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Gender History

A/N: This was originally written as HAP (Historical Argument and Practice) revision blog post. HAP is a three hour paper, during which you answer a single question. Usual topics include gender history, academic vs. popular history, nation building, and political thought. Here you will find a very very brief tour of gender history. 

Gender History

"If all men are born free, how is it that all women are born slaves?"
 - Mary Astell, 'the first English feminist', 1700. 

Wonder Woman

Key term: 'Gender Identity'. This refers to the gender(s), or lack thereof, an individual self-identifies as. It is not necessarily based on biological fact, nor is it necessarily based on sexual orientation. Dysphoric identities may be a sign of GID (Gender Identity Disorder), a condition where 'there is discordance between the natal sex of one's external genitalia and the brain coding of one's gender as masculine or feminine'. If the biological and psychological match up, the individual is 'cisgendered'. 

'Gender History' is a bit of an amalgamation of history and gender studies, and is generally seen as the successor to women's history. Postmodernists complain that gender is too blunt a tool for proper historical analysis, and point to the tendency to over emphasise shared experience in earlier work. However gender history has moved with the times and now acknowledges the existence of multiple gender identities. It continues to be looked down upon as somewhat suspect in some quarters, accused of being nothing but women's studies and gay studies. [E.g. P. Nathanson and K.K. Young claim that the 'gender' in gender studies is routinely used as a synonym with 'women'.] To a certain extent, it's detractors have a point - there's a reason why it's my favourite discipline, after all - but that does not mean it is a useless field of study!

But, wait, we're getting ahead of ourselves. Let's start at the very beginning, for it is, so they say, a very good place to start. Men and women have obvious biological differences, and this has translated into different gender roles. Sociobiologists - using population biology and evolutionary theory to explain social organisation - would argue that this is inevitable, men and women are fundamentally suited to different tasks. You'll recognise it all from that infamous women's history theory of 'separate spheres'; men in the public sphere, women in the private. We're just disagreeing on why they're there: nature vs. nurture.

Either way, let's face it, there were plenty of women who didn't stay shut up at home giving birth and practising their needlework. Take the Byzantine Empress Irene who served as regent for her son Constatine VI between 780 and 790. Rather than relinquish power when the boy came of age, she had him blinded and continued to rule until 795. She even managed to get iconoclasm (i.e. prohibition of icon veneration) overturned by the Eastern Orthodox Church in 787. Or, closer to home, we all know about the exploits of Elizabeth I, queen of England from 1558 to 1603.

"I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king." - Elizabeth I, Tilbury Speech of 1588. (Here portrayed by Anne-Marie Duff in the BBC's 2005 series, 'The Virgin Queen'.)

Indeed, long before Germaine Greer arrived on the scene, women were already questioning the status quo. Why should they be forced to fulfil a subservient role? In 1600 Moderata Fonte, under her pseudonym of Modesta Pozzo, wrote a dialogue entitled 'The Worth of Women (: Wherein is Clearly Revealed Their Nobility and Their Superiority to Men)'. This is one of my favourite pieces of early modern literature - through the character Cornelia, Moderata says of men: 'they're hopeless without us. Take away that small matter of their earning money and what use are they at all?' On Adam and Eve she adds:

"For it was with a good end in mind - that of acquiring the knowledge of good and evil - that Eve allowed herself to be carried away and eat the forbidden fruit. But Adam was not moved by this desire for knowledge, but simply by greed: he ate it because he heard Eve say it tasted good, which was a worse motive and caused more displeasure. And that is the reason why God did not chase them from Paradise as soon as Eve sinned, but rather after Adam had disobeyed him."

Case Study: Witches


In early modern Europe women were considered subversive and dangerous. Their cold, wet humours made them temperamental and deceptive, and the internalisation of their genitalia was thought to give them some form of 'magical' knowledge. In layman's terms - women were generally far more likely to be accused of dabbling in the occult than men, particularly during the witch crazes of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. (Usually around 80% of the accused were women, although in Iceland over 90% were men.)

Daniela Hacke describes the case of Oratio Fugazza who began an extra-marital affair with a midwife named Angela Zaffo in the early seventeenth-century. After seven years Zaffo ended it to embark on an affair with a younger man but Fugazza was unable to stay away. He told the court that he was so desperate to be with her that he performed domestic, female, chores whilst she had sex with her new lover. Fugazza blamed this infatuation on love magic; his neighbours were less convinced and made fun of him for being cuckolded by a woman. Moderata Fonte, too, has Cornelia sneer at the idea of love magic: ‘all that talk about magic spells is just words: men do what they do because they want to.’

Women holding power over men threatened the whole structure of society. The Spanish Jesuit, Tomas Sanchez, wrote in his 'The Holy Sacrament of Matrimony' that for a woman to go on top during sexual intercourse was 'unnatural' as it put the man in an inferior position. Women's actions had to be curtailed if they impacted on men's lives or livelihoods - for example the strict guild regulations of the early modern period were often designed specifically to exclude women from the trade.


Women, then, were aware of their inferior position and, what's more, wanted something to be done about it. In the nineteenth century this crystallized into the women's suffrage movement. These suffragists demanded the right to vote for women, believing it would mean a knock on effect in Parliament. MPs would be forced to tackle women's issues if they wanted to keep their seats. When little headway was made some decided it was time to take a more militant stance. These suffragettes broke away from the NUWSS (National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies) to form the WSPU (Women's Social and Political Union) in 1903. Their high profile campaigning was hard to ignore; in 1913 - the year of the infamous 'Cat and Mouse Act' - suffragette Emily Davison died after stepping out in front of the king's horse at the Epsom Derby.

In 1918, in recognition of women's contribution during WW1, a limited vote was given to women over 30. In 1928 this was extended to all women over 21 - equality with men. Thus, what came to be termed 'first wave' feminism could be deemed a success.

'We're clearly soldiers in petticoats, dauntless crusaders for women's votes... Our daughters' daughters will adore us, and they'll sing in grateful chorus, 'Well done, Sister Suffragette!'"

The above mentioned 1960s Disney musical manages to hit the nail on the head rather well, really. Second wave feminism was about to get underway, bolstered by the success of their grandmothers. Men, on the other hand, were less amenable to the idea. Mr. Banks' lyrics include: "It's grand to be an Englishman in 1910. King Edward's on the throne, it's the age of men."

Key Term: 'Feminism'. A political, cultural and economic movement aimed at establishing equal rights and legal protection for women. There are many subdivisions of feminism ranging from radical lesbian feminism, which demands complete segregation of the sexes to create female only spaces, to marxist feminism, which accuses capitalism of creating patriarchal society.

In the 1960s 'second wave' feminism emerged. In the aftermath of WW2 there had been great emphasis on gender roles returning to normal. What this meant in practice was an exaggerated labour division - men were the breadwinners, women kept house. In 1963 Betty Friedan's 'The Feminine Mystique' controversially disputed the idea that women's happiness was to be found in hearth, husband and offspring.

"We are engaged in a power struggle with men. For while we realize that liberation of women will ultimately mean the liberation of men from their destructive role as oppressor, we have no illusion that men will welcome this liberation without a struggle."
- From the 1969 manifesto of The New York Radical Feminists.

As more women entered the workplace - both school leavers and older women whose children had left home - there was increasing demand for true equality with men. Campaigning led to a number of pieces of high profile legislation. The Equal Pay Act was passed in 1970, although did not come into effect until 1975. This was followed by the Sex Discrimination Act of 1975. The position of women was improving and efforts were being made to make up for lost time. Women's studies became a vibrant field of research during second wave feminism, recording the lives of women.

Case Study: The Permissive Society.

The 1960s were seen by contemporaries - and have been remembered as - a time of 'free love'. The constraints of conservative society were thrown aside and young people experienced new freedoms. It was all drugs, sex and rock 'n' roll.

Of course this is little more than myth. The reality for the vast majority of 1960s women was little different to that of 1950s women. Much is invariably made of Enoch Powell's decision to make the combined oral contraceptive pill available on subsidised prescription in 1961 but, really, its impact was fairly minimal. It was only prescribed to married women, and many doctors were reluctant to, even then. The 1971 film 'On the Buses', a spin-off of a popular ITV sitcom, has lead characters Stan and Jack discuss the likelihood of Stan's sister being prescribed the pill -
Stan: 'She thinks she's going to get her pills on the National Health.'
Jack: 'No chance. Not unless you're under 16 or over 65.'
Stan: 'Cor blimey, trust the government. One way's impossible, the other way's illegal.'

Miniskirts - liberating or objectifying? When the maxi skirt came into fashion in 1970 British lorry drivers led a campaign entitled 'Save the Miniskirt'.

In 1969 a third of all teenage brides were pregnant. But this was not unprecedented. Even in the late seventeenth century 15% of brides were with child. There was change in how women viewed their own bodies and seek sexual pleasure but - and it's a big but - it didn't happen en masse for some time. Tracts like Anne Koedt's 'The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm', which began to be circulated in Britain in 1969, and the Hite report's 1978 findings that 'not to have orgasm from intercourse is the experience of the majority of women… often the ways in which women do orgasm in intercourse have nothing to do with intercourse itself' meant relatively little until the 1990s, if not later. Women might have been having more sex, but it was rarely of a better quality.

Because rather than empower, second wave feminism - as experienced by the younger generation - often left them more vulnerable than ever. The short skirts in vogue were viewed as a 'come on' and girls who received unwanted attention whilst wearing them were unlikely to get any sympathy from the establishment. The first UK 'Reclaim the Night' march was held in 1977 in response to the murders committed by the so-called 'Yorkshire Ripper' whom, at the time, was still at large. The same mindset being fought in 1977 lingers today: a lone woman dressed provocatively is 'asking for it'.

It Was Acceptable In The '80s

By the 1980s many had begun to feel feminism had served its purpose. The term 'post-feminism' emerged to criticise the theory; it was argued that feminism had glossed over the differing experiences of women, concentrating too much on the experience of white, middle class women; a hegemonic femininity. As a result women's studies and women's history also began to come under attack. It was now claimed that women's history was just a part of history, there was no need for it be treated specially.

"The idea that women and men should be treated equally – an extreme aspiration in the late 1960s – is scarcely contentious."
- Anna Coote and Beatrix Campbell in Sweet Freedom, 1982.

However there was disagreement. Women were, in reality, far from achieving equality. In 1980 women were still taking home 36% less pay than men for equivalent work. The so called 'glass ceiling' was still in place, and women were invariably expected to shoulder the 'dual burden'. That's a sociological term referring to the fact that women, even when in full time employment, are expected to undertake a greater proportion of housework and childcare than men. Was relegating feminism and women's history to the dustbin of history really justifiable in such a climate?

Margaret Thatcher
Women have already reached the top, argued some, was there a need to keep fighting? Margaret Thatcher became Conservative Prime Minister in 1979 and went on to win a further two elections before resigning in November 1990.

The Boys Are Back In Town

The 1990s saw recognition of the work that still needed to be done. Third wave feminism, however, strove to be inclusive, to explore the experiences of women in relation to more than their gender. Their class, ethnicity, age, geographic location, etc, all had a role to play. The biggest outcome of this new inclusivity was the growing focus on men's studies. Although it had been around since the 1970s, the field only really began to come into its own in the 1990s. For example the Journal of Men's Studies was only set up in 1992.

Combined with gay studies there is now a solid base of research into masculinity. Where there was once nothing but hegemonic masculinity - the patriarchal bread winner - there are now a range of recognised masculinities. For example R.W. Connell outlined 'complicit masculinity' (new man), 'subordinate masculinity' (E.g. gay man) and 'marginalised masculinity' in 1995. The reason for this new interest can be clearly linked back to contemporary happenings. With women performing traditionally masculine jobs, and the general chipping away of traditional gender roles, it was imperative to prove that masculinity was not collapsing, merely changing.

Gender history went on to prove that masculinity has never been a hegemonic construct. For example when we think of early modern Europe, we think of a society shaped by patriarchy. Guild, state and church all exercised their patriarchal power. However not all men could be priests, statesmen or owners of their own workshop. Farr points to the 'journeymen'. In their early twenties, without the responsibility of spouse and household, these men carved out their own masculinity that had little to do with that of their fathers. They proved their worth with drinking, gambling and womanising - much as the 'new lad' did in the 1990s.

Men Behaving Badly cast
Lad and Ladette culture - later superseded by Chav and Chavette - was believed to be bringing gender roles closer together. Young women were adopting the gender roles traditionally ascribed to young men: i.e. being a massive social nuisance.

What we're witnessing in many cases is change over the life cycle. In the sixteenth century Matthaus Schwarz contrasted his youthful 'rascal' years as a journeyman, when he proved his masculinity through trade and male socialising, with his more sober married years. Once married his masculinity was confirmed through his role as protector and provider. As John Tosh asserted, gender identity is not fixed.

It is often, however, formulated in contrast to the 'other'. What the 'other' is differs between time and place. In Victorian England for instance the young, lower middle class, men working in the clerical sector looked to an 'other' which was more feminine to prove their masculinity. Mrinalini Sinha tells us that Bengali men were seen as weak and effeminate, and literature pandering to the office boys (adventure novels and the like) made sure to highlight this. They could not compete against the physical masculinity of the working classes, so sought to prove themselves in another way.

This desire to 'prove' our masculinity / femininity can be seen everywhere. It gets medieval peasants into fights and 21st century women into familial healthy eating frenzies. Even when gender roles are being subverted this desire remains. For example on the 1970s gay scene promiscuity became a sign of masculinity. Graffiti found around condom machines, imploring men to become homosexuals in order to save money on contraception, suggest that a traditional benchmark of masculinity (i.e. sexual prowess) continues to bolster masculine identity.

Queer studies have also revealed that alternative masculinities could be recognised by the authorities, as well as by individuals. As a group homosexuals have often been singled out for sanction - the Catholic church ruled against them frequently; as outlined earlier, any act that put a man in an inferior position was deemed unnatural. (Not to mention that sodomy in general was not a route to procreation, thus upsetting the very structure of society. Anal heterosexual sex remained illegal in the UK until 1994.)

Oscar Wilde
Sexual orientation as we understand it today is a fairly modern concept. In the past it was often the power you held in any particular encounter which was deemed a much more important indicator of masculinity. The Cleveland Street scandal of 1889 and Oscar Wilde's trial for gross indecency in 1895 serve as a turning point in attitudes towards homosexual acts.

This is the key issue when looking at gender identity: it only becomes a problem if it's posing a threat. Michael Rocke, for instance, looked at homosexuality in Renaissance Florence. The average age of marriage in the city was fifteen for women compared to around thirty for men; homosexual sex amongst young men was seen as something relatively unproblematic as they would, it was assumed, grow out of it. Some saw it as practice for the responsibilities of marriage: Eg. Twenty-five year old Luca di Matten gave his sixteen year old lover hats, slippers, coats and ‘a lot of money’ over a five month period - as he would have with a female mistress. Censure came when homosexual preferences continued into adulthood; eg. thirty-eight year old Salvestro Alamanni for example was said to prefer his lover Jacopo da Verrazzano to his own wife, gifting him with over 250 Florins worth of clothing over a two year period. As Mark Blechner points out, the importance of sexuality is intrinsically linked to time and place.

Gender history offers us greater understanding of the time period. By studying these alternative gender identities, we glean a better idea of how society functioned. In conjunction with other analytical tools - class, ethnicity, geographic location, etc - we can build up a richer image. Gender impacts on every other historical filter. Status gives you privilege, but gender can impede it. E.g. the Duchess of Devonshire was deeply involved in politics but, because of her gender, had to do it all behind the scenes. When she publicly canvassed the backlash was so great she was forced to desist.

Gender history is imperfect, but invaluable all the same.

Case study: Education

The education of women was a touchy subject. In 1543 King Henry VIII forbade lower born women, even if they possessed the skill, from reading the bible. Upper class women could read it, but only to themselves. On an everyday basis, education was expensive and therefore routinely reserved for boys. Upper class women were not expected to enter the professions, so did not need the same level of education. Moderata Fonte has Corinna say: 'If we were educated properly as girls... we'd outstrip men's performance in any science or art you care to name.'

It was not until the Victorian era that it became customary for girls to be educated, helped along by legislation such as the Elementary Education Act of 1870. But that did not mean girls received an equal education. In the 1970s 2/3 of classroom time was spent on boys and in 1982 Dale Spender found there were marked differences in the way teachers treated boys and girls. A group of trainee teacherswere given a report card and asked to advise a future career for the child. When the report card belonged to Jane Smith they suggested receptionist or secretary, based on her language skills. Her propensity to question in class was seen as a sign she needed to knuckle down though. When the same report was said to belong to John Smith the answers ranged from the civil service to 'could do anything he wanted'. John's questioning was deemed a sign of a powerful personality.

"You are a clever girl, Prissie, and I'm going to be proud of you. I don't hold with the present craze about women's education. But somehow I think I'll be proud of you." Aunt Raby gives her views on women's education in L.T. Meade's 1891 book, A Sweet Girl Graduate. I've written about Meade and her contribution to women's rights HERE.

As late as 1979 classes could be strictly segregated. That year Helen Whitfield took Woodcote High School (Croydon) to court. She wanted to do woodwork, but the school refused. They said it was a craft subject - home economics was therefore a suitable substitute. The judge agreed with the school. In 1981 Grange Hill mirrored the story when Trisha Yates was told she couldn't take technical drawing because she was a girl. For the most part there was relatively little call for change however. Martin and Roberts found in 1984 that most girls still saw marriage and motherhood as their main life goal, just as Sue Sharpe had found in 1972. This did not change until the 1990s.

Divisions continued into higher education. Take Cambridge University as an example. Founded in 1209 it did not admit female students until Girton was founded in 1869. Newnham followed in 1872 - but the university refused to award any kind of degree to women until 1921! New Hall was established in 1954 and Lucy Cavendish, for mature students, in 1965. Churchill was the first Cambridge college to go co-ed in 1972. Across the UK female university students rose from 25% of the total student population in 1963 to 40% in 1981. Today Cambridge is the only university in the country which continues to discriminate on grounds of gender - Oxford went fully co-ed in 2008.


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