|History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism (2008 Conference Panel)|
|Katherine L. French|
|Ruth Mazo Karras|
In her book History Matters, Judith Bennett has reiterated her previous argument that “women’s disadvantaged status vis-à-vis men has persisted across time and space even as its specific forms have been changing; hence, the study of women’s oppression ought to be a third pole supporting the broad tent of feminist historiography alongside the study of gender and of difference in women’s history” (28). This group of brief papers originates in an “Author meets the critics session” at the 2008 Social Science History Association conference in Miami. Two medievalists, one of them the past editor of Gender and History, a historical sociologist and a sociologist comment on the different provocations that History Matters poses to their teaching and research. Together with Bennett’s reply, the contributions present a snapshot of long-standing debates about the best ways of theorizing - and teaching about - persistent inequalities.
The first two papers provide a sophisticated defence of using patriarchy as a broad descriptive term to denote women’s oppression, in part through reference to debates about a medieval “golden age”. They also consider the question of whether the existence of groups of powerful women means that patriarchy has weakened. One goes on to comment on the tendency for women’s status to improve during periods of profound social innovation and recede in times of consolidation; the other addresses arguments regarding intentionality: if in some instances there was no one specifically setting out to oppress women, did patriarchy still exist? The third paper looks at different theorizations of patriarchy in Bennett’s book, and relates them to older feminist debates. It then makes an argument for the utility of considering relations between the generations alongside those between women and men in teaching and writing about ‘patriarchal bargains’. The final contribution focuses on different notions of equilibrium in Bennett’s book, and points to new interdisciplinary approaches to the significant issues addressed in the book.