Hayden White and Joan W. Scott’s feminist history: the practical past, the political present and an open future

My aim in this article is to reflect on White’s pessimism towards contemporary academic history as manifested in his latest proposal of distinguishing the practical past from the historical past. I will test White’s pessimism against one particular mode of academic history, feminist history, and claim that the critical distinction between the practical past and the historical past does not suit historical writing by feminist scholars. Furthermore, I will reflect on how feminist history has acknowledged and productively assumed Metahistory’s critical conclusions for its own practice. To make my point, I will present Joan Wallach Scott′s reflections on the development of feminist history as, in White’s terminology, motivated by a practical interest in the past and a political interest in the present. However, feminist scholars also wanted to established a historical past for women, that is, a legitimate position in academia for producing women’s history. Thus, Scott’s narration of feminist history manifests a productive confusion of what White urges us to distinguish in his latest book. By appealing to Scott’s The Fantasy of Feminist History, I will analyze the difficult relationship between criticism and narration that the work of both Scott and White displays as they reach, from different directions, the same pressing question: the need to refigure the relationship between academic practice and social life.