Challenging the Boundaries of Women’s History and Beyond

Nine African American women seated on the steps of a building at Atlanta University. Part of Du Bois’s presentation at the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1900. (Photo: Thomas E. Askew, Library of Congress)

By Sasha Turner, Black Perspectives

Earlier this year, the Coordinating Council for Women in History issued a statement condemning the all-white male conference held at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. In our statement, we challenged readers to look beyond the conference convener Niall Ferguson’s excuse that the all-white male conference was merely coincidental, the accidental result of packed schedules. Viewing the conference through Ferguson’s critique of the changes in the discipline of history in the last several decades suggests a deliberate omission. According to Ferguson, history is in decline because the content has changed from concentrations in such traditional subfields as diplomatic and international history, legal and constitutional history, and social and economic history. Increased concentrations in histories of women, gender, race, and ethnicity, as well as environmental history and cultural history are too parochial, Ferguson claimed. He argued these histories interest a mere handful of students. Such provincial approaches to history combined with their overtly political platform, Ferguson continued, account for undergraduates’ growing disinterest in history.

Ferguson’s defense and the Stanford Conference are not isolated events. They reflect a much broader pattern within the discipline where minority scholars and scholarship on women, race, and gender are marginalized. I am concerned about present-day dismissals of women and gender histories, including at the 2018 American Historical Association Meeting in Washington, D.C. where the basis of a senior white male professor’s scathing criticism of a graduate student’s paper was that he “does not believe in gender.” On the other end of the spectrum, belief in Black inferiority has been accepted as legitimate scholarship. The American Historical Review’sdecision to assign Ansley T. Erickson’s book on racial inequality in American public schools to Professor Raymond Wolters, whose work and review of said book reflects his belief in white supremacy, illustrate how academic institutions give platforms to racist ideas and discriminatory practices. Wolters’s critique of Ansley’s failure to engage debunked pseudo-scientific theories that link intelligence to race shows the ongoing purveying of racist ideas by the academy. Many academics contributed to race science in their erroneous attempts to prove Black inferiority. As an example, the founding of modern gynecology depended on racialized medical ideas about Black women’s bodies. The Medical College of Georgia, along with the work of such physicians as Drs. Paul Eve, Charles Meigs, and James Marion Sims, diagnosed and treated patients according to their belief that Black bodies were inferior to white ones. The glaring contradiction, however, was that these said doctors experimented on Black women because they deemed Black people to be stronger than white people and were therefore less immune to the painful experiments to which they subjected Black women.

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