Key Concepts

What is Gender History?

In the 1920s, Virginia Woolf famously described how the history of women was unknown: ‘It has been common knowledge for ages that women exist, bear children, have no beards, and seldom go bald, but save in these respects […] we know little of them and have little evidence upon which to base our conclusions.’ Woolf was writing shortly after women were granted the vote in the UK (1918), after an arduous campaign by the suffragettes. This first feminist wave, associated with the political women’s suffrage movement, did not prompt historians to investigate women’s history (with a few exceptions).

In the 1960s, however, a combination of feminism’s ‘second wave’ (characterised by the women’s liberation movement) and internal changes in the discipline (which I describe in more detail here) meant that women were gradually considered a worthy subject of historical study. Feminist scholars fought to establish women’s studies courses in universities in Europe and the USA in the 1970s. Feminist activists moved from the question of whether it was possible to write a history of women to the assertion that any history that did not include them was necessarily an incomplete one. Fuelled by both intellectual and political goals, these feminist researchers started to write history in new ways – which often contradicted the way history had traditionally been written.

This questioning of how we conceptualise history was inevitable, as feminist scholars did not want ‘women’s history’ to simply be an additional field of study. Instead, this field would profoundly change how we think of historical narratives in general. To integrate new voices and perspectives, historians’ analytical structures and tools themselves had to be rethought. History was already going through many internal changes as a discipline (as I explain in What is Cultural History?). Heavily influenced by anthropology, historians considered new objects of study, such as lower classes, often excluded from the historical narrative. Women were a great example of the ones left behind in the study of history.

By thinking of womanhood and the role women played in the past, historians questioned categories, influenced by earlier philosophy, such as Simone de Beauvoir’s work. If ‘one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman’ (or a man, for that matter), then we must study how we construct our sexual and gender categories. In other words, as feminist scholars started to deconstruct femininity and its history, it was unavoidable that the same would be done to masculinity.

Furthermore, with the Stonewall Riots in 1969, and especially with the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, the fight for gay rights gained momentum and became part of the mainstream. Queer studies progressively gained space in universities, combining academic and political goals, as women’s studies had earlier. At the same time, feminist historians who had established these ‘women’s studies’ courses in academia gradually realised that their aims to change the way we conceptualise history had not been fully realised. ‘Women’s history’ was still a sub-field of history, apart from the more traditional, male-dominated ways of writing history.

However, the move from ‘women’s history’ to a broader ‘gender history’, though it might have seemed natural to some, did not happen without resistance. Some feminists feared that turning to how we conceptualise gender, in general, might mean the abandonment of the political project of ‘women’s history’ and the dismantlement of what they had built.

(There is an interesting parallel with how feminists are divided today where trans rights are concerned. Some feminists believe we should fully embrace trans liberation and include all LGBT+ minorities in the feminist project. In contrast, others fear the ‘erasure’ of women and the loss of rights feminists have fought so hard to gain. I believe that feminism and true equality should benefit all of us: that is why inclusive and intersectional feminism seems to me the only way forward.)

In any case, ‘gender history’ had been an inherent part of ‘women’s history’ from its beginnings: it provided context to women’s experiences in the past and situated feminism along with other contemporary fights for human rights (based on race and sexual orientation, for instance). The 1980s shift from ‘women’s’ to ‘gender’ history had many effects on how we think of history: by deconstructing the category of ‘woman’, scholars opened the debate to include many other aspects of the human experience and identity. They showed how most of the categories we tend to believe of as eternal and atemporal are historically constructed.

Finally, this shift towards inclusiveness gave the study of gender more impact in academia. By leaving the ‘intellectual ghetto’ of women’s studies, historians of gender were able to influence historical narratives more deeply. Historians of any subject would have to consider the gendered construction of their objects of study – whether they were military, political, or artistic. As cultural history gained popularity, historians also started to confront the tensions between social reality and representation in the past. The idea of socially constructed categories exemplified by sex/gender became a prime example of how to balance this tension. So, as cultural history gained prominence, it did so arguably using many of the theoretical and methodological frameworks created and developed by feminist scholars. The same could be said about poststructuralism.

In a way, then, we could argue that feminist historians’ political and intellectual goals were reached as the field itself became broader to other perspectives. Outside of academia, there are also many feminisms today. But maybe we can learn something from the internal changes history underwent in the last decades. An inclusive kind of feminism might be able to impact our society deeper than a narrower one. Plus, it is a more empathetic way of understanding the human experience.

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Key Concepts

What is Cultural History?

‘For me, the sources from the past, primary or secondary, are not a prison. They are a magic thread that links me to people long since dead and with situations that have crumbled to dust. The sources set off my reflection and imagination, I stay in dialogue with them, and I love this. This liaison with the past is the heart of my vocation as a historian. The sources leave a space for speculation […] But I must always identify my speculations as such for my readers, and show them the bases for believing a certain thing is possible, probable, or contingent.’

Natalie Zemon Davis, A Passion for History: Conversations with Denis Crouzet

Cultural history is not just the history of culture – whether we think of culture in a strict sense (high culture exemplified by the arts, music, theatre etc.) or in a broader sense, such as everyday social rituals (think of the English queuing!). As cultural historian Natalie Z. Davis wrote, there is always an interpretive space between historical sources in the past and the historian in the present. How we fill that space – whether from an economic, political, social, or cultural angle – determines what kind of historians we are.

Cultural history has been ‘trendy’ for some decades now, and I think it is one of the most fascinating ways to think about the past. But what is it? Everything – all objects, subjects, times, and places, can be analysed through a cultural lens. The methods of study cultural historians use make our analysis ‘cultural’, such as a concern with the symbolic and how we interpret it, as well as representation and how we create meaning.

This all sounds a bit vague – I know. Suppose traditional history would investigate Napoleon’s military strategy for the Battle of Waterloo. In that case, cultural historians might wonder how soldiers spent their time in the camp, what games they played, how they felt about the imminent conflict, what food was eaten, how soldiers washed their bodies (or not!). We’re all talking about the Battle of Waterloo – but in very different ways.

So, here’s a bit of background: a short history of cultural history, as it were.

For centuries, what was thought of as ‘history’ amounted to a list of names and dates: kings and queens, dynasties, battles, empires forming and declining, civilisations clashing. All very epic and, in my opinion, quite dull.

Where culture in a strict sense was concerned, Germans studied cultural history (Kulturgeschichte) two centuries ago. They focused on the classics, the canon of high art, its artists, and masterpieces. Historians’ main goal was to find patterns in culture and describe the ‘spirit of the time’ (Zeitgeist), taking these extraordinary individuals as their starting point, as in Jacob Burckhardt’s study of the Italian Renaissance.

In the 1920s, social history started to gain importance, especially in France (Ecole des Annales). Historians influenced by Marxism focused on cultural encounters, which became even more central as intellectuals fleeing Nazism started to analyse the relationship between culture and society to make sense of their times in the 1930s. A social shift made non-elites the centre of the historiographical debate: ‘history from below’ was in. So, instead of Louis XIV’s biography, historians were curious about the kind of people who made the food served in royal banquets or sewed ball gowns.

Cultural anthropologists such as Claude Levi-Strauss sought to map structures within cultures, and historians continued to focus on the culture of the ‘common people’ and their cultural artefacts, such as popular printed books, in the 1960s. The history of popular culture was influenced by 19th-century folklore studies (Volkskultur) and structuralism, and ‘cultural studies’ emerged as a discipline at the crossroads of history, anthropology, linguistics, and social studies.

With the second wave of feminism in the 1960s and 1970s and the rise of women’s history, ‘new cultural history’ developed, focusing on gender. The intersectionality of today’s feminism and the rise of racial studies have shaped the ‘new cultural history’ and its political goals of decolonising historical practice and making it more inclusive. Moreover, the ‘linguistic turn’ of the 1980s meant historians were increasingly interested in how we use language to create meaning, deconstructing concepts. Philosopher Michel Foucault’s work on how categories of thought are created paved the way to a post-structuralist approach to history, in which meanings are ever-changing.

Today, cultural historians try not to generalise about the lived human experience or fit these experiences into pre-conceived categories. Instead, we question the categories that guide our thinking, deconstructing assumptions and trying to be more aware of our own historiographical blind spots.

Culture cannot be understood as simple transactions between cultural centres and peripheries, nor as social interactions between the top and bottom classes. Instead, it should be thought of as complex webs of meanings and networks of relationships, constantly evolving and reshaping themselves. While historians in the past prioritised the study of ruptures (such as big battles or dynastic shifts), cultural historians today focus on everyday life and continuities, on symbols and their changes in meaning, looking for plurality rather than unity, and finding out missing voices in the historical discourse. It is the case of queer theory and gender studies.

This is why I am personally so passionate about cultural history. In my own dialogue with historical sources, investigating the history of the body, the methodologies of cultural history allow me to combine intellectual pursuits with political goals. By rethinking how we conceptualise the world, we can (hopefully!) reshape it and make our society fairer and more inclusive.

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Key Concepts

What are Secrets of Women?

Throughout history, the womb was often thought to be a mysterious organ, which could make women ill yet create new life. Knowledge about women’s bodies and especially reproduction was thought to be hidden in the womb, ‘secret’ from prying eyes.

In the early modern period, subjects such as menstruation, conception, childbirth, and uterine ailments, were often referred to as ‘secrets of women‘. This expression had a double meaning, however. 

Not only was this knowledge ‘secret’ because it emanated from the mysterious feminine body, but also because it could be transmitted in the form of ‘secrets’. In this period, ‘secrets’ were also medical recipes for the production of remedies – such as a concoction women could drink to facilitate conception. People could have access to these formulas cheaply and in the vernacular, and books of secrets, which contained these recipes, were a best-selling genre.

Secrets of women, therefore, were at the crossroads between theory and practice, secrecy and openness, public and private. This is why we chose ‘Secrets of Women’ as the title for this website – it encompasses many interesting debates in the past and in the present.

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