Just a quick follow-up to yesterday’s post about student interest in Civil War military history. I failed to point out the most surprising development this year and that is the extent to which the female students have asserted themselves in class discussions. In the past the classes have been populated primarily by male students. I don’t know why I am surprised by this, but perhaps it does go against some implicit gender assumptions surrounding the way we identify with the Civil War. It was not too long ago that some Civil War Roundtables barred women from joining in their monthly meetings. It may have simply been a matter of men wanting to feel comfortable sharing their testosterone-driven thoughts about battlefield glory with other men or the worn out cultural belief that women need to be shielded from discussions of blood and guts. Whatever the story is, I am pleased to see that times have changed. Not only has it changed, but some of the most talented Civil War historians working on military topics are women. I am thinking of Jacqueline Campbell’s short, but rich study of Sherman’s March; Carol Reardon’s work on memory and Pickett’s Charge, and Chandra Manning’s studies of Civil War soldiers. Finally, there is Anne Bailey’s work on the war in the West and Lesley Gordon’s forthcoming study of the 16th Connecticut Regiment in history and memory.
Yeah, you sometimes have to deal with the old male insecurities that women are intruding on male territory, but hopefully most people simply dismiss these all-too-common "feminist critiques" as silliness. Whether women bring a different sensibility to the study of history can and should be debated. No one seriously debates whether women can engage in the same kind of hard-nosed analytical style that is the mark of our best historical studies. From my point of view it simply comes down to a matter of numbers: the more historians working, the more we learn.
It is comforting to know that that there is a wide-range of talented female historians that I can point to to encourage my students to pursue their interests in a field that has a history of being perceived as male only.