French philosophical culture is saturated with the idea of le néant, not-being or nullity, conceived not as mere absence or failure to exist but as a positive force of nothingness on which other things can be predicated. We can see it in Sartre’s famous remark that, if Pierre is not present, ‘the absence of Pierre haunts the café’. Extending this idea, Jacques Lacan famously defined the phallus not as a transmogrified penis but as the classic symbol of absence or lack. French influence on US academe seems to have been profound. There have been studies purporting to show that the really important thing about Moby-Dick is the women who do not appear, or that the key figure in Huckleberry Firm is the absent father. In literary studies, particularly in the era of ‘critical theory’, one can just about get away with this kind of nonsense. It is much harder in history, where one is tied to a world of stubborn and irreducible facts. But this does not stop feminists trying to prove that the truly significant thing about, say, the Battle of the Little Big Horn is the women who were nowhere near the battlefield.
Susan Lee Johnson is a professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, a committed feminist and lesbian, and her book is a kind of reductio ad absurdum of this kind of thing. ‘I will continue to talk’, she announces, ‘about the ways in which all-male events have been about gender,