Thursday, September 20, 2012

French Academia, Gender, and Religion

   I'm a cultural historian of France.  The questions that interest me have traditionally been ones about gender and family life, which is reflected in my training and in my research.  I had somehow internalized the idea that "gender as a useful category of analysis" (a phrase popularized by historian Joan Scott before I even thought of graduate study) was common in France as well as the United States.  Certainly, at conferences, I encounter French colleagues who study women's history and questions of gender.  It's rarely been suggested to me -- and never, in my memory, by a colleague in French history -- that studying gender is illegitimate or worthless, though I do sometimes see it as less mainstream than other types of history.
   Imagine my surprise, then, when a colleague in France told me that she believed that gender was generally not a well-accepted field of study here; that it was marginal and a field in which it would be difficult to find a job.  She said there was less research support, fewer institutes, and that it was more politically-charged than in the U.S. (She paired this with an observation that the history of religion is a "dusty" field, one that is seen as old-fashioned or boring.  Apparently, a history of religious women is both old-fashioned *and* marginal!)
   My first reaction was that this is, quite frankly, not the case in the United States.  I'm sure most women's historians have stories about the colleagues who don't take them seriously or who denigrate their research concerns, but the fact is, a research emphasis on women, gender, or sexuality is not going to be a death knell for a job application.  I've had supportive colleagues who are interested in my work, and there are plenty of institutes devoted to research on related issues.
   And then my second reaction was to remember that the Woodrow Wilson Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship in Women's Studies has been suspended for this year.  I hope that isn't indicative of a trend in the wrong direction!

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