The Blame Game: Searching for Historical Complexity

The Blame Game: Searching for Historical Complexity

I am almost finished with my Ph.D. This fall I’ll defend my dissertation on the history of gynecology and obstetrics in the late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century United States, and then – barring some unforeseen disaster – I’ll finally be able to make everybody I know call me “doctor.”

At this point, I should be a genuine expert on my topic, and in some ways, I guess I am. Want to hear about the dangers of childbirth in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era? Curious about the history of surgeries like clitoridectomy and hysterectomy? Want to talk about racism and eugenics as applied to female bodies? I’m your girl. Let’s have coffee. Just don’t blame me when you start having horrific nightmares about vesicovaginal fistula and pubic symphysiotomy.

Screamer. (Pixel Pro Photography/Flickr)

In other ways, though, putting the finishing touches on my project only reminds me how much I have to learn. It’s one thing to master a certain level of content knowledge, to be able to say, for example, “yes, I know the history of women and gender in the U.S., and yes, I know the history of the medical specialties that dealt with women’s bodies.” It’s another thing entirely to grasp the implications of one’s project, to recognize and grapple with how much bigger and deeper and more relevant one’s project is than what can be expressed in one dissertation. This second kind of mastery, the kind so inextricably linked to the process of maturing as a historian, is where I still find myself falling persistently short.

Take the conclusion to my dissertation. In the draft I sent my committee members, I discussed the ways that a particular group of privileged white women managed to actively shape the development of gynecology and obstetrics, and I pointed out that these women therefore bear much of the responsibility for the fact that these specialties ultimately facilitated the victimization of other women – namely poor women and women of color. Specifically, my draft noted that these privileged women “certainly deserve a fair share of the ‘blame.’”

As I read over the feedback on my draft, I noticed that one of my committee members had highlighted the sentence and noted that it was interesting, the way I had chosen to use the word “blame.” Meanwhile, my advisor had also highlighted the sentence, asking simply, “why the scare quotes?” The truth is that I hadn’t given it much thought; I can’t even say that I had consciously chosen to use the word “blame” or to put the quotes around it. I had written that sentence almost reflexively. But their comments were good, perceptive ones. Did I mean “blame,” really? And if so, why the scare quotes?

In hindsight, I did mean “blame,” even with its rather judgmental implications. I tend to be reluctant, as a historian, to make moral or ethical judgments about the actions of people living in different times and places, under different circumstances, even when their actions do seem undeniably wrong to me. But gynecologists and obstetricians did indeed victimize many poor women and women of color, neglecting their medical needs, using their bodies as experimental material, removing their reproductive organs without consent, forcing them to endure sexual surgeries without anesthesia.

Painting of J. Marion Sims, "the father of modern gynecology," preparing to operate on an enslaved woman without anesthesia.
Painting of J. Marion Sims, “the father of modern gynecology,” preparing to operate on an enslaved woman without anesthesia.

If I want to argue that certain women shaped gynecology and obstetrics, and I also want to illuminate the ways that other women were profoundly hurt by these specialties – and I do – then I have to assign middle-class white women some of the blame.

So why the scare quotes? As embarrassing at it is for me to admit, I think I did that because some part of me resisted the complexity involved in blaming women for developments historians have recognized as misogynistic – which is beyond silly, because my whole dissertation is basically about that very complexity. Every chapter leading up to that conclusion addressed the intersection of gender with race and class to produce various levels of privilege for some women and various vulnerabilities to oppression for others. But somehow, when it came time to wrap the whole project up with some clear, concise concluding thoughts, part of me resisted assigning pure, unmitigated blame to women who, from another perspective, might be considered feminist heroes.

These were women who, defying all obstacles, pursued college educations, went to medical school, published treatises on gender and politics, campaigned for suffrage, argued against a biological determinism that kept women in the domestic realm, and agitated for birth control, sex education, and prenatal care. And they did so at considerable risk. They alienated friends and family members; they became objects of derision and disgust. I didn’t always agree with their particular decisions, but in the course of researching and writing the dissertation, I had grown to understand them, to sympathize with them, even to like them. I didn’t want to make them “bad guys.”

This is why I connect the impulse to eliminate complexity to the process of maturing as a historian. If I’m being completely honest with myself, I have to admit that when I wrote that conclusion, I was doing exactly what I complain about my undergraduate history students doing all the time. Every other grad student in my department has probably listened to me rant about this very issue, maybe more than once (sorry, guys). Many of my students seem to want to figure out who the “good guys” and the “bad guys” were, as if history were that simple. They tend to see many historical figures as basically heroic until the moment I introduce any kind of complexity, and then, confronted with Margaret Sanger’s commitment to eugenics or Eleanor Roosevelt’s cheerful discussion of killing “a Jap,” they careen wildly in the other direction, turning heroes into villains. And I bitch about it as I grade their exams: “WTF? Why does every student write either that Margaret Sanger was a saint who saved women’s lives by bestowing birth control on the population or, alternatively, that she was a racist bitch from hell who set out to commit genocide? Shouldn’t common sense dictate that the truth would be more complex than that? Or at least somewhere between those two extremes? ARRGHH.” Or something like that.

Grading. (by ©Jorge Cham, PhDcomics.com)

But here I sit, about to get a doctorate, and I’ve basically been doing the same thing. Or not the same thing, exactly, but a more sophisticated version of the same thing, a kind of scholarly shirking that comes from the same impulse, the desire to make sense of history by cleaning up the messy parts. And that impulse in itself seems to me like a manifestation of white privilege (along with a kind of class privilege) because what gets lost, when we tidy up those messy, inconvenient spaces, tends to be the experiences of those with the least power. Real history is in the messy parts. We should be searching for ways to restore the voices of those people to the historical narrative, not conveniently omitting them. Wouldn’t it be better to recognize that “feminist heroes” also hurt people, to truly make that fact a central part of women’s history and not just a footnote or a fumbling attempt at in-class discussion?

Most historians of women and gender, I think, would say that yes, of course, we need to integrate these nuances into our work; yes, of course, we need to present complicated pictures of individual women, who could certainly be both “good” and “bad,” depending on one’s perspective; and yes, of course, we need to acknowledge the ways that white privilege and class privilege continue to shape academic approaches to history. We say those things, but so much of our scholarship does not reflect those goals. My own dissertation fails to truly do it, at least to the extent that I would like, and it’s honestly not for lack of trying.

Workplace Stress. (Wikimedia)

Ah well. At least I have something to aim for when I turn this project into a book. I may not know everything I need to know; I may not have achieved this second level of scholarly mastery — yet. But the great thing about getting the Ph.D. is that the dissertation is only the beginning.

Featured image caption: Blame. (Flickr)

Carrie Adkins earned her Ph.D. in U.S. History from the University of Oregon in 2013. Her specific scholarly interests include gender, sexuality, race, and medicine in American history.