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Gender history emerged from women’s history and represented a rejection of biological notions of sexual difference in favor of analysis of the cultural and social relations of the sexes. Its rise in Anglo-Saxon scholarship coincided with and was a vital part of the ‘linguistic turn’ during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Gender history has since widened its scope to encompass the study of men and masculinity. Gender history is also closely related to history of the body, while the history of sexuality/ homosexuality is by now a distinct field of scholarly inquiry that is related to the history of gender but not dependent upon it.
- The Analytic Origins of Gender History
- Rewriting History after the Turn to Gender
- Entwined Terms: Genders/Bodies/Sexualities
- Outlook for the Future
Gender history examines the social and cultural, as opposed to natural or biological, relations of the sexes. The English term ‘gender’ is usually distinct from sex, which is understood as rooted in biological or bodily differences. The term gender does not exist in some languages, while in others its meaning diverges significantly from the English usage. The German term Geschlecht, for example, encompasses both ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ and thus blurs the core distinctions of the English term. In French the term ‘sex’ or sexuel is more commonly used than genre, which can refer to either grammatical or literary genre or serve as a classifying category in natural history (Riot-Sarcey, 1999). The historical category ‘gender’ emerged from feminist study of women’s history during the mid 1980s. When the word ‘gender’ first gained currency among historians of women in the early 1980s, it was defined as signifying the social relations between the sexes. As the range and scope of scholarly research on gender expanded across the social, scientific, and humanistic disciplines, gender was increasingly understood as a symbolic system or signifier of relations of power in which men and women are positioned differently. By the end of the 1980s, the concept of gender came to encompass the languages, symbols, and social practices that defined sexual differences and sexual inequalities, signaling a more definitive departure of feminist social scientists from foundationalist notions of biological sex (Haraway, 1991).
The Analytic Origins of Gender History
By the turn to the 1990s, gender history – both in terms of its object of analysis and methodological approach – had distinguished itself from women’s history, as well, although most practicioners continued to recognize women’s history as a formative foundation for the study of gender in history. From the early 1960s on, feminist historians had set out to recover women’s participation in and exclusion from processes of social transformations and political change. Empirical investigation of the private (familial, sexual) and public (political) inequality of women in past societies drove the first decade of women’s history. The fact that women’s history took shape during its formative years in interdisciplinary arenas, such as Women’s Studies programs, explains why women’s history became one of the most theoretically engaged fields of historical study during its early years, as feminists debated and critiqued the keywords of social analysis.
In this first phase of women’s history, sex and class often figured as parallel forms of oppression: the female sex was viewed as a subordinate class, subjugated by a dominant class of men. In feminist scholarship the notion of patriarchy signaled a shifting understanding of sexual exploitation as the primary form of women’s oppression (see, e.g., Rubin, 1975; Eisenstein, 1978). Taking patriarchy as a hierarchical sexual order, women’s historians located its origins in ‘the private family’ and sought to examine the reproduction of patriarchy in social modes of production, divisions of labor, and property relations (Kelly, 1976). Analysis of the origins and practices of patriarchal structures and ideologies, along with the recovery of lost stories of female actors and women’s agency, significantly expanded the scope of historical knowledge about women, family, and labor, while elevating ‘sex’ to a keyword of social analysis.
Yet in furnishing new insights into the place of women in past societies, the pioneering work in women’s history soon revealed its own limitations. Unitary analytical categories, such as ‘woman’/‘women’ and ‘man’/‘men,’ based on fixed, rather than historically or socially variable, notions of biological sex, fostered narratives of women’s experience or oppression that ignored differences of race, class, ethnicity, and sexual preference. Moreover, a fuller understanding of ‘the significance of the sexes’ in the historical past would require the study not only of ‘the subjugated sex,’ but of both women and men (Davis, 1976). At the end of the 1970s, feminist historian Joan Gadol called for a ‘doubled vision’ of society, one that emphasized the ways in which the identities of both men and women were shaped by sex and class (Kelly, 1979). In emphasizing the inextricable links between sex and class, women’s history also indisputably widened the scope of the political to include family and household, bodies and sexualities – all once considered as belonging to the sphere of the ‘private.’ By the end of the 1970s ‘sex’ had emerged as a crucial category of feminist social analysis, one that was parsed in relation to race and class in scholarly debates.
Joan Kelly’s formulation of this doubled vision of society marks a critical opening for the concept of gender, as feminist scholarship turned its attention to the ways in which ideologies, norms, and symbolic systems shaped sexual identities, relations, and sites of governance. The editors of the pioneering collection, Sex and Class in Women’s History (Newton et al., 1983), for example, used the term ‘gender’ in order to understand the systematic ways in which ‘sex differences’ cut through society and culture and conferred inequality upon women. Karin Hausen’s path-breaking essay on the origins of ‘sexual character,’ situated the polarization of sexual stereotypes in Enlightenment philosophy, suggesting a temporal framework for the origins of modern gender distinctions (Hausen, 1981; Gleixner and Gray, 2006). Feminist historians delivered powerful critiques of the public/private dichotomy associated with the polarization of the sexes, widening the scope of the political to include family and household, bodies, and sexualities.
Even as gender began to forge its own analytical ground in the mid 1980s, it remained entangled for another decade or more in the analytics of women and sex. While feminist philosophers and theorists grappled with the sex/gender distinction (Nicholson, 1994), the terms ‘women’ and ‘gender’ remained loosely interchangeable in feminist history well into the 1990s and are still sometimes also described with the conjoined phrase ‘history of women and gender’ (Smith, 2000; Canning, 2006; Rose, 2010; Downs, 2010). The work of analytically distinguishing gender from women and from notions of biological sex was also propelled by transformations outside of academia. Through the broader public debates about ‘identity politics’ in the United States and Britain, once-cohesive ethnic, racial, national, or sexual identities were increasingly understood as multiple, mutable, and contradictory. Emphasizing the inextricability of gender and racial identities, feminist scholars of race issued powerful critiques of the unitary category of women and notions of patriarchal oppression (Higginbotham, 1992). Like gender, race also came to be viewed as a social construct rather than a genotypic or phenotypic form of difference.
Although the shift from women to gender was already well underway by the mid 1980s, the publication of Joan Scott’s essay, Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis (Scott, 1986), marked a definitive turn away from studies of patriarchy and of women’s economic, sexual, or reproductive subordination grounded in notions of physical differences between the sexes. Scott summoned ‘mainstream’ historians to consider gender as a constitutive element of social relationships based on the ‘perceived differences’ between the sexes, as expressed in culturally available symbols, normative concepts, notions of politics and institutions, and subjective identities. Moreover, Scott argued, gender had become an essential category of historical analysis because it is a primary way of signifying relationships of power. Gender thus gained an analytic status of its own, first by severing the links between sex-gender and biology, and then by freeing it from the remnants of Marxism that hinged the production of gender to changing economic structures. Scott’s article, followed by her essay collection, Gender and the Politics of History (Scott, 1988), unleashed a torrent of debate over the implications of gender for methodological approaches to historical causality and processes of change. Scott called upon historians to shift their attention from ‘objective processes,’ such as industrialization and urbanization, to the discursive, linguistic, or symbolic representations of sexual difference that, for example, institutionalized the sexual division of labor in late nineteenth century France or that produced women workers as ‘objects of (state) investigation and subjects of history’ (Scott, 1988, 1993).
Understood as a cultural, linguistic, or discursive construct, gender had a central place in the broader paradigm shift known as ‘the linguistic turn’ in the discipline of history. The controversies accompanying the rise of gender history thus involved the objects of historical investigation – women of the past versus historical discourses, languages, or symbols – and the methods of historical analysis, which in the wake of the linguistic turn came to include Foucauldian social theory, new historicism, as well as poststructuralist linguistic and literary theory (Poovey, 1988b; Canning, 1994; Surkis, 2012). At the same time feminist philosopher Denise Riley interrogated the category ‘woman’ in her Am I That Name? (1988), noting the inherent and historically grounded instability of the category termed ‘woman’ and identifying feminism as the precise site at which that instability was systematically contested, taken apart and reconstructed. These dual impulses – the critique and disassembly of the category of ‘woman’ and the advancement of a new analytic concept of ‘gender’ – effectively redefined and resituated the keywords of feminist history: woman, sex, and feminism. Soon other keywords of social history, such as ‘experience,’ ‘identity,’ and ‘agency,’ were also subject to critical debate and redefinition.
Yet the rise of gender as a category of historical analysis did not have the effect of asserting the primacy of gender relative to other forms of inequality, such as race, class, or ethnicity. Rather, the emphasis on the inextricable links between gender and other social identities and categories of difference sparked critical engagements with categories of race and class as well. In the United States and Britain, feminist scholars of race intervened at this juncture with powerful critiques of the categories and practices of women’s history. Defining race as a ‘metalanguage,’ and the ‘ultimate trope of difference,’ African–American historians explicated the powerful effects of race on the construction and representation of gender, class, and sexuality. Understanding race as a ‘double-voiced discourse’ revealed the ways in which it shaped both the oppression and self-representation of minorities (Higginbotham, 1992).
Rewriting History after the Turn to Gender
The turn to gender, like all theoretical and methodological innovations, was an uneven and protracted process that has differed markedly across different temporal and geographical fields. In some fields scholars sought to redefine methodologies, concepts, and theories to meet the challenge posed by the concept of gender, while in other fields women’s history was quietly renamed ‘gender history’ without a recognizable shift in historical methodology. In national historiographies, in which the work of recovering absent female subjects had a later start, historical research on women has continued to provide the foundation for a more explicitly theoretical engagement with gender well after the turn to the twenty-first century. In still other settings, where the turn to gender history coincided with the rediscovery of masculinity and men, gender history came to denote a more thoroughly relational engagement with the histories of both masculinity and femininity.
While women’s history once sought to fit female subjects into existing categories of social analysis, such as class, nation, and citizenship, the turn to gender prompted more fundamental critiques and redefinitions of these keywords of social analysis. The concept of ‘class,’ for example, was at the heart of debates about both gender and the linguistic turn, leading some feminist scholars to call for an emancipation from class as a ‘privileged signifier of social relations and their political representations’ (Alexander, 1984), while others analyzed the formation of both the middle-class (Davidoff and Hall, 1987) and the working-class (Clark, 1995) as processes of differentiation in which gender was always centrally implicated. Eschewing models of class formation that sought to delineate economic, social, cultural, and political levels or stages of development, feminist historians of gender examined class as a political language, emphasizing the significance of gender in the process of assigning and contesting the boundaries and meanings of class (Scott, 1988; Sewell, 1990; Canning, 1992). The ‘public/private divide’ and its specific historical and gendered meanings for class, citizenship, public sphere, and nation-state formation was the topic of two issues of the Journal of Women’s History (2003/1 and 2003/2) that offered theoretical perspectives and historical comparisons with case studies of Britain, Brazil, the United States and the Middle East. Other social-scientific keywords, like ‘public sphere’ (Fraser, 1992; Ryan, 1992), ‘civil society’ (Pateman, 1988; Hull, 1996), and ‘citizenship’ (Lister, 1997; Canning and Rose, 2002) have also been sites of fruitful rethinking by scholars of gender. Similar to the location of class in socioeconomic structures, citizenship is embedded in legal and constitutional frameworks and theories of state and nation formation. Feminist social scientists critiqued teleological models of citizenship, like T.H. Marshall’s classic, Citizenship and Social Class (1950) that outlined the progressive acquisition of civil, political and social rights, pointing instead to the nonlinear trajectories by which women acquired rights, often first as social citizens and only much later, as political citizens. Feminist scholarship has probed the meanings and practices of citizenship beyond the law, exploring the rhetorics, claims, and subjectivities of citizenship, which are also taken up by those lacking and thus demanding citizenship rights.
Breaking up the binary oppositions of public and private/political and personal, also led to fruitful new research on the history of consumption from a gendered perspective. Although consumption has historically been identified with femininity, Davidoff and Hall’s Family Fortunes (1987) argued convincingly that domesticity, the ideology of the British middle classes, was vested in complex and elaborate practices of consumption and display. With gender as a framing concept, the historical study of consumption has expanded in recent years to encompass analysis of commodification, spectatorship, material culture, popular culture, leisure, and fashion, which are vital dimensions of gendered social identities, not least as an arena in which these gendered identities were performed, critiqued, recast, and subverted (DeGrazia and Furlough, 1996; Peiss, 1998). Studies of consumption also explore its place in shaping gendered boundaries of class, citizenship, and cultural belonging (Cohen, 2003) and have also spurred new explorations of visual culture, fashion and beauty, marketing and advertising, both in transnational dimensions (Modern Girl, 2008) and as a vital aspect of the relationships between empires and metropoles (McClintock, 1995).
If the redefinition of keywords of social analysis was one outcome of gender history, its explicit attention to the relations between the sexes prompted the opening of gender history toward a more serious study of men and masculinity. The embrace of gender had been controversial in part because women’s historians had feared that emphasis on the mutual constitution of masculinity and femininity would obscure both male oppression of women and female agency (Bock, 1991). The advent of men’s studies in the early 1990s – marked, for example, by the founding of the American Men’s Studies Association in 1991 and its journal The Journal of Men’s Studies in 1992 – led feminists to observe that men, unlike women, had hardly been ‘hidden from history.’ While feminists worried that inquiry into the ideals of manliness and their imposition on men of the past might conceal the ways men had participated in and benefited from the oppression of women (Brod, 1994), historian John Tosh concluded in 1994 that the ‘gendered study of men’ and masculinities had become ‘indispensable to any serious feminist historical project’ (Tosh, 1994). As the category of ‘masculinity’ soon overtook that of ‘men,’ theoretical approaches to masculinity were refined in the disciplines of sociology and philosophy by Harry Brod (1994), R.W. Connell (1995), and Michael Kimmel (1996). A founding text in the field of history was George Mosse’s The Image of Man: The Creation of Modern Masculinity (1996), a comparative study of ideal types of masculinity in European and American history since the early nineteenth century. Subsequent histories of masculinity examined ideal or hegemonic masculinities, masculinities as shaped by class (Hall, 1992; Clark, 1995; Frevert, 1995), citizenship (Dudink et al., 2007), race (Bederman, 1995), colonialism (Sinha, 1995), militarism (Kühne, 1996), and homosexuality (Chauncey, 1994; Puff, 1998; Rocke, 1998; McLaren, 1999b). One achievement of the history of masculinity has been to ‘demonstrate that gender is inherent in all aspects of social life, whether women are present or not’ (Tosh, 1994). While masculinity is generally regarded as an inherently relational category, femininity has scarcely had a parallel significance in the study of gender. Historian Stefan Dudink contends that the focus on masculinity reflects the ‘asymmetry of gender relations’ by which masculinity has remained unmarked amidst the universal categories of ‘men,’ ‘mankind,’ and ‘humanity’ (Dudink, 1998), while femininity, which was ‘never allowed to pass as the universal,’ was more visible and thus less in need of a similar kind of unmasking.
Entwined Terms: Genders/Bodies/Sexualities
Other key terms in the vocabulary of interdisciplinary gender studies, which were redefined in the course of the paradigm shift from women to gender are ‘body’ and ‘sexuality.’ During the first wave of women’s history, the body served as the foundation for the shared experiences and identities of women. As a term deeply embedded in biologism and essentialism, body was inextricably linked to sex before the ‘linguistic turn’ began to disentangle these terms. The ‘discursivation’ of the body, which took place in the course of the ‘linguistic turn,’ detached it from unchanging notions of physical difference, but it also appeared to sweep away any sense of bodily physicality or materiality. No longer the foundation of experience, nor the somatic location of identity, the ambiguous status of the body between discourse and experience prompted a wave of debate through the end of the 1990s (Haraway, 1991; Butler, 1993; Bynum, 1995; Canning, 1999). As these debates raged, the body moved to the center of methodological debates in feminist theory, which established conceptual frameworks for the ‘full range of bodies’ that had emerged from two decades of scholarship – body image; body performance; bodies in science, medicine, and technology; bodies in space; virtual bodies; lived or situated bodies; the body politic; and embodied ideals/ideologies (Bordo and Jaggar, 1989; Martin, 2001; Schiebinger, 2000).
At the same time ‘body history’ came to designate a pluralistic field of scholarly inquiry of bodies as significant dimensions of specific social, cultural, and political processes, such as the laboring body, the regulated/disciplined body; the medicalized or scientized body; the idealized body of nation, state, or king; the embodiment of theology and the place of the body in cultural or religious rituals; or body and memory in situated life histories (e.g., Outram, 1989; Roper, 1994). An important outcome of historians’ engagement with the legacy of Michel Foucault for the study of bodies as sites of regulation and governmentality is the broad recognition of ‘biopolitics’ as a crucial form of modern governance. While Rublack (2012) suggests that early modern persons’ sense of self – or subjectivity – was experienced as ‘deeply embodied’ and was both interlinked with the physical and emotional yet also ‘interrelated with the external world,’ the modern body is defined by the ways it is viewed, measured, mobilized, disciplined, and governed by the ideologies and technologies of states, social reformers, medical experts, nationalists, and industrial paternalists. Moreover, the modern body had individual and collective or social dimensions, reorganizing social and material life around hygienic principles while instilling in individuals the skills of self-care and self-discipline. The collectivized body or social body was cut through with social distinctions of class, ethnicity, and gender (Poovey, 1995).
If research on the hygienic and social body relied upon well-documented practices of states, as well as medical and social reform institutions, the gendered body as site of experience or agency was much more difficult to trace historically. Hence few historical monographs could be considered histories of the body in this sense, with the important exception of Barbara Duden’s enduring classic Woman in the Body: A Doctor’s Patients in Eighteenth Century Germany (1991), which analyzes the testimony patients left behind about their own bodily perceptions, sensations, and agency in an era when women still possessed ‘interpretive authority’ over their bodies. The transfer of this interpretive authority to male experts is one of the markers of the modern body. More recent studies of empire, colonialism, and global and transatlantic traffic in people and goods have placed bodies at the heart of the colonial encounter (Burton and Ballantyne, 2005; Brown, 2011) and analyzed bodily sensations, sensory experiences, and memories as part of the ‘emotional economy of the everyday’ in colonialism (Stoler and Strassler, 2000; Stoler, 2002; Hunt, 2008).
While ‘body history’ as a distinguishable field of historical inquiry has diminished in the last decade, two of its keywords remain salient for current historical inquiry – corporeality and embodiment. Corporeality can be understood as encompassing the social, cultural, and/or political significance of bodily being; encompassing bodily images/ symbols, regimes, and strategies of bodily governance; and bodily perceptions, interpretations, and self-representations that are specific to a given temporal and spatial context (Mazzio, 1997). Why and how the corporeal dimensions of state policies or social movements, of class or ethnic conflict become visible, varies according to the specific historical setting. The notion of embodiment refers to the ways subjects and the social collectivity assign meaning to bodies, interpret and act upon them (Grosz, 1994; Gatens, 1996). No longer embedded in a dichotomy between discourse and agency/experience, embodiment does not presume resistance or subversion, encompassing instead the capacity of humans to assign meaning to and act upon their own bodies, often in unexpected ways.
Gender and body remain crucial analytics in the history of sexuality, an expanding and highly productive arena that has recently repositioned both gender and body as concepts and fields of scholarly inquiry. The focus of early histories of sexuality melded sexuality with gender, reproduction, and body, examining topics such as prostitution, contraception, abortion, sexual reform, adultery, masturbation, and venereal disease (e.g., Walkowitz, 1982, 1992; White, 1990; Grossmann, 1995). Studies of lesbianism and male homosexuality had the productive effect of destabilizing gender categories by breaking up the binary oppositions of male/female, masculine/feminine, and by unmasking ‘the epistemic regime of presumptive heterosexuality’ (D’Emilio, 1983/1998; Chauncey, 1994; Puff, 1998; Butler, 1990; Fausto-Sterling, 2000). With the founding of the Journal of History of Sexuality in 1990, the history of sexuality marked out its own terrain, distinct from the history of gender, coinciding with a decisive turn toward studying sexual politics as situated within and vital to broader historical processes of transformation, such as the formation of civil society, the inception of citizenship, or the pursuit of empire (Hall, 1992; Engelstein, 1992; Stoler, 2002; Surkis, 2006). Influenced by the work of Michel Foucault, the history of sexuality also focused on the specific domains within nation-states where sexualities were produced, such as systems of medical knowledge and state regulation that distinguished normal from ‘deviant’ or ‘marginal’ sexualities and that dispersed these definitions throughout the institutions of state and social reform (Mort, 1987; Nye, 1999; Eder et al., 1999).
In the last several years, as the influence of the Foucauldian paradigm has loosened, scholars have posed new questions about the periodicity, i.e., the implicit modernity of homosexuality and of sexuality more generally (Puff, 2012; Wiesner-Hanks, 2012). With histories of male and female sexuality as one of the ‘prime movers’ in the history of sexuality (Puff, 2012), its practitioners have examined the meanings of sex acts (Puff, 2003) and the emergence of homosexual subcultures and movements for emancipation (Chauncey, 1994; Lybeck, 2012). The history of sexuality has also been influenced by the transnational or global turn, exploring more recently the ways in which sexual cultures and identities transcend national boundaries and are shaped by the transnational flows of individuals, ideas, and movements (Aldrich, 2006; Rupp, 2009; Canaday, 2009; Herzog, 2011). Recent literature also reveals a marked shift away from their longstanding focus on such matters as population politics, hygiene, sexual science, and the normative construction of sexual identities toward examination of the formation of the sexual subject or a modern sexual self (Eder, 1999; Oosterhuis, 2000). Matysik (2012) proposes a view of sexuality that is situated in body and mind, while other scholars call for closer examination of intimacy, emotions, and memory in the construction and experiences of sexuality within life-worlds (Dickinson and Wetzell, 2005; Spector et al., 2012). While sexual histories of war, Nazism, and post-war reconstructions remained unexplored or were still highly controversial a decade ago, these topics have formed some of the most fruitful inquiries in the field during the past several years (Heineman, 2002; Herzog, 2004, 2007, 2011; Evans, 2011).
Outlook for the Future
After nearly three decades of scholarship, the history of gender is a well-established field, as evidenced by the number of chairs and teaching positions assigned to this scholarly field and the continued vitality of the field as represented in scholarly journals and academic book publishing. The debates of the past about the prospects of gender history entering the ‘mainstream,’ i.e., moving from the status of the margins to the center of historical scholarship have dissipated, not because gender history has achieved parity or equal representation therein, but because the very notions of mainstream and margins have themselves changed considerably during the last two decades. Rather, gender history has become a much more pluralistic undertaking, both in terms of historical methodologies and the scope of topics encompassed under the rubric of ‘gender.’ Gender history is most often a cultural historical inquiry, one that probes the rhetorics, languages, symbols, and discourses that shape femininity and masculinity as ideologies, practices, and performances. Yet historians have renewed interest in recent years in the social dimensions of gender, in the gendered relations and experiences of empire, colonialism, slavery, labor, poverty, immigration, and other dimensions of ‘the social.’ While the study of masculinity is a well-established inquiry within gender history by now, women – as subjects and objects of historical investigation – remain a vital presence in many studies of gender. In fact, ‘gender and women’ are still frequently paired in the titles of books, courses, or conference panels today. If gender history had a part in spawning the study of the body and of sexuality, today the history of sexualities is an established field that is in no sense beholden to gender history, not least because queer studies and the history of homosexuality have constituted its driving force during the last two decades (Puff, 2012). The analytic of ‘gender’ has thus been enriched and enlivened internally, as historical practices attended to the study of both femininity and masculinity and the relationships between them. Gender history has also been repositioned by the terms that surround it – body and sexuality – and by historical study that considers the connections and distinctions between and among them in specific historical settings.
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