Gender

Kerrie Holloway's picture

The topic of gender history has become ubiquitous within the past few decades with everyone asking, ‘What about the women?’ This question led to revisionist histories of all major historical events such as the evolution of a two-party political system in early America in Catherine Allgor’s Parlor Politics: In which the Ladies of Washington Help Build a City and a Government (2000), American slavery in Deborah Gray White Ar’n’t I a Woman?: Female Slaves in the Plantation South (1985) and Annie L. Burton’s Women’s Slave Narratives (2006), the Russian Revolution in Barbara Evans Clements’s Bolshevik Women (1997) and even religious traditions of the Middle Ages in Erin L. Jordan’s Women, Power and Religious Patronage in the Middle Ages (2005).

Furthermore, this question has led many to reverse the theme and examine masculinity as a phenomenon and men as gendered beings rather than mere representatives of the masses. Examples of this are seen in Joanna Bourke’s Dismembering the Male: Men's Bodies, Britain and the Great War (1996) and Matthew C. Guttman’s The Meaning of Macho: Being a Man in Mexico City(1996).

Similarly, one list member, Brian Sarnacki suggests Gail Bederman’s Manliness and Civilization, particularly its conclusion examining Tarzan. He also recommends Gloria Steinem’s If Men Could Menstruate as a good introduction to the concepts of gender and often uses it when working with undergraduate students to get them thinking about gender’s role in society. My favourite gender history book is Mary Louise Roberts’s Civilization without Sexes: Reconstructing Gender in Postwar France, 1917–1927 (1994) which analyses the fear among the French of gender confusion following the drastic changes in population dynamics wrought by casualties of the Great War.

Writing gender history is still an evolving process as initial women’s histories looked specifically at ‘women’s issues’ such as childbirth, family and education. Now, women’s histories are expanding into all areas, with Helen McCarthy’s Women of the World: The Rise of the Female Diplomat (2014) looking at the struggle of women to enter British diplomatic service.

One area that remains underrepresented involves cross-cultural gender histories, particularly immigrant histories. While historians have succeeded in adding greater nuance to the traditional male white history model, more depth needs to be incorporated into gender-based histories of other ethnicities. Cross-cultural history offers an exciting opportunity for gender historians. Rather than focusing on a limited group, historians could compare and contrast women (and men!) of different races, nationalities, or classes. For example, how did suffragettes campaign for the vote in America versus Britain? Were women’s lives and job opportunities improved under communist rule in the USSR and Cuba? Likewise, did the First World War influence men in Germany the same as in France?

For general information on gender history, see Sonya O. Rose’s What is Gender History? (2010). For more information on the evolution of gender history, see Laura Lee Downs’s Writing Gender History (2004).

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Keywords: blog, Gender