Speaking of the New York Times‘ “Disunion” series, this morning I woke up to see that former Temple professor (and esteemed member of my comps committee) Liz Varon actually had an entry at the beginning of the month on the role of gender in the lead-up to the Civil War. The piece is called “Women at War,” and rather than rehearse all of her points here, I suggest that you just go read it for yourself. She goes through some familiar actors–Harriet Beecher Stowe, Harriet Tubman, Preston Brooks, and Charles Sumner–showing on the one hand that individual women played important roles as historical actors throughout the sectional crisis, and on the other that political players in the North and South alike used gendered discourse to tar their opponents across the Mason-Dixon line. She ends with a call for scholars to popularize women’s and gender history approaches to Civil War history, an overtly “political” move that incensed some readers. One commenter seemed particularly enraged, writing that Varon’s claims only make sense “…in the halls of academia via its revisionist sisters in gender studies programs.” He goes on to write in a separate comment that for most of history women have not been important actors, although “[m]aybe if you dig deeply into the Civil War history books you can find a wise Latina woman, who with the richness of her experiences would, more often than not, reach a better conclusion than these flawed white men.”
As a historian of gender I appreciate how often gender studies seems to be trotted out as the prime example of everything that’s wrong (read: liberal) with modern academia. Underlying this criticism is the idea that gender could only matter in history insomuch as women matter in history, because (duh) only women have gender. Bringing race into it (Sotomayor confirmation hearings reference FTW!) only underscores the view of many scholars that not only maleness, but whiteness implicitly lays at the foundation of popular ideas about universality and objectivity when it comes to politics. If anything, this vitriol points to the importance of Varon’s work.
UPDATE: I meant to throw in something Catherine Allgor’s Parlor Politics, which I really enjoyed when I was studying for comps. It’s a great example of how to recover the political actions of women in a period when they had little to no official voice, and how to situate that within contemporaneous understandings of gender.