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Questions of Gender

Joanne Bailey argues that gender history is no faddish digression from the historical route, but an advanced tool of analysis that is here to stay.

Adam and Eve expelled from the Garden of Eden by Vrancke van der Stockt, c.1460.Are men from Mars and women from Venus? Not according to gender history. Gender history dismantles such stereotypes; it explores how the sexes have interacted with each other, but it does not stop at the door when men walk out of their house into the public world. In fact gender history is an indispensable means to understand how past cultures, societies, politics and economies functioned and flourished.

Let me accompany you on a journey through this tool of analysis. In her overview What is Gender History? (2010) Sonya Rose explains that it ‘is based on the fundamental idea that what it means to be defined as man or woman has a history’. These definitions are socially constructed, not based in nature, so they change over time. Though a recent development, gender has already overturned mainstream history. Despite attacks on it and its champions, it is now impossible to ignore and has moved inexorably onwards thanks to historians like Joan Scott, whose article ‘Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis’, published in the American Historical Review in 1986, demanded that all historians use gender to analyse their subjects. So what can gender history tell us?

This journey begins with the dynamic relationships between the sexes. Though neither the history of women nor of domesticity, gender history exposes the complexities of past women’s lives. It reveals that some women ignored gendered conventions about their sex, while others deployed them to circumvent social and economic barriers and still others upheld gender norms, as well as rebelled against them. Laura Gowing’s Domestic Dangers: Women, Words and Sex in Early Modern London (1996), for example, shows that it was often women who deployed the misogynistic language of insult to police other women’s behaviour.

It is thanks to gender history that we know how the sexes worked together to negotiate the worst strictures of patriarchy, which damaged men as well as women. My work on married life (2003), Katie Barclay’s Love, Intimacy and Power: Marriage and Patriarchy in Scotland, 1650-1850 (2011) and Alex Shepard’s The Meanings of Manhood in Early Modern England, 1560-1640 (2003) highlight the interdependency of spouses, the flexibility (and therein success) of patriarchy and the capacity for men’s status to be undermined both by their spouses’ economic activities and by other men. Gender history identifies the importance of home to men. John Tosh’s A Man’s Place: Masculinity and the Middle-class Home in Victorian England (1999) reveals how essential the home and family were to men’s public reputations. In other words, using gender as an investigative lens illuminates the structural limitations on individuals, while revealing their wriggle-room. It shows how, in the words of The Lawes Resolutions of Women’s Rights (1632), ‘some women can shift it well enough’ despite numerous restrictions. Indeed, thanks to studies such as Anthony Fletcher’s Gender, Sex and Subordination (1999), it seems that those who legitimately hold power are not always those who exercise it and those who are subordinate do not always submit.

Now let’s walk away from intimate relationships and the home. Garthine Walker’s Crime, Gender and Social Order in Early Modern England (2008) charts how crime and the criminal justice system were shaped by ideas on appropriate behaviour for men and women. As an identity, gender is also performed outside the home and away from women. Thus it moulded behaviour and attitudes in men-only worlds, too. James Mangan has shown from the publication he edited with James Walvin, Manliness and Morality: Middle-class Masculinity in Britain and America, 1800-1940 (1987), to his work on the history of sport, how masculine identities were forged on school-, sports- and battlefields. Gender structured men’s dealings with each other and their roles in war, politics and empire. Indeed gender is as fundamental as race and class to understanding imperial history, as Philippa Levine’s edited volume Gender and Empire (2004) illustrates. Merry Wiesner Hanks’s Gender in History: Global Perspectives (2nd edition, 2010) travels time and space to show how the concept of gender has defined all societies as well as individuals, influencing political and religious policies, speeches and platforms.

Perhaps the best way to demonstrate the pervasiveness of gender history today is to consider its role in the First World War. Understandably in this centenary year commemoration, remembrance, suffering and military leadership take centre stage. Yet by using gender as an analytical tool perceptive scholars have advanced our understanding of 1914-18 and its aftermath. Michael Roper’s The Secret Battle: Emotional Survival in the Great War (2009), Jessica Meyer’s Men of War: Masculinity and the First World War in Britain (2008) and Nicoletta Gullace’s The Blood of Our Sons: Men, Women, and the Regeneration of British Citizenship During the Great War (2002) are good examples. They prove that war is a crucible for ideas about gender and a catalyst in reconstructing gender identities. The men who fought in the Great War shared a vision of manliness that prompted them to fight, shaped their experiences during and after the war, their ability to communicate their feelings and their treatment when injured and in postwar society.

Women fashioned new feminine identities from the employment opportunities that emerged, used them to demand citizenship and then struggled with the mandate to return to ‘traditional’ standards of femininity in the postwar era.

The journey through gender history is just begun, for it is no faddish digression from the historical route. It is here to stay: embedded in academic and public histories and the national curriculum and it is already adapting. Allied with new research agendas on emotions, bodies and material culture, it reveals the transitory nature of a supposedly ‘natural’ order. We learn that manly men in the 18th century wept tears and throbbed with sympathy without fear for their manliness. Feminine women were respected for stiffening their upper lips in the face of trauma and crisis, as any reader of Jane Austen knows. Likewise, breadwinners could be wives and child-carers fathers.

The journey of gender history, like Thursday’s Child, still has far to go. 

Joanne Bailey is Professor of History at Oxford Brookes University. Her most recent book is Parenting in England c.1760-1830: Emotions, Self-identity and Generation (Oxford University Press, 2013). She is currently researching A Manly Nation: British Manliness 1757 to 1856 and Sex and the Church in the Long 18th Century.

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