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People and Ideas - What does History Study?

Monday, February 22, 2021 - 20:00

Is the study of history concerned with discussing concepts, and only secondarily the people who embody them? Or is it the study of people and their institutions, with ideas and theories emerging secondarily from those lives? Both approaches have their value. They answer different questions. In this very brief essay, Boyd stakes a claim for studying ideas and then relating people's lives to those ideas. And from the point of view of "does it make sense to study the history of the idea of lesbianism?" I'm not going to argue against that approach. But at the same time, I find that the histories that most inspire me come from the other angle: the study of people in all their messy particularity, whether or not they fit neatly into ideas and theories.

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Boyd, Nan Alamilla. 2013. "The History of the Idea of the Lesbian as a Kind of Person" in Feminist Studies vol. 39, no. 2 362-365.

This is a very brief paper—the sort you might expect to hear as an introductory presentation at a conference, touching lightly on key concepts but not really focused on new or analytic information.

Boyd is poking at the difference between “lesbian history” as the study of a category, of “a kind of person,” and as the study of particular historic individuals, communities, and institutions that we associate with that category. She asks whether it’s appropriate to use the word “lesbian” to identify people and communities who did not use that word for themselves?

[Note: It always seems to be specifically the word “lesbian” that provokes this sort of strict scrutiny, though I suppose one could view Foucaultian theories as doing the same thing to the word “homosexual”. But how often do you run into historians seriously questioning, “Can we call a community European if people don’t use that term? Can we call a community working class if people don’t use that term? Can we call a community multi-ethnic if people don’t use that term?” What is it about the word lesbian that provokes people to shy away from applying it in descriptive ways, as opposed to viewing it as something that must be claimed or bestowed?]

Boyd actually takes the broad view that lesbian history concerns the idea rather than the specificity, and that it includes all people and institutions that participate in producing the meaning(s) associated with that word. The idea of the lesbian has been spread and transmitted across time and space, changed and changing in the process. But it is imbued with specific situational meanings within the very different contexts to which it applies.

There is a nod to the ways in which using a Western vocabulary item for a concept that transcends Western culture carries the risk of making that usage a form of colonialism. She also notes the “contentious borders” between lesbian and transgender identities. Lesbian identity can be treated at the same time as an identity one must choose or recognize for oneself, but also as an essential identity that exists whether recognized or not.

This idea—that the “lesbian as a type of person” has always existed across time and space—has ideological significance, and Boyd suggests that we need to ask, “To whom is this idea useful? Whom does it serve?”

And it’s undeniable that even if one considers there to be an essential, timeless concept of lesbian identity, the communities and manifestations of that identity are constantly changing. Multiple versions of lesbian identity may be performed side by side in the same culture and may have independent histories and experiences even when specific individuals may cross between them.

[Commentary: Overall, this article seems to be speaking primarily to 20th century lesbian history with perhaps a bit of awareness of the later 19th century. But all the specific cultural references are from the second half of the 20th century. It’s also written with a fairly high level of theory-jargon. (I haven’t been able to parse out exactly which flavor of theory it’s coming from.) Not useful for the general reader.]

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