On Gender and Genre

Do biographies of women have different conventions to biographies of men? Setting out on a new historical project—which, at least for the moment, takes the form of a biography of Angelica Schuyler Church (not pictured! That’s Dolley Madison)—I’ve been thinking a lot about the particular confluence of what often seem to be maligned and marginalised fields even in their own right: women’s history and biography. I have a lot still to learn about both. But let me offer some preliminary considerations here, and invite Junto readers to pitch in in the comments.

“This book is not a traditional biography of a woman’s life,” writes Charlene Boyer Lewis in Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte: An American Aristocrat in the Early Republic,

covering her birth through her death. It does not, as most women’s biographies do, take a strictly chronological approach or focus on the stereotypical roles of daughter, wife, and mother… Moving beyond the categories typically associated with women allows us to recast what we know about women and their relationship with the new nation and its culture in the early nineteenth century.

I’m interested, on the one hand, in what this “traditional biography of a woman’s life” is, as a genre—especially in terms of the kind of audience it reaches, and what they’re looking for.[1] On the other, I’m interested in the ways many historians have, like Lewis, consciously resisted such a genre, making of their work something else, something not restricted by generic tropes and categories.

Biographers of women share the following challenge: “Most American women did not leave behind properly preserved correspondence,” or other writings; and if they did, it often has not been well looked after by the families and institutions to which those documents were entrusted.[2] Still, as any ancient historian (or, perhaps, historian of Native Americans) will know, sometimes a scarcity of evidence can be a boon, driving forward the potential for many possible approaches.[3]

The greater challenge for biographers of women who seek to resist the conventions of genre and gender (and there are theorists who would say that all genre, and all gender, consists in forms of resistance) is not just to find different ways to tell their stories, but to find the stories they want to tell in the first place, since they’re not just laid down by convention. Then they have to tell it in a way that intellectually and rhetorically overwhelms the gendered and generic cues that tell a reader how to treat it.

Edith Gelles concluded, in writing about Abigail Adams, that “John is always at the center of her biographies because of chronology.” By fixing Abigail’s life in “a context that emphasizes events in which John took a major role… the story tends to slip into his work, making his life work the fulcrum of her biography.”[4] The history of the revolution and early republic been conceived and written in a masculine key; notions of politics and history are thickly entangled with masculinity itself. As well as all its other goals and tasks, women’s history is engaged in seeing and untangling that knot.

But masculinity can’t exist without women, and the masculine work of politics—and of finance, fighting, thinking, and everything else—has always been a burden at-least-equally shared by women. “Rather than taking place behind the scenes,” Catherine Allgor writes, “the action [in Parlor Politics] unfolds everywhere that politics happened in Washington City.” In the early republic, that work worked best because it seemed to be something else. “The politicking necessary to government could be undertaken,” says Allgor, “as long as it did so under the guise of private entertainment.” Paul Spalding writes, “male dismissal of women as politically irrelevant seems to have contributed to their political effectiveness.”[5]

And then, “the late eighteenth century was not only an era of political revolution but of medical, economic, and sexual transformation… It is not as easy as it once was to dismiss domestic concerns as “trivia.””[6] Present-day feminist movements are all the time bringing to light the crucial role of the hidden, “irrelevant,” dismissed aspects of female life and labour. Those insights demand to be applied historically as well. It should be, and I hope it is, a good time to be writing and studying women’s lives.


[1] Lewis, Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte, 10. One thing I particularly enjoyed about a recent visit to Montpelier was the emphasis the guides and media put on Dolley Madison. A large majority of the audience was made up of middle-aged women. When the voice actor playing Charles Cotesworth Pinckney said, “I was beaten by Mr and Mrs Madison. Had I faced Mr Madison alone, I might have fared better had I faced Mr Madison alone,” there was a wave of knowing laughter throughout the room. It seems to me that this approach is at once subversive, because it emphasizes female power, and also completely within the genre of traditional women’s biography.

[2] Neither, of course, did most men. But the comparison with the late-eighteenth century’s more prodigiously-documented men is very stark. Cokie Roberts, foreword to Catherine Allgor, ed., The Queen of America: Mary Cutts’ Life of Dolley Madison (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2012), ix.

[3] The best recent example I can think of is Jill Lepore, Book of Ages: the Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin (New York: Knopf, 2013); I’m looking forward to hearing more.

[4] Edith B. Gelles, Portia: the World of Abigail Adams (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992), xv. Gelles was, as far a I can tell, the first to emphasise Abigail Adams’ financial interests, a theme taken up in Woody Holton’s recent biography as well.

[5] Catherine Allgor, Parlor Politics: In Which the Ladies of Washington Help Build a City, and a Government (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2000), 1, 23; Paul S. Spalding, Lafayette: Prisoner of State (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2010), 156. And see Catherine Allgor, A Perfect Union: Dolley Madison and the Creation of the American Nation (New York: Henry Holt, 2006).

[6] Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, A Midwife’s Tale: the Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812 (New York: A.A. Knopf, 1990), 23.

5 responses

  1. I’m reminded of the problem faced by biographers of Anne Bronte, who originally framed her life in terms of her sister Charlotte’s, of which there was much more evidence. This treatment obscured how Anne’s life had developed along different lines even before the sisters were published authors.

  2. Reblogged this on DailyHistory.org and commented:
    Tom Cutterham has a blog post at The Junto on the conventions of women’s historical biographies. It is important to ask if these conventions have hidden the important “aspects of female of life and labour.” Do these biographies have a traditional structure and if so, why?

  3. It’s taken me too long, but thanks for your helpful pointers, all! A few weeks after writing this post, I have pages and pages of titles to read on women’s history and biography. It’s a good thing I had no other plans for August…


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: