Historiographical Impasse

I have had to withdraw from an interesting handbook project because of excessive overlap with two other chapters. My topic was on the matrix of gender, war, and nation in European wars in the 1850s through the 1870s. Given the limited historiography, I chose a thematic approach, but that produces the undesired overlap. What is needed instead, I’m told, is a gendered history of these specific wars. Leaving aside the insufficient historiography, to say nothing of the challenges inherent in collaborations of this kind, where project requirements and individual research have to somehow come together and adapt to changing parameters, the impasse I’ve reached seems to have deeper epistemological roots.

Making sense of the matrix of gender, nation, and war in the European conflicts of the mid-nineteenth century appears to involve contradictory historiographical impulses. On the one hand, the revolutions, insurrections, and wars of this era represented discrete political events in specific temporal, geographic, social, cultural, economic, and technological contexts. On the other hand, solidarities or identities represented by the nation emerged and achieved hegemonic status over much longer periods of time (even if war acted as a catalyst), to say nothing of the resilient normative and structural operations of gender in human societies.

If one scholar has successfully identified a discursive relationship among nationalism, military service, and the masculine construction of citizenship in Prussia during the Wars of Liberation against Napoleon, making the leap from those discourses to changes in gender norms (including the shifting meaning of military service in a man’s life) and how gender operated in social hierarchies is another matter. Depending on the region of Europe, it could take many decades for such discourses to manifest themselves in ordinary people’s lives.

These contradictory historiographical impulses are also evident in gender history itself. If the field (earlier conceived as women’s history) had initially promised to challenge and subvert conventional periodization schemes, the professional requirements of specialization in specific eras and regions has tended to reproduce those schemes instead.

If I have been unable to navigate these tensions and contradictions within the limited scope left open to me in the handbook project and given the limitations of the historiography itself, I nonetheless find myself wondering how they might be addressed within event-driven history more generally. Clearly one can explore the operations of gender in a specific war, but is it possible to draw conclusions about changes in gender norms and gender orders without taking a much longer view? I am skeptical.