Friday, 27 February 2009

Up next in Herstory...

So the thing is, I've never really minded "chairman". Or "mankind". They've never bothered me. They're just words - and as far as "chairman" is concerned, the fact that "man" is usually pronounced "mun" has blunted it even further. "Herstory" is on the surface ridiculous but actually a useful rhetorical tool, not just silly feminists getting the etymology wrong. "Wimmin" equally. That whole area of feminism always left me rather cold - not because I didn't agree with them when I thought about it, but because, well, I didn't think about it. But since coming to Cambridge, I've had to think about it. Like the other day, when I was happily pootling along in J. E. Neale's excoriation of some poor other "historian" (Neale heartily pours scorn on that particular pretension) when I came across this. He's talking about Elizabeth I, by the way.

"Even so I find it difficult to believe in this deliberate insult following upon the enjoyment of Parker's hospitality; though if I confess that if there is one thing too wonderful for us, it is the way of the woman's mind."

Woah. WOAH.

That brought me up with a jolt. I had to read it twice to get the sense of it, because of course when I read the first clause, I included myself in it - and why wouldn't I, because I was reading it, wasn't I? And it's a fairly common occurrence for a historian to speak of the fellowship in that way. But considering myself very much a part of that "us", it was only to find myself unceremoniously ejected by the second clause. Ho ho ho isn't it funny that women are so CRAZY! Lol omg etc...

This is a particularly egregious example, because it is actively stupid, not to mention pretty irrelevant to his argument. But there are plenty of others which, while equally excluding, are to be forgiven because of when they were written - but are nonetheless actually quite upsetting. I can't count the number of times I've read the construction "the historian ... his" or "the historian ... he will find...". Every time, I am taken aback - only for a second, but enough to unsettle me. Every time. Not only that, but talking about Elizabeth I seems to bring out the worst sorts of generalisations and tunnel vision (when Henry V or Edward IV paid attention to expenses, they were thrifty, but Elizabeth I is of course HOUSEWIFELY! Thanks for that, Simon Adams.) And this made me think about representation, and how important it is that people see a recognition in books and tv and films that people like them exist. Black people. Non-camp, non-butch, non-glossy glammy gay people. People with disabilities (good work CBeebies, incidentally, for employing one-handed Cerrie Burnell as a presenter, but boo to the people who think children will be "scared"). Because if I'm upset by being reminded that once upon a time, historians would invariably be men, poor me, but am otherwise pretty well represented, being a white middle-class Londoner with a posh voice, then how much worse is it for everyone else who's "different" from the norm, for whatever reason?

The thing is, words matter, they matter a lot, and it's too easy to forget that. And it's easy too not to notice the exclusion of others, so even though it pisses me off when white, middle-class men complain about how OPPRESSED THEY ARE OMG, at least it gives them a teeny tiny insight into what it's like for others. Just as Preofessor Happy Institionally Sexist Neale reminded me.

ETA to clarify my point about "herstory", lulz


  1. Non-gender specific pronouns are a problem, because they tend to lead to the singular "they" ("...if you know a historian, they will probably have an item of corduroy in their wardrobe..."). I tend to mix things up, using male and female pronouns in roughly equal measure.

    But, yeah, "herstory" is a bit shit.

  2. i thought that herstory was originally intended to be a rhetorical tool- a comic pun to draw attention to a serious point, and a soundbytey way to describe novel studies that focused on neglected female experience. so can its use as precisely this be an 'although' that saves it from total ridiculousness? surely it makes more sense to see it as a rhetorical tool that has got a bad press? i am just speculating here; i know little about the history of the word and its presentation (because that's ALWAYS the best point from which to advance arguments). my objection is based more on the fact i suffer from feminist-protectiveness syndrome.

    people often sneer that the word history has nothing to do with the masculine pronoun anyway, and hohoho, aren't those femmies dumb? it just seems to be that the word has been (deliberately?) misrepresented, to undermine the point of it- i am pretty sure the women who coined it knew something of etymology.

  3. Tim - there's a good essay by Anne Fadiman about that, called The His'er Problem, I recommend it. As for the use of "they" in the singular, it's actually the one point of grammar on which I am not a stickler, and I use it extensively, simply because it's easy, clear, and accurate. Plus, I suppose one could argue that it's like the gender subjunctive, or Schrodinger's Cat if we're getting really philosophical - in the hypothetical situation we are speaking about, it's plural, because the individual could be either male or female (or intersex)... Too far? :D

    Ellie - yeah, I know, that's what I was trying to say but because I bashed this out in the lib I wasn't clear enough. Edited to make the point clearer!

  4. ah, good, i just thought you had gone MAD, maaaaaaaaaaaad.

    'housewifely'. sigh.