A few quick notes here from a hectic Friday in Oxford, as I begin my final read-through of the D.Phil. before submission next week, return to writing-and-editing mode after a seminar talk last night, and taking care of lots of paperwork over the last couple of days. I’ve learned, to my delight, that I’ve been accepted to Arizona State University’s Critical Languages Institute for their Intensive Uzbek program, which means that I’ll have the chance to – finally – dive seriously into Turkic languages this summer, spending about two months in balmy Tempe, Arizona, followed by about a month in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, to begin to make some strides in the language. The fact that the Tempe program also plays host to Russian and Persian programs should make for opportunities to get to know some other graduate students and young-ish (as in still denying the existence of grey hairs) scholars interested in Eurasian topics; since Samarkand is factually a trilingual city (Persian, Uzbek, and Russian), I’m hoping to find some chances to improve my mediocre Persian over the summer, too. At least it will give me some motivation to work more on some of the Iranian materials I have for what I hope to be the book manuscript resulting from the D.Phil. Still, applications and acceptances mean mounds of paperwork, from which I’ve only just escaped in the last day or two.
In any event, I had the chance to present some of my research last evening at a seminar at the Taylorian Institution Slavonic Research Library (see the Prezi version here), focusing on the chapter of the D.Phil. looking at the outreach of official Soviet women’s groups to women in Afghanistan during the 1980s, when the USSR invaded and occupied the country. Presenting as I was to an audience of mostly people who do Russian cultural history in a more specific, and, frankly, more rigorous way, than I usually do, I was glad to get a variety of helpful comments and criticism. One of the big challenges in 1970s and 1980s Soviet history, or so it seems to me, is pulling apart the claims of groups like the Committee for Soviet Women (the official group I focus on, which in theory was independent of the CPSU) from the everyday experience of ‘normal’ Soviet women (insofar as we can speak of Soviet women at all in a country of 300 million people stretching from Riga to Bukhara). Part of the impression groups like CSW wanted to give, of course, was that they were monolithic representatives of all Soviet women’s interests, and yet it’s important (even in a piece like mine, which focuses on CSW) to try to place the ‘authoritative discourse’ women’s project they represented into a bigger panorama of different women’s projects that Soviet women conceptualized during the period.
More broadly, there’s the problem of terminology. Even though the paper was subtitled ‘The Soviet Women’s Rights Project in Afghanistan and Beyond’, in some ways this is a terrible title for the subject, or at least one that may obscure more than it clarifies. The main issue is that so many of the terms we use to describe NGOs, social activism, and so on in the West don’t really translate well to the Soviet or Russian historical context: people from CSW might have called themselves aktivistki (female activists), but the history of the concept of pravo (roughly ‘right’ but not quite) in Russian intellectual history is, well, complicated, and nowhere in the documents do CSW activists speak of themselves as representatives of something called ‘women’s rights’, nor does it seem accurate to talk (even in reference to informal groups or non-official discourse) of a zhenskii proekt (‘women’s project’) in the USSR of the 1960s and 1970s. I’m busy for part of this weekend and early next week looking for scholarship that can help me express some of this more precisely, but it’s a topic that I hope that serious historians of gender and/or the USSR would look at more in the future.
This gets to questions of ‘ownership’ of women’s history. While activists within major university systems have been successful at carving out ‘gender studies’ or ‘women’s studies’ programs – an accomplishment that deserves respect and even praise – I do worry that the fact that so many of these programs exist outside of history or literature departments may cause scholars trained in these traditions to take on a needlessly oppositional cast towards historians or literary scholars treading on ‘their territory.’ Put in other words, having gained legitimacy within universities, scholars of ‘gender studies’ or ‘women’s studies’ are still faced with the question of whether the goal is to have a specific methodology different from history that justifies their presence as a separate program, or whether the long-term goal is for gender concerns to be absorbed back into history departments so that histories of, say, Soviet women, become one day as commonplace and as orthodox a project as, for example, a history of the French Revolution.
I stand unabashedly for the latter viewpoint: if ‘women’s studies’ has a distinct methodology that justifies it as being separate from history or literature, I’m unaware of it (but still open to convincing). It strikes me, moreover, that much as the work of scholars like Jocelyn Olcott is recognizably about women while at the same time being unabashedly also really excellent intellectual history, it may not even be useful to speak of ‘women’s history’ as a sub-field or topic some day. I view the presentation and chapter as, basically, about women’s history, and about the problem that states faced of how to represent their country’s women (all of them in a state organization or allow NGOs and pluralism?), using the Afghan-Soviet case as one example of what seems to me like a bigger phenomenon. The sooner we can get more historians of the 1970s and 1980s, or more intellectual historians engaging with what were once thought of as ‘gender issues’, the better off all historians – male historians of gender included – will be.
Finally: I’ll be attending what looks to be a neat talk by Anne Applebaum on post-war Polish Stalinism later today, at which I intend to be taking some notes – so some reflections on that event may be forthcoming over the weekend on the blog.