Welcome all to the May blog. Below we have a wonderful reflection from Margaret Tennant about the recent ‘making women visible’ conference in Dunedin and her reflections of teaching women’s history. We encourage you to place your comments and feedback below, this is of course what this space is for.There is also our facebook page
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Blog post-A Past in (Women’s) History by Margaret Tennant.
The ‘Making Women Visible’ conference to celebrate Barbara Brookes and her recently published A History of New Zealand Women brought back memories of teaching women’s history at Massey over more than a decade. Starting in the mid-1980s, there was the challenge of getting course approval – ready acceptance within the History Department was followed by the predictable ‘but what about a course on men’s history’ at Faculty Board. This was easily enough refuted with reference to the content of just about every other history course being taught and, on the whole, Humanities academics in the 1980s wanted to avoid looking like total dinosaurs and backed off. There was soon a slate of other courses in the Humanities and Social Sciences with a women’s studies perspective, and the eventual emergence of a major in women’s studies (that’s another story, and not always a happy one).
My 200-level course was called ‘Women in History: Australia and New Zealand’, and it allowed me to draw upon a much more extensive Australian literature on women (largely relating to NSW and Victoria at the time) and to make comparisons between the two countries. As was happening more generally with New Zealand history, the secondary literature expanded rapidly from the 1980s as research previously accessible largely in thesis form was published in books and articles. The 1993 anniversary of women’s suffrage in New Zealand produced some wonderful new publications, most notably Sandra Coney’s Standing in the Sunshine and Women Together Ngā Rōpū Wāhine o te Motu, which Anne Else edited with input from many interested in, and supportive of women’s history.
The course consequently became easier and more difficult to teach over time. Women’s history, as we often pointed out to each other, was by its nature critical history, less amenable to the cosy assumptions which underpinned many of our male colleagues’ courses. We became acutely aware of our own, as well as others’ positioning. There were inherent tensions and on-going debate: were women victims of male oppression, or social actors with agency? Was it our responsibility to explain the past on its own terms (if we could ever do that), or was our research and teaching a basis from which to understand the present, and potentially a force for social change? If the latter, what distortions and over-simplifications might occur? Historians’ usual tendency to allow for complexity and nuance (or wimpish fence-sitting?) did not necessarily fit activist agendas.
And, by the 1980s there was the matter of whether our focus should be women’s history or gender history: at least one presentation at a NZHA conference left some of us feeling like dinosaurs ourselves: ‘gender’ was the tool by which the whole historical enterprise was to be transformed; ‘women’s history’ was passé. My own course was refocussed and became for a while ‘Gender in History’, until I realised that it was largely an inversion of many of the other history courses on offer – mostly about women with men tacked on. I became unapologetic about a focus on women and the insights this could give to history more generally, since even silences are significant, as many of our course readings pointed out.
And yet, there was also the question, increasingly acute, of what we meant when we talked about ‘women’, and which women’s experiences were being foregrounded. The work of Denise Riley and many others helped ‘fracture the category of “woman’’, while challenges were posed around who had the right to speak or write about women of different sub-categories and ethnicities. This did not make for comfortable times, but that in itself was no bad thing. Barbara Brookes and I wrestled with the most appropriate way to discuss Māori women’s pasts in a chapter in Women in History 2, published in 1992. Our call for a ‘doubled vision’ of women’s history in New Zealand seems pretty tame and tentative now. Barbara has moved well beyond this in her handling of Māori women’s experience in her 2016 book.
The actual classes in 148.210 Women in History were invigorating and wonderful to teach. At Massey we had the privilege of teaching to extramural as well as internal students, and the former would come in for contact courses held over two to three days. All such courses were exhausting and exhilarating, but those in women’s history especially so. Many of the extramurals were older students, women and a few men, with considerable life experience, who related on a very personal level to the times and issues being covered. But numbers declined in the early 2000s, and I was shocked by one younger student who said her flatmates had told her a paper of this kind would ‘not look good’ on her CV. As I was bought out of teaching to undertake research contracts and took on more administration (the fate of many of us as we became more senior – historians seem to have a particular sense of responsibility in this direction) the course rotated on an increasingly erratic basis. It eventually slipped from the schedule of papers as pressure came on to cut offerings.
Still, at Massey and elsewhere postgraduates remained interested in researching women’s experiences. A heartening aspect of the ‘Making Women Visible’ conference was not only the sheer number of papers offered and delivered over its two full days, but the number associated with present or recent postgraduates. Other positives from 2016 which resonated with my recollections of the past were the international networks apparent, the connections across disciplines and the way in which the conference drew in those from academia, from archives, museums, galleries and government agencies. In the 1980s I was as likely to attend and present my research at a women’s studies conference as at a New Zealand Historical Association one, and this 2016 conference had something of the cross-disciplinary, open feel of these past gatherings – without some of the prickliness I also recall from that time.
Above all, and very precious to me in February of this year was the sense of on-going friendships built upon a shared delight in uncovering women’s pasts. Long may the commitment to ‘making women visible’ generate such supports and networks and, of course, such rich and varied history!