Gender and World History

Simon Purdue's picture

Hi all,

As a PhD student in a World History program and a historian of gender, it is becoming increasingly clear that merging the two fields has presented some major difficulties in the past- whether through animosity between the respective academies or through conflicts in method and methodology. The examples of 'women's world history' or gendered world histories that I have encountered so far have all seemed somewhat thrown together, either being guilty of the 'add and stir' method of women's history or barely qualifying as world history. The best attempt that I have seen is probably Women, Chocolate and Empire by Emma Robertson, but even that borders on a comparative gender history rather than a strict world history within the definition that I have come to accept. This seems to reflect a bigger issue- which is that world history as a discipline is difficult to socialize or personalize. It seems to be by its very nature a top-down, birds-eye view on history, and although I know many recent publications have attempted to shake this trend, it still seems to be difficult to produce a truly social world history that explores the interconnections and trends of a global system but also gives names and voices to the people who these trends affect on a daily basis. Until this issue is addressed it seems women are destined to be under-represented in world historiography. Add on to this the issue of the archival silence of women in many parts of the globe and it seems that writing a truly comprehensive world history from a gender perspective presents a daunting and possibly insurmountable task.

As an early-career academic seeking to integrate gender history and world history on this social scale, I was wondering if anyone in the world history community has ideas on how we can more adequately give voice to women in world history, and more broadly on how we can further socialize world history in a way that explores the global patterns that define the field but also represents the normal, 'unexceptional' people that our field often negelcts. 

Even if your definition of world history is restricted to the idea of a top-down approach, I don’t see this as being necessarily unconducive to doing gender history. Gender history at its core is about power, much like most world history, and history in general. Therefore, looking at governmental policies, institutional organizations, laws (de jure and de facto), commodities, travel accounts, or other sources that reflect the top of the hierarchy are still rich with historical information for gender historians, the issue may be is that world historians are obscuring the discussion of gender in favor of other lenses. These kinds of sources, while they may not be produced by women, no doubt contain highly gendered language or are indoctrinated with gender norms and prescriptions, and are a way to work around sources not produced by women. These sources, like any, are inherently biased and therefore need careful examination and contextualization and must not speak for those at the bottom of the "hierarchy," but they are plentiful and accessible to historians seeking to explore the gendered construction of power.

However, I think a blending of social and world history is extremely doable. To me, world history can be situated in a single region as long as the study is not arbitrarily restricted by national boundaries and can be made a social history. The important thing to make a study a world history is to situate your argument in the context of global currents; to show how whatever was happening where your focus is was not happening in a vacuum, but rather reflective and contributing to a larger circulation of events, ideas, or social practices. I think this social world history would again go back to how one reads sources- I would think sources that are typically used for social histories could be read with a world history lens to understand how people en masse saw themselves in the global context they were a part of. This even goes for sources that are typically used for social histories within a national framework since identity is constructed in relation to the “other,” plenty of sources about national/racial/gender identities could be done in a world history framework (see Drawing the Global Colour Line by Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds). While looking at a single region may not seem like a world history because it does not have a broad geographic scope being tracked, these social world histories contribute to the world history historiography by either contesting or confirming larger, general narratives provided by broad world histories.

Of course the issue of silence in the archives is one that needs to be acknowledged. Having a minimal amount of sources regarding underrepresented people runs the risk of marginalizing them for a second time- the first being their lived experience and the second time in the historical record. However, this is not a unique problem to world historians and historians of all different interests have found creative ways to circumvent this roadblock or “read between the lines” in sources. For example, archaeological evidence has been an alternative route for historians explore the beliefs and culture of enslaved persons in America who did not leave a rich written record behind- I am thinking specifically of the work done at the Royall House and Slave Quarters in Medford, Massachusetts. While not always practical, when available, archaeological evidence and material culture in general removes the need for a written account. This gives a voice and agency to people who were not able to provide or preserve a written presence in the historical record. As a public history student, I have seen plentiful examples of material culture and archaeological evidence used to construct narratives for exhibits in the absence of the written record. I believe historical articles or monographs that seek to do the same would enrich the world history historiography.

I think the current literature and varying methods in world history show the expansive definition this field has come to take on in order to give more agency to historical actors. Archival silences are nothing new to historians, but may be even more fit to be explained by world historians who can contextualize these silences with an understanding of universally-shared beliefs that have marginalized specific voices. It’s all just a matter of how you read the sources you have. I don’t necessarily see an incompatibility between social or gender history and world history, I just think until recently world historians have focused on the big picture with broad generalizations. Therefore, just because the historiography of world history may not be full of examples of a social/gendered world history, that does not mean it is not doable.

I agree with what Kara has said already, and would like to expand on a few of her points. First, though, I think that perhaps because gender is constructed contextually, specific to the societies and cultures in which norms develop, it has been difficult for some to see how gender history could be done as world history. However, as Kara has pointed out, prioritizing gender as a lens, as opposed to needing its construction to be the same across the globe, is a way forward.

Going to Kara’s example of Lake and Reynolds’ Drawing the Global Colour Line, I also want to point out that the book places race in a world historical framework, another area that seems difficult to include in world history, probably for similar reasons as gender. In that text, Lake and Reynolds utilize connections to show how the global circulation of ideas – specifically about “whiteness” – led to the development of the concept of “white men’s countries.” Although they argue that whiteness was constructed in national contexts, they also demonstrate that particular strategies for exclusion in one country inspired the use of similar strategies in another; for example (referring to chapter five of the book), South Africa’s adoption of a US tool for limiting immigration, the literacy test. It seems (to me anyway) unlikely that similar borrowings would be nonexistent in gender history. I would also consider Michael Goebel’s Anti-Imperial Metropolis as an example of a similar method for bringing global networks to light, though he did so based on connections made in one place.

Perhaps intersectionality could also be useful for tackling gender in a global context; e.g. white people define their gender differently in a global context compared to non-white people. I am thinking specifically of empires and colonies here, as colonized men were often feminized in colonial rhetoric, and white women’s gender identities were structured very differently than the identities of non-white women.

Referring to Kara’s examples about material culture as a way of getting around source problems, I thought of another possibility: sartorial history. Clothing and fashion are gendered, and reflect societal norms and expectations. And, not to say that this would only be useful for thinking about women’s history – since clothing has been just as important for people of other gender identities – I have seen women’s clothing (more so than any other, aside from military uniforms) used in several museum exhibits, including the Smithsonian, and the MFA in Boston. This could also be looked at as a commodity, which may lend itself to world history, since commodities traverse the globe.