Historiography: Gender

Gender history starts with the distinction made between gender and sex, in that gender adds on to sex expectations of cultural propriety and power relationships (see Green, Troup, 1999, 253). These are made, not given (sex is a given), and so they have a maker as well as receiver.
One part of the maker is the academic community itself, which has undergone change increasingly since the 1960s. A resulting gender history has two broadly different aspects:
  • Gender history is a perspective over all areas of history
  • Gender history is about gender issues in society
The first involves a Kuhnian revolution. It should infect all methodologies and end the patriarchal structure of ordinary historical discourse. This was written from the stance of social and cultural anthropology:
This change of attitude, however, has to do with far more than the popularity of the topic of women, or the female perspective of things; for gender studies in anthropology, as with its sister disciplines, have played, along with the forces of post-modernism and post-colonialism, a salient role over the past two to three decades in a major critique of the grand narratives of the human sciences. This dawning recognition of the 'problem of women', not only in anthropology but its sister studies as well, served as one of the major impetuses for the redrawing of sacred academic boundaries, visions and concerns. (Rapport, Overing, 2000, 142)
That there is a section called gender history suggests that the revolution is not quite so thorough, or at least there is a special need to retain an additional sector of history of this kind. There is a need to analyse what areas gender history has impact:
  • Gender history can seek out the place of women in history, or at least what women were doing - or having done to them - at the time men were making the dominant view of society (and history). This can be famous women or folk women (with different historiographies, from the empiricist to the anthropological). A key question is what was the experience of women during historical epochs and change. Knowing what women did helps towards pride and definition. (see Green, Troup, 1999, 253, 254)
  • Related to this is tracking the history of feminism itself (Green, Troup, 1999, 254) as a movement.
  • Some gender history will be about who the cultural makers were and when and how they were able to generate these definitions. This is heavily sociological in historiography. Achieving such self understanding is being on the road to self-liberation. Once something is understood as a construction, then it can be changed. (Green, Troup, 1999, 253-254)
  • Gender history can certainly look at constructions of femaleness and also maleness in the context of historical events (and this relates to psychoanalysis).
Then feminism has its own varieties and perspectives, generally though not each exclusively under one of liberal (gaining equality of opportunity), Marxist-structural (revolutionise the system) or radical (overcome repression of reproduction) lines. These categories cannot remove the need for historical detail and change, where history, from the evidence, often does not fit neatly into them, nor should it:
  • There is the feminism which intends to overcome typologies which confuse biology and gender, where women are seen as tending to the typologies of nature, family and the private, whereas men tend towards culture, work and the public. These ideal types were however part of comprehension in the past and can be demonstrated by historical research. (see 255-256)
  • Gender and class can be an analytical marriage but difficult; that Marxist views can understate more basic and cultural dynamics towards patriarchy as in the radical view. This can be both theoretical in analysis and in historical events, such as the growth of trade unions and male to female attitudes in the Labour Movement and what feminism does to change the analyses (254)
  • There is the analysis of sexuality and control from the stance of radical feminism. If it is said, however, that this subordination is from and within the biological family, then there is very little history involved, unless one studies the more public emergence of non-heterosexual groups and families. (255)
  • There is black feminism looking at particularly that experience within slavery and after, within the black community and between it and the dominant white community (and relations with other ethnic groups). This is often from the United States. (255)
  • There is authority deconstructed in language, although this is just as likely to deconstruct woman as a concept too. (257-258)
So one central issue for feminists is whether a structural analysis in terms of technology, economy and social organisation is sufficient in the oppression of women. Can the "sexual class" as such be reduced to this explanation. The answer may be no (see Firestone below). It is equally inadequate to reduce feminism to ahistorical psychoanalysis. This is where definition is all important, following on from Simone de Beauvoir, that femininity is a social construction about presentation in society. De Beauvoir wanted women to be more rational, but an alternative is to focus on the effect, as represented in society, on the biological functions. The division of labour, which has an historical basis, is organised around this reproductive role. It is this distinction which would have to be overcome and done, for example, by the full expansion of relationship and reproductive choices, including the use of reproductive technology as a means of liberation from that difference. (See Firestone, Rich; May, 1996, 162-165)
Such radical views of female oppression always look beyond the structural. Pyschoanalysis is an obviously important field for definitions, and for history to take a part somewhere a cultural (or other accompanying analysis) is required with it, because of the need for change. This is not to say that continuities are not important, especially in the experience of women, and yet history as a discipline abhors what is static to human nature (biology, universal patriarchy or psychoanalysis alone) as it falls outside its focus. Considerations of change include the development of the family, in definitions of relationships and proprieties, in the function of reproduction within society, and representations of biology over and above biology itself. (255-256)
Another question is that of language itself, applying the linguistic turn to feminism. In this case, historical documents are examined for their own constructions in the categorising of women. The difficulty here is that the text is analysed rather than any reality behind it. Texts, however, were produced in time, so attitudes are displayed in time. These attitudes can be those of women in any one time, unable to speak for themselves. Texts analysed also reveal the ambiguity of the concept of woman, no doubt frustrating to feminism again in terms of charting oppression and with an agenda of practical action as the concept of woman is decentred hardly after it has begun to be the subject of discrimination. (256-258)
History does also tend to undermine ready concepts, so from an inductive point of view there are many ways to categorise woman, in terms of many varieties of identity. So when feminism constructs woman, this has its own conceptual history.
All this engages with social theory, but it is more than blindingly obvious that most political and social document shout aloud witting and unwitting testimonies about their constructions of men, women, sexuality, assumptions and dominance, social attitudes and restrictions, in the public space and private spaces. It is then that analysis begins in order to illuminate. Often looking at gender in documents fills a historiographical gap (Hall in Green, Troup, 1999, 263-276), which takes the discussion back to where it began.

Some Personalities:

Dates in brackets are some times of impact just in areas mentioned.

Adrian Worsfold



Green, A., Troup, K. (eds) (1999), The Houses of History: A Critical Reader in Twentieth-Century History and Theory, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 253-262.

Hall, C. (1981), 'Gender Divisions and Class Formation in the Birmingham Middle Class, 1780-1850, in Samuel, R. (ed.) (1981), People's History and Socialist Theory, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 164-75, in Green, Troup, 1999, 263-276.

May, T. (1996), Situating Social Theory, Buckingham: Open University Press, 158-175.