Jessa Takes on Theory—“Extraordinary” Women edition

by noticingbones

I thought I’d inaugurate a new section at Noticing Bones, one in which I write through an interesting bit of historical or gender theory as it pertains to the post we’ve been writing, what I’ve been reading, things that are happening in the world, or just because I feel like it.  You know, reasons. My goal is to keep these sections approachable and entertaining, so don’t run away just because I said the word theory!

Since this is the first theory post, I’ll take some time out to explain why theory is important to history. I like to think of theory as being the engine in the car of historical study.  It provides the power for the analysis and meaningful history would be impossible without it, but you should only notice it when it’s working particularly well or just plain broken.  (Jargon is what happens when someone’s taken the muffler off their historical car, if we’re going to continue the metaphor.)

Theories in history come in many different shapes and sizes because history pulls inspiration from all sorts of humanities and social science disciplines.  There are theories of economics, Marxism, gender, sociology, anthropology, power, bodies, structures, agency, material history, race, postcolonialism—I could go on and on and on.  Unless a historian is particularly dogmatic, it is unlikely that they focus exclusively on one branch of theory.  After all, discussions of gender often use concepts of power, bodies, and material history, among others, as an integral part of their analysis.

Theory allows historians to access the narratives hidden within primary sources. They provide a viewpoint, a framework of analysis through which documents can gain significance and meaning. An economic historian, a Marxist, a material historian, and a postcolonial scholar can all look at a single primary source—a census, for example—and come to radically different (and sometimes conflicting) conclusions.  Diversification of theory means a diversification of the understanding of history.  I don’t know if you’ve looked around at your own life lately, but I find history much more convincing when it reflects just as much variety as my fellow passengers on my morning commute.

But what about objective histories based solely on the facts, you say?  (From here on, this will be known as History—captial H.) They don’t exist.  “Objective” Histories tend to focus on political power and the accomplishments of (primarily) white men as if they are “the facts.”  A perusal of our blog should indicate the folly of that particular view of history.  History is done by historians, who, believe it or not, are people.  And people are shaped by their times, their beliefs and their experiences.  Good historians acknowledge this and attempt to adjust for it in their own work, but the influence of the present on history is one thing that keeps the field vibrant and exciting.  During the cold war, for example, many historians addressed questions of factions, alliances and hegemonies regardless of their geographic specialty or preferred time period. The most important questions in present life are often the questions that drive historical study. There are facts in history, but they are constantly being interpreted, reinterpreted, and fought over.  And it is SO MUCH MORE FUN this way.

Now that I’ve given you my theory soapbox speech, what I actually wanted to write about today was the concepts inherent in, and the danger of, “extraordinary women.” (Forgive the scare quotes. Many more to follow.) I obviously fully support the work on this blog, being an editor and all, and I think disseminating knowledge of these amazing women is important as a way of normalizing the “extraordinary women” trope.

Histories, especially those taught in middle and high school, remain a white-man’s history with occasional “special” examples.  And they are often “extraordinary,” rising above circumstance and hardship and making an irrefutable mark on History.

The problem is, when every woman (or minority) is only included as “extraordinary” cases, their counterparts—“ordinary” women and minorities—are seen as complacent and unworthy of History. (Disclaimer: generalizing about American history textbooks here.  Sorry world.) It’s ok, then, that most women don’t get adequate coverage in history textbooks because they didn’t actually DO anything—at least not compared to the rare “extraordinary” women that were included.  This ends up reinforcing the idea that the only class of people that “mattered” historically were wealthy white men.

As you might be able to guess, I take extreme issue with that.  What “extraordinary” women should teach us is that we are using all the wrong qualifications to decide who is “notable” in history.  It should prompt us to reevaluate the importance of categories like political power, long the heavyweight of historical analysis, instead of something that accounts for a larger amount of people that were living—and doing great things—off the political radar.  Believe it or not, political power is not the end-all or be-all of human existence. (It’s not even the only way power has been deployed in societies, but more on that in a future post.)

The women we feature, spotlighted as special, should not be considered the exception.  They should be the rule by which we measure the standards of history.  The moment these women are accepted as extraordinary human beings, instead of being defined first by their gender, is the moment History becomes a little more reflective of history.