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History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism (2008 Conference Panel)

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History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism (2008 Conference Panel)
Katherine L. French
Ruth Mazo Karras
Pavla Miller
Julia Adams
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Panel discussion: Judith Bennett, History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism

(Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006)

Judith Bennett, Professor of History, History Department, University of Southern California. Email: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

Judith Bennett writes on medieval history, feminist history, and the history of women in late medieval England specifically. She has published extensively on peasant women, women's work, and never-married women. She has also published two textbooks, one a biography of a medieval peasant woman and the other a short history of the Middle Ages. Her most recent book (2006) offers an extended commentary on current practices in women's and gender history.

Organizer/Main Contact Person
Pavla Miller, Professor of Historical Sociology,
Global Studies, Social Science and Planning,
RMIT University, Melbourne, GPO Box 2476, Vic, Australia 3001
Email: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
Phone: 61 3 9489 4361 or 61 3 9925 8257
Fax: 61 3 9925 8266

Pavla Miller is Professor of Historical Sociology at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. Her publications include Long Division: State Schooling in South Australian Society and Transformations of Patriarchy in the West, 1500-1900.  She has also published on demographic explanations of low fertility, and masters and servants legislation. She is currently working on a book provisionally titled Patriarchy: an eventful history of a concept,

Other contributors to the panel:

Katherine L. French, Professor of Medieval History, State University of New York, New Paltz. Email: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

Katherine French is professor of medieval history at State University of New York, New Paltz. She is author of several articles on laywomen's piety and parish life, and The People of the Parish in a Medieval English Diocese. Most recently she published The Good Women of the Parish: Gender and Religion after the Black Death, (Penn, 2008) and co‑authored with Allyson Poska, Women and Gender in the Western Past (2vols.) Thompson/Cengage (2006)

Ruth Mazo Karras, Professor of History and Director of the Center for Medieval Studies, University of Minesota. Email: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

Ruth Mazo Karras is Professor of History and Director of the Center for Medieval Studies, University of Minesota. She is also a co‑editor of the journal Gender and History and just finished a three year term as President of the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians. She is the author of four books and numerous articles on various aspects of medieval social and cultural history, gender, and sexuality. Her current research concerns the formation of quasi‑marital unions in medieval Western Europe.

Julia Adams, Yale University, Professor of Sociology and International and Area Studies, Email: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

Julia Adams is Professor of Sociology at Yale University. She teaches and researches on state formation; gender and family; social theory; early modern European politics, and colonialism and empire. She is currently studying contemporary forms of patriarchal politics, and the historical sociology of principal‑agent relations. Among her recent publications are The Familial State: Ruling Families and Merchant Capitalism in Early Modern Europe (Cornell 2005) and an edited collection with Elisabeth S. Clemens and Ann Shola Orloff, Remaking Modernity: Politics, History and Sociology (Duke 2005). She is the current President of the Social Science History Association.


In her book History Matters, Judith Bennett has reiterated her previous argument that “women’s disadvantaged status vis-à-vis men has persisted across time and space even as its specific forms have been changing; hence, the study of women’s oppression ought to be a third pole supporting the broad tent of feminist historiography alongside the study of gender and of difference in women’s history” (28). This group of brief papers originates in an “Author meets the critics session” at the 2008 Social Science History Association conference in Miami. Two medievalists, one of them the past editor of Gender and History, a historical sociologist and a sociologist comment on the different provocations that History Matters poses to their teaching and research. Together with Bennett’s reply, the contributions present a snapshot of long-standing debates about the best ways of theorizing - and teaching about - persistent inequalities.

The first two papers provide a sophisticated defence of using patriarchy as a broad descriptive term to denote women’s oppression, in part through reference to debates about a medieval “golden age”. They also consider the question of whether the existence of groups of powerful women means that patriarchy has weakened. One goes on to comment on the tendency for women’s status to improve during periods of profound social innovation and recede in times of consolidation; the other addresses arguments regarding intentionality: if in some instances there was no one specifically setting out to oppress women, did patriarchy still exist? The third paper looks at different theorizations of patriarchy in Bennett’s book, and relates them to older feminist debates. It then makes an argument for the utility of considering relations between the generations alongside those between women and men in teaching and writing about ‘patriarchal bargains’. The final contribution focuses on different notions of equilibrium in Bennett’s book, and points to new interdisciplinary approaches to the significant issues addressed in the book.

Golden ages and the “distant past" in women’s history.

Katherine L. French
(SUNY New Paltz)

In her book History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism, Judith Bennett argues that the disappearance of patriarchy from our historical vocabulary and the distant past from historical consciousness stems from the role society assigns to historical narratives. Historians place “new” historical facts in narratives of progress or decline, which are also narratives of change and transformation. However, Bennett asks us to move away from the more exciting concepts of change or transformati on to the more problemat ic issue of continuity. She writes, “If we question apparent transformations in women’s status, consider new periodizations based on women’s histories, and feel comfortable thinking about long-term continuities, we can see women’s history in new ways” (71). As Bennett points out, narratives are implicit to history and historiography, and the arc of women’s history narratives are getting shorter and shorter, with the bulk of women’s history journals and women’s history conferences and history conferences more broadly devoted to the period since 1800 (30-41). “The shift toward the present,” Bennett notes “has not yet occasioned much self-reflection among historians” (33). She offers three culprits: a US national culture, which is very presentist, a historical profession, which has shifted away from the distant past, and medieval and ancient historians themselves, who have withdrawn or are withdrawing into their own discrete, interdisciplinary worlds of classics and medieval studies (34-35). Furthermore, Bennett argues “women’s history is particularly afflicted by this tilt toward the present” (37), for three particular reasons: loss of a pre-modern golden age, present mindedness of feminist scholarship outside the discipline of history, and the broadening of women’s history beyond the West (37). However, all too often the non-Western historian in a history department is a modernist as well. This situation provides a double service: it continues to elide the distant past, and implicitly promotes the idea that non-Western history is unchanging until some recent point in the past. After all most history departments still remember having a medieval historian, but in the presence of the historian of the Chinese Revolution, few historians bemoan the loss of their T’ang Chinese historian, because for the most part, there never was one.

Download Full Text from Katherine L. French

Patriarchy and intentionality: does it matter?

Ruth Mazo Karras
(University of Minesota)

The term “patriarchy” in the title of Judith Bennett’s book has occasioned some controversy, in part because she broadens it from the earlier meaning of “father-rule” to a broader sense, growing out of the feminist movement, of any male-dominated society (55).  Some of the other pieces in this forum take issue with this use of the term.  We badly need a term for this broader sense, and “patriarchy” is a good one; we may need a term for the narrower meaning also, but there is no hope of restricting it in common parlance to that meaning, whatever we academics may do.  But the broader usage raises the question of the relation of systematic domination to individual attitudes.  This is central to our understanding of the past—in my case, like Bennett’s, particularly the medieval European past.  How can we imagine a culture in which some women wielded a good deal of power, some men argued for women’s virtuousness, women controlled property, and wives and husbands lived companionably and shared authority over their families, yet which was still systematically patriarchal?  Quite easily, I suggest.  We see such a culture around us.  Contemporary society is quite different from medieval Europe, but understanding that both can be called patriarchal, in different ways, helps us understand deep and persistent structures of gender and dominance.

Download Full Text from Ruth Mazo Karas

Continuity and diversity in theorizations of patriarchy

Pavla Miller

(RMIT, Australia)

One of the key themes in History Matters concerns the dynamics of change and continuity in historical writing and teaching. Change is sexy, it sells books, and underpins well-regarded dissertations and essays. Transformation is where the action is, where one can construct a compelling argument and demonstrate conceptual brilliance. In continuity, nothing much happens. Yet the story Bennett herself is famous for telling: that of women brewsters between the thirteenth and the sixteenth centuries and their continued relegation to work that was marginal, low-status and badly paid, shows that “continuity” was hard work by all concerned; a lot of changes were accomplished in order for things, in some respects, to remain “the same”. In my own account of families, states and employment relations in nineteenth century Anglo-American jurisdictions, I similarly stressed that what was at stake was not so much the survival of “relics” of feudalism or patriarchalism, but the forging of novel relations of mastery and subordination. With the advantage of hindsight, these might look like patriarchal continuities. At the time, they represented the results of innovation in the face of unexpected, ingenious, and at first only dimly understood challenges, which in turn had far-reaching, and in large measure unanticipated, social consequences.2 Continuity in times of change, in other words, tends to be the outcome of widespread and diffuse struggle, inventiveness, contingency, creativity, and sheer hard work.

Download Full Text from Pavla Miller

The Persistence of Patriarchy in History Matters

Julia Adams
(Yale University)

Judith Bennett’s History Matters is an analysis of how feminism and the discipline of History came together in the 1970s, to great effect, but then drifted apart. It is a call for more feminism in History and more history in feminism. It is theoretical and practical; it offers us deep history and contemporary urgency. History Matters is a wonderful book. It is also disturbing. The main argument is that the subordination of women has persisted, relatively unchanged, over centuries, and perhaps longer. It has not changed or eroded. The book has many other facets, some of which are canvassed in this symposium. In this short comment, however, I explore the underpinnings of the book’s overarching claim.

Download Full Text from Julia Adams





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