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Home > The Courses > Course Home Pages > What Is Gender History?

What Is Gender History?

by Nancy F. Cott
Harvard University
Cambridge, Massachusetts

Professor Nancy Cott delivered the following speech during the AP Luncheon at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in January 2005 in Seattle, Washington.

"Gender-Conscious" History
"Gender history" is not yet a commonplace designation. The syntax itself may raise eyebrows, or raise questions: What is the history of gender? Is it the history of gender roles, prescriptions for how men and women should behave? I would use it in a more inclusive sense. Gender history is a terser way of saying "gender-conscious" history, history that takes gender centrally into account. Gender matters; that is, it matters that human beings do not appear as neuter individuals, that they exist as male or female, although this binary is always filtered through human perception. I should add that when I say gender, I am talking about meaning. I am talking about something in which interpretation is already involved.

Human understandings of sexual difference -- the many and various ways that the existence of male and female is figured in social relationships, beliefs, practices, and institutions -- this is gender. Being products of human culture, notions of gender are not constant but are specific to time and place. That means gender is inherently historical. Gender definition is always present, yet never static. Even within a given time and place, the categories of masculinity and femininity are in a process of being forged, disseminated, contested, reworked, and reaffirmed. Therefore, representations and enactments of gender attributes and proprieties will appear in every arena in which women and men live and interpret their lives.

Some historians (and nonhistorians) think "gender history" is a synonym for women's history; others, however, feel that speaking of gender history minimizes or dismisses women's history. I feel that gender history expresses the main intent of the field of women's history since it began, that is, to show that understanding of the past cannot be gained without paying attention to women and men as such, to systematic differentiation of womanhood and manhood, masculinity and femininity. The initial impulses and ambitions in women's history were to make women visible, to put women on the historical record: to enable women's voices to be heard and to listen to them, to show women's points of view. That was not a simple endeavor. It involved changing -- broadening -- what had been seen as "history," what had been seen as historically important. It involved revising typical periodization and reassessing assumptions about causation in history. Focusing on women's lives and experiences involved revisualizing what was subject to history.

Women's History vs. Gender History
Far from minimizing women's history, gender history includes and amplifies it. Gender history not only recognizes women as historical agents but also revokes the assumption that men are neuter beings whose masculinity and sexuality require no notice. This perspective presumes that every historical subject is shaped and influenced by gender attributes -- and by the existence of a gender binary.

The study of gender history has moved in tandem with, and been enhanced by, several contemporaneous trends in historical scholarship. Many parallels can be found between the historiography of women's history and of African American history. Both fields sought visibility for a group distorted and underrepresented. Historians in both fields intended to establish analytical prominence for a group concept -- "gender" and "race" -- yet soon had to point out that the category itself was far from determinate or static. Both areas of historical study shared the premise of "social constructionism," which proposed that the meanings of gender and race could be found nowhere but in history.

Every event and theme in United States history is susceptible to -- and illuminated by -- the perspective of gender history. The gender binary is a basic classification in human thinking and appears in human usage in every culture. That is, the masculine and the feminine are always differentiated, yet "masculine" and "feminine" have no predefined or necessary content. The two appear to be stable classifications only because they both are there, relative to one another. One doesn't exist without the other. And they are rarely on a par; rather, like up and down, right and wrong, big and small, the masculine is superior or dominant, the feminine inferior or subordinate (though the relation may be reversed).

Gender is directly referential in an important sense, describing how sexual division is understood in the social order. But gender references, metaphors, and rhetoric go far beyond descriptions of, or relations between, men and women. Because the gender divide is so basic and has been understood as a ranking, as a hierarchy -- a relation not simply of difference but of domination -- gender becomes, in Joan Scott's words, "a primary way of signifying relationships of power."1 Gender allusions handily condemn or praise, easily magnify or dismiss. Gender idioms can be called upon to characterize a divide between any one group and another -- and seem especially appealing to employ if the relation between the two is competitive or conflictual, as between political parties, between metropole and colony, between enemies on a battlefield. The political arena, being the field of power wielding and power relations, is especially rife with gender symbology and rhetoric. California Governor Schwarzenegger's reviling of his legislative opponents as "girlie-men" in the fall of 2004 provides a typical example.

Moving Gender from Private Sphere to Public
Current trends in scholarship, the extent of research, and new findings have now made it possible -- I would say necessary -- to keep gender visible in all of U.S. history. Women's history is often credited with bringing the "private" sphere of human lives into the limelight of history -- and moreover with challenging the very notion of a clear boundary between "public" and "private" in the forces that make for historical change. Gender history continues this mandate by taking the whole of the past as its canvas.

The use of gender as an analytic category has had a great deal to do with the revivification, since the 1980s, of political history. The study of core "public" concerns -- such as war, diplomacy, presidential administrations, partisan alignments -- has been enlivened by asking new questions about men and masculinity, as well as by asking how and where were women involved. When Drew Faust and I were invited, two years ago, by the staff of the Magazine of History -- a magazine published by the Organization of American Historians and geared toward high school teachers -- to edit a special issue, we decided to focus the issue on these recent political directions in gender history. We found it easy -- and important -- to commission articles that employed a gender perspective to deal with quite "mainstream" topics in U.S. history, such as World War II, electoral politics, international relations, social movements, industrialization.

Certain well-known political figures seem to beg for an analysis highlighting gender concerns; Theodore Roosevelt, for example, the Rough Rider and defender of the strenuous life, has become "a poster boy for the utility of gender in foreign policy history," in the words of Kristin Hoganson.2 Hoganson's book, Fighting for American Manhood: How Gender Politics Provoked the Spanish American and Philippine-American Wars, is an important contribution and goad to the endeavor to reenvision the history of foreign policy and international relations with full cognizance of gender as "a primary way of signifying relationships of power." Hoganson's ample research found gender imagery, in truly staggering proportions, pervading congressional and public debate over going to war against Spain to "liberate" Cuba -- and likewise over conquering the resistant Filipinos. More surprising, the same discourse of manly courage was used by both sides. The prowar factions claimed to be men of real backbone who would lead the nation in a course of honor. They spoke of the United States as if the nation were a male citizen-husband-father writ large, who should exercise paternal (or husbandlike) protectiveness in taking over Spain's former colonies. The anti-imperialists riposted by also emphasizing manly honor, but reasoning that restraint was far more honorable and manly than belligerence.

If I were asked to name what are the areas in U.S. history where gender history has brought notable enlightenment, these examples come to mind (in no particular order):

Daughters of the Industrial Revolution
The history of the industrial revolution: here, the integration of women's history entirely reoriented questions about industrialization and class formation. It mattered that the first industrial labor supply in the United States was made up of farm daughters, not sons. A history of industrialization that would encompass the workers -- as well as the entrepreneurs, the engineers, the technology, and the sources of power for machinery -- had to think about the division of labor in families, between women and men, and relate that to the kinds of paid work that was assigned or made available to each. A history of labor movements had to consider the gender and family status of those being organized and to look at how these variables took different shapes through the changing circumstances of the nineteenth century, as industrialization advanced over more areas of production and drew in increasingly diverse immigrant populations. Where was consciousness of working-class identity formed and nurtured? Not only on the shop floor, but in working-class homes and communities. Moreover, how did middle-class respectability distinguish itself? Wouldn't one have to look at the construction of gender, in order to understand the construction of class values? That is to ask, what were the attributes of middle-class gentlemen as compared to male workers? What were the attributes of middle-class "ladies," so called, that made them think of themselves as models for others and made the social identity of wage-earning women problematic? Questions like these gave labor history new energy in the 1970s and 1980s, and are now a mainstay of the field.

Women's Work on Welfare
A second area I'd point to is the history of public provision for social welfare. This is a central question in political development -- how did the United States, as a polity, manage to part with its aversion to federal regulation and public provision? How did the influential part of the populace change from embracing "rugged individualism" in the nineteenth century to accepting a federal income tax, an interstate commerce commission, a Food and Drug Agency, and eventually the Social Security Act, Homeowners Loan Corporation, federal housing, Agricultural Adjustment Act, and so on by the early twentieth? Tremendous advances in understanding this long-term political evolution have been accomplished by including women and gender in the picture.

With the New Deal, the United States began to join other industrialized nations in placing social and economic welfare alongside political participation in definitions of citizenship. To understand how the New Deal became possible, one has to understand preceding efforts led by women outside of government. The women's club movement and settlement houses pioneered innovations in social science and social work. Putting pressures on local, then state, and eventually the federal government, these voluntary associations were instrumental in driving the state entities to adopt regulatory and community-balancing methods.

Gender history also has illuminated the extent to which New Deal provisions that seemed very progressive (in intervening into economic sustenance for individuals) were very conservative with respect to the relative economic roles of men and women, husbands and wives. The New Deal redefined the meaning of citizenship in the United States; yet in one way the redefinition was a throwback. In agency after agency, in provision for work, and relief, and bolstering of the nation's families and individuals, the figure of the principal citizen -- addressed as wage-earner and provider -- was male. Working men's welfare was at the heart of New Deal social provision. Women were included in New Deal programs, but as individuals and potential wage-earners, they received only a tiny fraction of what men did. The vast majority of New Deal-instigated benefits went to (white) men as individuals who were actual or potential husbands, fathers, and providers for families, and went to women, if at all, as wives or widows. Policymakers of both sexes were deeply involved in the crafting of New Deal social policies, but their backgrounds and their priorities differed, and the policies instituted embodied a different set of social expectations for adult women and for adult men.

Race Relations and Identities
A third area where gender history has been crucial is in exploring the history of race and racism in the United States. It has become very clear -- most obviously in studying the antebellum South, but actually in studying virtually any period and location in American history -- that racial difference is rarely perceived apart from gender. This is because we can't really think about human beings without (implicitly) seeing them in gendered form. One can hardly imagine a "person" realistically -- one imagines a man, or a woman. In perceptions of race -- in racial distinction and in racism -- assumptions about gender are always inevitably in play.

In any situation where individuals of differing ethnicity or race confront each other, understanding of that difference has to be filtered through expectations of gender. This is true inside a multiracial society (like ours), and it is so in circumstances of confrontation between strangers of different nations or cultures. Kathleen Brown made this point some years ago in treating seventeenth-century English settlement amidst the native Americans in Virginia. She named this interface "cultural encounters along a gender frontier." When Englishmen observed that Iroquois did not "head" their households, nor command their wives and children, nor work the land to provide for them but went off hunting, the English, who didn't understand the Indian sexual division of labor, judged them as slothful, immature, self-indulgent, and lacking in manhood. Because Indians did not perform the masculine gender behavior that Englishmen expected, they were judged racially inferior.

Historical actors' understandings of what constitutes masculinity and femininity, and their projections of imagined scenarios of sexual interaction as well, have to be taken in account in order to understand situations of racial/cultural conflict -- or racial harmony, for that matter. One cannot really talk sensibly about the racial hierarchy in the slaveholding South, for instance, without acknowledging the different vulnerabilities and leverage of the male and female slave -- and without distinguishing how the white master's command differed from the white mistress's, as well as sharing some of its characteristics. In practice in the old South, the racial hierarchy of white over black, and the gender hierarchy of male over female, supported one another and were defended as one. Parallels between race and sex have often been used in American history, for many different purposes, with a range of consequences from beneficial to tragic, depending on context. For the historian, it is more interesting and valuable to stay away from parallels and notice how the categories of race and sex are inextricably intertwined in human beings.

While race and sex can be thought apart, they cannot be "lived" apart from one another. The idiom of white supremacy in the United States has always been steeped in gender/sex. It took gender history to point this out, however. I think here of Gail Bederman's pathbreaking book Manliness and Civilization, which showed how the reigning discourse of civilization in the late nineteenth century, supporting white supremacy, was more specifically enshrining white male supremacy.4

Cold War, Vietnam, and Other Foreign Policies
That takes me to a fourth area, having to do with the forging of political discourse and foreign policy. Hoganson's work on the Spanish-American War, which I mentioned earlier, is a good example of gender history helping to explain why some political decisions come out the way they do. Recently there has been considerable attention paid to gender history in the immediate post-World War II years. Frank Costigliola has proposed a transformative approach to George Kennan, the theoretician of "containment," by revealing the gender-laden framework in which Kennan saw conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union. Others have examined how Cold War alliances with nations such as Israel or India were forged and/or maintained in part via the gender characterizations of these nations and their inhabitants.5 Robert Dean's book Imperial Brotherhood focuses on the puzzle of John F. Kennedy's entanglement in Vietnam, connecting the Kennedy administration's understanding of what it meant to "be a man" not only to the morass of the Vietnam war, but also to the invention of the Peace Corps, the military's counterinsurgency program, and the president's Council on Physical Fitness. Dean builds his argument in part by analyzing the political attacks on suspected homosexuals in the State Department during the 1950s. Dean documents the political persecutions of the "Lavender Scare" far more fully than had been done before, although historians had previously recognized that McCarthy and his allies targeted homosexual as well as Communist suspects. The Cold War discourse that linked political subversion with sexual perversion was "much more than a rhetorical ploy," Dean argues. "Gender and the politics of sexuality and 'deviance' were not peripheral issues; they were central to the operations of power."

Dean's book suggests the many potential lines of inquiry that can be opened by considering how particular leaders' internalization of the demands of manhood might drive policymaking. Recent works like his, Hoganson's, and Kantrowitz's on the Southern white supremacist Ben Tillman get beyond establishing what gender preconceptions were to look at the operations of gender and sexuality in specific policy outcomes, both foreign and domestic. This gender history aims to pin down what gender expectations can do, how they create and destroy, when they are embodied in men who wield global power.6

There are many more areas I could highlight -- I'm skipping over, for example, the transformation in understanding of citizenship and new views of conflicts within our political culture -- that have been wrought by gender history. I hope this will suffice to indicate the enormous potential for understanding history better that comes along with employment of a gender perspective.


Notes
1 Joan W. Scott, "Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis," American Historical Review 91, no. 5 (1986): 1,053-75, quotation on 1,067.

2 Kristin Hoganson, "What's Gender Got to Do with It? Women and Foreign Relations History," Magazine of History 19, no. 2 (March 2005): 14.

3 See Kathleen Brown, "Beyond the Great Debates: Gender and Race in Early America," Reviews in American History 26, no. 1 (March 1998): 96-123; and Carole Shammas, "Anglo-American Household Government in Comparative Perspective," William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser., 52, no. 1 (January 1995): 104-44.

4 Gail Bederman, Manliness and Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880-1917 (1995); and cf. Steven Kantrowitz, Ben Tillman and the Reconstruction of White Supremacy (2000).

5 Frank Costigliola, "'Unceasing Pressure for Penetration': Gender, Pathology, and Emotion in George Kennan's Formation of the Cold War," JAH 83 (March 1997): 1,309-39; Andrew J. Rotter, Comrades at Odds: The United States and India, 1947-1964 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000); and Michelle Mart, "Tough Guys and American Cold War Policy: Images of Israel, 1948-1960," Diplomatic History 20 (Summer 1996): 357-80.

6 Robert D. Dean, Imperial Brotherhood: Gender and the Making of Cold War Foreign Policy (Amherst: University of Massachusetts, 2001): 70; and cf. K. A. Cuordileone, "'Politics in an Age of Anxiety': Cold War Political Culture and the Crisis in American Masculinity, 1949-1960," Journal of American History 87, no. 2 (September 2000): 515-545.

Nancy F. Cott is the Jonathan Trumbull Professor of American History at Harvard University and Carl and Lily Pforzheimer Foundation Director of the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. Her books include The Bonds of Womanhood: "Woman's Sphere" in New England, 1780-1835 (1977), The Grounding of Modern Feminism (1987), A Woman Making History: Mary Ritter Beard Through Her Letters (1991), and Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation (2000).


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