Writing the past: History as she said and he said

GenderAnd Culture: Do men and women see and write history differently?

Updated: December 6, 2017 1:55 pm

Documenting history is an arduous task. One must sift through volumes of printed word and pictures with an uncompromising eye for dates, details, events and names. Adept historians manage to piece together a story rooted in a time and place beyond the limits of their experience. In examining the past, historians seek relevance in the present. Academic and public scholarship surrounding history, whether in the West or India, has been mostly authored by men. It is only recently that the past has been reflected through the lens of the woman historian. She has introduced a new form, sensitivity and insight that were missing in the largely male-oriented articulation of history.

This is not to say women are better or worse than men at writing historical accounts. And no, men and women don’t necessarily write history in diametrically opposing ways. There are similarities in both their styles and approach. However, a broad overview of the craft of history writing would reveal that there are ways in which men and women differ in documentation of the past, largely reflective of the social training the two genders receive during their formative years. “Women bring to their writing the truth of their bodies, and an enquiry into the different ways in which gender inequity shapes human experience (and destroys lives),” says writer Annie Zaidi in her recent book, Unbound: 2000 years of Indian women’s writing.

GenderAnd | History is the one discipline perhaps most changed by this consciousness of gender. Image: WikiMedia Commons

Gender historian Charu Gupta has curated personal memoirs and diaries for the past three decades. Men and women remember their lives in their personal memoirs in very different ways, she says: “Women would at times tend to narrate very small happenings of the household, of their servants, of their everyday relationships. Men often remember the larger picture. For instance, they would remember the Partition (1947) as something that was cataclysmic in their lives, which destroyed their employment etc. Men tend to write their meta- narratives. In their narration, the personal and anecdotal sometimes gets marginalised.”

The question then arises: How does this personal memory translate into the professional sphere of history writing? Gupta explains that while it is inevitable that personal histories of the everyday intersect with the larger histories of the nation and the world, “I won’t go to the extent of saying they are writing completely differently. Some brilliant political histories have been written by women historians. Then there are some very brilliant historians like Partha Chatterjee and Ashish Nandy who are making some very central and cogent arguments regarding the way in which gender histories have been dealt with.” she says. However, “there is something about intimate spaces, clothing, food and the politics of the mundane that women find easier to deal with, simply because they are more ubiquitous in these spaces,” she adds.

A Search For One’s Own Identity

Canadian-born historian Geraldine Forbes began writing women’s history in the mid 1970s. Her pioneering work has had an impact on women’s history writing in India. Speaking with Indianexpress.com, Forbes says that her initial research was on the influence of French Positivism on Indian society. Her focus shifted when she met Shudha Mazumdar, the great grandniece of one of the founders of Hindu Positivism (the subject of Forbes’ dissertation). “I found Shudha Mazumdar quite fascinating. She was in her seventies, spoke to me in English and was well travelled. But then she told me she was married when she was 11 years old,” says Forbes. When she studied Indian history in graduate school, Forbes encountered that women appeared mostly as subjects of social reformers like Ram Mohan Roy and Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar. “Then I met this woman, who had been married at 11. She told me about her wedding. When she went to live with her husband, and the fun they had as a young couple. Her memories of those times are very lovely,” explains Forbes.

Shudha Mazumdar shared with Forbes a memoir she had written and this became her entry point for delving deeper into the history of women. “Once I started reading about women’s lives and history, I thought this is what I have been missing,” says Forbes. Objectively speaking, there is very little that was similar in the experiences of Forbes and Shudha Mazumdar. She was reading about the life of a woman who had been married at 11 in very different social circumstances. “But there was something about the experiences that I could relate to. Researching women’s lives, I empathised with their desire to study, frustrations, fear of new situations, ambition, and wish to make a mark,” she says.

For Charu Gupta it was vernacular literary material that answered questions on feminist politics she had been engaging with as a young student. “When I started doing my PhD in 1990s it was the time of the building up of the Ram janmabhoomi movement and there was a sharpening of religious identities taking place. I thought that so many good historians like Gyan Pandey and C A Bayley have worked on issues of communalism and religious identities but they have not looked at the gender dimension. So what I wanted to do was explore communal politics and religious identities through the lens of gender,” says Gupta.

Men and Women Writing Gender

Not all women historians focus on gender in their work. Similarly women are not the only ones who have written on gender. Partha Chatterjee, Ashish Nandy and Ranajit Guha, are some of the tallest figures in Indian history writing who have tried to examine the female identity. “Empathy is a very important aspect of the historical imagination. If I am writing on the 15th century, I have to be able, to the extent possible to transcend the fact that I was born, raised and intellectually and emotionally shaped by the 21st century. It is very important to be able to transcend your background to understand the past,” says historian Ramchandra Guha as he explains the effort that a male historian has to make in order to bring in the gender perspective in his writings. He goes on to say, “however, I can never completely transcend my limitations.” “Even if I attempt sincerely and thoroughly, there would be limits. I cannot become a Dalit. I cannot become a woman. Sometimes this means that someone who has experienced suffering himself or herself, for instance, a woman historian writing about the women’s movement would perhaps have an extra level of empathy,” he says.

For Partha Chatterjee the question is not so much of empathy, but “whether a man can ever have the experience of a woman’s life that would allow him to make sense of what he sees or hears or reads.” Both Chatterjee and Guha agree that personal experience can never be a hard and fast rule in placing gender in history. “Women’s history is too important to be left to women alone. Women will write more different, more nuanced history than men do. But men must realise that there has been a massive bias in terms of those who write history,” says Guha.

Invisibility of Women in Historical Sources

For the most part lives of ordinary women went unrecorded and unremarked. While women were ignored by “mainstream historians” it was was a generation of female historians informed by their own life experiences and the feminist movement that brought the change, both by re-reading history and tapping new sources, says Partha Chatterjee.

“[They] began in the 1980s to re-read the same sources that male historians of India had studied for generations to completely transform the field of Indian social and cultural history. Non-conventional sources like oral history, folklore, myths, ephemeral literature, popular stories, ballads, performance, popular art and visual culture are things that have been searched, found and richly mined, mostly by women historians, in the last two decades,” he adds.

Paucity of space at official archives often meant that material related to the domestic sphere and everyday lives was the first to be discarded. It was never considered part of the official narrative. “C S Lakshmi wrote a wonderful short story titled ‘The squirrel’,” remembers Geraldine Forbes. “It was about being in the Tamil Nadu archives where they were short of space and decided to discard some women’s journals from the 1920s and 30s. She narrated the archivists discussing why spend money on them when nobody comes to read them.”

While working on the role of gender in communal politics, Charu Gupta went back to the same archival sources that previous generation of historians had referred to and realised they were far less malestream than history had shown them to be. “I realised that the vernacular offered you a space which was much more fruitful when it comes to gender question. If you look at the vernacular or different kind of archives in conjunction with the official archives, it gives you a much richer picture,” she says.

Ghettoisation of Male and Female Historians

History is the one discipline perhaps most changed by this consciousness of gender. “Before the feminist historians intervened, history used to be written in a third-person narration where the historian’s gender was invisible. Feminist historians showed that this so-called impersonal and objective voice was actually male. After that, women historians in particular felt it necessary to make their presence visible in what they wrote. And male historians too have become far more conscious that the historian’s gender matters in history writing,” says Chatterjee.

The assumption that women’s history is the chief interest of women historians or that women practitioners in the field are “historians of women” is what many in the discipline warn against. “With historians, it has much more to do with ‘fields’ – which are often determined by the market. In the past, a woman studying military history would be unlikely to find a job as many of the jobs in that field were in military academies. Similarly, today, men have a tough time if they want a job in women’s history,” says Forbes.

Historians of women and gender insist that this scholarship isn’t just about adding a set of female characters to the plot line of history, but uncovering sources that weren’t considered worthy of study—thus expanding, complicating, and adding to the histories of industrialization, injustices, warfare, politics and more. “What women historians have done is asked new questions from old sources and brought new sources to the table. They have brought about different ways of looking at history,” says Charu Gupta adding that “gender historians never talk about gender in isolation, they always speak of its intersections with caste, class, religion etc. Those intersections are very important to write good history.”

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