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Gender Roles and History, Essay Example

Pages: 6

Words: 1561

Essay

Question 1: Gender Roles as an Insight into Particular Historical Contexts

The value of gender as a category of analysis within history can be primarily understood in terms of the role gender plays within the structure of historical societies. Namely, gender points to one of the decisive manners in which a society organizes itself and furthermore understands itself. The analysis of the concept of gender allows one to gain a glimpse into the normativity’s of the dominant social discourse within a particular society, and therefore, for example, how this dominant social discourse distributes roles to subjects within this society. Such an idea becomes lucid when the historian considers the phenomenon of war, and for example, how gender is conceived in this period. The historical analysis of sources related to war, for example, in Post-First World War Europe, shows that specific gender roles were advanced in this society: most prominently, the gendered subjectivities of the man as warrior and the woman as mother, sister, and wife on the home front. This distinct structure speaks to what a dominant structure values, and how it seeks to perpetuate this basic ideological position. This is an ideological position because it seeks to identify an essence of, for example, what is a man, what is a woman, what is a good citizen, what is a bad citizen, etc., not allowing any contingencies to this definition, but rather presenting them as wholly necessary.

Hence, one can notice, in the case of European societies, a pronounced link between roles of gender and a militant and aggressive dominant social discourse. For example, in the France of the Post-First World War, a legal document such as »The French Decree Establishing Medals for Mothers« presents a close affinity between gender roles and a militarization of society. As the decree explicitly states, »The raising of the birthrate, which our country must undertake in order to retain the rank in which victory has placed us and to permit us to harvest all its fruits, is above all a moral question.« (The French Decree Establishing Medals for Mothers, 308) The maintenance of the high birthrate in France is not merely an issue of individual and subjective choice. By being placed into a law it becomes a political issue, decided upon by the state. This evinces a certain insight into the functioning of the European state, in this case France, according to which the citizens of the state essentially become a form of property of the state. Gender roles become political categories through which the dominant state discourse exerts its hegemony over its citizens. Accordingly, gender roles themselves become instances of a devalued individuality, as the ability to classify subjectivities as gendered subjectivities means that the state can subsequently attempt to intervene in the behavior of its citizens. The awarding of medals becomes an incentive for those in society to fulfill the gender roles, which the dominant discourse expects of them. Furthermore, the equation of motherhood with an essentially military honor of the medal entails that there is certain aggressiveness to this gesture: just as men are to die on the battlefield,, women are to produce the soldiers that are to die on this same battlefield. Gender becomes an indicator of the geopolitical ambitions of the state; it becomes an indicator of the ideology of the state.

Accordingly, by studying gender in relation to history one discovers not only some of the key tropes of the discourse of a given context, i.e., such as the laws issued by a particular state, but also how the greater social discourse attempts to create particular identities and subjectivities for its own benefit. In the case of the war time and post-war time discourse of France, theses identities and subjectivities are created in a manner that is consistent with the military and geopolitical ambitions of the state. Men and women are conceived as gendered subjectivities in order to advance this war effort and to ensure hegemony. Accordingly, gender roles are not a transcendent category that exist in every society, but are rather uniquely created by a particular historical context: studying gender roles gives us an insight into the structure of this historical context.

Question 2: The Historical Shifting of Gender Roles as the De-Essentialization of Gender Roles

The fact that gender roles upon an examination of the primary sources have by no means remained consistent throughout European history suggests that they are primarily creations of a particular historicized context. That is to say, a given historicized context will attempt to formulate the categories of man and woman in a prima facie fundamental and essential way: the role of the man is X, the role of the woman is Y. But by understanding that these gender roles have in fact changed throughout history, it therefore becomes lucid that such gendered subjectivities are neither fundamental nor essential, but rather products of a particular discourse and historical context.

Hence, in post-First World War France, a legal document such as the “Loi de 31 Juillet 1920” provides a specific example of an attempt to clearly delineate gender roles. The heavy criminal penalties given to those involved in abortion may be interpreted as a French historical context that conceived women primarily in terms of their ability to bear children and thus in terms of motherhood. The strictness of the law is evidenced in its applicability to anyone who advocates or participates in abortion: “A sentence of six months to three years in prison and a fine of one hundred to three thousand francs will be levied against any person who advocates the crime of abortion.” (Loi de 31 Juillet, 1920, 310) The institution of criminal charges against those involved in abortion suggests that abortion is primarily viewed as a threat to the state: it is viewed as a transgression of the gender roles that the state has established, such that in the case of the woman, this gendered subjectivity is equivalent to that of a mother. The effort to promote criminalization can be viewed as a concomitant attempt to portray any woman who does not accept this gendered subjectivity of motherhood as a deviant: by promoting abortion they are a threat to the dominant discourse, since they refuse the latter’s ascription of gender statuses. The intrusion of the state into the personal biological life of its subjects suggests that the state attempts to make this biological life complicit with its discourse: it attempts to exert its hegemony over individual subjects.

Yet the extent to which different gendered subjectivities have existed in European history show that such an attempt to naturalize the biological is always, at base, an attempt to seize or maintain hegemony. The particular way in which historicized political contexts attempt to control gender role is made clear when one contrasts such an anti-abortion law in France with a more “modern” approach in regards to gender that also existed in France. As Perrot notes, at the beginning of the twentieth century what emerged in Europe as a whole and also in France was an “image of the New Woman” that “took root in new definitions of private spheres and sex roles, in a new vision of the couple, and in individualized love relationships, all of which were seen as markers of modern times.” (Perrot, 51) Such shifts in gendered subjectivities and traditional identities towards a modern form of identity evinces that the notion of a so-called stable gendered identity is ultimately illusory. New conceptions of such sexuality are manifestations of individual wills to assert their own gendered subjectivities, irrespective of traditional and dominant social and political mores. Whereas, as Perrot notes, these new gendered subjectivities can themselves be considered as part of a given historical context, i.e., that of “modernity”, the fact that subjectivities can change historically demonstrates that they are not merely essentialized and biological phenomena. It is the restrictive discourses which precisely attempt to display these discourses as “unnatural« or »deviant”, yet for their own explicit gain. Hence, as Perrot observes, after the war there was an effort “to put women back in their place, at the foot of altars erected to male heroes. We might say that war had a profoundly conservative, even retrogressive, effect on gender relations.” (Perrot, 51) The conflict between conservative and modern is in this regard significant, precisely because it shows that a multiplicity of gendered subjectivities is in fact possible. The defining feature of the “conservative” is that it attempts to reject this very multiplicity, assigning a singular gender role to the woman.

Accordingly, the examination of historicized contexts in regards to how gendered subjectivities are construed clearly demonstrates that gendered subjectivities are subject to change. Furthermore, insofar as they are subject to change, it shows that there are no essential identities of man and woman. Rather, conservative and patriarchal discourses are precisely those which attempt to deny this change. Yet, by doing so, they concomitantly reveal their own inherent interests and the ideology that they endeavor to advance. In this regard, the analysis of how gender roles in Europe have themselves changed according to historical context can itself be viewed as a radical form of political critique, since one demonstrates exactly this multiplicity of gender roles, thus de-essentializing the latter.

Works Cited

Loi de 31 Juillet 1920«

The French Decree Establishing Medals for Mothers.« (1920)

Perrot, Michelle. »The New Eve and the Old Adam: Changes in French Women’s Condition at the Turn of the Century.

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