What’s in a Name? Debating the Addition of “Gender” to “Society for the Study of Early Modern Women”

for SSEMW by Anna Wainwright May 5, 2018

At this year’s Renaissance Society of America annual conference in New Orleans, the Society for the Study of Early Modern Women hosted its second of four roundtables this year on the question: Should the Society change its name, adding “and Gender” after “Women”?

The possibility of the name change has come up over the years and was proposed for discussion last year by the last president of the Society, Meredith Ray; the conversation has been taken up by the current president, Julia Hairston, through the organization of four roundtables over the course of 2017–2018, in order to allow members of the Society to debate and discuss the change. A final vote will take place in December 2019 at the end of Hairston’s term as president. The first roundtable was held at 2017’s Sixteenth Century Society Conference, this second one at the RSA on March 24; the last two will be held at this spring’s Attending to Early Modern Women Conference in Milwaukee in May, and at the 2018 SCSC in Albuquerque next fall. RSA’s roundtable, chaired by Hairston, saw the scholars Helena Sanson, Suzanne Cusick, and Patricia Simons address the question through a series of presentations, followed by a lively discussion with the assembled audience. All three assembled scholars offered reasons why the incorporation of the term “gender” would enrich the Society’s mission—and better represent the work in which members of the organization are already engaged.

In the first presentation, Patricia Simons, Professor of History of Art at the University of Michigan, offered a lively Powerpoint, first reminding us that the Society’s mission already states a clear devotion to the study not only of women, but of gender:

SSEMW welcomes scholars and teachers from any discipline who study women and their contributions to the cultural, political, economic, or social spheres of the early modern period and whose interest in it includes attention to gender and representations of women.

Simons offered some helpful context by pointing to the current trend in academic departments that focus on women’s and gender studies, in which the question of name change is a constant. In a 2017 survey at her own institution, the University of Michigan, the majority of voters, which included undergraduates, graduates, and faculty, preferred the name “Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies” to several alternatives, such as “Women’s Studies,” “Gender and Women’s Studies,” and “Feminist Studies.” The least popular of all was the potential “Gender Studies,” which received zero votes from graduate students and few from faculty. This would suggest that while there is a shift towards the inclusion of the term “gender” in the field, no one is particularly interested in the kind of erasure of “women” that some might fear.

Simons then turned her attention to the ways in which gender still tends to connote the study of women, and not of gender continuums, or of “normative” masculinity; including gender in the title of a society dedicated to the study of it, she suggested, might encourage more scholars to think of masculinity and its related questions as not simply the norm against which all other gender identities and performances are measured, and therefore worthy of study and questioning as well. “We too,” she offered, “should inspect and analyze masculinity with precision and care.” Simons pointed to the continued mainstream hegemony of men in everyday life and politics: displaying a compelling image of Trump’s cabinet, which counts only four women at the moment, she asked, “would the contemporary equivalent of the SSEMW consider only the women in the picture,” ignoring the complex race and class dynamics involved in such a group, as well as those of gender?

Helena Sanson, Reader in Italian at Cambridge University and the founding editor of the new series Women & Gender in Italy (1500-1900) from Classiques Garnier, offered an important perspective on the troubling connotations the word “gender” itself has taken on in recent years in Italy as a dog whistle for homophobia and transphobia. As a quick search will demonstrate for the curious reader, typing in “teoria del gender” to Google Images results in numerous photos with slogans declaring “DIFENDIAMO I NOSTRI FIGLI: STOP GENDER NELLE SCUOLE” (PROTECT OUR CHILDREN: STOP GENDER IN SCHOOLS), and “LA TEORIA GENDER: IL GRANDE NEMICO DELLA FAMIGLIA” (GENDER THEORY: THE GREAT ENEMY OF THE FAMILY). While these images might seem so absurd as to border on amusing, Sanson offered, the word itself, “gender,” has been co-opted by more conservative parts of society, vilified as a subversive “foreign” element (note the use of the English word, not the Italian) geared toward the destruction of the Italian family and the “safety” of heteronormativity. As scholars who work on gender issues, Sanson seemed to suggest, we must take care to be aware of the way the word itself is viewed outside of the academy, and our own responsibility to its continued study.

Suzanne Cusick, Professor of Music at New York University, stated outright that she was in favor of the name change, pointing to the important and long history of feminist scholars working in collaboration and alliance with queer scholars since soon after the publication of Joan Kelly’s classic essay “Did Women Have a Renaissance?”. She also identified the strain of “wariness” that occasionally emerges in conversations about adding the word “gender” to the category of “women”, a fear that the term “gender” might somehow replace or overturn the hardfought work on women that has in some ways only just begun—a wariness that did emerge from some in the audience during the Q and A. Cusick pointed out that in her own field, the change in name of the American Musicological Society’s Committee on Women, to the Committee on Women and Gender, resulted not just in more inclusivity, but also more academic rigor, pushing out the subject matter at their annual conference to include panels on race, labor, and intersectionality. Cusick offered that for her, the best argument for adding “gender” to the name of any organization that studies women is the following: “as a category for analysis,” she stated at the conclusion of her talk, “‘women’ doesn’t exist without a kind of configuration of gender, sexuality, race/ethnicity, class.” That is,” she continued,

as I understand it, gender is one of several intersecting force fields that produce systems for thinking about and distributing power among humanoids in community. Whatever and whoever one might mean by the word ‘woman’ in any given moment, she was produced like a hologram by the intersection of those force fields, all of them. The best work produced by the SSEMW’s own members is fueled by that understanding.

In the conversation that followed the presentations, most who spoke up seemed in favor of the change. There were a few voices who cited concerns in line with the “wariness” to which Cusick had alluded in her talk; a few scholars who saw in the move to include “gender” a possible roadblock to getting scholars who tend not to think about women or gender at all in their consideration of early modern history to pay attention and include women in their work. It would seem, however, that closing out a broader conception of gender and how it operated in the early modern period, as well as today, is not the way to change anyone’s mind. This is a continuing conversation, and we would welcome your comments below and on our Facebook page, as well as at the second two roundtables on the topic.

This year’s SSEMW blog series focuses on early modern activisms: how the work we do on early modern women and gender informs contemporary crises and vice versa, from activist movements including #metoo, Black Lives Matter, and the Women’s March, to the coopting of the Middle Ages and Renaissance by the Alt-right, to how we can better incorporate intersectional feminism into research on the early modern period, continuing to make voices heard and the invisible more visible through scholarly work and open dialogue across disciplines. The discussion over the Society’s name change is part of this broad conversation on the changing direction of women’s and gender studies, and how the study of the history and media of the early modern period can inform contemporary politics and society. In her blog post of November 30, 2017, Merry Wiesner-Hanks commented:

Despite the fact that for thirty years scholars of gender, race, class, sexuality, ethnicity, and other categories of identity have stressed that these are culturally constructed and historically changing as well as intersecting, that’s not how they are generally discussed. Thus as people who actually know something about change over time, we need to stress this more, and point out that such categories—as well as many other aspects of society and culture—varied in the past as well as the present. We have seen in the last several years what nostalgia for an invented past and suspicion of change can do, so we need to make sure that our insights about the dynamic nature of the past are not just in scholarly articles or WGS classrooms, but in our “regular” classes and public discourse as well.

We look forward to a continued lively and rigorous conversation on this topic and the questions it raises—in person, and over social media, and most especially, in the work of the Society’s members in print, in the classroom, and out in the world.

Anna Wainwright is Assistant Professor of Italian at the University of New Hampshire, and social media liaison for the SSEMW. Her work focuses on gender, politics and emotion in medieval and early modern Italian literature. Her current book project, “Widow City,” investigates the cultural and political significance of literary widowhood in the Italian tradition, stretching from Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio, to the women poets of the Counter-Reformation.

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3 Responses to What’s in a Name? Debating the Addition of “Gender” to “Society for the Study of Early Modern Women”

  1. joan gibson says:

    Stick with “women”

  2. Pamela Allen Brown says:

    Great post!! I couldn’t be there, but I appreciate the time and care you took to go over the points of view expressed in New Orleans. Grazie. I am in favor of adding ‘and gender.’ As a member, and recent chair, of the MLA Forum on Women and Gender in Language and Literature I believe that this name functions to widen and diversify our session proposals in productive ways, and attracts interesting collaborations across disciplines.

  3. Jesse Swan says:

    I prefer sticking with women only, as it were, yet, if an addition might be sought, how about the term, “epicœne”? Modern concepts of gender can well be accommodated, while a wealth of other early modern and post modern senses can be as well. The Society for the Study of Early Modern Women and the Epicœne. Hmm. As I say, however, I think sticking with women only is best. We need to concentrate on and promote women, now as much as ever, it seems to me. On another topic: Great web site!

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