From Left/Margin to Liberal/Center: The Changing Politics of Women’s History in the Academy

Sunday, January 5, 2014: 8:50 AM
Marriott Balcony B (Marriott Wardman Park)
Joan Sangster, Trent University
Women’s history, as it developed in the 1970s, was influenced both by the feminist movement and debates in interdisciplinary feminist theory. While many scholars writing American, Canadian, and British women’s history in the 1970s were interested in women’s labor, and in production and reproduction as categories of materialist analysis, by the 1990s women’s history had shifted its theoretical lens, in response to the tidal wave of the ‘posts,’ as well as to intersectionalist writing. Women’s and gender history now embraced questions of multiple difference, culture, language and representation. All this is well known. However, the political impact of this shift has not been critically and thorough interrogated. In both these periods, scholars claimed to have a radical analysis, but was this true? One could argue that women’s history was increasingly shaped by political and theoretical currents that reflected the rising surge of liberalism and neoliberalism; these also reflected the pragmatic resignation of the global left to defeat. Socialist-feminism became a rather elastic term, claimed by many, but empty of socialist politics. Yet, this story of a move from margin to center is also too simple. Within women’s history there were variations on this theme: some vestiges of materialist class analysis remained in working-class feminist history, particularly outside the United States. Despite many shared theoretical and political influences, feminist historians in Britain, the U.S. and Canada took slightly divergent political pathways. What were the political and social influences that both pushed women’s history to the center, but also created some marginal spaces of political difference?  What were the consequences of these political shifts not only for women’s history, but for feminist political alternatives?