Essay review: Else Surely We Shall All Hang Separately: The Politics of Western Women’s History by Virginia Scharff

Poster from the movie “Calamity Jane” (1953) with Doris Day and Howard Keel
(Source)

History, then, is one word commonly and confusingly used to refer to two things: what happened, and what we say happened. (537)

Apologies for my unusually long absence from the blogosphere, all! The last six days have been filled with preparations for getting to, attending, and returning from a wedding (third of the month for me) in San Diego, which involved a lot of insanely early mornings. Consequently, I didn’t as much done over the last week as I would have liked– exhaustion made sure of that– but I did read three essays over the weekend: “A Minoritarian Feminism? Things to Do with Deleuze and Guattari” by Pelagia Goulimari, “The Gentle Tamers Revisited: New Approaches to the History of Women in the American West” by Joan M. Jensen and Darlis A. Miller (inconsequential aside: this essay was the first PDF I read and highlighted using my GoodReader app on my iPad!), and of course Virginia Scharff’s “Else Surely We Shall All Hang Separately.” I also started reading a book called Photography and Surrealism: Sexuality, Colonialism, and Social Dissent by David Bate, which I will hopefully be able to review tomorrow or Wednesday. Goulimari’s “A Minoritarian Feminism?” was an unnecessarily jargon-y and difficult-to-read essay that is mostly useful as a secondary source (most of the essay was spent critiquing two works by other scholars) and which I don’t feel like reviewing here. Jensen’s and Miller’s “Gentle Tamers Revisited” was referenced a lot in Scharff’s essay, thus I felt compelled to read it for the sake of thoroughness, but again, I don’t feel like it is necessary to write a review for it. Therefore, by process of elimination/preference, I am now going to review the last aforementioned essay.

Independent Spirits first drew my attention to “Else Surely We Shall All Hang Separately: The Politics of Western Women’s History,” as Scharff, a contributor to the catalog, referenced the article in her introduction. It was originally published in the scholarly journal Pacific Historical Review in November 1992 and references a quote from Benjamin Franklin. Relying heavily on “Gentle Tamers Revisited,” Scharff uses it as a springboard to discuss a glaring issue in the field of history: how do we reconcile the ideas of “Western history” and “women’s history”? According to Scharff, Jensen and Miller tried to

[charge] historians of western women, then, with three tasks: writing a multicultural history of western women, finding a place for western women’s history in the larger history of women, and transforming western regional history by their efforts. Investigators have undertaken each of these tasks, and in each case have faced political conflicts and choices. (538)

Scharff then breaks down the specific issues each of these requests have encountered, all of which really come down to the difficulty of fairly placing ALL “Western” women in the historical canon. Western history in general is looked down upon by the discipline of “History,” often regarded as a “professional backwater”; indeed, the term itself implies political boundaries and is ultimately reductive. The scholars who specialize in the history of the American West have long been derided as “cowpoke scholars, as workers in a field dominated by popularizers and buffs who assemble together in ‘corrals'” (548). Furthermore, Scharff points out that “many of the most prominent historians of American women continue to regard research on western women as narrow, derivative, and insignificant” (545). Consequently, the marginality of western women has made them out to be “gentle tamers, naughty madams, [and] Calamity Janes” (ibid), which are very specific to the West and cannot be perceived anywhere else (Scharff had a funny comment about trying to picture Calamity Jane in Boston, which actually made me laugh out loud: “Surely a city of that magnitude must have seen its share of hard-drinking, cross-dressing prostitutes. Why should such a violator of feminine decorum be more visible, and be taken as more typical, in South Dakota than Massachusetts?” [545-46]).

History unfortunately tends to privilege the study of white, middle to upper class, Euroamerican men. Perhaps the best example of poststructuralism and postmodernism in this article is when Scharff says that “to speak of ‘women’ as a group is to forget that notions of womanhood vary from time to time, place to place, group to group” (539). This seems to fly in the face of feminism, for although great strides have been made in trying to include all women, it could be argued that feminism is still more suited for the white, middle-class woman. If women’s history can’t yet reconcile the inclusion of a wider range of races, ethnicities, and classes– and if it tries, fellow scholars (or, as Scharff more specifically phrased it, “women [and some men] of color” [540]) insist that these histories are still being marginalized and treated as supplementary– how can we do so in the contemporary realm? Scharff herself acknowledges in a couple very personal pages that she too struggles with going outside of the history of Euroamerican women, but she tries hard to put in a “good faith” effort to be more inclusive. It’s hard to break out of the boundaries that are so ingrained in the discipline.

Despite all of this negativity, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. “New” western historians are more progressive and more willing to deal with new people and groups in a fresh way. The definition of “politics” has been redefined to “[embrace] all contests of power taking place in a given place (the West, in this case) and time (a period still yet to be defined) [which] has already begun to shift the focus of western history from the dominant group of relations among various contenders for power, individual and collective” (550). This kind of western history opens itself to multiculturalism and dealing with gender “as a category of historical analysis.” Therefore, “new history” is in a battle with “old history” to dispel archaic controversies. Scharff then calls for four possibilities to further open the discussion of “proper” Western women’s history:

1) Continue to look at the contributions of some predecessors while acknowledging that historical revision is an open-ended process and our visions of it are incomplete.

2) Affirmative action needs to be prioritized in the field, putting “people of color, recruiting women and men of color for positions of responsibility, including scholars of color in conference planning and on organizational boards and committees, seeking out collaborations of all kinds” (552). This also includes professional inclusiveness, which means reading, citing, and teaching work on and by “women of color.”

3) Come up with new ways to discuss the past.

4) Move towards a pluralist feminism and overall collaboration with one another. Or, as Valerie Matsumoto said, it “becomes imperative that we understand each other’s histories, that we develop the loving perception that will enable us to work together” (555).

I really enjoyed reading this article, as Scharff has a very clear and engaging writing style (especially immediately after reading Goulimari’s essay). However, one of the things that drives me nuts in academia is that people set forth all of these semi-rhetorical guidelines that seem easy to apply in theory but are rarely followed in reality. It’s so idealistic and borderline preach-y. However, I can’t say that I am well-read enough in western women’s history to say that these ideas, which we need to keep in mind were written 20 years ago, have been more widely applied. I was particularly interested in the brief mentioning of women’s suffrage in the American West, as it happened earlier than it did for women in the East. One of my comps questions deals how the mythology of the American West aided in the progress of feminism, and suffrage is a great example to reference. As a matter of fact, this is actually the biggest reason why I read “Gentle Tamers Revisited.” However, there is a lot of argument over what exactly it was about the West in regards to permitting women to vote earlier than the rest of the country. There could be any number of reasons, ranging from economic (which seems to be overlooked) to social to political ones.

Hm, maybe I will review that article after all… Unfortunately I’m to the point where I need to prioritize my reviews, as I am back in school in a week and won’t have enough time to write about everything I read. However, I am prioritizing that particular question in my studying, so we shall see.

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