What can feminist history do in urgent times?

VIDA blog editors Ana Stevenson and Alana Piper reflect on the June 2020 History Australia forum, “Doing History in Urgent Times.”

2018 Women’s March in Missoula, Montana. Photograph by Montanasuffragettes. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

The editors of a new History Australia forum have poignantly summoned their colleagues to “articulate what this moment demands of today’s and tomorrow’s historians.” This series of articles call attention to a complicating factor in realising this aim by considering the critical question of who is seen to have authority, and who can assume this authority in public debate. In these urgent times, establishing a level of public trust in historians and historical knowledge is indeed urgent work.

Many of the concerns that the forum raises – from environmentalism and activism to new interdisciplinary and communal possibilities – interact with the concerns of most feminists today. Yet, while the forum does not emphasise gender or feminism in any particular depth, it is pertinent to reflect that navigating these waters has often been at the forefront of feminist activism and feminist scholarship.

Feminist history, we suggest, offers important lessons for the temporal, activist, and interdisciplinary contexts in which these alliances must be forged in these urgent times.

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“Freedom of opinion is a farce unless factual information is guaranteed and the facts themselves are not in dispute,” the philosopher Hannah Arendt argued in Between Past and Future (1961). To begin here might appear an unusual point of departure for feminist historians. However, since much feminist thought has existed in disputed territory when it comes to what constitutes “facts,” perhaps it is not so unusual after all.

A latent yet unstated theme across the forum is the degree to which these processes have manifested as the result of a “post-truth” environment. Post-truth has emerged with great intensity in recent years. Focusing on the meaning and consequences of post-truth clarifies the process whereby climate science has become debatable: an urgent historical problem in need of urgent solutions.

According to philosopher Lee McIntyre, post-truth subordinates and obfuscates facts to feelings so as to challenge truth itself, thereby asserting political dominance. The rise of media platforms such as Fox News and News Corp, both owned by Australian-born media mogul Rupert Murdoch, enabled the foundations of post-truth to gain force across the 1990s and 2000s. Followed closely by the rise of social media that, for better and worse, served to amplify fringe voices into a critical mass, this created a media and political landscape which enabled scepticism of certain kinds of expertise to come to the fore and thrive in the mainstream.

The result has been the erosion of confidence in scientific knowledge production, with climate science and environmentalism just some of the catastrophic casualties. In consequence, alternative facts have gained significant political and social currency in the first decades of the twenty-first century.

The forthcoming edited collection History in a Post-Truth World: Theory and Practice seeks to develop a rigorous historical analysis of this problem. Its editors, sociologist Marius Gudonis and historian Benjamin T. Jones, observe that the term post-truth came to prominence in the wake of Britain’s Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump in the United States in 2016. That year, the Oxford Dictionaries went on to designate post-truth the Word of the Year,with the definition: “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

Post-truth may have gained a new significance at this particular juncture, yet Gudonis and Jones rightly emphasise that neither post-truth and alternative facts nor fake news are wholly new phenomena. But in an attempt to make sense of what, for many, did amount to an emergent problem, a series of trade and academic books on the topic emerged between 2017 and 2019.

This included works by journalists James Ball and Matthew d’Ancona, economist Evan Davis, rhetorician Bruce McComiskey, philosopher Tiziana Andina and legal philosopher Angela Condello, education scholar Derek Ford, and digital communications scholar Johan Farkas and political scientist Jannick Schou.

Such an interdisciplinary array exemplifies the degree of concern that post-truth has provoked in public discourse. It asserts that humanistic knowledge is essential for understanding contemporary social and political phenomena. Collectively, these works highlight the dire consequences of ongoing processes which have been exacerbated by the unprecedented challenges we are facing today.

Yet these works understate the degree to which some forms of knowledge production have already been subject to a different temporal trajectory of belief and disbelief. For example, the so-called “history wars” are grounded in competing narratives about Australia’s history of invasion and Indigenous dispossession in which expertise and evidence is overridden by attempts to ignore or rewrite the past by those who find it inconvenient to the present moment.

This has become a repeated pattern in Australian politics since the 1990s. As recently as last week, Prime Minister Scott Morrison, in response to the current spotlight on Indigenous deaths in custody and the Black Lives Matter movement, controversially declared that there had never been any slavery in Australia.

Certain threads of historical inquiry, especially those to initially emerge as the scholarly by-product of activism, have been subject to high degrees of scepticism. In this sense, the post-truth mentality has merely exacerbated existing trends.

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Our chapter in History in a Post-Truth World argues that the post-truth environment does not necessarily make much difference for feminist historians because of the incredulity with which feminist perspectives have so often been received.

Alongside methodologies committed to anti-racism and social justice, feminist methodologies posed a challenge to the positivist, essentialist thinking which had long dominated scientific knowledge production.

This challenge was not always met with acceptance, even from within the academy. As the feminist social scientist Fiona Jenkins, political scientist Marian Sawer, and historian Karen Downing emphasise in How Gender Can Transform the Social Sciences: Innovation and Impact (2020):

In the past, explicit acknowledgement of values sometimes led to judgements that feminist research lacked legitimacy, that it was not “objective.” In response, feminist researchers identified the unacknowledged values often causing distortions in scientific research. … Feminist research [instead] avows its ethical and political commitments in undertaking enquiry that will increase understanding of the nature and source of gender inequalities in order to change them.

Some individuals do still command gravitas even as academics bemoan their declining influence in the marketplace of ideas. But this past is not so distant; nor is it necessarily over.

If a post-truth environment has gained particular currency since the 1990s, was the problem any less urgent when the expertise of feminist scholars was dismissed? Has it only become urgent now that disciplines which have enjoyed greater authority are feeling increasingly challenged?

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The forum also alludes to the consequences and potential of forging alliances between academics and activists. It is pertinent to reflect that feminist activism and feminist scholarship have been in conversation since as early as the 1970s, together offering yet more lessons for future possibilities.

As feminist historian Judith M. Bennett reflects in History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism (2006), “one of the battlefronts of feminism was women’s history, where feminists – both in the academy and outside it – were reclaiming a lost past in their research, empowering students in their teaching, and using historical insight to inform feminist strategy.” Feminism exhibits interdisciplinarity and multidisciplinary collaboration as it exists both in and beyond the academy.

This connection has not always been easy, yet many feminist historians were – and are, and will be – activists of varying stripes. Decades before “public engagement” became a watchword or academia-orientated media outlets such as The Conversation emerged, journalist Gloria Steinem’s Ms. Magazine (est. 1972) insisted that the voices of feminist academics should be central to public discourse. Through scholarly book reviews and forums, Ms. situated feminist scholarship as everyday reading material and feminist scholars as public intellectuals.

In Australia, the connection between the feminist activist and public intellectual has been exemplified in the careers of the historian and journalist Anne Summers as much as Indigenous scholars such as Jackie Huggins and Aileen Moreton-Robinson.

The forum also points towards the potential of what Yves Rees and Ben Huf describe as “micro-utopias,” which, they suggest, might offer a bulwark in a sometimes-overwhelming social, political, and natural environment. Utopias have characterised feminist thought since as early as Christine de Pizan’s The Book of the City of Ladies (1405).

Illumination of women masters in Christine de Pizan’s The Book of the City of the Ladies (1405). Image courtesy of the Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Alternative social and political futures have also been at the heart of women’s novels and short stories, including Mary Griffith’s Three Hundred Years Hence (1836), Frances Ellen Watkins Harper’s “Minnie’s Sacrifice” (1868), Lillie Devereux Blake’s A Divided Republic: An Allegory of the Future (1887), Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain’s Sultana’s Dream (1905), Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland (1915), Joanna Russ’s The Female Man (1970), Doris Lessing’s The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four and Five (1980), and Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower (1993) and Parable of the Talents (1998).

And these connections continue to span the generations. In the 2010s, the cultural commentator Noah Berlatsky considered Wonder Woman’s utopian possibilities, just as Steinem did in Ms. during the 1970s by reflecting on how she, too, found inspiration in this character.

Utopian thinking can certainly help sustain us, as individuals and as communities. Imagining what a future without gender-based violence might look like was central to criminologist Tanya Serisier’s Speaking Out: Feminism, Rape and Narrative Politics (2018), as well as to our own edited collection Gender Violence in Australia: Historical Perspectives (2019).

But how can feminist historians make sustained contributions to public discourse when their knowledge is already subject to such questioning?

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In a political climate dominated by post-truth, even the most empirical forms of evidence can be regarded with scepticism. As social psychologist Sander van der Linden and risk management scholar Ragnar E. Löfstedt’s edited collection Risk and Uncertainty in a Post-Truth Society (2019) asks, “can we be more transparent about uncertainty in scientific evidence without undermining public understanding and trust?”

These urgent times demand that finding answers to such questions is more important than posing the questions themselves.

One approach may be a shift towards greater emphasis on quantification in feminist scholarship. The humanities are less undergirded by quantitative evidence than many other disciplines; the social sciences fare slightly better, yet still remain open to these criticisms. A 2011 study, for example, data-mined half a million abstracts from two key women’s history journals; finding such research to have been overwhelmingly qualitative, it called for the expansions of quantitative approaches.

These feminist technologists suggest a set of best-practice principles for data feminists.

Both quantitative and digital approaches have the potential to reinforce feminist interpretations of the past.

Interdisciplinary communications scholar Brooke Foucalt Wells suggests that one of the benefits of big data is that it enables the identification of smaller subsets of data related to women, minorities, and individuals in order to develop analyses at a scale not possible before. Such case studies offer a window into wider trends, processes, or events, imbuing them with complexities and individual nuances rather than reducing them to simplistic narratives.

But these approaches still remain open to challenges, not least on account of the much-maligned whiteness of the digital humanities. Women, too, remain underrepresented in this field, while the voices of women of colour – from either the Global North or South – are even more rare. It is therefore essential that feminist historians be part of these discussions because of the crucial qualities they can bring to a data-driven world.

And so, while feminist historical analysis remains at risk in a post-truth framework, traditional feminist approaches can be – and are being – successfully blended with contemporary quantitative and digital methods in order to assert the claims and conclusions of feminist history.

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Evoking Arendt, the forum’s editors emphasise that “it is through historical narrative that we create a world of shared substance and permanence, exercising a political community’s ‘enlarged mentality’ for judging what ought to be done.”

The process of embracing shared facts and restoring trust in voices with disciplinary authority must not be a debate wherein some disciplines are pitted against others. Since feminist historians have been here before, historians might find useful lessons in these experiences for considering how to respond to these uncertain times.

Our thanks to History Australia for the invitation to contribute to this forum, as well as to its editors and authors – Yves Rees, Ben Huff, Katie Holmes, Andrea Gaynor, Ruth Morgan, Tamson Pietsch, Frances Flanagan, and Paul A. Kramer – for their meaningful provocations. Thanks also to Michelle Arrow and Benjamin T. Jones for their thoughtful reflections upon this blog.


Ana Stevenson and Alana Piper are the managing editors of VIDA: Blog of the Australian Women’s History Network, which they founded together in July 2016. Their edited collection Gender Violence in Australia: Historical Perspectives (Monash University Publishing, 2019) provides insight into the continuities and changes that characterise gender violence as a historical phenomena, thereby offering an important resource for understanding what amounts to a widespread, persistent, and urgent contemporary social problem.

Copyright remains with individual authors who grant VIDA holding a perpetual, world-wide, royalty free and non-exclusive license to use, distribute, reproduce and promote content. For permission to re-publish any VIDA blog post, in whole or in part, please contact the managing editors at auswhn@gmail.com.au

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