Historiann is posting an interview she conducted with women’s history great Mary Beth Norton (third part to be posted tomorrow). The whole thing is worth reading for a fascinating account of the early days of the development of women’s history as a subfield of history and of women’s fight to break into the history profession sausage fest.
One of the details of Norton’s own history that is particular interest to me is the scholarly reinvention of herself from a historian specializing in the loyalists of the American Revolution to a women’s historian. And this reinvention did not occur without pushback. As she relates in the interview:
My focus on women at such an early stage in the evolution of the historical study of women made me stand out from the crowd in the 1970s, not always in a good way. Some people were very skeptical about what I was doing and its value. One senior historian I knew rather well said to a female friend of mine (who was then still a graduate student and reported the comment to me): ‘why did she have to switch to women? Loyalists were perfectly OK.’
I am quite fascinated by the concept of scholarly reinvention. While some scholars make huge contributions focusing on the same subject matter employing the same methods for their entire careers, for others sporadic–or even regular–reinvention has clearly been instrumental to their success. What I now understand about myself is that I need to continuously incorporate (or devise) new approaches into my research program, and about every ten years I need to enter subfields that are new to me. Mostly I think this is because I have a short attention span and easily get bored, and complementarily one of my greatest intellectual strengths is the ability to enter new territory and rapidly master its conceptual and methodological frameworks.
In common with Norton, I have on occasion had more senior scientists express their “concern” with this predilection, and treat me as if it were something unseemly and impudent. Fortunately, both my pre-doc and post-doc mentors effectively inculcated in me a robust “go fucke yourself” attitude towards this kind of squelching, and my current understanding is that it represents the understandable fear of the dinosaur for the mammal.