Steve Stern, The Sectret History of Gender

I have to say, I’m somewhat surprised that this book didn’t seem to invite more controversy in my historiography class…

The issue of agency among the oppressed is one that has come up several times in discussions for this class, and has proven quite contentious each time. Some in the class welcome models that give agency to those in oppressive situations or in states of subjection, and others find it to be overly optimistic, pie in the sky thinking, that can be used as justification to blame the victim.

Given that, when I realized that our reading for this week was a book about gender relations in which the author discusses domestic violence at length, and that Stern posits that degrees of contestation and complicity can be found on both sides of the gender line, I expected a flurry of responses to show up on WebCT on the
topic.

Maybe it’s a stroke of good fortune that this book comes on the reading list in the midst of the end-of-semester crunch. I wasn’t really looking forward to a tempest in a teapot. That said, I feel that Stern, throughout this book, presents through his example a very well-made argument for the position that even in the face of oppression, violence, and denial of many civil or human rights, people find ways to exercise their own agency and negotiate their situations.

These negotiations don’t end in ideal solutions—indeed, in the very first case study offered in the book, it ends in manslaughter. Nevertheless, the book’s thesis is founded on the belief that infrapolitical response and
negotiation can be found even in dire circumstances—and that in some examples at least, these resistances and contests for the meaning of hegemonic discourse can lead to favorable (if contingent and based on compromise) results.

Perhaps the argument being couched in domestic relations is part of the reason for the lack of controversy—people may be more comfortable understanding that certain degrees of negotiation occur within the family or household, where they may be less comfortable ascribing agency to (to use examples from a previous conversation) black slaves or people in concentration camps. However, if this is the case, it’s somewhat surprising as the book is throughout haunted by the specter of violence against women.

Another possibility is that it’s simply the strength of Stern’s argument, coupled with his seemingly exhaustive cataloging of case study after case study. I think this is one of the book’s main strengths. It becomes much harder to dismiss the notion of agency among subjugated women when the author couples strong theory with powerful, personal accounts of various individuals and the ways they dealt with, contested, toed the line of, challenged, or even rejected dominant notions of masculine superiority and the power of paterfamilias.

In doing so, he was also able to carefully avoid ascribing to these women any sort of anachronistic overt (or even proto-) feminism. They didn’t reject the basic ideology of patriarchy, but asserted themselves in contests over its meaning, its limits, and its extent.

Despite the rather grim subject matter, I was so impressed with Stern as both a writer and a scholar that I found this book to be one of the most enjoyable we’ve read all semester.