Note – This post was started, and left unfinished, in October of 2017. I publish it now in the hopes that it will be of some interest to readers. I have included a brief note at the end that attempts to provide some sense of finality to the thoughts presented here.
A strange thing has been happening to me recently. I am starting a History master’s in October. I am specialising in gender history/women’s history. People are often kind enough to ask me about my future, and I respond by informing them of this decision to study the women in the past.
It is here that the odd thing occurs; if the person asking talking to me is a man and over the age of thirty, they almost invariably make a sexist or dismissive joke. This is usually to the effect of, ‘Women’s history, what’s that, the history of sandwich making?’ This is a genre of shit humour commonly heard by historians of this field. Women’s history grew out of the women’s movement, and the desire to challenge patriarchal assumptions in the study of history. It is unsurprising that some people find this field of study uncomfortable. What is strange about the joke is that it is that it is made to my face, in lieu of any other remark.
For context, every woman who has asked me about what I’m studying, and basically all the younger men, has upon hearing about my studying the history of women and gender, either made further polite inquiries about my life, or has been interested and asked what Woman’s history is and why I want to study it. I don’t feel entitled to people’s interest, and I am not offended when people quietly move past the topic of my studies. I greatly enjoy talking about the field. Since I have only studied it for a couple years, and am so fresh myself, it’s fun to share this exciting area of study with other newcomers. Regardless of the questioner’s interest, I appreciate them being polite and not making the conversation awkward by, I don’t know, insulting my chosen course of study.
In the case of the sexist joking, I am quite baffled as to both the intent of the joke, and how on earth I should respond. I usually spend a few seconds quietly having the same questions pop into my mind. Why did someone just say this? Who thinks this joke is funny? Is this meant to be an insult to me, or to women in general? In the case of the second, how am I, a man, meant to respond? Is this a attempt at irony? I then proceed to make some generalised remark about what woman’s history is, and how I came to study it.
I do not know what reaction they are expecting. Do they think that I, someone who has seconds before told them I like women’s history, am going to enthusiastically agree that women’s history is silly? Do they wish to register contempt for the lives of women? I don’t wish to come across as oversensitive but I’m often just floored at the social ineptitude of the remark. I have an autistic spectrum disorder, and even I recognise that making a sexist joke is the wrong response to someone who has just revealed an interest in feminism, or a feminist-inspired field of study.
Moreover, the joke is just rubbish. The history of cooking and domestic life is really interesting. It tells historians so much about what the life of the people they study was like. For example, it’s much easier to understand the social and emotional impact of the Irish potato famine when you understand just how central the farming, cooking and eating of potatoes were to almost everyone in Ireland. I’m not studying the history of ‘the kitchen’, but those who do are doing valuable work. The person who makes the joke about it is being a moron, and one with a narrow understanding of the past.
A note, after finishing my course; during my degree, I resolved to respond to the question as if it was an unintentional insult. I put on my best enthusiastic historian face, and then proceed to give a long answer about the fascinating story of women’s history, and the many opportunities it offers historians. I see how long I can go on this topic. This has the benefit of subjecting the joker to a discussion they have expressed no interest in, while hopefully supplying some much needed pedagogical content. If nothing else, I get to enjoy myself chatting about one of the most vital and vibrant areas of the academic subject that is closest to my heart.
What worries me more is that if this experience is common for me, it is ubiquitous for women. The tone and intent of the joker is different when they are talking to me as opposed to a woman. They are intending to co-opt into their society of mild mannered and unfunny sexism. For a woman it is more of a blatant attack upon not just their life choices, but the value of their gender. I am certain that the men who make these jokes do not think of themselves as willing patriarchs, but their actions certainly characterise them as such.
It is somewhat amusing, as well as dispiriting, to reflect that the act of telling someone that you are studying women’s history only confirms the need for this field to be more widely taught and understood.
* – A distinction can be drawn between the two. Some historians see the idea of ‘gender history’ as complicating and expanding an earlier notion of a ‘woman’s history’. Other’s see the two fields as complementary but distinct areas of inquiry. For my purposes, the two are largely interchangeable, as I am studying the life of a single woman, while referencing ideas and theories of gender. I thought it was worth making the general reader aware of the potential pitfalls of using these terms interchangeably.
 For those interested in the second half of this remark, it was because I had good undergrad lecturers, who did a great job introducing me to the field.