Amateurs by Choice

Amateurs by Choice: Women and the Pursuit of Independent Scholarship in Twentieth-Century Historical Writing

Gianna Pomata

The notable presence of independent scholars among women historians of the first half of the twentieth century is a phenomenon to be found in Anglophone, French, German, and Italian historiography alike. In the European tradition, historical scholarship had entertained a strong rapport with scientific practices since the early modern age. The professionalization of history and its transformation into an academic subject during the nineteenth century had transformed the field into a humanities "science." Historical research, however, maintained an artisanal quality. What was essential for the practice of history was first and for all access to libraries and archives. The public character of these sites allowed scholars without academic credentials access to the most fundamental resource for the production of historical knowledge. As restrictions on women’s use of the libraries eased, women who became academic historians during the early decades of the twentieth century profited from this public resource, even though most of them were working outside or at the margins of academia. Independent female scholarship, however mostly externally imposed, could also be a deliberate choice. Access to learned spaces like the library and the archive made this choice possible, as well as family and kinship ties with the intellectual elite that provided financial support and role models. Another factor was the resilience of the older amateur tradition, which offered a strong counterbalance to women’s (and men’s) marginality in academia. It served as a source of positive values and as inspiration for innovative work that in various cases had a lasting impact on the field at large.