Feminist History, History of Women and Women’s History: The Difference

catherine chauloux / Feminist History
Oil on canvas / Catherine Chauloux

Feminist History

Feminist history is primarily any history that is being or has been claimed as feminist. This is usually a history that holds women as its nucleus, but not necessarily. Histories that focus on men as men instead of men as a surrogate for “people” can be implicitly or explicitly feminist. Gender studies– the history of femininities, masculinities, the notion of gender, queer studies, postcolonial and Marxist works that account for gender in any way– can and have been deemed feminist at times, by their authors, by their critics, by their readers. This has a lot more to do with a professed or perceived political position than topic or method, although obviously there is plenty of overlap.

History of Women

Historians who study women draw a distinction instead between “Women’s (/gender) history” and “The history of women.” This latter focuses on finding the women. During the 20th century, and as historians started to take  women into consideration, they would   go through the same materials, and tell the same stories, but just go “Oi, looky here, a woman!”

Women’s History

Women’s history, on the other hand, pays attention to women within the context of gender and solicits changes not just to the tales but to the way these are tallied and told (references and methodologies). Joan Scott’s “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis”  is the cornerstone theoretical work here.

For the sake of illustration, let’s consider her famous essay “Did Women Have a Renaissance?” . Here the author focuses on women, contextualized thoughtfully in the context of class, to dispute the perception of “The Renaissance” as some emancipatory teething modernity.  She uses the term “Women’s history” on page 176 stating how paying due attention to women and the sources that take not of them (by, about or for women). Joan shakes down a whole understanding of an era. She goes through sources that are recognized yet overlooked since they do not fit with the prevailing historical narratives, making use of their scrutinizing of women as a way to rebuild the metanarrative of that era. This is politicized, this is feminist.

Her move inspired a lot of reactions, including an outburst of production of scholarship on that period by a great number of women writers. This led to a fiery debate on whether things got better or worse for women from the 13th century to the 14th; a gigantic, complicated, politicized debate that might never see closure.

Paying attention to women as women, men as men and the notion of gender isn’t just writing women into the present narrative.It actively reshapes this narrative.

Other Considerations

Feminist history/Women’s history/History of women are fields made up of independent scholars who evolve over the course of their vocations. And then, of course, there is the lack of consistency between responsible history (in-academia/out) and random Internet clickholes. One of the biggest issues as far as diversity within women’s history goes is that it reflects the field more broadly: European and American history is more popular than African and Latin American; there are more sources on wealthy women than destitute ones (which involves race, disability, etc).


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