The Troubled Relationship of Feminism and History

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The Troubled Relationship of Feminism and History
Janaki Nair

Why has history remained somewhat impervious to the questions raised by feminist interventions, while other disciplines have felt the imperative of a turn to history in general and feminist historiography in particular? This paper reviews both older and more recent contributions to the field of history to trace the dominant frames within which the methods and critiques of feminism have been accommodated.

as it an exaggeration when Andre Beteille (1995:112) had this to say about the impact of feminism in the academy: “…the space within the academic world dominated by ideas about the unity of theory and practice was occupied for some time by Marxism. That space is now increasingly being taken over by feminism.”? In his short comment on feminism in academia, Beteille noted the excitement that feminism had generated within the Indian academy, although it was not without dismay that he also pointed to the pernicious effects that the political mission had on the intellectual practice, for “every craft has its own conventional methods. Feminism tends to make light of those demands as being artificially constraining in the context of its larger moral and political demands” (ibid).1 Towards the end of the short comment, he also noted the changing gender composition of Indian campuses, sounding a dark warning about the threat posed by women’s studies’ exclusionary tendencies to the very institutions in which they had “lodged themselves”.


1 Introduction
Practising feminist historians in university and research institutions today, more than a decade after this prophetic comment, would be hard put to find evidence of either such a successful “occupation/lodging” or of declining standards that have been the singular achievement of the moral/political burdens of feminism. If anything, there is a sobering realisation that feminism faces a new kind of challenge both within the hard won spaces of the academy and without. This paper will discuss some of these challenges to the ways in which Indian feminism has thought out its mission within and beyond the academy. The specific reference here will be to the field of history. There is no doubt at all that history is among the disciplines which have been richly fertilised by the insights of feminism. Over the last three decades, Indian historians have not only uncovered new archives, but have plundered with impunity the methods of other disciplines to arrive at a fuller, richer account of the past. There has also been an impressive lateral spread of the historical method among a wide range of fields, from film studies to developmental economics. Yet this sophisticated body of work has done little to alter the sanctioned ignorance of the mainstream academy. In inverse proportion to the quantum of high quality writing on Indian history from the standpoint of women is the relative imperviousness of the discipline itself to feminism’s insights. The disciplinary foundations of history, its thematic orientation, and its periodisation have remained relatively unchanged by the work of feminist historians, who are corralled within mainstream history programmes. Feminist history may add to, without reconceptualising, historical investigation itself. What clues does this provide about the field of history and its relationship to feminist critique generally?

I am grateful to Mary E John, and the Indian Association for Women’s Studies for giving me the opportunity to present this paper at the plenary session of IAWS at Lucknow, February 7-10, 2008. I am also grateful for the comments of Mary E John and M S S Pandian on an earlier version. This article is not intended as a historiographical exercise. As I repeatedly say, the scale and depth of feminist historiography is too vast to be discussed in a single article: therefore, all references are strictly illustrative of points I am trying to make, and...
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