Sunday Non-Fiction Spotlight: Five #HistoryBooksByWomen

If you head over to twitter right now you’ll see #HistoryBooksByWomen trending like you wouldn’t believe. This week I’m going to pick out five very different histories written by women about gender, sexuality and themes of oppression and discrimination.

ONE- Joan Wallach Scott, Gender and the Politics of History

Joan Wallach Scott is a real hero of mine. Her father was an academic blacklisted during the American Red Scare, so her leftist sympathies were set in stone from a young age. She is a Professor of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and has written very widely about feminism in history. You could also try her books Only Paradoxes to Offer: French Feminists and the Rights  of Man, or the co-authored book (with Louise Tilly) Women, Work and the Family. 


She published Gender and the Politics of History in 1989, building on her paper “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis” from three years earlier. Interestingly, her 1986 article is the most cited work ever published by the American Historical Review. She was already a renowned feminist historian, and this book was an opportunity to explore a few long-held issues with history and gender. Her book explores language, work, the family and domesticity to provide arguably the best primer for anyone working in feminist or women’s history. Or just history in general.

TWO- Joanna Bourke, Rape: A History from 1860 to the present

Prof. Joanna Bourke (Professor of History, Birkbeck, University of London) is also a hero. Do you sense a pattern? She has written on gender history, working-class culture, war and masculinity, the cultural history of fear, pain, and historical conceptions of humanity, among other things. She also describes herself openly as a socialist feminist, and this seeps into every corner of her work.


Rape: A History from 1860 to the present is a phenomenon of historical writing. It’s unflinching in exploring this awful, controversial subject, and doesn’t stick to telling the stories of victims- Bourke is unforgiving in exploring the people who became perpetrators of sexual violence. She looks at different historical groups and types of abusers and the dangerous environments they relied on, including the home, prison and military. Refreshingly, she works tirelessly to avoid any unpleasant tropes; she deals with complicated gender and sexuality issues, stating that “if all sexually aggressive individuals were gathered together in a great Dantean circle of hell, the vast majority would be men,” but there would be others beside, and for many different reasons and motivations.

It also covers ground on questions about rape culture, exploring ‘experts’ of all kinds and categories, who throughout history have maintained the idea that women are responsible for their own victimhood. Bourke challenges ideas that women have ever ‘asked for it’ by studying psychologists and criminologists from the past, in order to construct a grim timeline of victim-blaming culture that, most depressingly of all, doesn’t change quickly.

THREE- Gail Bederman, Manliness and Civilisation: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880-1917. 

Associate Professor of US History at the University of Notre Dame (Indiana, not France), Dr Gail Bederman is a specialist in historical conceptions of gender and masculinity. Her book Manliness and Civilisation is an important intersectional milestone in US history; it focuses on what Bederman identifies as  two fundamental and volatile national obsessions: manhood and racial dominance.


Turn-of-the-century America was a rapidly changing place, diverse and volatile in political philosophy. Cultural ideas of masculinity changed profoundly, as Victorian notions of self-restrained, moral manliness were challenged by ideals of an aggressive, overtly sexualized masculinity. Bederman traces this shift in values and shows how it brought together two seemingly contradictory ideals: the unfettered virility of racially “primitive” men and the refined superiority of “civilized” white men. Focusing on the lives and works of four very different Americans-Theodore Roosevelt, educator G. Stanley Hall, Ida B. Wells, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman-she illuminates the ideological, cultural, and social interests these ideals came to serve.

FOUR- Janet Abbate, Recoding Gender: Women’s Changing Participation in Computing

Janet Abbate is an Associate Professor of Science, Technology and Society at Virginia Tech in the US. Until recently she was most famous for publishing Inventing the Internet, an important milestone in the history of computer technology, which highlighted non-American participation.


However her work Recoding Gender is a fascinating historical look at the issue of gender in computer programming. It’s not widely known, but in the interwar years of the twentieth century, programming used to be considered ‘women’s work.’ With all of the typing and the organising… men did not tend to become programmers. Abbate’s history discusses the female codebreakers and computists of the Second World War, and then considers the way that they were pushed out in favour of a postwar work force. Looking at recruitment methods and advertising techniques, Abbate outlines the ‘masculinisation’ of programming work in the 1960s, when it transformed into ‘software engineering.’

FIVE- Asfaneh Najmabadi, Women with Mustaches and Men without Beards: Gender and Sexual Anxieties of Iranian Modernity

Prof Asfaneh Najmabadi is an Iranian-American historian and gender theorist. She is professor of History and of Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality at Harvard University. At present she chairs the Committee on Degrees in Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality. In recent years she has written on other issues of gender and sexuality in Iran and Iranian history, including her work Professing Selves: Transsexuality and Same-Sex Desire in Contemporary Iran (2013).


Najmabadi draws from a rich array of visual and literary material from nineteenth-century Iran in order to put together this iconoclastic book on the history of Iranian modernity through the lens of gender and sexuality. Najmabadi carefully unravels Western assumptions about retrogressive or rigid gender structures in order to write a compelling demonstration of the centrality of gender and sexuality to the shaping of modern culture and politics in Iran and of how changes in ideas about gender and sexuality affected conceptions of beauty, love, homeland, marriage, education, and citizenship. She concludes with a provocative discussion of Iranian feminism and its role in that country’s current culture wars. In addition to providing an important new perspective on Iranian history, Najmabadi skillfully demonstrates how using gender as an analytic category can provide insight into structures of hierarchy and power and thus into the organization of politics and social life.

#HistoryBooksByWomen shows no sign of slowing down- hit up @TheSlowPulse over on twitter, or leave a comment below with your thoughts and suggestions.


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