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Wednesday 12 August 2020

The Future of History

Return to gender

Gender history grew out of women’s history. Elaine Chalus hopes that it will keep on growing

This essay is part of Tortoise’s File on The Future of History, which considers what history should look like in the 21st Century – as a subject of study, but also an area of action and protest. To see the rest of the File’s contents, please tap here.


I remember the event that triggered my fascination with gender and gender history very clearly. Surprisingly, for someone who was already interested in women’s history, it didn’t start with questioning women’s roles and experiences. It didn’t have anything to do with unpicking the thinking behind my father’s repeated injunctions to “Be a lady!”, or his fears that I would lose my chastity and reputation as a teenager. Nor did it even stem from my beginning to question the divergent femininities performed by my farm-wife mother and her androgynous lesbian sister, a cowboy-hatted and booted Marlboro Woman who rode the range.

Instead, it came unexpectedly when I was teaching English, from one of my high school students, a sixteen-year-old boy. A promising writer, with potential as a poet, I encouraged him to develop his talent, to see writing as a career. He demurred. “It’s the code,” he explained to me: “real” men didn’t write poetry.

I was intrigued by his understanding of masculinity as a “code”, a set of expectations, behaviours and boundaries that he was conscious of needing to learn and enact if he was to be accepted by his peers. His articulation of masculinity and what it meant to him – in the 1980s, in northern Alberta, in an area where almost all of the men he knew were farmers and/or worked in the oil patch – set me thinking about gender more broadly. It made me reflect on how our understandings of masculinity and femininity are constructed and how factors such as age, race, ethnicity, culture and time shape our identities.

“‘It’s the code,’ he explained to me: ‘real’ men didn’t write poetry.”

Coming to gender history through masculinity is perhaps unusual, as gender history is, after all, an offshoot of women’s history. It emerged out of the work done by second-wave feminists who had appropriated history as a political tool, a way to explain women’s historical subordination and oppression. As women’s history developed, powerful conceptual arguments emerged to explain women’s shared historical experiences. Central to these was a belief that differences between the sexes resulted in men and women inhabiting mutually exclusive, asymmetrical worlds. Whether these differences were biologically determined or socially constituted – whether it was nature or nurture – remained contested.

The emergence of gender as an analytical tool in the 1980s provided historians with a conceptual framework that moved away from the essentialism of biological difference and towards a broader, more nuanced, fluid and contextual understanding of women’s – and men’s – experiences. Instead of seeing the historical inequalities between men and women as rooted in “natural” biological functions, historians argued that these distinctions were (and are) socially constructed and therefore varied with factors such as time, place, culture, race, class, age and ethnicity. Their manifestations, in the form of masculinity and femininity, were not fixed, but continuously being redefined in relation to each other.

What’s more, these gender roles were plural, not singular: at any point in time, there could be numerous forms of masculinity and femininity operating on a spectrum that extended from the hegemonic to the transgressive. As defined by Joan Scott in a groundbreaking article in American Historical Review in 1986, gender needed to be understood in two interconnected ways: first, as “a constitutive of social relationships based on perceived differences between the sexes”; and secondly, as “a primary way of signifying relationships of power”.

It would be tempting to say that, in the intervening years, gender history has moved from the margins into the mainstream – and, to a degree, it has. It has been applied successfully to various studies of women’s historical experiences, from the classical world through to the global present, and has done much to revise our understanding of the realities of women’s lives and restore their agency.

It has also fostered the emergence of queer history, formed the foundation for studies of the history of masculinity, and has been of central importance to studies of race, colonialism and decolonisation. Historians increasingly apply a gendered lens to the study of politics, war, diplomacy, kingship, indigenous relations, and more. Gendered history is particularly important in telling us how the powerful defined themselves and how they used gender to maintain that power by defining those less powerful, or different, as “other” and lesser. It helps us understand the world we have inherited and the world we create.

“Gender history poses a threat to reactionary regimes because it is inherently political.”

Yet we need to be aware that gender history is not secure. It poses a threat to reactionary regimes because it is inherently political. It threatens established hierarchies. It substitutes pluralities for easy binaries. It challenges stereotypes and offers instead complex understandings of sexualities and identities. It destabilises the foundational myths upon which women’s oppression, homophobia and racism, to name only three, are based. Thus, for instance, it was saddening, though not entirely surprising, to see Gender Studies at the Central European University recently singled out as a threat to Hungarian society itself by the government of Viktor Orbán. As historians, we need to ensure that gender history survives.

So what is the future of gender history? I would argue that we need gender history more than ever. Through its breadth, tolerance, understanding and compassion, it offers us ways to explain men and women, societies and cultures, to each other in an uncertain world. As a discipline, it needs to understand societies on their terms, not project modern sensibilities backwards. But it must also be fierce and incisive, ready to point out discrimination, inequalities and oppression. This is a difficult balance to achieve.

Despite a multitude of academic publications over the last thirty years, historians need to do more to make gender an integral component of our research, particularly in its relation to the dynamics of power. To name only a few specific areas: we need to understand why – still – women are so under-represented in politics in western democracies such as the UK and the USA; we need to return to examinations of the gendering of the economy and questions of the values we do and don’t attach to work; we must question the ways, for instance, that gender has operated in industrial design and technology; and we must strive to achieve a fuller understanding of how gender has been entangled with race and class and ethnicity.

“Gender history needs to reach out to a wider public.”

The relationships between gender, bodies and sexualities have also re-emerged in a new form in current debates around transsexual identities – and these, while heated, reflect the continued relevance of the study of the gendered body.

Most importantly, perhaps, gender history in the 21st Century needs to reach out to a wider public. It needs to become an integral component of study in schools, providing children with an important conceptual tool for understanding difference and becoming global citizens. This will continue to put it at odds with reactionary political forces, but if we wish to achieve a more tolerant, understanding and compassionate world, we need to be able to see both our past and our present as complex, nuanced and mutable. We need, in effect, to move away from fixed “codes” to rich variations.

Illustrations by Tim Vyner

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Elaine Chalus

Elaine Chalus is Professor of British History and Head of the Department of History at the University of Liverpool.