Category: gender

    War, Gender, and Nation in 19th-Century Europe: A Preliminary Sketch

    Detail from “Combat at the military station: Of Chateau d’ Eau, 24th February 1848 / combat au poste: Du Château d’ Eau, 24 Févr. 1848

    I wrote this preliminary introduction for a thematic handbook article that was not to be (see “Historiographical Impasse”). Looking back at this 2015 draft, I think it contains enough ideas to make it worth sharing.

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    Justice, a blindfolded woman, holds the scales of justice in one hand and holds back Trump with the other. Trump is trying to attack Lady Liberty, but Justice says to her sister, 'I've got this.'

    After the latest Spiegel cover and all the news it embodies, this cartoon by Sam Machado feels really good, particularly with its use of gender against the U.S. chauvinist-in-chief.

    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.

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    Kitchens of the Future

    Imagined in the 1950s (a future seemingly impervious to changes in normative gender roles), two kitchens on YouTube:

    Source information, according to the anonymous YouTube user:

    Selections from two industrial films from the 50s. First, the Frigidaire kitchen from General Motors' “Design for Dreaming,” a promotional film for the 1956 Motorama. Second, a section from film coverage of the Monsanto “House of the Future,” located in Tomorrowland in Disneyland. Just one word: “plastics.”

    Update: I've removed my YouTube embeds because I don't want to set up consent notices for their trackers

    . Clicking the above screenshot will take you to the video on their site. (June 2, 2024)

    History and the Packaged Gnocchi

    One evening after work recently, I was half-starved and wanted something I could cook quickly. I saw some packaged gnocchi in the cupboard, made by De Cecco, which I thought would fit the bill, until I started reading the directions. Unfortunately, these were quite long, and they mentioned all kinds of ingredients not in the package, so I gave up. I didn’t want a detailed recipe. I just wanted to know how to cook the gnocchi. A few days later, while editing an English translation of a book about Italians and food in the modern era, I learned something that made me go back to the gnocchi.1

    In the early post–World War II decades, when the Italian food industry was trying to get consumers—in this context mainly women—to buy its new, ready-made food products, it decided that offering detailed preparation suggestions for the integration of other foods into its packaged products would improve the image of the new products, that is, make them more legitimate and appealing. But consumers bought ready-made foods for their convenience, not for the opportunity to prepare something elaborate. If one wanted to make something more involved, one could do it the old-fashioned way, from scratch, even if one might use certain intermediate manufactured goods like bouillon cubes or dry pasta.2

    With this nugget about Italy’s food history in hand, I went back to the gnocchi package whose directions had thwarted me earlier. I still found only one very detailed paragraph, nothing short about the gnocchi themselves, as pasta packages in this country have led me to expect. But this time I decided I had better skip ahead in the directions, and, sure enough, what I needed was there, buried near the end: “In the meantime, cook the gnocchi in plenty of boiling salted water, remove them as they rise to the surface …” So that was what the “ready in 2 min.” label on the front of the package was referring to. Apparently this step is such common knowledge in Italy that there is no reason to highlight it in readily accessible instructions, even if the manufacturer still feels the need to make its product more attractive to potential customers with a detailed recipe.

    But the package in my hand was for the American market, so why attach the same, apparently decades-old assumptions about food and gender in Italy to it? It hardly makes sense, except if explained in terms of the product’s postwar Italian history. Language from that context seems to have been translated into English without giving much thought to this context. Or is this a way to market something very ordinary, little potato dumplings, as something special? In any case, I’m pretty sure that the packaged gnocchi my European spouse bought for the pantry still carry part of their history in the accompanying directions, which at least I can read now.

    1. Emanuela Scarpellini, A tavola! Gli italiani in 7 pranzi (Rome, 2012). The first part of the title is a summons to come eat, and the second part translates as “The Italians in Seven Meals.” The book begins approximately with Italian unification in 1861 and runs to the present. The English translation will be published by Palgrave Macmillan later this year. ↩︎

    2. Scarpellini, chap. 5. ↩︎

    Human Rights in the History Survey

    I have been teaching History 100, the one-semester survey of Western Civilization that is required for all students at George Mason University. Yes, really. One semester. As I mentioned earlier, this semester I decided to abandon the old chronological approach and follow a thematic one instead. I organized the course into six major themes, plus an introductory unit on historical thinking. One of those themes was "Politics and Human Rights."

    If one looks at Western Civ textbooks or the reading lists from my days as a graduate student, human rights are not going to be an obvious subject of study, especially not for a history survey that can only afford to choose six major topics. Yet they are not only important to learn about, they also offer a powerful integrative vehicle for talking about a variety of issues that have been central to the history of the West since the eighteenth century.

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