The Development of Gender History

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Bonnie G. Smith

The presentation of women and femininity in history began centuries ago, most influentially with The Book of the City of Ladies (1405) by the French writer Christine de Pisan. Right through the early twentieth century amateur authors writing to support themselves created a rich social history of women and femininity. At that point academic scholars joined in this endeavor, producing thousands of scholarly histories. Simultaneously this branch of social history—like most other history—has been buffeted by the winds of political and cultural change, and this has resulted in an evolving set of interests, theories, and debates. Early on these debates revolved around the moral value of women and thus femininity; by the nineteenth century the rationale for writing about women often involved asserting their secular, heroic stature based on feminine contributions to the public sphere. The revitalization of social history in the academy late in the twentieth century depended on these nineteenth-century themes, especially asserting the historical value of women's active presence. Somewhat later, however, gender theory questioned whether there could legitimately be a history of women—social or otherwise.

The earliest histories of women following Pisan's work focused on women exercising moral and intellectual gifts. Women of learning, queens, and moral leaders such as Joan of Arc all served as important topics, composing a social history of the topmost layers of society. With the collapse of the Old Regime in the French Revolution, writers like Stéphanie de Genlis set about chronicling the old court ways, but in a more systematic fashion than the memoir form of the works of the comte de Saint-Simon a century earlier. Laure d'Abrantes produced much-appreciated and multivolumed histories of the salons of Paris. Women's histories of the Vendée also presented the social life of women and their families under siege, with women playing the heroic role of provisioning and maintaining the social fabric during war and genocide. The focus on moral leadership of women ultimately eventuated in the towering work of the Strickland sisters, Elizabeth and Agnes, whose mammoth histories of the queens, princesses, and other royal women of England and Scotland focused on social habits, customs, rituals, marriages, and family life.


Enlightenment curiosity provoked intense travel and investigative writing that portrayed the social life of peoples past and present; the Dutch travelers Betje Wolff and Aagje Deken as well as Joanna Schopenhauer, Albertine Clément-Hémery, Ida Hahn-Hahn, and Lady Morgan were some of the most important contributors from the 1780s to 1850. These eventuated in comparative social and cultural histories such as Lydia Maria Child's The History and Condition of Women (1835). Social rituals such as those of guilds, festivals, religious observances and monuments, institutions for the poor and orphaned, hospitals, and charitable societies in which women played an important role filled in the picture drawn in these works. Part of the impulse to portray social life fused with concern for what was early in the nineteenth century called "the social question"—the question of the poor and their possible uprising, on which thinkers of different political views expressed opinions. Various European thinkers described the condition of the poor, and notably the condition of poor women such as seamstresses, as well as the state of the working-class home. In the 1830s, Alexandre Parent-Duchâtelet simultaneously explored the history and condition of prostitution in Paris, while early in the 1840s Bettina von Arnim produced her history and analysis of the condition of the poor in Berlin. Most of these books provided numerically informed accounts of the poor, especially poor women, and their past.

Many of these historians believed that only by studying women's activities could one achieve a clear understanding of the social fabric—an understanding that was valued very much by amateurs and their appreciative readers but very little by the newly professionalizing historians of the academy from the middle of the nineteenth century on. The latter, taking their cue from Hegel, avoided private life, genealogy, and other aspects of the familial as a low kind of "memorializing" that compared ill with the high endeavor of political history. Sarah Taylor Austin, translator of Ranke, Cousin, and other historians, nonetheless maintained in her history of German social life in the eighteenth century that only by understanding the history of women could one understand the important social underpinnings of political rule. This marked an important shift in women's history, from asserting women's moral worth as an antidote to charges of innate sinfulness to affirming a secular and social contribution that women had made. Several influences fed this historiography, including burgeoning feminist and reform activism, utopian social thought, and separate-spheres ideology.

Other trends in nineteenth-century thought deepened some of these themes in the social history of women. The development of the nation-state rested in part on the provisioning of new services such as sanitation, the elimination of disease, and the prevention of epidemics. Associated with the foul and disease-bearing, prostitution became a major topic of amateur history written by such eminent doctors as Abraham Flexner. As science tried to demoralize sex, doctors and amateurs produced studies of sexual customs, most notably their evolution over time. Once it was shown that sexual customs were constantly changing, it was easier to place them under the sign of history and science rather than religion and morality. Although a growing interest in ethnology and anthropology also fed this impulse, historians of women were among the first to write the history of the "masses" who made up the democratizing nation-state. Working with her husband, J. R. Green, Alice Stopford Green wrote history as a nationalistic study of society—a tendency in historical study which was an important component of the discovery of women by professional history later. A strong champion of women's rights, Stopford Green also wrote histories of the Irish people and their struggles for social and economic justice under English rule.

The first wave of feminism and the attendant movement of women into universities, especially in the United States and Great Britain, also kept the social history of women alive, all the while transforming it. Inspired by feminism, groups such as the Men's and Women's Club in London produced studies of prostitution, women's work, and family customs for their meetings. Lina Eckenstein, a member of that club and amateur scholar, published Women under Monasticism, (1896), a pioneering social history. Amateurs like Julia Cartwright and Margaret Oliphant studied women's patronage of the arts; their works also depicted a complicated social and cultural life among the upper classes, in which women's social privilege allowed them real influence in the arts. The Cambridge historian Mary Bateson studied the double monastery with similar result: within monastic society women could exert power equal to that of men despite religious denigration of women's moral capacity. The culmination of this line of argument and this tradition appeared in Eileen Power's Medieval Nunneries (1922), in which the social and economic organization of monastic women was vividly depicted.

Although the coeducation for which feminists fought had many inequities, those women educated by the system, like Bateson and Power, were skilled in archival and other kinds of professional research. Archives directed them not only to material for political history, but also to evidence allowing for a new social history of the lower classes and domestic life. Trained by Lilian Knowles, the pioneering economic historian at the University of London, Alice Clark in her Working Life of Women in the Seventeenth Century (1919) established a line of argument in the social history of European women that, like many other nineteenth-century explanatory models, remains influential to this day. For Clark, the appearance of manufacturing and protoindustry made it more and more difficult for women to earn their livelihood. Ivy Pinchbeck's Women Workers and the Industrial Revolution (1930) also established working women as broadly covering the field of labor, while a variety of historical and statistical studies by social scientists provided a data base for similar studies of women in almost every European country. Simultaneously women workers were writing their own social histories in such works as Mein Arbeitstag, Mein Wochenende (1930) and Maternity: Letters from Working Women (1915). Women in white-collar jobs received important treatment in Wanda Neff's Victorian Working Women (1929)—a study that showed the deterioration of jobs such as bank clerks, secretaries, and teachers, once women entered the profession. Like the studies of Clark and Pinchbeck, Neff's has set some of the terms for studying women in white-collar jobs and the professions.


Even before World War II a rich social history of women in almost every class had emerged. But it was after 1960 that the field exploded with the rise of family history, quantitative demographic history, and a new history of the working class. Historians in these fields applied a somewhat different professional methodology to social history than that which had developed over the previous century. As these areas of social history emerged, they almost all took men as their important historical group and generally overlooked the possibilities for thinking of women as historical subjects. Pioneering works like E. P. Thompson's Making of the English Working Class (1963) described laborers who were taken as universal, though implicitly male. Even family reconstitution and population studies failed to see the gendered implications of their many and useful findings. However, that quickly changed with the new round of feminist activism that arose at almost the same time.

By the 1970s, activists were targeting the absence of women from the curriculum and research agenda of universities and schools. In part their inspiration came from major feminist writings like those of Simone de Beauvoir and Betty Friedan, whose arguments on behalf of women were grounded in detailed examination of various social categories used to group women: married women, lesbians, housewives, old women, and so on. Late in the 1960s Natalie Zemon Davis and Jill Conway, teaching a course in women's history at the University of Toronto, produced a lengthy bibliography of women's history—much of it social—that circulated in mimeographed form. Conway and Davis drew precisely on the social history—of women in the Renaissance, women in monasteries, notable women, working women, and others—that had been written during the previous century and a half. After that, women's history and women's studies courses arose, many of them rich with the beginnings of a professionalized research agenda in the social history of European women.

Innovation was rife, with many historians expressing the belief that women's history could not be like men's history, which was mostly about high politics. Rather, as had been maintained in the mid-nineteenth century, it would take a social form. Contesting the emphasis on men in the new labor history, women's historians in the 1970s investigated the conditions under which women worked. They recognized, however, that one did not necessarily look for women workers in the same locations as male workers. For one thing, in western Europe until the end of the nineteenth century the largest category of women workers found employment as domestic helpers of various kinds. Emphasizing the experience of class, historians Cissie Fairchilds and Theresa McBride described the interactions of women servants and middle-class women in England and France and found the conditions of work in the household far more onerous than those in the factory. Isolation, scrutiny by employers, and round-the-clock responsibility prevented the development of women's labor activism. Nonetheless, both of these works pointed out, social advancement was possible in domestic labor.

Studies of factory women and artisanal women mushroomed too, though the reliance on Pinchbeck was strong because of the richness of her narrative. English historians Jill Liddington and Jill Norris explored women textile workers of the north, finding them politically astute and active. Using some autobiographies and first-person narratives as sources, Rose Glickman's Russian Factory Women (1984) described the divergent work experience of Russian women within the mixed agricultural and manufacturing economy of the late nineteenth century, in which women moved from one sector to the other. Many of these and similar studies were attuned to the need for working women to combine household duties with paid employment of some kind.

Women as historical agents. Already, interest in combining the social history of work with the life cycle of women had produced a different kind of history, most notably in Joan Scott and Louise Tilly's Women, Work, and Family (1978). Using quantitative and demographic methods, this pioneering book plotted work for pay against women's age and their fertility. It also compared the employment histories of women in different types of manufacturing towns, resulting in the idea that women were historical agents, and that they developed their family and personal "strategies" around a more varied set of factors than did men. This combination of evidence for women's agency in developing family strategies, along with a mapping of their biological life course, became influential. For example, Erna Olafson Hellerstein's early anthology of documents for the history of European women, Victorian Women (Stanford, Calif., 1981), used the life course rather than political events as its organizing principle.

Prostitution also came under the rubric of a life strategy. Understanding sex work as a strategy rather than a moral failing followed the line of argument explored by many nineteenth-century writers. Judith Walkowitz's depiction of the blurred boundary between working-class women and prostitution showed that casually employed women whose work had off-seasons turned to prostitution during these periods. Members of the working class saw these women as members of their own group, not as outcasts. Rather, it was the state policy of regulation that turned them into marked, disreputable members of society. Jill Harsin, in her study of the French regulatory system, found it to consist not of legislation but of police decrees from the Napoleonic period mandating regular inspections of prostitutes and their incarceration, should there be any sign of infection. Harsin's work complemented that of Alain Corbin, whose Filles de noce (1978) showed the regulatory system as part of the disciplining of bodily functions in the modern period. A student of Michel Foucault, Corbin described the brothel as rationally conceived, located, designed, and managed from the nineteenth century on.


A history of social movements eventuated from the attention to agency and strategizing within the life course. Analyses of women as actors in the English, French, and Russian revolutions emphasized their interest in subsistence and family issues as well as their involvement for reasons that were feminist or protofeminist. Barbara Taylor, Joan Moon, and Claire Moses explored women's activism in chartist and utopian socialist associations, while Temma Kaplan and Louise Tilly looked at housewives' and working women's involvement in protest over issues of working conditions and subsistence. Natalie Zemon Davis's work on charivari chronicled yet another kind of social activism connected to the maintenance of social norms in marriage, sexuality, and household life in the early modern period. Davis's study directed scholars' attention early on to the cultural shape and ritualistic patterns of social movements, as well as historians' focus on what seemed to be private life.

With the emphasis on rationality and agency, historians turned to the development of social norms and the inculcation of standards of femininity. Carol Dyhouse, Deborah Gorham, and Joan Burstyn studied the education of women and found that from the beginning of a young girl's life femininity was inculcated as the opposite of male privilege. Mothers, for example, forced their little girls to stay in and work while their brothers played outside. Doctors were also seen as inculcating feminine norms in their treatment of older women as unable to care for their families, themselves, or their mental health. Not only did doctors wrench health care from women, but they subjected middle-class women to all sorts of regimens to bring them into line.

Formal schooling consisted of different subject matter for girls and boys, with girls receiving a heavy dose of household arts and religion instead of the increasingly secular and liberal-arts curriculum for boys. When universities opened their doors to women, however, the innovation was often used as the occasion for curricular modernization, especially, in the case of England, the addition of modern languages, math, history, and science alongside the study of classical languages and literatures. At first social historians relied on the autobiographies of those, like Vera Brittain, who had been among the early generations of scholars. Eventually, Martha Vicinus included these women in her study of the various kinds of single women's experiences at the turn of the century, and thus helped construct the portrait of the "modern" woman. Jo Burr Margadant explored the sex-segregated postsecondary schooling of young women during the French Third Republic, and Dyhouse expanded her purview to publish No Distinction of Sex?: Women in British Universities 1870–1939 (1995).

Studies of the development of accomplished or activist girls appeared in such works as Barbara Engel's Mothers and Daughters: Women of the Intelligentsia in Nineteenth-Century Russia, which discussed the inculcation both of feminine norms and adult ambition or rebellion as part of a historically-specific family process. The extraordinary array of intellectual and nihilist women emerged from a mixture of familial, emotional, and cognitive experiences that were particular to their times. Simultaneously, studies of inculcation of norms among peasant women appeared in studies of female relationships in the extended Russian and eastern European family.

The early years of second-wave feminist social history also looked at those women who did not imbibe, or who resisted, feminine norms. Mary Hartman's Victorian Murderesses (1977) looked at the crimes, testimonies, and judicial trials of British and French women in the nineteenth century. Other works studied thievery, luddism, and rioting, often as an extension of the new social history that saw this kind of behavior as "primitive," as in the banditry and Swing rioters described by Eric Hobsbawm. This was not the conclusion of scholars like Hartman, however. Somewhat later, the violence done to women—the extreme expression of their social subordination—was described in Anna Clark's Women's Silence, Men's Violence: Sexual Assault in England 1770–1845 (1987). Klaus Theweleit's Male Fantasies (1987) and Maria Tatar's Lustmord (1995), chronicling depictions of German men's desires to slaughter and victimize women in the most grossly violent ways, provided further context to the grimmer aspects of the social history of women in the post–World War I period.

Religion provided an intermediate place—one in which women were perhaps socialized to sex roles, but which also became a space for resistance and self-transformation. Myriad studies addressed the religious terrain, making for a rich social history both of spiritual belief and its social functioning. From the Renaissance on, much debate ensued about the social outcomes of religious fervor among nuns and intensely devout laywomen. Brenda Meehan charted the life of women religious in Russia, illuminating the social practice of widowed, married, and single women. Gillian Ahlgren demonstrated that Teresa of Avila's particular devotional writings gave women the means to bypass the worse consequences of Tridentine Catholicism and left a legacy of empowerment. Phyllis Mack's Visionary Women (1994), while it richly captured the specific language of women's preachings in the seventeenth century, also showed the ways in which they moved through society. Taking up the thread from E. P. Thompson's focus on working-class men's alternative Methodism, Deborah Valenze traced the networks and the social force women developed in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries through their ministries. The impact of Protestantism on women's education—particularly their instruction in reading—also engaged many social historians.


By the early 1990s calls for an end to women's history and a turn to gender history caused anxiety among some practitioners. Joan Scott's "Gender: A Useful Category of Analysis" summarized the theory of gender as it had been developed by anthropologists and literary theorists. Adapting these theories for historical use, she suggested that one could not examine women's past alone, for women existed only in relationship to men. That relationship was implicated in the play of systems of power, with gender being a primary expression of power. Not everyone joined in the rush to gender history; some practitioners saw gender as yet another way of appealing to men in the profession by saying that women could not be discussed historically without them. Judith Bennett in "Feminism and History" maintained that the way to understanding power was less through analysis of gender than by dealing historically with the manifestations of patriarchy. Gisela Bock, however, argued that women's and gender history needed one another and were in fact complementary.

As it turned out, the development of gender history enhanced women's social history and shed new light on femininity. For the early modern period the histories of sexuality, women's criminality, and prostitution were all restudied. Among the prominent topics in which interpretations changed was the study of witchcraft, which also benefited from scrupulous microstudies. Although there was little debate that the majority of witches were women, the localized studies—for instance those of Wolfgang Behringer and Alison Rowland—found witches to be distributed along marital and age statuses in many cases. These works also showed that witches could be integrated into the community for long periods of time. However, the "gendered" subjectivity and narratives of witches, as explored by historians like Lyndal Roper and Dianne Purkiss, found in accuser's testimonies evidence of particularly "feminine" concerns such as those of motherhood, the body, and female duty. Women with such anxieties might project their sense of guilt onto others, who in some cases became the accused. In the case of witchcraft, oddly enough, gender turned historical analysis away from misogyny toward the conditions of femininity.

The term "femininity" gained new resonance and legitimacy as the proposal that femininity and masculinity were related added a new historical dimension to the understanding of femininity and class. For instance, Family Fortunes (1987) by Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall explored the social history of the British middle classes by looking at the mutually constructed roles of men and women in the early nineteenth century. Using this gendered perspective, Davidoff and Hall found less disparity between femininity and masculinity than earlier authors had. On working women, gender history provided insights as well. Tessie Liu's Weaver's Knot (1994) looked at the hero of many a labor historian—the solitary artisan of the nineteenth century—to find that his image could only be maintained if the women of artisanal families were dispatched to nearby factories to bring in additional money. Thus the image of the courageous artisan resisting proletarianization for himself depended on the proletarianization of his wives and daughters. Laura Lee Downs looked at women metallurgy workers during World War I through the prism of gender, finding that although factory owners often employed the available gender stereotypes in assigning women tasks and wages, they simultaneously noted what women could actually do. Women's work in metallurgy became a permanent feature of the industrial landscape—Downs adduced numbers—because of both factory owners' and women's experience of war.

At the close of the twentieth century historians continued their dissection of working women's experience despite the attacks on social history investigations from this perspective. For the early modern period, Heide Wunder and Christina Vanja's Weiber, Menscher, Frauenzimmer: Frauen in der ländlichen Gesellschaft 1500–1800 (1996) explored women's work not only in vineyards and protoindustry but also in their various other occupations. Earlier conclusions about the pervasiveness of women's work in the early modern period held, but scholars gave more detailed accounts, showing, for example, that women, though often driven from certain sectors like the woolen guilds in the Netherlands, remained active as fishwives, spinners, seamstresses, and workers in the health care trades. Amy Louise Erickson, in Women and Property in Early Modern England (1993), showed additionally that women controlled property more extensively than hitherto thought. Finally, Natalie Zemon Davis's wide-ranging Women on the Margins (1995) gave a rich portrait of the work life of three very different seventeenth-century women whose labors initially complemented those of their spouses and who subsequently went off to construct a complex and intense life course combining craft with religious fervor, migration, and mental self-exploration. The life-course model for women in early modern Europe had evolved not only because of the study of gender but because of advances in the history of work and sexuality: the anthology by Judith M. Bennett and Amy M. Froide, Singlewomen in European History 1250–1800 (1999), covered a wide variety of these new and old perspectives in social history, including demography, sexuality, and citizenship.

Cultural contextualization. Beatrice Farnsworth and Lynne Viola's 1992 anthology Russian Peasant Women outlined a rich history of everyday life including work, sexuality, and reproduction and set it in the context of peasant culture. This cultural contextualization of the social history of women and femininity marked a major change in the field. Similarly, Anne-Marie Sohn's massive thesis on the everyday life of French women of the lower classes analyzed their educational, social, and cultural milieu. Departing from the theories of the 1970s and 1990s that women in food movements and neighborhood activism were "prepolitical," the work of Ellen Ross showed that the neighborhood solidarity of working-class mothers laid the groundwork for shop-floor protest, an insight explored further in Anna Davin's Growing Up Poor: Home, School, and Street in London 1870–1914 (1996). Belinda Davis's study of women food protesters in Berlin during World War I found that, far from having no political agenda or impact, these protesters challenged the government to respond to ordinary people's needs. Thus women's wartime responsibilities for food changed the nature of public discourse and, eventually, the nature of government. The 1998 anthology Women and Socialism, Socialism and Women (Helmut Gruber and Pamela Graves, eds.) provided a comparative look at women's connections with unions and socialist activism in the interwar years. Finally the range of women's work in the post–World War II period received comparative treatment in Frauen arbeiten: Weibliche Erwebstätigkeit in Ost- und Westdeutschland nach 1945 (Gunilla-Friederike Budde, ed.). One study found, in the case of West Germany, strikingly different behavior on the part of working-class women who entered the work force because of the "pull" of jobs rather than the "push" of their husband's wages. The anthology additionally concluded that the largest discrepancies in worklife between East and West Germany were in the agricultural sector.

Historians also looked at the rise of service-oriented job opportunities in new ways. The connection between women's philanthropy of the nineteenth century and their work for the welfare state has long been made, but in The Rise of Caring Power (1999), studying philanthropy in the Netherlands, Annemieke van Drenth and Francisca de Haan concluded that women developed a system different though related to the "pastoral power" as articulated by Michel Foucault. Women's dominance of the caring professions arose from their desire to make subjects of other, poorer women and in so doing to exercise their own power. De Haan has also studied women office workers in the Netherlands, examining the battle for survival that existed in white-collar work. In studies of postindustrial work since 1945, in which women play an enormous role, Cas Wouters has described the psychological work of women flight attendants, while others have focused on the connections between service women and technology and knowledge.

Another theme of late-twentieth-century scholarship involved women's experience of consumer society. Anthologies like Victoria De Grazia's anthology The Sex of Things (1996) and Katherina von Ankum's Women in the Metropolis (1997) abandoned much of the disapproval that had earlier characterized accounts of women's consumerism. Instead, studies illustrated how consumer activity modified women's relationship to urban space, whatever the class. Arlette Farge's work on the eighteenth century showed women occupying the streets with gusto and claiming neighborhoods, doorsteps, and markets. Erika Rappaport's Shopping for Pleasure: Women in the Making of London's West End (2000) connected women's consumerism late in the nineteenth century with a range of social positions they assumed—as members of an imperial power, as provisioners, and as citizens fully entitled to enter public space. Studies of women as consumers of films, as participants in beauty pageants, and in their relationship to cosmetics, clothing, household design, and architecture have all enriched historical depictions of everyday life.

Political regimes. The study of Nazism and fascism—as well as a new social understanding of various political regimes—benefited from the turn to gender. This construct encouraged a rethinking of the ways in which politics took the formation of masculinity and femininity as a national goal. This political mission yielded societal results under various political regimes, but they were particularly visible under Nazism and fascism. The privileging and construction of a soldierly masculinity led fascists to build a complementary, coercive femininity among Aryan women that demanded a commitment to reproduction. Building a numerous Aryan population became the mission of Aryan women, while the curtailment of reproduction was the lot of non-Aryans. These insights have led to new interpretations of the social history of the Holocaust. Aware of the gendered cast to that catastrophe, Marion Kaplan (Between Dignity and Despair, 1999) has been among those uncovering the conditions that made women more often its victims than men. Other studies have explored sexual relationships and judicial trials of "racial" sex offenders under Nazism.

Seeing gender and population control as major aspects of political regimes—be they international, national, regional, or local—has led scholars to compare democracies with totalitarian governments in their impact on the social lives of women and the construction of femininity. Maria Sophia Quine's Population Politics in Twentieth-Century Europe: Fascist Dictatorships and Liberal Democracies (1996) sees that the two types of state differed little in their desire to control domestic life, sexuality, and the relationship between generations. Studies of the policies of the Soviet state and those of Eastern Europe, from the 1920s down to the reforms of the post-Soviet nations, have uncovered a pattern of interventionist regulation of reproduction—whether allowing abortion or not, or allowing birth control or not—determining the life course of women to a far greater degree than that of men. The policies of the British welfare state, post–World-War-II France, and the new West Germany all shaped the reproductive, work, and domestic lives of women by mandating population enhancement.

As perspectives shifted to view it as not only a matter of high politics, but a more wide-ranging movement with important social components, imperialism became a full-fledged site for the study of women's social agency. European women travelers were newly evaluated as important members of imperial society and bearers of its culture as their memoirs and travel reports were republished in the 1980s and 1990s. Other studies began the process of looking at the social aspects of European imperialism in the colonies as more complex than imagined; a picture emerged in which women settlers, missionaries, and colonized peoples played major roles in shaping social and political relationships. The argument developed that women were more racist than men because, disliking the concubinage of colonized women, they ended the closeness of white men and local women that imperialism entailed. Margaret Strobel's European Women and the Second British Empire (1991) questioned this argument, while Helen Callaway's work on settlers in colonial Nigeria argued that women had reshaped many of the social aspects of imperialism. Sexuality as a major component of men's gendered relationship to colonized women through science, concubinage, prostitution, and rape, was investigated in a variety of works including those of Londa Schiebinger, Pamela Scully, and Luise White. Frances Gouda's Dutch Culture Overseas: Colonial Practice in the Netherland Indies 1900–1942 (1995), her edited volume with Julia Clancy-Smith, Domesticating the Empire: Race, Gender, and Family Life in French and Dutch Colonialism (1998), and Kumari Jayawardena's The White Woman's Other Burden: Western Women and South Asia during British Rule (1995) enriched the portrait of the social functioning of women and femininity in overseas empires, while other works began showing women's use of colonial goods and their role in developing a culture of global consumerism.

Another important line of scholarship in the social history of women and femininity developed around global migration to Europe in the post–World War II period. As many women from the decolonizing world entered Europe in the 1950s and thereafter, their place in metropolitan society was shaped by the lingering values of imperialism and neocolonialism. The Heart of the Race: Black Women's Lives in Britain (Beverley Bryan et al., 1985) used oral testimony to compile the experiences of moving to the metropole and working in the welfare state. The social history of women immigrants to Europe also appeared in a variety of testimonials and first-person accounts, while their central role in the post-Fordist workplace was also investigated. R. Amy Elman, ed., Sexual Politics and the European Union (1996) explored the social policies that affected these women's lives.

Social history of post-Soviet women also opened up in the 1990s. In the official histories of the collapse of the socialist regime, women disappeared as leaders of the social movements that had brought about Communism's collapse. Moreover, post-Soviet governments, eager to escape the appearance of hewing to socialist values, reinvigorated the ideology of separate spheres. In the midst of massive restructuring of the economy, this ideal entailed the firing of millions of women. From 70 to 80 percent of the unemployed in any job category in the 1990s and early twenty-first century were women. Some of these changes were charted in such works as Barbara Einhorn, Cinderella Goes to Market: Citizenship, Gender, and Women's Movements in East Central Europe (1993), Ellen E. Berry, ed. Postcommunism and the Body Politic (1995), and Mary Buckley, ed. Post-Soviet Women: From the Baltic to Central Asia (1997). Simultaneously another interesting facet of social history of women—a more complex picture of the social and cultural lives of women under Stalinism—was advanced in such works as Helena Goscilo and Beth Homgren, eds. Russia-Women-Culture (1996) and Rosalind Marsh, ed., Women in Russia and Ukraine (1996).

The social history of European women and femininity has been a fertile field of study for two centuries, with many more studies and breakthroughs still to come. More innovations should be in the offing as the historiography of gender unfolds; technology's impact on women's social history is gaining new attention; and the social history of European women since 1945 should find many new investigators. As post-colonial studies increase in importance, they, too, have been advancing social history, and they have meshed nicely with gender history to open still other paths in European history. The development of world history also holds real promise for social history's advance.

See also other articles in this section.


Ankum, Katherina von, ed. Women in the Metropolis: Gender and Modernity in Weimar Culture. Berkeley, Calif., 1997.

Bennett, Judith M. "Medievalism and Feminism." Speculum 68 (April 1993): 309–331.

Bennett, Judith M., and Amy M. Froide, eds. Singlewomen in the European Past, 1250–1800. Philadelphia, 1999.

Berry, Ellen E., ed. Postcommunism and the Body Politic. New York, 1995.

Bryan, Beverley et al. The Heart of the Race: Black Women's Lives in Britain. London, 1985.

Buckley, Mary, ed. Post-Soviet Women: From the Baltic to Central Asia. Cambridge, U.K., 1997.

Budde, Gunilla-Friederike, ed. Frauen arbeiten: Weibliche Erwebstätigkeit in Ost- und Westdeutschland nach 1945. Göttingen, Germany, 1997.

Clark, Anna. Women's Silence, Men's Violence: Sexual Assault in England 1770–1845. London, 1987.

Davidoff, Leonore, and Catherine Hall. Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class, 1780–1850. Chicago, 1987.

Davin, Anna. Growing Up Poor: Home, School, and Street in London 1870–1914. London, 1996.

Davis, Natalie Zemon. Women on the Margins: Three Seventeenth-Century Lives. Cambridge, Mass., 1995.

De Grazia, Victoria, ed. The Sex of Things: Gender and Consumption in Historical Perspective. Berkeley, Calif., 1996.

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Dyhouse, Carol. No Distinction of Sex?: Women in British Universities 1870–1939. London, 1995.

Einhorn, Barbara. Cinderella Goes to Market: Citizenship, Gender, and Women's Movements in East Central Europe. London, 1993.

Elman, R. Amy, ed. Sexual Politics and the European Union: The New Feminist Challenge. Providence, R.I., 1996.

Engel, Barbara. Mothers and Daughters: Women of the Intelligentsia in Nineteenth-Century Russia. Cambridge, U.K. 1983.

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The Development of Gender History

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The Development of Gender History