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The Importance of Gender in the Discipline of History, Essay Example

Pages: 5

Words: 1446

Essay

How is gender a useful category of analysis in the discipline of history?

Gender provides an insight into one seems to be the most basic divisions within human society: the division between man and woman. Yet what the careful study of history reveals is that identities of men and women have changed over time. It is for this exact reason that gender becomes an important category of analysis for history. This is because when we understand how a particular historical time period talked about gender, we can understand some of the basic social normativity’s of this society. In other words, what did this society feel and believe, what were its cultural mores, what were its basic existential commitments? When considering a historical period such as industrialization, the analysis of gender therefore informs us about this very period. The debate about whether women should work in gender roles shows the very ambiguity of this time period. A tension existed, on the one hand, between the necessity of women working in industrial settings so as to meet the demands of capitalist production, and on the other hand, objections to women working because of the negative effects it has on this family. The case of industrialization therefore shows the importance of gender as a category of historical analysis, since it demonstrates that this particular period was constituted by a fundamental ambiguity about which is the best path to take during this historical time period. Gender thus becomes invaluable to understanding the latter, and therefore, in general, this demonstrates the historiographical importance of gender.

Industrialization was not merely indicative of an unrelenting forward march of technological progress. This was a phenomenon which presented radical questions to the society in which it emerged. This is evidenced by how gender roles were conceived in this time period. Hence, The National Trades’ Union Committee on Female Labor wrote as follows: “The health of the young female, in the majority of cases, is injured by unnatural restraint and confinement, and deprived of the qualities essentially necessary in the culture and bearing of healthy children.” (203) The debate thus centers around, on the one hand, the issue of women working and the negative effects this may have on society as a whole. Through this single category of gender, a number of different alternative currents are present. Firstly, on the one hand industrialization demarcates society’s shift towards an emphasis on production. Here, an economic ideology of capitalism is dominant, which requires a diverse work source, capable of meeting the demands of profit. Secondly, there is a conservative discourse at work, which emphasizes gender roles in terms of women and their function as mothers. This is a traditional approach to gender roles, and one that is threatened by the advancements in capitalism and how this may negatively affect the family. Yet this shows how gender roles are now fundamentally split during the industrialization period. Women are either conceived as workers or as mothers.  The issue of gender roles thus provides us with a basic insight into some of the fundamental cultural normative of this time period. Furthermore, this demonstrates that such historical periods were in no way homogeneous. They were constituted by a diverse number of views, to the extent that one can say the category of gender enriches our understanding of a given historical period, as it allows the historian to move away from a simple reductionism.

As Scott notes, therefore, gender can be useful since it “is a constitutive element of social relationships based on perceived differences between the sexes, and gender is a primary way of signifying relationships of power.” (35) Following Scott’s definition of the value of gender and applying it to the issue of industrialization appears to render Scott’s point valid. Firstly, the capitalist and conservative discourses mentioned in the previous primary source show two different social relations: a social relationship between the woman and the family and the woman and the workplace. This, in turn, demonstrates the second point of Scott: there are present two relationships of power, as women are appropriated by industry as workers, and by conservatives as mothers. Gender allows us to understand this complex social structure and also the lives of individuals who make up these histories.

How gender roles have changed in modern European history

Gender roles have continuously changed throughout European history. This suggests that the figure of the woman has been a crucial means of self-definition for European culture. That is to say that part of the European identity has been defined by the various roles conferred to women: the woman as mother and the woman as worker, to name only two. The changes in this identity accordingly show that European history is continually changing. Historical contexts are the frameworks which provide these shifts in the gender identities of women.

An example of this phenomenon can be found in the primary source that is a text from the communist Aleksandra Kollontai. In this text we find an example of how a European country of Russia, now the Soviet Union, attempts to define itself according to how it conceives of women. At the same time, the historian understands that this change in the conception of gender roles is simultaneously a critique of how European culture has historically treated the woman. Hence, Kollonati writes that “the reduction of woman’s fruitless labor in the household is only one side of her emancipation.” (303) In historical contexts wherein the woman is indistinguishable from the household, Kollontai conceives therefore of a subjugation of the woman. The Soviet culture thus defines itself in relation to gender, that is, by proposing a new gender role for the woman, completely free from the traditional conception that has dominated European history. For Kollontai, what is at stake in the Soviet Union is “its pursuit of new forms of life, morals and economy which should correspond to the interests of the proletariat.” (303) Although the focus of the new state is the proletariat, and thus a fundamentally economic category, one of the reasons to realize this new paradigm is to be attentive to gender roles. This thus acknowledges the crucial importance gender roles plays in history. At the same time, therefore, it demonstrates that gender roles are no means static within this history. Although there has been a traditional gender role in European history, which links the woman to the household, societies such as the Soviet Union demonstrate that this is only one of a number of gender roles in European history.

Koos makes this point about changing gender roles in Europe in her study of the phenomenon within a French context. Hence, in late nineteen century France, this historical context also experienced its own form of female emancipation: “The bourgeois femme nouvelle (new woman) who increasingly pursued educating, employment, and social freedom on her bicycle was the subject of much attention from social critics and politicians.” (5) This phenomenon of the nouvelle femme demonstrates the historical ruptures in gender roles, as new variants of female identities emerged in the European context. It also shows how historical contexts, irrespective of their particularity, simultaneously defined themselves in terms of the figure of the woman. Namely, the role of the woman was of crucial importance to the overall structure of society. Hence, the concern when women embarked on non-traditionally approaches to gender roles within society.

Thus, although there has been ascertain traditional gender role within European society, defined by the links between the woman and the household, this is not the only historical gander role that has existed, as a survey of the literature clearly demonstrates. Women have changed how they view themselves; furthermore, new forms of government and political ideology have also contributed to this change, such as in the case of the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, despite such changes, there remains consistent the notion that society defines itself according to the gender roles it promotes, regardless of what they are. The concern over French female animation was a concern over the future of society. Likewise, the emancipatory project of the Soviet Union understood that it could only realize such emancipation by re-defining the role of women. Hence, while gender roles have remained changed form historical context to historical context, the constant here is that all these contexts have nonetheless defined themselves precisely in terms of gender roles.

Works Cited

 Alexandra Kollontai.” “Problems of women in the workforce” Women, the Family and Freedom,(199-209)

 National Trade Unions’ Committee on Female Labor. “Problems of women in the workforce” Women, the Family and Freedom.

 Koos, Cheryl. “The Good, the Bad and the Childless: the politics of Female Identity in Maternite and La Maternelle,” 2009 (4-19).

Scott, Joan.  “Gender: A useful category of historical analysis,” Gender and History in Western Europe (42-64).

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