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A House Divided

A House Divided

If this was clickbait, the headline might be “Is America More Polarized Than Ever?” But I dislike clickbait and especially titles with questions in them. Discussions of polarization in American political life seem to be trending. Nonetheless, while our society may feel more polarized now than in recent decades, taking a longer view calls that claim of exceptionalism into question. Since the nation’s founding, Americans have disagreed, at times violently, over political issues. The Civil War, the Gilded Age, the Civil Rights era, the Vietnam War: all come to mind as examples of when society faced intense divisions. The intent here is not to define an objective benchmark against which to measure present polarization. Rather, history can inform our discussion of it, who it includes or excludes, and what we stand to gain or lose by attempting to lessen it.

In Polarized: Making Sense of a Divided America, James Campbell defines polarization as “the condition of substantial and intense conflict over political perspectives arrayed along a single dimension — generally along ideological lines”.[1] If that is the case, then oppressed or marginalized people throughout American history must live in another dimension. They have existed, and continue to exist, largely beyond the the poles of power, which concentrates in the hands of the white, male, and wealthy, regardless of political party. The exclusion of women and people of color, despite their centrality to the nation’s history, is inherent in contemporary discussions of political polarization. Only as the poles shift and we see in more than one dimension — a black president, a female presidential candidate — do racism and sexism get described as “polarizing,” because they impinge on the status quo. White men in positions of power have a long history of claiming that they could represent the disenfranchised, from enslaved people under the 3/5ths compromise to women prior to suffrage. Insist otherwise, and suddenly the nation is “polarized”.

Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis - with George McClellan between them - pulling a map of the nation apart.
Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis – with George McClellan between them – pulling a map of the nation apart. Currier & Ives, 1864 (Library of Congress).

The Civil War era stands out as an extreme example of polarization with resonance today. A series of political compromises failed, and in 1858 the then Senate-candidate Abraham Lincoln asserted that “a house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free. ” His election prompted southern secession and as president he would oversee a war to reunify the house without the stain of slavery. However, while no one conducted opinion polls of enslaved people, I highly doubt they were polarized over the issue of their freedom. That conception could apply only to those with a modicum of power.

The Civil War’s aftermath also leads to the question of what we may lose by returning to an agreed-upon center. In Race and Reunion, historian David Blight argues that achieving national reconciliation involved a tacit acceptance of white supremacy to bring the South back into the fold. Unity depended on historical amnesia, forgetting the true reason for fighting the war: slavery and emancipation. As Reconstruction failed and segregation deepened, the nation found it more comfortable to believe that the Second American Revolution had completed what the first had not and created a unified nation.

Though Blight focuses on how historical memory evolved in the fifty years after the war, it’s possible to see the later ramifications of this process. Many Americans still seem to think it’s up for debate whether slavery caused the Civil War. It’s not. The historical consensus is well established on that front. The persistence of the myth of the Lost Cause and nobility of “both sides” was the price paid for national reconciliation. The continued ‘debate’ over insidious racism in American society is a price we still pay. As Blight wrote more recently, “not only is the Civil War not over; it can still be lost.

None of this is to say that contemporary divisions do not exist or do not matter. Rather, seeing contemporary America as uniquely divided rests upon a particular vision of history, one that has more in common with myth than reality. The stable world imagined to have existed in the past (presumably back when America was “great”) was built upon silencing and oppression. It was a world more devoted to order than justice. While social media has given more people today a voice, the power to be heard remains unequally distributed along intersecting lines cut by class, race, and gender. The only comfort, perhaps, is that those resisting systems of oppression can tell their own stories, and those stories matter. The poles can only shift if pushed, and they still may shift back again. History is not linear. Progress is not predestined.

Lincoln predicted, “I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other.” The reality, which he did not live to see, proved more complicated. There are questions we still need to confront: What price will we pay for the perception of unity? Do we want “balance” (in the media, in politics) if that means normalizing extremism? Or, can we move beyond partisan outrage and the politics of resentment? Can we hold our society accountable to the truths of history? How can we ensure that more voices are heard, and valued? Can we foster empathy and build on it to create meaningful change? What might that look like?

Following the recent midterm elections, Nancy Pelosi said “we have an obligation to try to find common ground”. As the 116th Congress prepares to take their seats, it remains to be seen whether they will usher in an era of greater or lesser polarization. What may be the price of unifying our house now?

These questions have no easy answers. We need to ask them regardless, and repeatedly. And we need to insist on answers that may not be answers at all, but that embrace complexity. Any form of reconciliation in the present will depend on reckoning with past wrongs, not on the papering over them. We cannot avoid arguments, because “America is an argument”.[2] What we can do is strive for better conversations and better journalism. Clickbait will not save us now.

[1] James E. Campbell, Polarized: Making Sense of a Divided America (Princeton University Press, 2016), p.16.

[2] Liu’s article prompted the development of the Better Arguments Project, which provides one possible model for more meaningful civic engagement.

In spite of the gains

In spite of the gains

The findings of a recent Pew Research survey on gender equality contain this observation: “In spite of the gains women have made in the labor force in recent decades, today’s young women are no less likely than older generations to say the country has more work to do in bringing about gender equality. And Millennial women are significantly more likely than Generation X, Baby Boomer or Silent Generation women to say that men have it easier than women these days.”

Among women, Millennials most likely to see advantages for men

If I’d had to guess in advance, I would have expected different results. 57% of women overall say the country hasn’t gone far enough in giving women equal rights, according to the survey. Why do a higher proportion of younger American women feel the least progress has been made? The recent outings of powerful men as serial sexual harassers and the devastating scale of #MeToo seem to prove how far we have to go. They vindicate the Millennials’ responses to this survey, though that’s far from a good thing. However, it still doesn’t explain the differences in opinion by age. What does? A hypothesis:

We were told it had been solved. We were told we could grow up to be whatever we wanted. We watched as women shattered glass ceilings to become Supreme Court justices, astronauts, and Oscar-winning film directors. We were told that progress was inevitable, that the gender pay gap would disappear, that we would have equal access to healthcare, that we had the right to jurisdiction over our own bodies. We were told we could have relationships based on mutual respect, consent, and shared responsibilities. We were told that within our lifetimes we would see a female president. We believed those things. We still hope one day they will be true.

And yet. Yet when we become artists, engineers, economists, or historians – not to mention hotel housekeepers – we find men who inhibit our advancement or place little value (monetary or otherwise) on our work. Yet we continue to be patronized, interrupted, harassed, assaulted. Yet we continue to be told we are biologically ‘different’ (read: inferior), too emotional, too bossy, too shrill, too ambitious. Yet we are told to smile, to be nice, to accommodate, to soothe men’s fragile egos, to ease their fear at the thought that they (horror of horrors) might have to share housework or defer to a female boss. Yet we do not see ourselves well represented in a popular culture that supposedly includes us. Yet we cannot move through public spaces without fear. Yet we have to argue for our very humanity, over and over and over again.

None of this is new. Many others have said it before, and more eloquently. Read Rebecca Solnit, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Amanda Hess, Roxane Gay. For that matter, it’s been said for centuries. Read historians Mary Beard, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Alice Kessler-Harris.[1] But that’s exactly the point. Women have never been silent; we have been silenced.

At its most extreme silencing takes the form of violence, including rape and murder.[2] It also encompasses threats and trolling on social media. In these instances women who made their voices heard paid a high price for it. On an everyday level silencing tends to take the more mundane forms of comments that reduce women to body parts rather than acknowledging our character or the content of our speech. That speech gets interrupted or ignored entirely, when it’s even considered part of the conversation in the first place (see: ‘manels’). The end result is, as comedian Jo Brand recently spelled out – with admirable patience – to male BBC panelists, “for women, if you’re constantly being harassed, even in a small way, that builds up and that wears you down.”

Not wanting to be worn down seems a reasonable request. Feminism is not, and never was, about women ‘replacing’ men or seizing power. It is about equality. That is literally the dictionary definition: belief in and advocacy for “the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes.” It is called feminism because women have for too long borne the burden of gender inequality. Feminism is about women having seats around the table and our voices being heard. Note that it’s a round table: More people need seats? Get more chairs and a bigger table. No one ends up on the floor.

Do men today have it easier? Yes. Is that an irredeemable privilege? No. But to add seats to the table we need awareness in the place of obliviousness. We, as a society, need to acknowledge the problem. We need to listen to women. We need to believe their stories. We need to do better. And for that we – men and women – need feminism. Bring on the next wave.


[1] There are many, many more fantastic female writers. Those listed here have all written extensively on the subject, far too many to itemize in a footnote: look them up and start reading. Another good place to start is the “Rape Culture Syllabus” put together by Laura Ciolkowski for Public Books:

[2] Rebecca Solnit, The Mother of All Questions (Haymarket Books, 2017). The essay “A Short History of Silence” addresses many forms of silencing, including the ways in which rigid gender roles silence men – telling them not to express emotion, or only certain emotions, and denigrating any behaviors seen as too feminine.

Gender in History: A Personal Perspective

Gender in History: A Personal Perspective

Most of my oral history interviewees are male and the experiences they discuss are therefore also predominantly masculine. Consequently, at conferences I am often asked ‘what about gender?’ What this really means is ‘where are the women?’ or ‘what are you (a woman) doing studying men?’ I have yet to attend a presentation on women’s history where the speaker was asked ‘what about men?’ Gender history, though based on exploring ‘the fundamental idea that what it means to be defined as man or woman has a history,’[1] is all too often synonymous with women’s history. Let’s get one thing straight: considering gender is not the same thing as writing about women. In fact, to focus only on women is just as biased as to focus only on men. In order to write gender into history we need to consider both.[2]

Despite the fact that most of my interviewees are men, in my dissertation I’ve made a conscious effort to address how and why their experiences differ from those of their female contemporaries, relying on extant sources to supplement my own interviews. In terms of employment among post-war Irish migrants, workplaces tended to be gendered spaces. Irishmen worked predominantly in trades and manual labor (traditionally male occupations), while women moved into more traditionally feminine roles including nursing and clerical work. They came together in their social lives, meeting at church events, county associations, and dance halls. However, gendered experiences persisted. Men and women started the night on separate sides of the dance floor and a man generally had to ask a woman to dance. Some men may have wanted to get married or settle down, but felt tongue-tied even trying to approach a girl to ask her to dance. An inability to communicate well appears as a theme in discussions of loneliness and isolation among Irishmen. Others justified the fact that they remained single by saying they didn’t want to be ‘tied down’, in the words of one interviewee. Men were (and are) constrained by the expectation that they do ‘manly’ work and provide for a family and women were (and are) by the expectation that they bear and raise children. The latter has received far more attention in historical scholarship.

But the questions I am asked at conferences are not only about my subject of study; they are about my right to study it. Oral historians are taught to reflect on the nature of the interviewer-interviewee relationship:[3] Did they know each other before the interview? Are they of the same sex? The same race? The same age? The same generation? The same political outlook? How do these factors affect the interview? While these are important questions, they give the impression that there is a right or a wrong type of relationship. They suggest, for example, that a man could never get ‘the best’ interviews with feminist activists or that (in the words of someone who ran a training course I attended) ‘young people’ don’t understand their elderly interviewees. While undoubtedly a man’s experience is different from a woman’s and a teenager’s from an eighty-year-old’s, that is not necessarily a bad thing. Oral history is about listening, about capturing untold stories or hearing familiar ones in new ways. Though my interviewees and I have a common interest (Irish music), I am a different gender, a different generation, and a different ethnicity to most of them. This can lead to enlightening moments: descriptions of how people charged radio batteries in the days before rural electrification or of styles of dress in the 1950s. Because of the differences, they feel the need to explain what life was like and to reflect on why. Where tacit, mutual assumptions exist between interviewer and interviewee, stories may remain unspoken.

Last year Emma Watson launched the UN’s HeForShe campaign. In her speech, she reclaims the term feminism from its negative connotations and defines it as the support for equal rights and opportunities. It is therefore a men’s issue too, because they ‘don’t have the benefits of equality either’. She argues that gender inequality will not end if it is seen as an issue concerning only half the population: everyone needs to participate in the conversation and be part of the change. The same is true for academia: in Ireland, female students outnumber their male counterparts in third-level institutions, but women constitute only 29 percent of senior academic staff.[4] Ending gender inequality is about more than closing the achievement gap; it’s about changing attitudes. As historians, we need to extend the same courtesy to each other and to the past. Women’s history should not only be about, by, and for women; nor should history be only about elite white men. Gender in history – like class or ethnicity – needs the whole population in the picture for it to make sense.


[1] Sonya Rose, What Is Gender History? (2010)

[2] Joanne Bailey, ‘Questions of Gender’, History Today, vol.64, no.6 (June 2014); Joanne Bailey, ‘Is the Rise of Gender History “Hiding” Women from History once again?’, History in Focus (2005)

[3] For example, see: Valerie Raleigh Yow, Recording Oral History: A Guide for the Humanities and Social Sciences, 2nd ed. (AltaMira Press, Walnut Creek, CA, 2005), pp.157-87.

[4] Higher Education Authority, ‘Gender and Academic Staff’, figures based on Dec. 2013. Women are 29% of senior academic staff in universities and ITs in Ireland.