this period women historians did not necessarily write about women, nor were they overtly concerned with women’s rights, but many of them developed feminist consciousness through their study of history. Women’s historical endeavours created an intellectual environment that allowed the development of feminist ideas, and increasingly throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries a sense of women’s oppression was acknowledged. If the study of history was seen as essential to develop ‘manliness’, it served equally to alert women to their unequal status and led to an assertion of history’s moral authority in order to achieve women’s rights.
Mary Spongberg

Chapter 4. History’s Romantic Heroines: Women’s History and Revolutionary Feminism

Abstract
This chapter will explore the ways in which women came to understand historically the French Revolution. Initially the revolution o¡ered women many possibilities. A new language of equality encouraged women to believe they were witnessing a dramatic shift in relation to gender and genre. This shift necessitated a new historical perspective on the role of women. In revolutionary propaganda historical representations of women were fiercely contested. This chapter will examine how women came to use history to demand citizenship rights and how women as participant-observers developed new historical forms to depict their experiences. Writers like Mary Wollstonecraft and Germaine de Staël (1766–1817) described themselves as not merely recorders of history, but as makers of history. This dual role allowed women to take historical writing in new directions.
Mary Spongberg

Chapter 5. ‘Heroines of Domestic Life’: Women’s History and Female Biography

Abstract
By the mid-nineteenth century there were so many women engaged in historical writing they were becoming the subject of hostile reviews bemoaning their abundance.1 J. M. Kemble wrote in Fraser’s Magazine in 1885: ‘we [men] must plead to a great dislike for the growing tendency among women to become writers of history’.2 Underpinning this hostility was concern that women were ‘feminising’ history, at a time when it was reasserting its manliness through professionalisation. In spite of criticism, women engaged enthusiastically with historical writing throughout the nineteenth century, although the types of history women wrote were somewhat constrained by gender prescriptions stressing women’s essential domesticity.
Mary Spongberg

Chapter 6. Women’s History and the ‘Woman Question’

Abstract
The question of women’s status in society came to provide the basis of a number of historical works by women in the latter half of the nineteenth century. The struggle for the higher education of women and the demand for womanhood suffrage and other campaigns of first-wave feminism informed much historical writing on women. Inspired by the ‘spirit of historical inquiry’ that characterised the Victorian age, women concerned about their declining civil status and their exclusion from higher education turned to the past to understand their present condition. This chapter will explore certain aspects of the ‘woman question’, as it was called, particularly focusing on how it created new interest in women as an historical category. While women mobilised into feminist organisations they looked to the past to detail their oppression and to supplement their arguments for education, social purity, marital equality and suffrage. As the demands of first-wave feminism grew, women’s historical writing came to be framed in light of explicitly feminist arguments. Unlike earlier histories that saw women progress historically towards equality with men, histories of women informed by feminism focused on women’s declining civil status. By the end of the nineteenth century the idea that women were reclaiming rights that had been wrenched away from them became commonplace. Feminist histories of women challenged the celebratory nature of female biography, asserting the importance of the experience of the mass of women over the particular.
Mary Spongberg

Chapter 7. Amateurs or Professionals? Women’s History in the Academy

Abstract
This chapter will explore the experiences of those women who achieved success as academic historians from the end of the nineteenth century until the rise of women’s liberation in the 1960s. While the vast majority of women who engaged in historical writing did so outside the academy, a small but growing number of women trained at university and took up places in the newly formed discipline of history. These women had to face numerous obstacles as they slowly worked to gain acceptance within the academy. They dealt with male hostility and were relegated to peripheral standing in the university system. These exclusions allowed women historians to form powerful networks of female scholars and to draw inspiration for their work from this sense of female community. The first forty years of the twentieth century proved particularly fruitful for women historians, with a number of women making significant innovations in the new sub-genres of social and economic history.
Mary Spongberg

Chapter 8. ‘Clio’s Consciousness Raised’? Women’s Liberation and Women’s History

Abstract
This chapter will explore the connections between women’s liberation and the development of women’s history in the post-war period. Women’s liberation was born out of the radical politics of the 1960s. Women’s liberation groups rejected masculinist political theory and structures and asserted the superiority of feminine politics, values and beliefs. They challenged many of the discriminatory practices women faced daily and demanded equal pay, equal opportunity employment, better childcare services and the right to abortion.
Mary Spongberg

Chapter 10. Liberating Women’s History? Feminism and the Reconstruction of History

Abstract
This chapter will focus on the complex relationship between the development of feminist theory and the writing of women’s history in the 1970s and 1980s. While it came to be accepted that history was a phallocentric discipline, there remained much debate about how feminism should inform women’s history. As women’s liberation fragmented into various schisms, different feminisms evolved, each with their own specific agenda for women’s liberation, and consequently with a different vision of women’s role in the past. By the end of the 1970s women’s history had become a major vehicle in the struggle for feminist legitimacy, while feminist theory proved critical to historians of women deconstructing masculinist historiography.
Mary Spongberg

Chapter 10. Surpassing the History of Men: Women’s History and Lesbian History

Abstract
Lesbian history has not evolved simply as a sub-genre of women’s history, but out of a series of debates within feminism, women’s history, the history of sexuality, and within the gay and lesbian community. This chapter will examine the development of lesbian history primarily in relation to feminism and women’s historiography. The debates around lesbianism within women’s liberation have generated considerable controversy, which was in turn reflected in the historical writings on the subject. The sexual experience of women in the past became a critical discussion point for late twentieth-century feminists engaged in debates about sexuality.
Mary Spongberg

Conclusion: Dealing with Difference

Abstract
The fragmentation of the women’s movement over issues such as agency and resistance, consent and non-consent, separatism and sexual radicalism was only a small part of a broadening critique of the universalising tendencies of radical feminism. From its inception radical feminism had self-consciously promoted the ideal of sisterhood in an attempt to build up a sense of solidarity amongst women, focusing on their commonalities of experience and their shared oppression. Discussion of ‘difference’ formed part of the rhetoric of radical feminism. However, in this context difference signified gender difference, or the social meanings attributed to biological difference by patriarchal discourses. Although radical feminists were aware that class, race, age and sexual preference created differences among women, such differences were frequently overlooked. As radical feminism evolved into cultural feminism issues of class, race and age difference came to be regarded as divisive. Cultural feminism reverted to an earlier feminist stance that sought to create an alternate discourse centred on ‘female uniqueness’.1 In its essentialisation of female experience, cultural feminism found little space to consider ‘difference’ other than differences created by sex.
Mary Spongberg
Additional information