What Do Historians Look Like?

Rachel Waltner Goossen

The first time I submitted a piece of scholarship for consideration to an academic journal—at age twenty-one and having just earned B.A. in history—a rejection letter came in quick response.

Why? Because I was young? A woman? Not networked to the journal’s editor and his team? I wasn’t sure, but subsequent discussions with my two college mentors—who had advised my capstone seminar research—backed my notion that the turn-down might have had something to do with all the above. They encouraged me to submit my article to another journal, where a shortened version soon appeared in print.  I’ve never forgotten their professorial advice, helping me make a crucial step forward at the start of my career.1

During the 1980s, when I became a historian, my academic mentors were all male: first at Bethel College, and then in graduate school at the University of California and the University of Kansas. Few women were available in my discipline, history, to serve as role models.

For my first teaching job, a tenure-track position at Goshen College, I joined a department of four male colleagues. It was clear from our conversations that they had been motivated to hire the first woman historian in the institution’s one-hundred-year history. I appreciated the support I received as a young faculty member at Goshen. But it took another half-decade, and accepting a job offer from another institution, before I had the opportunity to work alongside women historians daily and reap the benefits of having a more diverse set of colleagues.

This summer, I’ve been encouraging historian friends, including former students who have entered the profession, to sign up as participants in a new online database, “Women Also Know History.” It is an initiative for historians, and I’m prompting Mennonite/Anabaptist women historians, as a subset of that larger whole, to sign on. And I’d like to see the database utilized by all, regardless of gender. For example, if you or a colleague plan to organize a panel or conference in the next year, consider searching the website to become informed about qualified women working in your field.

CrossingtheLineWrapupSession

Jenae Longenecker speaks at the “Crossing the Line” history conference, Eastern Mennonite University, June 2017. Photo credit: Ann Hostetler

Many Anabaptist/Mennonite scholars, like our colleagues in the broader academy, are prone to imagine historians as white men, often because we’ve been educated and mentored by individuals who, due to gender, gravitas, or both, resemble those who helped me along early in my career: Keith Sprunger, James Juhnke, Robert S. Kreider, and others.

This gender bias—often implicit—is hardly limited to those of us who employed by colleges and universities. It extends to journalists, who reach out to historians to offer perspectives on topics both past and present, and who may not think twice before calling on men they’ve long known and relied upon. And gender bias extends to members of the broader public, too; for example, consumers of television news programs who see, exasperatingly often, all-male panels of commentators.

The “Women Also Know History” initiative is a networking tool, and it’s easy to use. The website is designed so that anyone interested in organizing a conference panel, designing a course syllabus, or reaching out for informed commentary on a given subject can learn about (and potentially contact) qualified, knowledgeable women. The goal is to bring more gender balance to scholarly and journalistic enterprises.2

Launched on June 5, the website now includes more than 2,500 women with historical training and expertise from around the world.  It represents a new strategy to increase the visibility and voices of qualified women, to level the playing field, to diversify perspectives.3 This resource—open to women historians from a variety of backgrounds, including graduate students, public historians, museum professionals, and others—is inspired by “Women Also Know Stuff,” a similar endeavor begun two years ago through a collaboration of political scientists. Christina Wolbrecht, one of the organizers of that site, says that her editorial board “supports efforts to combat implicit bias in every discipline and every country . . . . We enthusiastically encourage efforts to build similar initiatives for other groups of underrepresented scholars and within other disciplines.”4

The new historians’ database is an easy-to-use tool for scholars and journalists to find and network with women working in a range of professional fields. Any woman who registers can choose how much she wants to include about the depth and breadth of her scholarship. For those visiting the website, benefits quickly accrue as one scrolls through profiles of historians and begins to make connections across topics, geographical settings, and generations.

Since I entered the historical profession thirty-five years ago, women’s visibility in many subject areas has increased. In the field of Anabaptist/Mennonite scholarship, this evolution has never been more evident than at the “Crossing the Line: Women of Anabaptist Traditions Encounter Borders and Boundaries” conference, hosted in June 2017 by Eastern Mennonite University in Virginia. Academics and independent scholars serving on the planning committee crafted a program with panel after panel of historical and interdisciplinary presentations featuring scholars and artists from five continents.

With the “Crossing the Line” theme highlighting literal and metaphorical boundary-crossings, we considered how gender has influenced interpretations of Anabaptist and Mennonite history. Professor and novelist Sofia Samatar, reflecting during a plenary session with humor and insight on her upbringing in Mennonite and Muslim subcultures, reminded participants of the cultural richness that comes from narrating histories from a variety of perspectives. Because of the ways in which certain topics have been gendered, some topics receive more visibility while others receive less.  Hearing from women (not just men) on panels enriches all listeners because different histories are likely to be told, and in different ways.

Samatar concluded: “We need all the women’s voices we can get.”5 In that spirit, the new database “Women Also Know History” is a welcome resource for us all.

Rachel Waltner Goossen is professor of history at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas.


  1.  More than thirty-five years later, the article is still cited occasionally in the work of other scholars.  Rachel Waltner, “From Anabaptism to Mennonitism:  The Mennonite Encyclopedia as a Historical Document,” Mennonite Life 37 (December 1982): 13-19. 
  2. Nell Gluckman, “Female Historians Try to End the ‘I Didn’t Know Any Women’ Excuse for All-Male Panels,” Chronicle of Higher Education, 22 June 2018, A-23. 
  3. For an example of earlier strategizing by women in a specifically Mennonite context, see Dorothy Nickel Friesen, The Pastor Wears a Skirt: Stories of Gender and Ministry (Eugene, Oregon:  Resource Publications, 2018), 21-22. 
  4.  Quoted in Keisha N. Blain and Karin Wulf, “’Women Also Know History’:  Dismantling Gender Bias in the Academy,” History News Network, 9 June 2018, https:  historynewsnetwork.org/article/169254. 
  5.  Samatar, “In Search of Women’s Histories,” presented 24 June 2018, Crossing the Line:  Women of Anabaptist Traditions Encounter Borders and Boundaries conference, Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, Virginia; see Ben Goossen, “In Search of Women’s Histories:  Crossing Space, Crossing Communities, Crossing Time at Crossing the Line,” Anabaptist Historians, 27 June 2017, https://anabaptisthistorians.org/tag/anabaptist-identity/page/3/. 

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