History, Department of
Date of this Version
In a recent essay, Susan Lee Johnson takes western historians to task for neglecting western women’s and gender history in their work.1 When Western Historical Quarterly asked me to write this essay on the impact of western women’s and gender history on our field, I thought it would be an ideal opportunity to test Johnson’s bold assertions. But how do you measure such impact? I could have highlighted some of the outstanding works that western women’s and gender historians have produced in the last thirty years, but I thought it might be more useful and telling to analyze general western history works. I decided to look at the winners since 2000 of the Western History Association’s annual Caughey Western History Association Prize for the best book in western history and to examine the extent to which these books have incorporated analyses of women and gender.
Five of the last eleven winners of the Caughey Prize concentrate on individual men (Charles M. Russell, John Sutter, Buffalo Bill Cody, John Wesley Powell, and Brigham Young). Four focus on groups of American Indians (Sioux, Comanches, Nez Perce, and American Indians in the West prior to 1800). Two synthetic textbooks of western history round out the field.2 After reading all eleven books in quick succession, my initial impressions were 1) that my colleagues in the field of western history include some wonderful thinkers and writers and 2) that I had overdosed on testosterone. All but one book required me to dig deep to find the incorporation of women or gender. None of the books completely ignores women, yet in most cases, their inclusion is minimal (often just a few sentences), tokenistic, or uninformed by the most recent scholarship. Despite good intentions, most of the authors portray women as passive victims or as fulfilling unchanging roles in the domestic realm. Although centering primarily on men as historical actors, only two books treat men as gendered subjects, both influenced by and actively shaping the masculine ideals of their times. Thus, at least from this small sample, I can only conclude, like Johnson, that the field of western women’s and gender history has made little impact on the larger field of western history. In this essay, I probe why this might be so and why it matters.
Published in Western Historical Quarterly 42 (Autumn 2011): 297–304. Copyright © 2011, Western History Association. Used by permission.