U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Back to the Well: The Backchannel

This is the fourth in a series of posts examining the publishing history of feminist texts from the 1970s. Last week’s post revealed just how much I don’t know and can’t know from examining archival evidence related to the presentation of “Up from the Genitals” at the 1970 meeting of the American Historical Association.  However, during the course of my research for that post, I did correspond with a couple of the authors of that 1970 paper to ask if they could provide any details on its presentation or reception at the AHA.

Both historians were generous and gracious correspondents. Linda Gordon kindly put me in touch with Rochelle Ruthchild, who offered some recollections about the formation and fate of the paper ahead of the convention – including, crucially, Gerda Lerner’s disapproval of the co-authors’ plan to give the paper at the meeting.  And, after my post of last week went up, she provided some further detail about whether any of the historians mentioned in the paper had been in attendance.  Here’s what Ruthchild wrote about the early career of “Up from the Genitals”:

I came to Boston in 1969 to teach history at Cardinal Cushing College, and shortly thereafter got involved in early Bread and Roses consciousness raising groups and general meetings. I was asked by Linda Gordon to be part of a group of feminist historians to write an article about sexism in the historical profession. The group besides me and Linda, included Elizabeth Pleck, Persis Hunt, and Marsha Scott. We divided up the sections and each was responsible for one aspect of US historical writing. As I recall, I wrote about William O’Neill’s Everyone Was Brave: The Rise and Fall of Feminism in America and Page Smith’s Daughters of the Promised Land.  I think the paper title was my idea, but not positive.

As was true of the time, we had many meetings to put together the paper. Linda had the most connections with the establishment historians, and got the most feedback.

As I recall, Gerda Lerner was especially upset about our presenting the paper at the AHA. She tried to persuade us not to give it, claiming that we would upset all the work that had been done to bring women’s history into the mainstream. She was afraid that we would make a scene at the convention. Of course nothing of the sort happened. We were on a panel with some radical male historians, and while we got some hostile questions, I don’t recall any scenes. Although the room was packed.[1]

In further correspondence after my post of last week went up, Ruthchild wrote, “I think Carl Degler was there” when the co-authors gave the paper.  (However, she says is not absolutely positive about this.) “I knew him from doing research at Stanford 1968-69. He was the only one of male establishment scholars who I knew personally and he was very encouraging to me.”[2]

These are rich and important insights, and I’m so glad that Prof. Ruthchild took the time to share them.  So why didn’t I use this material in my post last week?

Well, due to a stupid miscommunication on my part (I missed an email reply in our threaded conversation), I was not certain that I had Dr. Ruthchild’s permission to quote her.  And my general rule is that I will not attribute a quote from an email I have received unless I have my correspondent’s permission to do so.  I don’t know if this is a general expectation for historians who interview subjects for their work; it’s just my sense of propriety as a correspondent.

As far as methodological propriety goes, I made a choice early on that I would not use interviews for my book project, that I would not use “memory” in writing about Stanford or the canon wars or the culture wars.  I would not make any historical claims that cannot be verified and supported entirely from primary sources dating from the time in question.  This is, I think, the usual approach for intellectual historians, and it’s an approach with which I’m comfortable.

But it’s worthwhile to acknowledge what this approach necessarily excludes:  the backchannel.

What counts as backchannel discourse?  Well, that’s a historically conditioned and contingent matter.  Plenty of private correspondence between historians made it into the pages of Peter Novick’s That Noble Dream.  Some of that correspondence might have been worded differently – or not worded at all – if the historians writing it had held in the forefront of their minds the idea that what they wrote to one another would one day be deposited in an archive and available for research.  But perhaps a constant awareness of writing “for the archive” would have made it impossible to write anything at all.  And even if historians kept the idea of The Archive in mind as they wrote to one another, they operated under a shared (if not always explicitly articulated) understanding of what would or would not be “fair game” for scholarly analysis, what counted as academic discourse and what would have been simply gossip, not suitable for public discussion by respectable and respectful scholars.

Bonnie Smith’s The Gender of History is invaluable in exploring how these practices and expectations about what was and was not an appropriate historical object worked to gender the historical subject – that is, the professional historian, and particularly the historiographer — as male.

At the center of historical explanation, the towering and seductive male authorial subject rules as a pioneer, a member of an avant-garde, a dazzling virtuoso – and all the more so, given the way ‘truth’ and ‘universalism’ have dissolved in the course of the twentieth century.  Although the rest of the historical field may be crowded with heterogeneous characters, historiography is not.  The historian of historiography, which is virtually all male, seldom shares the stage with a woman; rather, he is fortified by epigones admiring his laws and making him a ‘star,’ fraternal clusters who think of contesting them, and still others who will analyze the agon in terms of historical movement through serial or even postmodern time.  Whether produced by his facts, the range of his historiographic reach, or his flights of theory, this imposing construct of male subjectivity (albeit with new demands for public performance and new calls to meet the challenge of powerful women, themselves increasingly cast as phallic maternal rivals) continues to function as the centerpiece for an increasingly difficult historical epistemology.  No matter what the changes from realism to modernism or modernism to postmodernism, from claims of truth to claims of explanation, masculinity continues to function as it did in the nineteenth century: as part of a flight, a deepening, a broadening in which the historian ascends, reaches, incises, and conquers to surpass himself and all others.  He creates more, a supplement, an extra, beyond what others have done – but does it transcendentally, invisibly, so that while we see powerful historians as men, we also see only truth, pure intelligence, and compelling explanation.  The profession’s unacknowledged libidinal work – the social ideology that draws us to value male plenitude, power, and self-presentation – is but rarely glimpsed in the mirror of history.[3]

We can glimpse some of “the profession’s unacknowledged libidinal work” — some of its backchannel discourse — in the early response to “Up from the Genitals” – but we can see it only because the authors of that paper made that libidinal work legible by publishing excerpts from the anonymous reader reports they received from the journals to which they submitted the paper.  They titled this brief article, “On Working Through Channels,” and they pulled some very choice quotes from their reviewers.[4]

“The paper reads like a manifesto from the underground press,” wrote a reviewer for American Quarterly, “and there is nothing here that has not already been echoed in magazines conveying to the general public the mood and rage of women’s lib.”  This comment explicitly acknowledges the backchannel – the underground press, general magazines, the “women’s lib” movement – while at the same time denying its scholarly relevance or interest.

Another reviewer for the same journal wrote, “The authors are far too intemperate and hostile in their language for the pages of a scholarly journal.”

A reader for the Journal of Social History was, I think, a bit intemperate and hostile in his comments on the paper (or, rather, on its authors):

The five female authors – why do they travel in such a pack, unless they are brainwashed and lack confidence? – and why does the typist get equal billing; is this by way of making up for millions of anonymous typists over whose bodies these girls have trod on their way to fame?  Or is it a subtle dig at male-authored articles, where the oppressed typist’s name is never mentioned?

After quoting this excerpt in their account of the struggle to get this paper published, the five co-authors offered a single line of commentary:  “Anonymity does allow a kind of courage.”

A kind of collective anonymity – the certainty that some remarks or observations will go unrecorded or unreported, or (if reported) unattributed – allows discursive backchannels to function.

And discursive backchannels allow institutions – including professions, or fields and subfields of scholarship – to function.  This means that discursive backchannels are incredibly important objects of analysis – incredibly important, but incredibly tricky.

This is one way of explaining the emergence of new journals, new publishing outlets, new fields and subfields of scholarly inquiry in connection with the liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s:  it was not feasible (or at least not possible without significant resistance) to dismantle and examine the backchannels that allowed certain channels of discourse function while at the same time using those very channels to communicate one’s findings. So much of the disciplinary boundary work of the early 1970s entailed the carving out of new channels for scholarly discourse – channels that, in many cases, would eventually flow back into the main stream of professional historical scholarship.  But that result was hardly inevitable then, and we should not take it for granted now.


[1] Rochelle Ruthchild to L.D. Burnett (email), March 1, 2017.

[2] Rochelle Ruthchild to L.D. Burnett (email), March 5, 2017

[3] Bonnie G. Smith, The Gender of History: Men, Women, and Historical Practice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998), 238-239, emphasis mine.

[4] Rochelle Zeigler, Marcia Scott, Elizabeth Pleck, Persis Hunt, and Linda Gordon, “On Working Through Channels,” Newsletter of the Radical Historians Caucus No. 8, Feb. 1972, 3-4.

9 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Here are two informal comments that I put up on Facebook. The first is about Gerda Lerner:

    Gerda never got over being a Communist, which generally meant, in the sixties, “please don’t rock the boat.”

    At the 1969 AHA, where we in the radical caucus were to precipitate a two-night massive business meeting, Gerda said to me over lunch, “Don’t go too far too fast,” and Herbert Aptheker lectured me about the dangers of “adventurism.”Really, there would never have been a New Left or a Women’s Liberation Movement had we listened to such bad advice.
    I hope somebody will eventually do a study of the role of so many people who left the Party but held on to many of its ideas, including Genovese, Kraditor (?).James Weinstein, Gerda. Many of these intellectuals left after too many CP horrors and went on to get their PhDs in US history at Columbia.(A good topic for an intellectual historian.)
    PS. In Chicago the Hyde Park Communists fretted about our sit-ins at the U of C.

  2. My second Facebook comment responds to a query about Peter Novick:

    Peter and I got along OK as junior faculty at the U of C. But there was a grim episode. Seeking to promote his career at that miserable place, he volunteered for the College’s undergraduate admissions committee. In one of the folders, he found that a candidate who hadn’t heard that the place was a right-wing institution, advocated himself by saying that his father had been pursued by McCarthyites. O’Connell, the Dean of Admissions, put in a note, describing the candidate as “fingering his long tresses” and concerning the kid’s politics, “We’ve got too many of that kind here, let him go to Reed or Antioch.”
    Peter came to me, expressed his horror, and announced that he would put this in the student newspaper. I said, well, I think it would be best to confront O’Connell with this and give him a chance to reply before you go into print with this.” That’s what Peter did. When, as a result, he came under attack by the History Department, he confessed and said, “Jesse made me do it.”
    (He did get tenure anyway, which was a little difficult since he had originally done French history and then shifted directions. His chapter in That Noble Dream on “the collapse of comity” offers a fairly good account of the radical activities at the 1969 AHA)

  3. This is fascinating. Thanks for sharing your correspondence with Ruthchild.

    I understand that you didn’t want to let memory or the retrospective personal emotions of your subjects color your analysis of the Canon Wars, but as you show us here, backchannels can be really fruitful primary sources!

  4. Jesse, thanks for adding these comments here.

    As I mentioned on Facebook, my sense of propriety regarding what is/is not “fair game” extends to things people post on non-public forums. So, since comments on my Facebook posts are generally not visible to the general public, I treat such comments as informal communication among friends. Probably not very historically-minded of me — except that, as I tried to sketch out above, we do not, in fact, treat all communications / utterances as equally subject to critical scrutiny or historical analysis. The contestation over what is exempt from scrutiny and what is not is at the heart of disciplinary formation and transformation.

    Historiann, you are right on the money about the reasons for my decision not to use interviews / rely on memory/memoir for work on the canon wars/culture wars. But of course, as this correspondence with Rutchild shows (and as Susan Reverby’s post from last week reminds us), there’s a lot of historical detail and insight that is only retained in people’s memories and would be otherwise irrecoverable.

    Like I said, it’s tricky. If we weren’t in the middle of Culture Wars 2.0 (or, maybe Culture Wars: The Continuing Story) I might be more inclined to use some interviews. At the same time, there is such a scandalous amount of source material available already that the problem is not detection but selection.

    • With all the obvious pollutants, I have found the reminiscences of ordinary people looking back on the American Revolution to be wonderful sources. In the 1820s people who might not otherwise write a book found a market for their autobiographies. Also, the pension applications submitted by Revolutionary war veterans in the early 19th century. As for the pollutants, I have often mentioned the presence of similar pollutants in Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography, but that doesn’t deny us critical use of such sources. All this is admittedly not what you’re talking about, but, as I think about it, I’m a little concerned about the rejection of memories of the canon wars. Or am I misunderstanding?

  5. I love the final observation about these backchannels: “it was not feasible (or at least not possible without significant resistance) to dismantle and examine the backchannels that allowed certain channels of discourse function while at the same time using those very channels to communicate one’s findings.”

    This is precisely the nefarious, invisible, most powerful determinant of success or failure in the field—i.e. having the “people” behind the wall be your friend, sympathizer, or advocate. They have to “like” your work. The outside pretends this is “objectivity,” but we know that’s just part of the story, if not an outright ruse, given the ubiquitous “second reader” memes out there. Those second readers are, well, nothing less than assholes most of the time.

    All of this backchannel stuff deserves the disinfectant of sunlight. – TL

  6. Well, yes and no.

    One of the ideas I’m slowly sidling toward in these posts and in the larger project more generally is the whole issue of “context collapse” — though in a broader sense than simply “the effects of social media.” As I mentioned above, institutions — a university I guess, or, better, an academic department, would be a good example of this — would not be able to function, I think, without backchannels. (And, yes, that’s true of the professionalized academic disciplines as well.)

    Disciplinary discourse involves constant struggles over the boundary line between what is left out of view and what is brought into view, who is included and who is excluded, what is germane and what is irrelevant, whose judgments count and whose do not. But I don’t know that there’s a good alternative — or a terminus — to this kind of contestation.

    What’s frustrating, of course, is the pretense that there are no backchannels — for example, as you note above, the useful fiction that academe is a meritocracy, or that decisions about whom to publish or whom to tenure are arrived at by some objective process, where career trajectories or status correlate to quality of work or thought on some fixed scale of exchange. That’s a particularly perverse kind of gaslighting, because academics are conditioned to do it to ourselves.

    But the remedy is not, I think, to give up on the entire enterprise as hopelessly corrupt. Part of the remedy, I believe, is to reframe backchannel discourse as something other than a sign of corruption. It is very human, and so a good object of analysis for historians.

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