Complicating Categories: Gender, Class, Race and Ethnicity

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Complicating Categories: Gender, Class, Race and Ethnicity – Review by Janet Howarth on Complicating Categories: Gender, Class, Race and Ethnicity, ed. Eileen Boris and Angelique Janssens (Cambridge: Cambridge U.P., 2000; pp. 169. The book looks upon several controversies and the authors state that gender still matters.

Complicating Categories: Gender, Class, Race and Ethnicity – Review
Janet Howarth

Complicating Categories: Gender, Class, Race and Ethnicity, ed. Eileen Boris and Angelique Janssens (Cambridge: Cambridge U.P., 2000; pp. 169. Pb. 12.95 [pounds sterling]).

The controversies that once surrounded gender history have largely subsided, but questions remain about how to do it and where its ramifications may yet lead. In a volume of essays marking the tenth anniversary of Gender and History, the editors, Leonora Davidoff, Keith McClelland and Eleni Varikas, offer some reflections on the pluralistic ethos of that journal. In their introduction to Gender and History: Retrospect and Prospect, the keynote phrase is `the insistence that gender does matter to the study of history, even where we do not yet always know the precise ways in which this is the case’ (p. ix). Feminist only in its assumption that relations between the sexes have been `typically, though not inevitably, relations of unequal power’, the journal took no editorial line in the debates of the 1990s in which advocates of postmodern theoretical perspectives confronted practitioners of `women’s history’. The aim has been to encourage diverse approaches to the history of gender and of women and — although here the editors claim only partial success — contributions from scholars of all nationalities and on all periods from antiquity to the present. The fifteen articles commissioned for this volume reflect the particular strength of gender history in scholarship on the past two or three centuries and in Western, especially English-speaking, countries. There are reviews of such well-established themes as women in the public sphere, the history of the body, gender and science, gender and work, Other contributors call for new initiatives — a reassessment of nineteenth-century American universalist notions of Woman; studies on intra-racial gender conflict among African-Americans; or, in England, closer links between gender history and the history of the family. Some essays focus on areas of resistance to gender history. This remains strong in, for example, France and Russia for reasons that are partly institutional, partly cultural: the Russian language has no word for `gender’ and French has no unambiguous term. Divergent cultural assumptions about gender are a problem for scholars who attempt cross-national comparative studies on such topics as women and Islam. But there are also essays here that show how rewarding gendered approaches can be for historians across a variety of cultures. The subjects range from the place of masculinity in the historiography of colonial India, and the changing configurations of domestic space in Turkish modernization, to political militancy in contemporary Latin America.

A supplement to the International Review of Social History, edited by Eileen Boris and Angelique Janssens, takes a closer look at the question that has proved most troublesome of all to post-Marxist, post-colonial historians of gender. Just how can one write history that keeps in play issues not only of gender and class but also of ethnicity, without either losing coherence or prioritizing one form of identity, or hierarchy, over the others? The seven articles in Complicating Categories: Gender, Class, Race and Ethnicity suggest that the way forward must be case-studies rather than the search for new forms of grand narrative. Theoretical issues are raised by three contributors, but the role for theory is chiefly to clear away obstacles — such as masculinized conceptions of class or ethnic identity — that prevent us from seeing how these categories may interact in particular times and places. A study of pre-colonial West Africa, where women were well integrated into the common consciousness of the dominant Anlo clan, shows how processes of social change may be understood by looking at the intersections between gender and ethnicity. Here an oppressive system of arranged marriage evolved in response to pressure on arable land; young women reacted by joining religious orders associated with ethnic outsiders; and the eventual outcome was the acceptance of foreigners within the Anlo elite. Two contributors point to the need to recognize the instability of identity politics. One takes the example of strikes in the late-nineteenth century North American shoe, textile, lace and garment industries, where lines of conflict and solidarity varied and shifted between gender, class and ethnicity. These were multiple, or in Sartre’s phrase serial identities; events and circumstances decided which of them had most significance for the individual from time to time. A second example is provided by the long-drawn-out history of controversy over reserved seats for women, religious minorities and `other backward classes’ in the Indian legislature. For each of these overlapping groups the claim to special representation was based on material disadvantages; but the `competing inequalities’ of gender, religion and caste prevented the resolution of their claims. The remaining essays in this collection provide illustrations of the place of race and gender in working-class history. Studies of African-American imperialism, and of the racist ideology of early twentieth-century Germany, show how race can inflect constructions of `manhood’ and citizenship. Analysis of official policies on prostitution in Australia, and of the `work science’ of inter-war France, shows how race and gender stereotypes may interact to shape perceptions of working people and their place in national life.

Aimed at a more general readership is a monograph that sets out to give these `complicating categories’ a central place in British political history — Defining the Victorian Nation: Class, Race, Gender and the Reform Act of 1867. Its authors, Catherine Hall, Keith McClelland and Jane Rendall, have each in earlier publications explored the identity politics of mid-Victorian Britain — the debates about national and racial identity in the 1860s that were sparked by Fenian outrages and brutally repressed rebellion in Jamaica; the rise of a masculinized working-class political culture, shaped by changes in the labour market and labour relations; and the simultaneous rise of the remarkably well supported demand for women’s suffrage. This is a complex but loosely articulated book. There is an excellent jointly written introductory chapter — all the more useful for its lucid and thorough review of the historiography on the Second Reform Act and the intellectual context in which this revisionist study was conceived. But what follows is three individually authored chapters — on the working man, women’s citizenship and `the nation within and without’. Each includes much fascinating detail, but there is no collectively reworked general narrative nor general conclusion. At the same time there are important connecting themes. Debates on citizenship and membership of the `nation’ resonate throughout the book. The focus is on intersections between discourses of class, gender, and race or nationality, and on the ways in which intellectuals — John Stuart Mill in particular — addressed these issues. It is this rereading of the Reform crisis that makes it plausible to suggest to readers in the twenty-first century that this amounted to `a defining moment in the political history of Britain’ (p. ix).

JANET HOWARTH

St Hilda’s College, Oxford

COPYRIGHT 2001 Addison Wesley Longman Higher Education
COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group

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