Feminist Historiography

Stefanie Ruel and Kaitlynn C. Hammel

Feminist historiography is a method of bringing together different kinds of feminism (e.g., liberal, radical, postcolonial) with ways of re-telling the experiences of ciswomen and gender-diverse individuals who lived in the past.

Stefanie Ruel is an Assistant Professor in the Department for People and Organizations at the Open University, U.K. After close to a twenty-year career in the Canadian space industry, she is now a scholar who focuses on addressing the marginalization of ciswomen and gender diverse individuals in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) contexts, both in historical and contemporary society.

Kaitlynn C. Hammel is a secondary-school student who continues to develop her skills, knowledge, and love for her art work. Notably, through her unique treatment of colors, shading, and perspective, she has designed and published a Christmas/Seasonal greeting card, and created an Academy of Management award-winning graphic design for Dr. Ruel’s case study titled “Rogue One: The Canadian Space Agency and ‘understanding the [non] inclusive organization’.”

Reconstructing histories that include ciswomen and gender-diverse individuals

Take a moment to ask yourself: How might you find stories about ciswomen and gender-diverse individuals who lived in the past, when there is minimal to no information about them on the internet or in publicly available corporate documents? For example, say you were interested in learning about Black ciswomen who worked as mathematicians during the U.S. race to the moon in the 1950s and 1960s, but they were “hidden” (Shetterly 2016) among more prominent and celebrated White cismen, like Neil Armstrong and John Glenn. What steps could you take to learn more about these Black ciswomen?

Much of what we can know about the past is captured in documents—official letters, copies of speeches, court recordings—or in published texts, such as newspapers and pamphlets, and more recently as digitized documents. These types of ‘official’ archives are largely focused on retelling “[cis]man’s story” (Wallach-Scott 1983, 174), however, like those space stories surrounding Neil Armstrong and John Glenn. Undoing discriminatory practices today and in the future, by sharing histories that are more diverse and inclusive, is a noble goal to strive for; structural barriers, such as governmental or institutional bureaucracies, that affect what is deemed to be ‘important to keep’ versus ‘what is to be discarded’ makes attaining this goal challenging.

Feminist scholars in ciswomen’s and gender history, as an example of those who use feminist historiography, strive for more inclusive processes to be put in place when practicing social history. Feminist historiographers try to uncover the stories of ciswomen and gender-diverse individuals, and then strive to share these stories in either academic publications and conferences, or with the public through workshops and events at museums and other public places. In so doing, such people aim to change societal imbalances, in part by bringing individual experiences to light that have previously been excluded from those ‘official’ archives. Ciswomen’s and gender history is a broad field that some may approach as a study of fragmented ‘factual’ events of the past, even as others see it as an act of resistance.

Feminist historiographies meld feminism (e.g., liberal, radical, psychoanalytic, socialist, transnational/postcolonial, etc.) with historical studies. These types of historical studies are not always focused on creating “a realistic record of every event and experience in time” (Suddaby et al. 2010, 152), however. In their practice, feminist historiographers incorporate oral accounts retold and passed on through time, personal diaries, personal letters, blogs, and social media—and, when possible, interviews with the individual in question. These historians also develop more encompassing methods, including tracing patterns of thought/ideas in storytelling practices, and accepting that a fragmented re-telling of the past is a plausible history.

Feminist historiographers also look to social contexts that have rules and meta-rules that are in place to impose an order; these rules and meta-rules can be written or unwritten, formal or informal, and can influence how individuals act. For example, in the 1950s, once a North American woman married, she was expected to immediately stop working. Feminist historians attempt to unravel such informal rules in ways that reveal power dynamics among individuals. One example is that of Doris Jelly (1932–2021), a trained physicist, mathematician, world traveler, and a woman who worked on Alouette I, the first Canadian satellite launched into space in 1962. Jelly recognized early on in her career that if she wanted to work in space, she could not marry, and so she chose to have two live-in partners at different times in her life. During the post-World War II period in which Jelly worked, the practice of taking a non-marital partner was not as common as it is today. These power dynamics showcase Jelly’s courageous choices in light of such discriminatory practices. Notably, while many Western ciswomen were under tremendous pressure to conform to a meta-rule of choosing marriage over career/work, others had to live in ‘hidden’ fashion, like Jelly did. Cismen, on the other hand, did not have to make such choices.

Feminist historiographers also call for the development of more inclusive archival policies and practices, so that institutional and ‘official’ records can evolve. Ultimately, these more inclusive sources and methods will help to undo the ‘hidden’ existence of ciswomen and gender-diverse individuals. Feminist historiographies are, in essence, acts of resistance against the proliferation of White, masculine-centric narratives and stories that seem to dominate our understandings of the past and that, as a result, reinforce the marginalization of ciswomen and gender-diverse individuals in the present. By untangling the ‘grand narratives’ of history, and by looking for more complex and fragmented meanings and lived experiences, we can arrive at a more nuanced and varied understanding of our histories and cultures.


Discussion Questions

  • Based on your reading of this vignette, how would you explain feminist historiography to someone who has never heard of it?
  • Why do you think this approach is important?
  • Think of a cis-woman or a gender-diverse individual in the past, say someone who was born prior to the 1950s. (It can be a family member or a distant friend of a friend, but the idea is that it is not someone famous, like Indira Gandhi.) List some ways you think you could find out more about them. How would you share what you found out about them with others?


Within the particular growing area of contemporary war histories, considered to be post-1800, Brookfield and Glassford (2019) focus their efforts on Canadian ciswomen’s experiences, in and outside of the home. There are also other ciswomen’s and gender-diverse individuals’ stories post-1945 that are bubbling to the surface. These include welcoming soldiers home and the necessity for a conspiracy of silence (Bruce 1985; Korinek 2004), immigration and care for children (Brookfield 2012; Freund 2009; Sangster 2007), and ciswomen earning a university education and going to work outside of the home, along with the growth of the middle-class (Guard 2004; Iacovetta 2000; Ruel et al. 2020; Strong-Boag 1994).

illustration of a person wearing a hat and surrounded by icons of science, power, labour, and power
Figure 1.

In Figure 1, ciswomen and gender-diverse individuals are depicted as a non-binary person, tinted in the black and white of the past. As shown in the illustration, they are attempting to break through the current barriers of ‘official’ archives, here depicted in color. The care and responsibility required to undertake such acts of breaking through ‘official’ archives, in contexts of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), needs courageous people to work together at revealing these ciswomen’s and gender-diverse people’s contributions.

Create your own feminist historiography, keeping in mind your answer to the third discussion question.

  • Do a preliminary search on the internet to find some basic, high-level information about your person of interest.
  • Go to, call, or email your local library, whichever is most convenient. Talk to the librarian about the different ways you can find out more about this individual and their past. Ask the librarian for contact information for a variety of archival sites, such as community-based archives or university-based archives, or in the case of oral histories, contact information for Indigenous elders or band councils that may be of assistance to your search.
  • Communicate with these archival sites or individuals/organizations to see how they might assist you in finding out more about this person of interest.
  • Document what you learned about this person of interest, in such a way that you can recall and use this information.
  • How could you share what you found out about this individual? Think of different options, like making a drawing or collage, or by telling a story. Then share this depiction with someone else and ask them for feedback. (e.g., Was the story coherent, did they want to learn more about this person, is there something missing that would help them understand this person better, etc.?)
  • What are some of the challenges you encountered in doing this exercises? Document the challenges, and then consider and note down what you could do to overcome them.

Additional Resources

The following movies may be of interest: Hidden Figures (2016), Agora (2009), and Paris is Burning (1990). Ask yourself why these particular films or documentaries were included here—are they legitimate histories? Or, are they plausible histories, with fragments of stories melded together? Are they valid examples of where we can go to collect information about someone, beyond ‘official’ archives?


Brookfield, T. (2012). Cold war comforts: Canadian women, child safety, and global insecurity. Wilfred Laurier Press.

Brookfield, T., & Glassford, S. (2019). Chapter 7: Home fronts and front lines: A gendered history of war and peace. In N. Janovicek & C. Nielson (Eds.), Reading Canadian women’s and gender history (pp. 151–170). University of Toronto Press.

Bruce, J. (1985). Back the attack! Canadian women during the second World War—At home and abroad. Macmillan of Canada.

Calás, M. B., & Smircich, L. (2006). Chapter 1.8: From the “Women’s Point of View” ten years later: Towards a feminist organization studies. In S. R. Glegg, C. Hardy, T. Lawrence, & W. R. Nord (Eds.), The Sage Handbook of Organization Studies (2nd ed., pp. 284–346). Sage.

Freund, A. (2009). Contesting the meanings of migration: German women’s immigration to Canada in the 1950s. Canadian Ethnic Studies, 41.42(3–1), 1–26.

Guard, J. (2004). Authenticity on the line: Women workers, native “scabs” and the multi-ethnic politics of identity in a left-led strike in Cold War Canada. Journal of Women’s History, 15(4), 117–140. https://doi.org/10.1353/jowh.2004.0010

Iacovetta, F. (2000). Recipes for democracy? Gender, family and the making of female citizens in Cold War Canada. Canadian Woman’s Studies, 20(2).

Janovicek, N., & Nielson, C. (2019). Chapter 1: Introduction: Feminist conversations. In N. Janovicek & C. Nielson (Eds.), Reading Canadian women’s and gender history (pp. 3–22). University of Toronto Press.

Korinek, V. J. (2004). “Its a tough time to be in love”: The darker side of Chatelaine during the Cold War. In R. Cavell (Ed.), Love, hate, and fear in Canada’s Cold War (pp. 159–182). University of Toronto Press.

Magarey, S. (2007). What’s happening to women’s history in Australia at the beginning of the third millennium? Women’s History Review, 16(1), 1–18.

Monture, P. A. (1986). Ka-Nin-Geh-Heh-Gah-E-Sa-Nonh-Yah-Gah. Canadian Journal of Women & the Law, 2(1), 159–170.

Monture, P. A. (1995). Thunder in my soul: A Mohawk woman speaks. Fernwood Publishing.

Ruel, S., Dyer, L., & Mills, A. J. (2020). Chapter 7: The Canadian Alouette women: Reclaiming their space. In M. Maclean, S. R. Clegg, R. Suddaby, & C. Harvey (Eds.), Historical Organization Studies: Theory, Methods and applications (pp. 107–130). Routledge.

Ruel, S., Mills, A. J., & Helms Mills, J. (2019). Gendering multi-voiced histories of the North American space industry: The GMRD white women. Journal of Management History, 25(3), 464–492.

Sangster, J. (2007). The Polish “Dionnes”: Gender, ethnicity, and immigrant workers in post-Second World War Canada. Canadian Historical Review, 88(3), 469–500.

Shetterly, M. L. (2016). Hidden figures: The American dream and the untold story of the Black women mathematicians who helped win the space race (Reprint edition). William Morrow.

Strong-Boag, V. (1994). Canada’s wage earning wives and the construction of the middle-class, 1945-60. Journal of Canadian Studies, 9(3), 5–25.

Suddaby, R., Foster, W. M., & Quinn Trank, C. (2010). Rhetorical history as a source of competitive advantage. The Globalization of Strategy Research, 27, 147–173. https://doi.org/10.1108/S0742-3322(2010)0000027009

Wallach Scott, J. (1983). Gender and the politics of history (Revised). Columbia University Press.


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