‘Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question; . . . How does it feel to be a problem?’footnote1 Thus writes not Simone de Beauvoir, but W.E.B. DuBois. He is speaking, not of women, but of black people—a black male intellectual—within a white world. And he answers his own question: ‘. . . the Negro is . . . born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world—a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.’footnote2 DuBois poignantly insists upon his unwillingness to forgo either side of his twoness: he claims for himself and his people the freedom to be a black American. But fidelity to that twoness requires holding fiercely to both
It is far from my mind to trivialize the particular meaning of DuBois’s words by simply identifying female and Afro-American experience. But however different the problems and histories of women and oppressed racial groups, the living of twoness applies to both. Joan Kelly has suggested as much in writing of the ‘doubled vision’ of feminist theory. And her remarks have addressed the double perspective of social and sexual oppression that must inform all feminist theory.footnote3 Increasingly, feminist scholars and theorists are recognizing the intersection of class and gender systems in all systems of male dominance, and, increasingly, they are agreeing, as Michele Rosaldo has so strongly put it, that male dominance characterizes so much of known human social organization as to function as a general rule—for which, as with all rules, there may be an occasional exception, but no systematic disproof.footnote4
To the extent that male dominance, like class dominance, has obtained throughout human history, there is no women’s history, nor forms of female power, apart from it. The wealth of studies of women produced in recent years might tempt us into thinking differently. There has been, and remains, so much to be uncovered. The annals of women’s exploits, endurances, and contributions are growing steadily. It is now at least acknowledged that while men were performing the feats, building the institutions, producing the goods and cultures, ruling the peoples, and generally busying themselves with those activities we are wont to call history, women were invariably doing something—if only bearing more men to make more history and more women to permit them to do so. And we are now equipped to ask—sources permitting—just what were they doing? But adding women to the received account—especially in the form of a few more neglected worthies or a lot more descriptive social history—does not necessarily change anything substantive in our manner of writing history. Make no mistake, the inclusion of women within conventional historical narratives cannot be dismissed lightly. Their exclusion has been so total that every rectification must be welcome. The sheer quantitative accumulation of information alone will force choices—force us to drop standard material on men and hence sharpen the visibility of women within history. But adding women to history is not the same as adding women’s history.
What, then, are the theoretical implications of placing women’s history in history? Here, I shall suggest (1) that we must adopt gender system as a fundamental category of historical analysis, understanding that such
Adding women to history has led scholars to uncover and to chart the regular participation of women in almost all domains of social production and reproduction. But the majority of the evidence they have amassed pertains to arenas and activities that do not normally figure at the centre of conventional history—or do so only under the intentionally depersonalized processes of industrialization, modernization or institution-building. We can now demonstrate, what anyone with a modicum of sense already knew, that women as a group have performed socially necessary labour at least in proportion to their numbers in the population as a whole. We know that women have eased illness, attended childbirth, inspired and sustained religious groups, presided over arcane bodies of knowledge, including magic and religious cults. We know that they have forged bonds among themselves, struggled valiantly for political and social ideals in their own organizations and together with their male comrades, inaugurated and sustained institutions and networks that provided the very substance of the lives of communities.