‘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 its elements. It is the tension itself, the dialectic of his sundered identity, that he wishes to live: distinct, but equal; of, but not wholly assimilated to. And the free living of that tension necessitates full recognition of the Black past, of a discrete Afro-American history.

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 systems are historically, not biologically, determined; (2) that the forms of male dominance vary historically and cannot be assimilated under the general rubric of patriarchy; (3) that simply to substitute women’s history for mainstream history leaves us prisoners of precisely that pernicious status as ‘other’ to which mainstream history has assigned us; (4) that capitalism and the great bourgeois revolutions have tended to generalize gender difference as the custodian of displaced notions of hierarchy and dependence, and thus practically to repudiate their theoretical promises of equality for all; (5) that the expansion of capitalism and modern representative government has attempted to bind men of different classes, races, and ethnic groups together through the double promise of individualism in the public sphere and male dominance in the home; (6) that all the modern languages of social theory are impregnated with the ideological premises of this gender system; (7) that most modern institutions, including the purportedly neutral market, have systematically extended gender difference as a fundamental part of social order; (8) that official theories of the family and the sexual division of labour cannot be explained in functional terms, but must be understood as the product of class and gender struggle; and (9) that our dominant social theories have provided us with no adequate way to assess the indispensable contributions of women to collective life in society, including class and racial dominance on the one side and the resistance of the oppressed on the other.

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.

Anthropologists, ethnographers, and imaginative social historians have recovered many of the previously neglected signs of women’s large roles in all pre-capitalist social groups. Many of their insights have proved practically or metaphorically transferable. For those conversant with the literature, it is inviting to seek female powers, female spaces, even discrete female cultures or world-views within the life of any community.footnote5

Sensitive scholars like Natalie Davis have taught us to trace implicit gender relations, their affirmations and reversals, through cultural forms such as the charivari. We know much of the special and socially validated role of women in bread riots in particular and in defending the norms of the moral economy in general.footnote6 Pioneers of the first wave of the new women’s history, including Nancy Cott, Katherine Sklar, Carroll Smith-Rosenberg and many more, have familiarized us with the special worlds of women within American society. More recent studies, including those by Ruth Bordin, Mari Jo Buhle, Carl Degler, William Leach, Winifred Wandersee and others, have placed greater emphasis on women’s place in and contributions to the general development of American society and culture.footnote7 But this knowledge does not challenge the inescapable truth that the vast majority of those activities deemed worthy of the official record have been performed largely by and credited almost exclusively to male members of ruling classes.