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Gender and history have combined in the last three decades to produce new understandings of how events, social structures, and fundamental elements of culture operate in Western Europe. Historical analysis has come to recognize gender as relational systems of power in which both men and women operate and to which both contribute as agents and members of larger cultural constructs. The principle developments in gender and history emerged as social history concerns focused on women gave way to poststructuralist and postmodern critiques of historical practice. The linguistic or cultural turn has shaped the premises and practices of gender and history so as to reveal how gender saturates categories of culture once presumptively believed to be scientiﬁcally neutral.
Rooted initially in the women’s movements in America and Western Europe as they emerged out of the new social movements of the 1960s, gender history began as women’s history. Most early explorations of women’s historical experience operated within a social history paradigm, seeking out neglected materials to recuperate lives long deemed irrelevant to traditional modes of historical research. While some advocated pursuing women’s history in isolation as a political choice highlighting the patriarchal qualities of apparently objective history, others argued for recuperating the causes and frameworks of female erasure in the context of larger historical narratives (see Bock 1989 for a consideration of both positions). The notion that women were best analyzed in the wider cultural context came to predominate, in part because of epistemological concerns within history as a discipline.
1. Fundaments Of Gendered Discourse
As social relations are carried out in language and culture, gender and history have been informed by post-structuralist understandings of language and postmodern analyses of culture. While these overlap signiﬁcantly, particularly in seeing culture as symbolic and expressed in language, the emphases are distinct. Theorists and historians who have studied language argue that attention must be paid to the historical speciﬁcity of linguistic constructions and to the general gender inﬂections language encodes. The questioning of a tacit acceptance that language is ‘neutral’ revealed how all communication is endowed with the power of social custom and historical practice. The ‘cultural turn’ similarly challenges the neutrality of older explanatory models, positing that all inquiry must admit that culture constructs meaning. Culture is the primary object of inquiry in this formulation, rather than language.
1.1 Taking The ‘Cultural Turn’
The ‘new cultural history’ emerged from dissatisfaction with the limitations of social history and engagement with post-structuralist critiques. Historical analysis revealed huge variations in social categories over time and place. Instead of a coherent understanding of the social in the past, the picture just became more and more complex. Post-structuralists like Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault challenged the tenets of scientiﬁc truth and objective reality posited by structuralism. Historians accordingly turned to culture as an explanatory device. While ‘culture’ is a slippery term, new cultural history included concerns about the methodologies of historical practice, an epistemological skepticism with respect to narrative truth claims, and an interest in culture as a symbolic or semiotic system (Bonnell and Hunt 1999). The cultural turn opened up new ways to examine problems and issues related to gender as an artifact of culture and a determinant of symbolic conﬁgurations.
1.2 Gender, Language, And Historical Analysis
Post-structuralist analysis contributed to an awareness of language as constructed by context, while poststructuralist feminism articulated how gender diﬀerence is formulated in language rather than in the referent, and materiality is produced by linguistic formations. Seemingly ‘natural’ things (like bodies) are actually complex constructions. Gender is created by interactions of individuals, institutions, and social norms. The repetitive quality of perceived sexual diﬀerence is produced by discreet, contingent experiences. These experiences are inscribed in language and shape notions of sexual diﬀerence. For instance, the term ‘biology,’ in describing sexual diﬀerence, is taken to be neutral, scientiﬁc fact. But ‘biology’ has a history which belies its apparent neutrality. It was an early nineteenth-century term to describe sexual diﬀerences in early ‘nature vs. nurture’ debates concerning human development. ‘Biology’ in some circles was utilized to normalize gender bias: women’s diﬀerences were in need of explanation. The persistent association of men with culture and women with biology points to the power embedded in language (Bock 1989).
Analysis of the discursive constructs of gender in historical terms has been formulated in the context of postmodern theories of language and subject formation. Luce Irigaray (1985) has attempted to rewrite sexual diﬀerence without the binary of masculine– feminine, arguing for a ‘labial politics’ which privileges female embodiment as a way of revaluing the binary and hierarchical notions of gender. Moi (1985) has expressed concern that Irigaray’s position is essentialist and ahistorical, but Irigaray’s poetic rendering of the problem has inspired interrogations of the relational positioning of masculine and feminine values in history.
Anglo-American theorists have generally been more materialist, but eﬀorts have been made to utilize French linguistic deconstruction in historical analysis. Joan Scott (1988) argues that gender as formulated in language can be analyzed by drawing on deconstruction to dismantle hierarchical binaries of language in historical settings. Social relationships based on notions of sexual diﬀerence include within them power dynamics, the experience of which can be traced over time. Expressions of gender and power occur in cultural symbols, in the conceptualization of institutions, in kinship systems, and in subjective identity. Gender becomes a way to understand how society has been organized around the power diﬀerentials embedded in notions of diﬀerence.
The focus on discursive formations to some has risked the eﬀacement of agency and the dispersal of explanatory models of historical change. Prompted by such fears, many historians have self-consciously paid attention to issues of agency. Concerns remain that the role of gender in producing larger historical change is not apparent, and eﬀorts continue to articulate causal relationships between expressions of gender in culture or language and events or persons.
2. Gender And Identity Formation
That gender historically has been a component of identity seems diﬃcult to dispute. In the twentieth century, identity has been located largely in psychosexual development, while other components of identity (work, family, religious aﬃliation) are seen as cultural overlays. Whether through diﬀerentiating the subject through knowledge of genital diﬀerence (Sigmund Freud) or through language in the mirror stage (Jacques Lacan), gender diﬀerence is considered foundational to notions of identity.
2.1 Histories Of Sexualities
In the psychosexual models of identity, biological sex and gender constitute identity even though historians have noted that sexuality has not always been regarded as foundational. Much historical work has been devoted to understanding the meanings attached to sexuality and sexual behaviors in the past as key areas in which gender operates. The resulting explorations have at once brought into question the psychosexual account of the meaning of sexuality and introduced new paradigms in which sexuality is seen as experienced in relation to society and power.
The history of sexuality reﬂects the problem of how to treat the sex/gender system historically. The separation of sex from gender allows for a more precise rendering of the eﬀects of embedded assumptions. ‘Sex’ as anatomical diﬀerence between male and female bodies is theoretically distinct from ‘gender’ as the social processes of becoming male or female. The history of sexuality has focused on gender in this sense because mapping sex and gender separately has proved ontologically unsatisfying. Unlike other domains in which gender was ﬁrst recuperative and then theorized, the history of sexuality was framed initially in discursive terms and then the particulars of past sexual experience were recovered.
Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality (1978) situated the history of sexuality in an analytics of power. Outlining a model of power as operating in elliptical, subversive, and counter-intuitive ways, Foucault moved away from narrative forms which did little to suggest how or why attitudes toward sexuality changed over time. Examining the cultural and social forces which constrained and policed expressions of sexuality, Foucault found that a proliferation of discourse brought the body and its functions under the pervasive view of larger structures of authority, namely the church and the state. Foucault challenged the standard paradigm that Victorian prudery replaced a more frank and free sexual climate which lasted until the seventeenth century. Instead, Early Modern Europeans lived amidst a whole host of structures which directed sexuality, while the Victorians talked about sex and talked about not talking about it all the time. They moved sex into the home behind closed doors and shrouded it in secrecy, but Victorians who tried to shield children from sexual knowledge and restrict sexuality to heterosexual monogamous relationships had the eﬀect of proliferating discourse about sex. The proliferation of discourses brought the body and its functions—ironically, given the purported interest in making sex more private— under the more pervasive view of larger structures of power and authority, namely the church and the state. Foucault’s understanding of sexuality as having a history and that this history was integrally intertwined with institutionalized power structures opened up historical analysis to the implications of sexuality with respect to both gender and sex.
The absence of actual agents and questions about the particulars of Foucault’s revised narrative encouraged explorations of the relationship between gender and sex. Much work has been devoted to recuperating the human and historical speciﬁcity of the discursive environment Foucault described by locating behavior previously ignored or undetected. Explorations of sexual rituals such as courtship and marriage have revealed how social constructions of sexuality operated in the past (Evans 1993). Topical issues include deviance, the implications of sexually transmitted disease, and sexual coercion and violence. Historical speciﬁcity has made it clear that the emphasis on modern notions of identity as a product of sexuality are quite recent. The recuperation of a multiplicity of sexualities which are not linked necessarily to underlying identity formations has provided ammunition for opponents of tradition-based sexual policies. The claims of universal ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ lose their explanatory power in the face of historical variation.
2.2 Gendered Embodiment
The history of sexuality has been linked to new conceptualizations of the body. Western thought for much of modernity has downplayed the importance of the materiality of corporeal existence. The thinking subject was typically represented as pure intellect, as if the mind operated without a body. Gender and history have called into question the disembodied thinking subject and the corporeal body as a stable, material object.
Since Descartes’ distinction between intelligence and thought (res cogitans) and corporeal existence (res extensa), the mind–body split he posited allowed for a notion of the body as a machine which obeyed laws of ‘nature.’ That ‘nature’ resolutely deﬁned certain types of bodies (white, male) as normative while all others were lesser, inferior, or uninteresting remained largely unquestioned. Historians demonstrated that scientiﬁc disciplines including medicine, anatomy, and anthropology produced a hierarchized model of sexual and racial diﬀerence based on the normative white male body. The menstruating, lactating, reproducing female body was the epitome of diﬀerence and inferiority. Historically, pressure to police, control, and contain the persistent physicality of the female body was chronic.
Coming out of feminist concerns about social diﬀerence as inscribed on female bodies, the historians of the body have moved on to question the assumption that the body is always and everywhere constitutive of the self in the same ways. Feminist scholarship in the 1970s frequently engaged with the question of ‘essentialism’ as opposed to social construction. The central debate was whether men and women had ‘essential’ biological diﬀerences or were diﬀerent because of socially constructed ideas and norms (Riley 1988). The body was a particularly ﬁerce battleground, since so much of female oppression seemed tied to bodily functions. While some argued that female corporeality deﬁned in terms of reproduction caused women’s oppression, others were less pessimistic. Cultural feminists and activists in the women’s health movement embraced the female body as the source of speciﬁcally feminine ethical sensibilities. The distinctive qualities claimed for the female body signaled the limitations of the debate as few initially questioned the epistemological grounding of biological diﬀerence.
Because of the existence of biological diﬀerence between male and female bodies, essentialism was hard to put to rest. How could one theorize the body at all without reference to essential diﬀerences? One direction was to explore understandings of the body over time. Historians of the body found that the meanings attached to the seemingly stable facticity of the body were not really stable at all. Even the idea that there are two sexes was relatively new. From ancient Greece until the late seventeenth century, the dominant model was that there was only one sex— male—and that women were simply the inversion of it (Laqueur 1990). While some have questioned whether the single sex model was entirely dominant, much scientiﬁc thought organized its understanding of the body and its functions on the one sex model. The cultural addenda to the one sex model were astonishing in their range and importance, particularly for notions of sexuality. For instance, cultural wisdom held that women needed penetrative sex to keep all their organs in the proper place and in working order.
Another mode of inquiry began to question the very existence of corporeal embodiment. The materiality of the body can be seen as a function of text and physicality. This is not to say that bodies do not exist. Rather, the body is always mediated by context, the social constructions, and the notions of diﬀerence (of age, race, gender, mobility, and so forth) in which it exists. If embodiment is no more or less real than the contexts which create it, the question remains whether the conditions of constraint in which female bodies seem to operate can be dismantled (Grosz 1994).
2.3 Instability And Masculinity
In many domains of knowledge, male bodies remain the unspoken norm, but eﬀorts to historicize not just the male body but the ideas which are attached to it as appropriately ‘masculine’ have suggested how diﬃcult the normative position is to maintain in practice. Gender male is a product of men either succeeding or failing to embody appropriate behaviors. Since many of these behaviors are negatively deﬁned as being ‘not feminine,’ masculinity is often diﬃcult to assert and maintain eﬀectively, and masculinity as a result is often highly compensatory. A brief examination of how concerns over masculinity have shaped larger ideological and historical conﬁgurations suggests how compensatory strategies of masculinity have had signiﬁcant eﬀects on Western European society.
The study of masculinity was initially resisted by some feminist scholars who came out of women’s studies. Many feared that masculinity was just another way of studying men—that historians who emphasized masculinity were in a sense highjacking one of the central purposes of women’s studies, which was to restore women to the history written largely by men and privileging, usually uncritically, the male subject. But, as Natalie Zemon Davis (1976) noted, consideration of women in isolation from men was rather like imagining a class society consisting only of peasants. Ignoring men is no better intellectually or logically than ignoring women. The two operate in conjunction with each other to create historically speciﬁc deﬁnitional frames for both masculinity and femininity. Studying one alone necessarily distorts the picture.
It turns out that masculinity is often marked by the deliberate absence of women, suggesting that gender still constructs masculinity even without gender female physically present. John Tosh (1994) has argued that masculinity is always, in Western society at least, a matter of public demonstration at home, at work, and in all-male associations. The three elements are mutually dependent and reinforcing, but also highly unstable. Being able to establish and provide for his family was a crucial marker of male adulthood. The male head of household was expected to maintain order and discipline in his family, and the failure to do so marked his masculine status as fundamentally suspect (Davidoﬀ and Hall 1987). As the model of marriage became less authoritarian and the idea of separate spheres gained acceptance, masculinity at home was often asserted by husbands with even greater vigor. Although the notion of separate spheres has been challenged, the persistence of gender diﬀerentiation was perceived as an important element in masculine self-deﬁnition.
As Tosh (1994) has pointed out, work was even more complex to negotiate than family. Work for nineteenth-century British middle-class men had to support the family, but it also had to be digniﬁed and the man’s commitment to it complete. If work was supposed to be a vocation for middle-class men, for working-class men, the mechanization of work represented a serious threat to his sense of self. Without work deﬁned as ‘meaningful’ to conﬁrm their masculinity, male workers often insisted on more sharply distinctive notions of appropriate male and female behavior. When women were workers, they were emphatically assigned to diﬀerent tasks that were deﬁned as inferior in terms of the skill levels required. Masculinity in the workplace thus depended on the inferiority of women, expressed either as female incapacity or as lesser status (Rose 1988).
Tosh’s third element, male associations, includes a range of institutions, from boy scouts to colleges to men’s dining clubs. The homosociality of these and myriad other all-male settings provided practical supports for masculine privilege in terms of contacts and access to other men of power in the case of many adult organizations. More signiﬁcantly, collective homosociality produced the notion that masculinity was located solely in the company of men. The persistence of women’s discomfort in the face of such expressions of masculinity remained and is still a powerful element shaping gender conﬁgurations.
Because masculinity is deﬁned against femininity, the relationality of the terms makes them unstable. Historians, for instance, have found that masculinity was at times associated with homosexuality as an appropriate masculine behavior. In Renaissance Florence, homosexual behavior was widespread despite being heavily penalized. The conﬁguration of the older man as the active penetrator and the younger man as the passive penetrated partner were conceptualized to support notions of gender hierarchy which posited men as active and women as passive. Denunciations of men for assuming the incorrect role were frequently accompanied by language which subsumed the transgressor into negative female roles (Rocke 1996). Homosexual behavior could support masculinity if it conformed to gender norms, but was increasingly ﬁgured as a threat to appropriate masculine behavior in the nineteenth century. The emergence of the New Woman and the increasingly visible homosexual subculture which deliberately played with the signiﬁers of masculinity made for the assertion of masculinity as patriarchal and resolutely heterosexual (Showalter 1990).
Masculinity, gender historians have revealed, is dependent on a range of variables which are them-selves culturally constructed. Because masculinity is not always easy to inhabit and because the stakes for men in losing the privileges which generally accompany masculinity are very high, it is as much a source of anxiety as of power. The recent visibility of mass movements that emphasize masculinity and support it with emotional language and highly orchestrated collective bonding experiences suggests that the anxiety is still very much present.
2.4 Gender Roles As Performance
Recent eﬀorts to explore the history of identity formation have incorporated post-structuralist theories to tease out how the self was deﬁned in gendered terms and how the gendered self related to others and to entities such as the state. Continental post-structuralist feminism has largely followed Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalytic theory, developing the analysis of discourse in a mode which remains highly attenuated from material concerns. Lacanian psychoanalysis feminists, led by Julia Kristeva (1980), have re-interpreted the mirror stage of development to emphasize the abjection of the female subject. If the unspoken male subject in Lacan’s formulation comes to his identity through engagement with the mirror image of the self, for the female subject, this experience is violent and alienating.
Judith Butler’s articulation of gender as performance captures a number of elements of post-structuralist theory which have then been utilized to examine identity formation in the past. Butler (1990) argues that gender is best understood as a performance in which the subject is constituted in relation to the regulatory practices of society. The norms of these practices are themselves culturally constructed around heterosexuality deﬁned by masculine and feminine binaries. Gender is actually wholly performative around those binaries such that it exists only in constituting a particular identity. While some historians expressed concern with the postmodern tendency to deconstruct without oﬀering positive constructions, notions of identity as performative have helped recuperate historically speciﬁc moments of identity formation. Understanding gender as a signifying practice helps reveal how it is integral to other expressions of identity in speciﬁc historical settings.
3. Politics Of Several Varieties
Going back to the ancient Greeks in the Western European tradition, politics has been a highly gendered pursuit. Politics was one of the main arenas in which men achieved honor and glory in the ancient world, and despite the overlay of Christian asceticism, politics has remained that, despite the attempt to present political participation as a gender neutral act on behalf of the public good. Throughout much of history, men of appropriate class standing deﬁned themselves in terms of their eligibility for public political life. Even though politics is no longer formally restricted to male participants in Western Europe, old exclusivities die hard.
3.1 High Politics And Political Theory
The replacement of monarchical systems of governance with more or less democratic ones in Western Europe was long assumed to be a gender neutral change for the better. The rights-bearing political subject was, however, always male until the twentieth century, a fact noted but generally unquestioned by historians. Recent analysis has revealed that gender diﬀerence has been foundational to conceptions of politics throughout the Western tradition (Pateman 1988). Ancient theorists, particularly Aristotle, described political participation as reliant on the qualities of mind and body of men. Female inferiority was based on mental and physical weakness which required the restriction of women as much as possible to the home. That this restriction was in place largely to protect paternity and inheritance dropped out of the theoretical descriptions of society. Both Aristotle’s teleological analysis of politics and the persistence of anxiety about paternity and female sexuality enabled the political arrangements to remain almost entirely male in expression.
The gendered logic beneath the political was obscured by the elaboration of misogynous overlays concerning women, beginning especially in the late Middle Ages with the emergence of the querelle des femmes. Except in France, where women were explicitly barred from monarchical inheritance, the occasional female monarchs only underscored the rule that men did politics and women did not. This was true in the Italian and Dutch republics as much as in monarchical states, and remained generally unquestioned until the French Revolution.
The positing of universal citizenship based on inherent rights presented a philosophical and practical challenge to all-male political arrangements. Even when other notions of hierarchy and diﬀerence were falling, however, gender remained. Joan Landes (1988) has argued that political participation as articulated in the French Revolution was foundationally masculinist rather than contingently or accidentally so. Not simply a matter of women being overlooked, revolutionaries made an active eﬀort to diﬀerentiate the ability to be public and political based on sexual diﬀerence. The assumption remained that sexual diﬀerence rendered women incapable of proper political activity. The increased language about domesticity and women being properly ‘private’ in the nineteenth century was a result of the reassertion of politics as properly gendered male. Ironically, the ancient justiﬁcation for female exclusion from public aﬀairs—concerns about her chastity and female sexual voraciousness—was completely overwhelmed by the assumption of female sexual passivity. White middle-class women were increasingly seen as asexual, although this was constructed against assumptions that women of other races and classes were sexually voracious and threatening (Hammonds 1999).
As this recounting of gender and politics has suggested, participation in high politics has long been organized and informed by notions of exclusion which are consistently centered on women as problematic. The persistence of the gendering of politics in the twentieth century can be seen in the long ﬁght that was necessary to secure female suﬀrage in most Western European states and in the paucity of women elected to high oﬃce and in positions of leadership in political parties. The awareness that this persistence is not ‘natural’ but constructed has prompted some elected oﬃcials and feminists to challenge the overwhelmingly male character of high politics, but the association of women with domesticity remains strong.
4. The Politics Of The Personal
The gendering of high politics, of course, is dependent on the gendering of domains regarded as outside of politics. The personal or the private are just as much elements of the political as matters of electoral politics and state policy. This was an important lesson of the women’s movement, but the implications of it remain controversial in many areas. The fractures in social policy often go in many directions, as a number of areas related to sexuality and sexual expression suggest. The relationship of work to family is just one of the most prominent places in which public politics have become highly contested over what used to be considered private issues.
4.1 Social Policies For Work And Family
Work and family have long been seen as quintessentially opposites: work is public while family is private. But work and family are no longer seen as naturally occurring or organized in light of the historical analysis of gender. The language of ‘natural’ gender roles remains strong with respect to work and family, but the linking of the terms as historically inseparable has been combined with the imbrication of family and work issues in the welfare state. Even in the domain of social policy, understandings of gender as historically speciﬁc and constituted in cultural terms can inform policy development.
Gender history has focused on the cultural determination of work and family in Western Europe. Examinations of tax records and census documents reveal that the gendering of work does not follow the expectation that men will do heavy work while women do the less physically demanding jobs. In fact, work has long been assigned to men and women along culturally determined lines which were a function of the household as the unit of production for much of Western European history. Eﬀorts to understand the historical relationship between work and family led to the emergence of two important paradigms. First, historians of women posited that women enjoyed a relatively positive working experience—with greater opportunity and higher wages—before industrial capitalism. Some even referred to early modern women’s work as a ‘golden age’ in Western Europe. Second, historians argued whether continuity in the face of patriarchy or change in conjunction with larger historical trends best deﬁned the history of women’s work (Sharpe 1995). The controversy has produced eﬀorts to historicize the workings of patriarchy so that the components of continuity are understood for their ﬂexibility. This has enhanced present-day understandings of the persistence of gendered workplaces, occupational structures, and wage scales. At the same time, concerns about seeing the history of women’s work as always the same produced a critique that emphasizes the interactive nature of gender in the workplace. Men’s and women’s roles shift in relation to each other and to larger economic changes such as the rise of industrial capitalism.
The gendering of occupations outside the home seems to follow shifts in competition between men and women for jobs. The chronology and geography of these shifts remains under exploration, as does the direction of change. Do changes in the family enable changes in workplace gender conﬁgurations or does the gendering of work force changes in the family (Berg 1993)? The question remains an open one, but is relevant to Western European controversies over the welfare state and gender patterns in employment. The present trends toward the separation of sex from marriage, increased divorce rates compared to earlier historical periods, child-rearing increasingly handled outside the family, and adjustments in the gendering of labor, signal signiﬁcant transformation in work and family organization. The male breadwinner model persists, but along with it is increased pressure on men to participate in the emotional life of the family. If men are to be more involved in the family, the recognition of women’s unemployment suggests that women are no longer automatically considered to be wives and mothers with paid employment as a secondary identity.
The points of articulation between policy and cultural expressions are the subject of recent analysis. Diane Sainsbury (1999) has argued that diﬀerent and competing models of the welfare state are actually both the result of gender and familial ideologies. The deﬁciencies in much welfare state analysis are a result of the failure to recognize gender as a crucial organizing framework in policy. Language and culture once again are the loci in which gender and history provide the bases for analysis.
5. Implications And Conclusions
Because gender is operative in all times and places in which human beings interact, gender and history provide the means and methodologies to understand the developing global community. Postmodern analytical techniques when applied to problems of gender in history in Western Europe have produced understandings of identity, politics, and sexuality in terms of their interrelations. Historical practices have just begun to articulate how speciﬁc experiences in diﬀerent times and places relate to each other. Given that human communities are always male and female, and thus always marked by negotiations over expressions of masculinity and femininity, over the meanings of the body, and over the valuation of work and family, gender and history encompass issues global in scale in which to situate local understandings and problems.
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