In our seminar earlier this week, Milinda made a point about the importance of considering the social relations that underlie the issues that we will encounter throughout our study of transnational and global history, and how considering different perspectives including the Marxist, the environmental, the postcolonial and the feminist can help with this.
This point particularly stuck with me, and one that I definitely thought warranted further exploration. Lucky for me, then, when a discussion of such practices appeared in this week’s readings. In the introduction to Transnational Lives: Biographies of Global Modernity, 1700 – Present, Desley Deacon, Penny Russell and Angela Woollacott suggest that the book ‘is inspired by feminist theory in its determination to show the public dimensions of the supposedly ‘private’, and how the family, sexuality and intimacy have lain at the core of social structures’ (p. 6).
In this collection, the authors, taking a microhistory approach, use individual case studies in order to illuminate a wider issue – one particular example of this that stood out to me was Martha Hodes’ chapter about Eunice Richardson Stone Connolly, and how an analysis of her life, through a feminist, intersectional lens, reveals more about the differences in the construction of race and racial hierarchies between North America and the West Indies. Marriage to a ‘man of colour’ may have damaged her reputation in New England, but within the context of the West Indies, such a marriage into a ‘well-to-do coloured family’ elevated her to a higher social standing than she could ever have achieved in North America. Indeed, as Hodes writes, ‘Unstable and malleable racial categories do not diminish the power of race; rather, combined with geographical mobility, that instability and malleability only transfer power from certain people to certain other people. Within one national border, Eunice’s status diminished; within another, she rose in rank’ (p. 25).
The feminist framework, with its focus on the ‘private’ and, more generally, on women, particularly those usually excluded from the historical narrative, therefore enables the transnational historian to consider a wider cultural history and more ‘connectors’ that extend outside of the boundaries of the nation-state, providing an essential methodological tool to the field.
My introduction to the wider field of gender history through both HI2001 and the ‘Women and Men in Europe, 1500-1800’ module I took last semester has shown me the importance of this perspective to achieve a fuller understanding of any given historical narrative, particularly in how we understand the gendered nature of all historical actors, particularly men who often exist in the discourse as genderless beings. The role for the feminist approach in transnational history, as outlined by Deacon, Russell & Woollacott, has shown me the possibilities that exist within this field to explore such areas of gender history, and these are lessons that I aim to carry forward with me into my further research in this module.