What is gender history?

By Aleysha Shergill - History Student @ St Hilda's College, Oxford

While many of us are familiar with the concept of socially constructed difference between men and women along the lines of gender - that is, the construction of masculinity and femininity - many students may feel overwhelmed by the multitude of approaches towards Gender History that abound in the historiography. Yet a chronological sweep of the developments that have occurred within the discipline will undoubtedly shed light on the many similarities and, indeed, differences in the way historians have deployed the concept of gender in their study of the past.

Much women’s history in the 1970s and 1980s was united around the conceptual category of ‘patriarchy’. This demonstrates how much early women’s and gender history had clear contemporary political aims, including the dismantling of the gender hierarchy. Women and early gender historians looked to the past to understand the ways women were oppressed under hetero-patriarchal structures, but also the way women had collectively resisted male domination, reinstating women’s agency. Ultimately, power for women’s historians was located in patriarchal structures of male domination.

While it is true that some women’s historians initially focused on the biological differences between the sexes, and the role this played in women’s trans-historical oppression, many feminist scholars were also among the first to advocate the study of socially constructed gender to assist them in the recovery of the patriarchal reality of women’s experience. Many scholars rejected this biological binary and argued that historians needed to focus on the way femininity and masculinity were constructed in historically specific contexts. Crucially, this brought the study of masculinity into the mainstream. However, claims that gender history is now simply the ‘study of men’ is an oversimplification. This is illustrated by the work of John Tosh whose study of masculinity reveals that the most important continuity in the historical construction of masculinity were the social processes that upheld patriarchy. Like much women’s history, therefore, gender history was still employing patriarchy as a trans-historical tool.

Thus, it is clear there were actually many continuities between women’s and gender history. The most radical departure in gender history, however, has been the advent of post-structuralism. This departure was associated with the ideas of Foucault and his new conceptualisation of power. While power was initially understood as a localised phenomenon, concentrated in structures such as capitalism and patriarchy, Foucault argued that power had no agency or structure. Instead, power operated through knowledge. What this meant for an understanding gender was that rather than seeing gender as an inherently oppressive institution inseparable from patriarchy, gender was now understood as emanating from culture. This included culturally available symbols such as the Virgin Mary and normative concepts espoused through religious, educational, and scientific doctrines. In its post-structuralism form, gender was no longer about the study of patriarchal oppression and women’s resistance.

Historians who began pioneering this new approach of conceptualising gender as divorced from patriarchy were influenced by Joan Scott. Scott argued that because gendered identities are constructed through language and culture, we can no longer study gender in the same way. For Scott, gender in its post-structuralist form is better studied in historical contexts ‘as a primary way of signifying power.’ In other words, historians should explore how gender has become implicated in the conception and construction of power itself.

Thus, gender is now employed by historians in a more abstract way. In particular, historians have investigated the way the discourses of gender have been used to construct and legitimise social relations. A clear example of this is Mrinalini Sinha’s ‘Colonial masculinity’, which explores the way British imperialists tended to present themselves in terms of contemporary ideals of masculinity, emphasising leadership and physical strength and ‘natural’ qualities of leadership. Conversely, colonial male subjects were presented as weak as effeminate, so that the subordination to British men of their imperial subjects was legitimised as being analogous to the ‘natural’ subordination of women to men.

Moreover, this chronological summary has sought to demonstrate the way developments inside and outside the historical discipline have impacted the writing of history. It is important, however, to emphasise that historians today continue to use all the approaches outlined above. Thus, gender in all its forms is still useful to the historian.

Further reading:

  1. S. Morgan, ‘Theorising Feminist History: a thirty-year retrospective’, Women’s History Review, Vol. 18, 2009

  2. J. Hoff, ‘Gender as a postmodern category of paralysis’, Women’s History Review, 1994

  3. L. Lee Downs, ‘Gender History’ in Tamm et al (eds), Debating New Approaches to History, 2018

  4. L. Lee Downs, ‘From women’s history to gender history’ in Writing History Theory & Practice, 2010

  5. R. Shoemaker and M. Vincent (eds.) Gender and History in Western Europe, 1997