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Gender Theory


Bonnie G. Smith

Gender theory developed in the academy during the 1970s and 1980s as a set of ideas guiding historical and other scholarship in the West. In social history it particularly thrived in the United States and Great Britain, with far fewer followers on the European continent. Essentially this theory proposed looking at masculinity and femininity as sets of mutually created characteristics shaping the lives of men and women. It replaced or challenged ideas of masculinity and femininity and of men and women as operating in history according to fixed biological determinants. In other words, removing these categories from the realm of biology, it made a history possible. For some, the idea of "gender history" was but another term for women's history, but for others gender theory transformed the ways in which they approached writing and teaching about both men and women. To some extent it may be hypothesized that the major change brought about by gender theory was that it complicated the study of men, making them as well as women gendered historical subjects.


Anthropology produced some of the first influential theories using the term "gender" when it began discussing "gender roles." The background to this concept lay in post–World War I research. Margaret Mead, most notably, described non-Western societies where men performed tasks that Westerners might call "feminine" and vice versa. Mead described many variations in men's and women's tasks and sexual roles in her best-selling studies (such as Coming of Age in Samoa; 1928), opening one way for scholars to reappraise the seemingly fixed behaviors of men and women and to see stereotypes as contingent rather than determined by nature. Such a reappraisal, however, lay in the wings for much of the 1950s and 1960s.

Another source of gender theory was philosophical and literary. "One is not born, one is made a woman," the French philosopher and novelist Simone de Beauvoir wrote in her 1949 best-seller, The Second Sex. This dense and lengthy description of the "making" of womanhood discussed Marxist, Freudian, literary, and anthropological theories that, according to Beauvoir, actually determined women's behavior. In her view women, in contrast to men, acted in accordance with men's view of them and not according to their own lights. This analysis drew on phenomenological and existential philosophy that portrayed the development of the individual subject or self in relationship to an object or "other." Thus, as Beauvoir extrapolated from this theory, a man formed his subjectivity in relationship to "woman" as other or object, spinning his own identity by creating images of someone or something that was not him. Instead of building selves in a parallel way, women accepted male images of them as their identity. By this view, femininity as most women lived it was an inauthentic identity determined not inevitably, as a natural condition, but as the result of a misguided choice. This insight had wide-ranging implications for future scholarship, notably in suggesting a voluntaristic aspect to one's sexual role or nature.

A second extrapolation from existentialism in The Second Sex, however, did touch on women's biological role as reproducer. For existentialists, living an authentic life entailed escaping the world of necessity or biology and acting in the world of contingency. From this creed Beauvoir posited that women were additionally living an inauthentic life to the extent that they just did nature's bidding by having children and rearing them. They should search for freedom and authenticity through meaningful actions not connected with biological necessity. The assertion that women could escape biological destiny to forge an existence apart from the family also opened the way to gender theory. A group of translators in the Northampton, Massachusetts, area working under the aegis of H. M. Parshley made The Second Sex available to an anglophone audience in the 1950s, and in 1963 Betty Friedan's Feminine Mystique further spread Beauvoir's lines of thought to Americans.

Beauvoir's was not the only French doctrine to lay some of the groundwork for gender theory. During that same postwar period Claude Lévi-Strauss, an anthropologist, developed the theory called structuralism. According to structuralist theory, people in societies lived within frameworks of thought that constituted grids for everyday behavior. These frameworks were generally binary, consisting of oppositions such as pure and impure, raw and cooked, or masculine and feminine. Binaries operated with and against one another as relationships. One could draw from structuralism that in the case of masculine and feminine, these concepts or characteristics were mutually definitional because they shared a common border, which, once crossed, tipped feminine behavior into masculine and vice versa. Although Lévi-Strauss saw these binaries as fixed, the ground was laid once again for seeing masculinity and femininity both as interlocking and as a part of culture, even though a more fixed one, as well as a part of biology.

Lévi-Strauss developed these theories in The Elementary Structures of Kinship (1949), in which he took kinship, as the fundamental organizing category of all society, to be based on the exchange of women. The American anthropologist Gayle Rubin elaborated on Lévi-Strauss in "The Traffic in Women" (1975), an article that further developed gender theory. Citing Marxist and Freudian deficiencies in thinking about women and men, Rubin essentially underscored the hierarchical character of the relationship between men and women as an ingredient of what anthropologists and sociologists were coming to call gender: "the subordination of women can be seen as a product of the relationships by which sex and gender are organized and produced." The second point Rubin extrapolated from Lévi-Strauss was that the most important taboo in all societies was the sameness of men and women. This "imperative" of sexual difference was what made "all manifest forms of sex and gender," which were thus "a socially imposed division of the sexes." This imposed sexual difference "transform[ed] males and females into 'men' and 'women.' " By 1980 the phrase "social construction of gender" was commonplace among anthropologists, sociologists, and some psychologists. To quote a 1978 textbook: "Our theoretical position is that gender is a social construction, that a world of two 'sexes' is a result of the socially shared, taken-for-granted methods which members use to construct reality" (Suzanne Kessler, Gender: An Ethnomethodological Approach, p. vii).


Rubin's article directed scholars to psychoanalysis, and for some, concepts drawn from psychoanalysis also contributed to gender theory, resulting in a limited number of historical applications by the 1990s. Rubin saw the Oedipal moment, as pinpointed first by Sigmund Freud, as being that moment when the societal norm of sexual difference was installed in each psyche. Her article publicized the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, whose writings fused the insights of Lévi-Strauss with an updated Freudianism. Rubin admitted that Freud, Lévi-Strauss, and Lacan could be seen as advocates for the sexism of the psyche and society, yet she also valued them and urged scholars to value them for the descriptions they provided of sexism as a deeply ingrained psychosocial institution. As a result of Rubin's and others' investigations into psychoanalysis and its relevance to scholarship, some gender theory came to absorb this ingredient too.

Freud's publications between 1899 and 1939 touched on questions of women's sexuality and identity formation. His formulations saw a psychosexual development for women that depended on imaginings of the male phallus, and of the female genitalia as in essence lacking one. Privileging the phallus, as did the little boy, the little girl understood her "lack" and that of her mother as somehow a devaluation of femininity. This drove her to appreciate male superiority and to throw herself eagerly into the arms of a man (first her father and then her husband) as part of the development of a normative, heterosexual femininity with marriage and motherhood—not career—as goals. Boys, in contrast, feared that they might become castrated like their mothers, whose genitals they interpreted as deficient, and thus came to fear their fathers, repress their normal, infantile love for their mothers, and construct an ego and sense of morality based on identification with masculinity and accomplishment. In the case of both boys and girls, however, there were many roads to adult identity based on a number of ways of interpreting biology and the parental imago. Thus, in two regards Freudianism became an important ingredient of gender theory: first, it posited an identity that, although related to biology, nonetheless depended on imaginings of biology in relationship to parental identities. Freeing male and female from a strict biological determinism, Freud furthermore saw psychosexual identity as developing relationally. That is, the cultural power of the male phallus was only important in relationship to feminine lack of the phallus or castration. This relativity of masculine and feminine psyches informed gender theory.

The theories of Jacques Lacan nuanced Freudianism and became both influential and contested in gender theory. Lacan described the nature of the split or fragmented subject in even stronger terms. Freud had seen the rational, sexual, and moral regimes within the self as in perpetual contest. In an essay on the "mirror stage" in human development, Lacan claimed a further, different splitting. The baby gained an identity by seeing the self first in terms of an other—the mother—and in a mirror, that is, again, in terms of an other. Both of these images were fragmented ones because the mother disappeared from time to time, as did the image in the mirror. The self was always this fragmented and relational identity. Lacan also posited language as a crucial influence providing the structures of identity and the medium by which that identity was spoken. In speaking, the self first articulated one's "nom" or name—which was the name of one's "father"—and simultaneously and homonymically spoke the "non," the proscriptions or rules of that language, which Lacan characterized as the laws of the "father" or the laws of the phallus. Lacanianism added to gender theory a further sense of the intertwined nature of masculinity and femininity, beginning with identity as based on the maternal imago and fragmented because of it. Second, it highlighted the utterly arbitrary, if superficially regal, power of masculinity as an extension of the phallus, or cultural version of the male organ. Third, the fantasy nature of the gendered self and indeed of all of human identity and drives received an emphasis that became crucial to some practitioners of gender history.

Under the sign of what came to be known as "French feminism," French theorists picked up on Lacanian, structuralist, and other insights to formulate a position that contributed to gender theory. For these theorists, such as Luce Irigaray, masculine universalism utterly obstructed feminine subjectivity. What Simone de Beauvoir called "the Other" had nothing to do with women but amounted to one more version of masculinity—male self-projection. Women thus appeared as erasure, as lack, and, in Irigaray's This Sex Which Is Not One (1985), as unrepresentable in ordinary terms. The woman was the divided, nonunitary, fragmented self. The result for the writing of social history were such compendia as Michelle Perrot's Une histoire des femmes est-elle possible? (Is a history of women possible?; 1984). The question of how one writes the history of fragments, "decentered subjects," and other characters for whom there are no historical conventions was addressed in some writing derived from French feminism. To some extent, Joan Scott's Only Paradoxes to Offer (1996) tried to execute that project by eliminating biography and story from her account of French feminists.

The French philosopher Michel Foucault contested the standard interpretation of social and political power as a palpable force emanating from a single source. Rather, power was almost a Nietzschean life force circulating through society, thus constituting a mesh in which all people operated. The mesh or grid of power produced subjects or, more commonly, people as they articulated its principles. Thus, for instance, in his famous History of Sexuality (1977) Foucault maintained that speaking about sex or behaving in some flauntingly sexual way was not in and of itself a liberatory act but rather an articulation of social rules about sex and thus a participation in power and the law. Foucault saw the work of the modern state as an increasingly invisible implication of people in the exercise of power around bodily issues—thus the sense in his work of biopower present in the activities of doctors, the clergy, government officials, and ordinary reformers. Downplaying or even eliminating the traditional sense of human agency, Foucault's work actually fit with some theories current in social history in the 1970s, notably that branch investigating people's behavior as opposed to their subjectivity.

Many aspects of Foucault's theories immediately fed into French social history of women. Arlette Farge, a French social and cultural historian, described the lives of eighteenth-century Parisians in a Foucauldian manner. That is, reading police and legal records, she saw those lives as "produced" and coming into being in this legal encounter (La vie fragile: Violence, pouvoirs, et solidarités à Paris au XVIIIe siècle ; 1986). In presenting answers to questioners, they gave shape to their lives, as did neighbors and other witnesses. At the same time, they protested and resisted accusations and characterizations. Farge's accounts also showed the production of gender by the law, although this theory had not yet taken on a definite shape in historical work. Similarly Foucauldian, Alain Corbin's Les filles de noce: Misère sexuelle et prostitution (1978) interpreted legalized prostitution as arising from the state's ambition to regulate and oversee even these sexual acts. Life in the brothel had its special textures, but these were sex workers' experience of the state.


Although many of these theories had more or less influence on the social history of women, in 1986 they came together when the historian Joan Scott issued a stirring manifesto about gender theory in AmericanHistorical Review. Scott's "Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis" asked historians to transform social scientific understandings of gender by adding Lacanian psychoanalysis, Jacques Derrida's deconstruction (a philosophical theory showing the difficulties in assigning definite meanings or truth to texts), and Foucauldian-Nietzschean definitions of power. In her view Marxist, anthropological, and psychological moves toward understanding gender had reached a dead end because they tended to see male and female as having essential or enduring characteristics. Marxism always saw women's issues as inexorably subordinate to issues of class, and feminists who believed in Marxism had no convincing way of explaining men's oppression of women. Nor, for that matter, according to Scott, did those feminist scholars who studied patriarchy or sought out "women's voices." Despite great progress, even those who now followed the lead of the "binary oppositions" of structuralist anthropology could not account for them. The rigidity of the male-female categories in any of these systems, especially in the work of those who sought out women's "voices" and "values," kept gender from being as useful as it could be.

As palliative, Scott considered the way the trio of French theorists could overcome the rigidities of gender theory as it had evolved to the mid-1980s. Lacanian psychoanalysis rested in part on the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure's understanding of language as a system in which words had meaning only in relationship to one another. It coupled this insight with revised Freudian ideas about the psychic acquisition of identity as a process shaped by the supremely high value placed on the phallus, and it was this value that the symbolic system of language expressed. For Scott, Lacanianism and all the psychic variation it involved were one key to understanding gender as an exigent, inescapable relationship. Foucault's theory of power as a field in which all humans operated offered another valuable insight. Scott suggested that using Foucault allowed for the introduction of gender issues into political history, thus overcoming the separation that historians had maintained between women's history and the political foundation on which most historical writing rested.

Scott also explained that gender could be a category or subject of discussion through which power operated. It could operate thus in several ways. For one, because gender meant differentiation, it could be used to distinguish the better from the worse, the more important from the less important. Using the term "feminine" articulated a lower place in a social or political hierarchy. Additionally, gender explained or assigned meaning to any number of phenomena, including work, the body, sexuality, politics, religion, cultural production, and an infinite number of other historical fields. Because many of these were fields where social history had established itself and where Scott herself had done major work as well, gender theory of her variety found a welcoming audience.

The philosopher Judith Butler offered other poststructuralist versions of gender theory that influenced historians. In two highly celebrated books, Gender Trouble (1990) and Bodies That Matter (1993), Butler argued against talking of femininity in terms of an essential womanhood. Drawing on a range of theories, Butler proposed to discuss human action less in terms of the behavior of a knowing and conscious subject and more as an iteration of social rules. The fact that actions were the iteration of rules should not lead to fatalism, Butler maintained, for such iterations in appropriate settings could have upsetting consequences and even make for social change. Bodies That Matter made an important contribution to debates in gender theory that saw gender as "constructed" and sex or the body as somehow more "real" and determined by biology. Butler's response was to deny "sex" as a ground for the "construction of gender." "Sex" was as constructed as gender, especially the construction of "sex" as being more fundamental or real than gender.

By 1990 Scott, Butler, and other scholars had provided two critiques that shaped the use of gender theory in social history. The first was the critique of universalism, meaning the critique of narratives and analyses that took women as having their womanhood in common. Although social historians had been more conscientious than most in assessing class interests, Marxist tendencies in social history tended to see class as a universal too, one that overrode particularities such as race and gender. The critique of universals particularly brought to the fore women of color and women outside the Western framework of social history. Similarly, the critique of essentialism served to encourage more particularist studies because it denied an essence to womanhood. Denise Riley's "Am I That Name?": Feminism and the Category of "Women" in History (1988) showed that womanhood as an essential category was constructed in the nineteenth century to represent the "social" and thus a unified essence. The critique of essentialism went even further, however. Joan Scott's "Evidence of Experience" argued that even the claiming of a group identity or essence based on one's own experience that was shared with others was impossible as an authentic or originary entity. Set in an already constructed world of language and culture, no identity could point to an originary and essential moment of self- or group-formation.


While social-scientifically based theories of gender caused less stir, gender theories that incorporated ideas of Foucault, Derrida, and French femininists initially provoked incredible debate and tension among historians. For one thing, the theories raised hackles as elitist and not accessible to everyone. These were "theories," it was charged, with little relevance to real people's problems. In fact, the unabashed elitism associated with difficult theories made some charge that these theories were actually fascistic. Another parallel with fascism appeared in the contempt with which the traditional Left was often viewed by people who had seen the real "light" of postmodernist gender theory. From a variety of perspectives feminist "theorists" became a target; indeed feminist theory associated with this more psychoanalytical and linguistically oriented variant of gender theory attracted some of the heaviest antipostmodern fire.

Although many merely equated gender history with women's history, to some within the profession it looked like a way once again to move women's history to the back burner. Now that historians were dimly acknowledging the legitimacy of women's history, the argument went, why should such progress be thrown aside to do gender history? In this argument gender theory seemed to be working against women's history, and as people rushed to do the history of the more important sex—men—the old paradigms of eliminating women seemed to have been revived by feminist theorists themselves. Another objection focused on a still different aspect of gender history's connections to postmodernism and especially to the theory of deconstruction as it affected women's history. By this view the questioning of subjectivity and agency contained in postmodernist theory undermined one major goal of women's history, namely, to have women figure as subjects and agents of history. The accomplishments and contributions that women's history had taken such pains to accumulate lost their luster. Moreover, in positing a relational or split subjectivity (when such was allowed), gender theory undermined the positive, independent figuration of women. Whereas women's history had struggled to free accounts of women from a history of the family and men, gender theory seemed to relegate them to the "relational" status that historians in general accorded them.

Finally, critics of gender theory interpreted Freudian strains of that theory as draining away the findings of social history that saw women as "rational" actors in, say, devising family strategies of fertility limitation, patterns of work, household management, or social movements. For these critics the Freudianism in gender theory resexed women and relegated them to those libidinal, irrational, even hypersexual stereotypes that had heretofore characterized their rare appearances in history. The additions of Lacan were equally suspect to these critics, for his theory seemed less to question masculinity than to put it at the unquestionable heart of all power and value. Any attempt to question the power of the phallus or, by extension, of men was a delusion or sickness. Thus, those among the critics who were feminists—and most were—took the Lacanian aspects of gender theory as antifeminist, even misogynist. As cultural icons, Freud and Lacan became further examples of the automatic leadership awarded to misogynists, including most of the male theorists privileged in social thought.

Theorists of postcolonialism, led in particular by Gayatri Spivak, further altered gender theory when they began looking at the colonial-imperial relationship in postmodernist terms. Spivak asked whether the "subaltern" or colonial, dominated subject could "speak." This question could run the gamut of possibilities, from whether a colonized person had the right to speak to whether the person might be so infused with the values of the dominator that she or he had lost the power to be an agent of his or her own culture. The term "subaltern" had special meaning to those who were both women and colonial subjects. From postcolonial theory, social historians began seeing gender as a product of imperial regimes, specifically as produced in the context of Western dominance and non-Western resistance, submission or both.

The sciences bolstered gender theory, most notably as they came to discuss the lives of those born with ambiguously sexed bodies. In "The Five Sexes," the scientist Ann Fausto-Sterling demonstrated that if one determined "sex" by physiological and chromosomal characteristics, there were five sexes. Society, however, often tried by surgery or other means to pare bodily sex down to two—male and female. In addition parents, doctors, psychologists, and teachers reflected society's inability to deal with more than two sexes. As a result they directed the behavior of those of the nontraditional among the five sexes into the well-established behavior of the standard "male" or "female" gender role. This scientific understanding provided still another reinforcement to the gender theory that claimed the arbitrary, social, and invented nature of gender. Exploring sexual behavior and gender identity in the eighteenth century, for instance, Randolph Trumbach has particularly focused on the transvestite male as a "third sex" social actor.

Not suprisingly, historians developed alternatives to gender history and women's history. The German historian Gisela Bock suggested that both were necessary, each having special virtues and contributions to make to history. The medievalist Judith Bennett suggested that the main goal of women historians should be less gender history than a concerted investigation of patriarchy. Motivated to investigate the sources of women's inferior treatment and status in society, Bennett argued that historians needed to chart the historical creation and operation of patriarchy in all its forms. The American historian Gerda Lerner worked along these lines in The Creation of Patriarchy. (1986). While some historians of race and colonialism welcomed postmodern and gender theory for its commitment to breaking down wholeness and universals, others questioned the emphasis on fragmented and partial visions. People of color and colonized peoples, these critics argued, had already experienced fragmentation and subordination in their actual lives and in their histories. For them, the position of autonomous subject with a universal history would be a refreshing change, even an imperative one.


The many varieties of gender theory have shaped the writing of European social history. One of the first areas to feel the effects of gender theory was the history of working- and lower-class women. Judith Walkowitz's Prostitution and Victorian Society: Women, Class, and the State (1980) demonstrated the ways in which the Victorians had shaped working-class women's recourse to casual prostitution during the off-season into an identity through state policy. Whereas in working-class communities women's seasonal exchange of sex for money or food did not mark them out, the state's policing of prostitution and the imprisonment and coerced medical exams converted these women from workers to outcasts. Instead of being intrinsic, these women's identity was constructed. After the work of Alain Corbin and Walkowitz, the social history of prostitution intersected with an increasingly sophisticated gender theory. Laurie Bernstein's Sonia's Daughters: Prostitutes and Their Regulation in Imperial Russia (1995) saw the regulation of prostitution as an enactment of gender by which female inferiority was expounded as disease and as subjection to a patriarchal state in the guise of doctors, police, and other regulators.

At the heart of postwar social history, the history of work has also gained insights from gender theory, as scholars have looked at agricultural, artisanal, industrial, and service work through its prism. Deborah Valenze's First Industrial Woman (1995) showed the modernization of work during the transition in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as comprised of gender dimorphism. An expert chapter on dairying and gender illustrated this transformation, as women became less valued workers and men became the quintessential and valued ones, whether in agriculture or cottage industries. Taking on one of the staples of social history, Tessie Liu's Weaver's Knot (1994) demonstrated that one of the heroes of social history—the male artisan—only survived as an independent worker because of the proletarian labor of his daughters and wife in nearby factories. In a different work arena Francesca de Haan's Gender and the Politics of Office Work: The Netherlands 1860–1940 (1998) provided a detailed instance of male-female relationships in the Dutch service sector. Highly skilled, hardworking, and in need of money, women office workers were also harassed, underpaid, limited in their job opportunities, and suspect as workers. Meanwhile men were seen as naturally entitled to office work, especially to promotions and managerial positions. The professions have been equally seen as gendered: Christine Ruane's Gender, Class, and the Professionalization of Russian City Teachers, 1860-1914 (1994) described the special conditions that produced teaching as a gendered profession. Women could only teach in cities, had to remain unmarried, and were said to require extra training in order to be fit for the job.

Because gender theory called attention to language, social history even of the working classes or of ethnic groups took on many aspects of and sometimes merged with cultural history. For instance, worker autobiographies, seen as suspect in the 1970s because of their elite and exceptional nature, had new possibilities with the validation of language as a subject of inquiry. Mary Jo Maynes's Taking the Hard Road: Life Course in French and German Workers' Autobiographies in the Era of Industrialization (1995) explored expressions of gender difference in the life course of working women and men and used literary instead of statistical means. Paula E. Hyman's Gender and Assimilation in Modern Jewish History (1995) looked at the way Jewish men in Europe and the United States jettisoned their traditional role of publicly promoting Jewish culture. This reaction to anti-Semitism left Jewish womanhood redefined as the exclusive support of that culture, and the household rather than the public sphere as its locus. Such a change in culture reshaped gender and the social role of men and women.

Since E. P. Thompson's Making of the English Working Class (1963), religion had earned a place in social history, but gender theory made the religious experience of women as important as that of the men on whom Thompson had focused. Phyllis Mack's VisionaryWomen: Ecstatic Prophecy in Seventeenth-Century England (1992) and Deborah Valenze's Prophetic Sons and Daughters (1985) showed popular Protestantism offering a place where gender roles could mutate somewhat in both the early modern and modern periods. Dagmar Herzog's Intimacy and Exclusion: Religious Politics in Pre-Revolutionary Baden (1996) looked at debates over gendered social issues such as mixed marriages, sexuality, priestly celibacy, and Jewish assimilation as central not only to social identity but also to the highest reaches of politics. Gender theory often played a unifying role in connecting social and cultural issues to politics.

Debates over the history of the middle class had started in women's history with scholarship on their daily lives—especially their contributions to philanthropy—religion, and feminism. Gender history opened other narrative and analytical possibilities. For example, Leonore Davidoff's and Catherine Hall's Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class, 1780–1850 (1987) charted the formation of men's and women's roles, interests, and activities as gender-specific undertakings over the course of almost a century. In contrast, Anne-Charlott Trepp's Sanfte Männlichkeit und selbständige Weiblichkeit: Frauen und Männer in Hamburger Bürgertum zwischen 1770 und 1840 (1996) claimed that there was less gender dimorphism among the Hamburg upper classes. Men and women shared child rearing, belief in romantic marriages and rational values, and participation in public causes. Such findings raised questions about the relationship among common social practices and legal and economic structures that generated and enforced male privilege and female inferiority.

The social history of women gained much of its early verve from the study of domesticity, child rearing, outwork—that is, paid labor done in the home—and other aspects of the so-called private sphere. However, when gender theory met studies of the public sphere in the guise of coffeehouses, cafés, academies, and other locations of communal life, social history made for a host of new kinds of studies. The work of Sarah Hanley on early modern France detailed the ways in which male privilege in the family shaped the laws of the state, while it also showed women in daily life and on a microlevel contesting these arrangements. Dena Goodman, among others, showed the salon as a gendered social space and thus gendered the "republic of letters." Isabel Hull claimed that civil society and public space in eighteenth-century Germany was essentially male, leading to the gendering of citizenship. Unlike Goodman and Hanley, Hull put her emphasis on male rather than female activism in society.

Studies of World War I attracted intense gender analysis. Equally mixing social, cultural, and political history, Susan Kingsley Kent's Making Peace: The Reconstruction of Gender in Interwar Britain (1993) looked at the war as crucial in reshaping the relationships among men and women and thus in producing new forms of gender and of gender politics. For Kent the issue emerging from the war was how to reconstruct gender relationships after men had been away killing for four years, while women had essentially led very different lives, imagining the war from afar for the most part. Depending on whether they had been at the front or stayed home, women had different views of soldiers and thus of gender relations in peacetime. Those who had remained at home implicitly or explicitly saw soldiers as killers, and the feminists among them espoused separate spheres after the war. Those few women who had actually seen maimed, hysterical, and infantilized soldiers had a more sympathetic view of men and of relations among them. The war thus complicated gender, with sexologists and other social experts playing a large role in "making peace."

As gender theory absorbed ingredients of postmodernism, some historians picked up the thread by which gender was seen as a way of addressing issues other than gender, again in the context of World War I scholarship. Mary Louise Roberts's Civilization without Sexes: Reconstructing Gender in Postwar France, 1917–1927 (1994) showed the way in which battling over the behavior and characteristics of women allowed society as a whole to address the incredible pain suffered by the French in World War I. Gender was speakable, whereas responsibility for the war and unbearable loss were not. So instead of civilization being menaced by war, civilization was menaced by the loss of traditions of femininity. Those following this paradigm in gender theory tipped their accounts of society perceptibly to cultural history, although social history often formed an unspoken background.

The aspects of social history that focused on social movements and protest were affected in various ways by these changes. Early modern protest and riots came to have gendered components and differentials, producing women and men as social actors. The French Revolution (notably in the work of Joan Landes and Lynn Hunt) was seen as mapping familial relationships and fantasies onto the political landscape. New Voices in the Nation: Women and the Greek Resistance, 1941–1964 (1996) by Jane Hart saw the gendering of national identity in social movements as well. The work of Atina Grossman and Donna Karsch saw the construction of social agency in gendered protests centered on abortion, birth control, and other social rights. Kate Lacey's Feminine Frequencies: Gender, German Radio, and the Public Sphere, 1923–1945 (1996) explored the relationship between technology, the public sphere, and women's social behavior.

One stream of gender theory has tried to distinguish between gender and sex, and this has coincided with an interest in sexuality and the body as components of both gender and social history. Some of the history of sexuality and the body has used these fields to show the growth of bureaucracy around sex and gender. James Farr's Authority and Sexuality in Early Modern Burgundy (1995) described the criminalization of various kinds of sexual behavior as the act of a patriarchal state creating and sustaining both gender order and its own power. Sabine Kienitz's Sexualität, Macht, und Moral: Prostitution und Geschlechter erzieungen Anfang des 19. Jahrhunderts in Württemburg (1995) described post-Napoleonic bureaucrats asserting their prerogatives over a new district by criminalizing longstanding sexual and social practices. In the process women's economic use of their bodies, accepted in the particular town as part of social structure, succumbed to state-building.

Gender theory, while operating on the macro-level of social and political history, has also been successful in allowing for micro studies of the body that have large-scale social implications. Barbara Duden's The Woman beneath the Skin: A Doctor's Patients in Eighteenth-Century Germany (1991) used the transcribed words of patients to show a very different experience of a gendered body in relationship to the physician than that announced by Foucault for the modern period. Taking issue with the emphasis on discourse, Lyndal Roper's Oedipus and the Devil: Witchcraft, Sexuality, and Religion in Early Modern Europe (1994) argued that the body had a palpable and experienced reality that was prelinguistic but nonetheless gendered. On the basis of this individual experience congealing into collective movement, witchcraft, religious reformation, and other forms of social behavior took shape, especially gendered shapes.

A notable accompaniment to gender theory was the study of masculinity as a constructed, social, and not necessarily natural quantity. Among the first to write in this vein, in Be a Man!: Males in Modern Society (1979), the historian Peter Stearns detailed the ways in which manhood consisted of a set of unwritten rules backing explicit exhortations to masculinity. Using the case of nineteenth-century France, Robert Nye explored anxieties about normative masculinity. He examined legal and medical records to determine that "honor" was a central feature of this masculinity. However, he also showed that homosexuality had its constructed side as well, serving as a foil to the normative. By the 1990s the exploration of masculinity added race and colonialism as variables. Gail Bederman's Manliness and Civilization: The Culture of Gender and Race in the United States, 1870–1917 (1995) looked at turn-of-the-century masculinity in the United States, seeing whiteness and blackness intertwined in its definition and creating a model for studies in European social history. Mrinalini Sinha's Colonial Masculinity (1995) investigated British treatment of Bengali men and those men's internalization or questioning of those norms. Both Sinha and Bederman brought in the activism and responses of Bengali and black women. The opening of gender theory, and particularly that related to masculinity, allowed for breakthroughs in the study of fascism and Nazism. Totalitarianism came to be understood as a set of gendered practices and policies operating at the highest levels and affecting everyday life in society. By 2000 a range of masculinities had been charted for many historic places and eras.

Gender theory has been used to question the foundational practices of history itself. Combined with social history, gender theory applied to historiography and the philosophy of history reconsiders the announced objectivity and standards of the profession as it has evolved since the nineteenth century. Using psychoanalytical and anthropological lines of argument, gender theory looks at historical practices in a way that parallels the studies of science from a social point of view and thus finds a niche in social history. In other words, it explores the values of the profession by investigating its actual practices. These practices judged nonwhite people as inferior when it came to thinking objectively and rationally and put women in the same category. The modernizing profession of history, as a social institution, also relegated women to doing much unacknowledged work, even to the extent of writing histories for men who then got the credit. By these practices, the profession was gendered, creating men as a superior category of professionals and women as an inferior one of uninformed copyists, notetakers, and sometimes readers of men's work. Gender theory also allowed for an understanding of the way in which subject matter about men was featured, once the hierarchy of male to female had been established. Because men were important, the history of men was itself more "significant" than the history of women, who were already established as unimportant in the hierarchy of gender. Along with the objectivity and equality of opportunity in the profession came a constitutive gender bias. Gender theory also allows for a reading of why social history is seen as less important than political history, and an analysis of that hierarchization among scholars.

Gender theory is only of interest to a minority of historians. Many social historians also find it of little value, so that histories of social movements, work, religious behavior, crime, education, death, the professions, ethnic groups, sports, and other aspects of social life do not mention gender. Most of these works thus imply either that the male experience is the only important one or that it can stand for everyone's. Others do not discuss gender because they want to focus on class, race, or other issues, and do not see these categories as developed in tandem with gender, as many gender theorists believe. However, all denigrations of gender theory can be read in a gendered way, in which class and race are seen as superior masculine categories, whereas gender is seen as inferior. Not all histories that deal explicitly with women, finally, use gender theory in any self-conscious way. They may proceed empirically, with few wider historical referents. The multiplicity and complexity of gender theories may encourage this gap. But since the mid-1980s use of theory in dealing with women (and sometimes men) in history has increased, providing a richer conceptual framework and a new means of linking specific historical topics to larger issues and comparisons.

See also other articles in this section and the articles in the Gender section in volume 4.


Beauvoir, Simone de. The Second Sex. Translated and edited by H. M. Parshley. New York, 1952.

Bederman, Gail. Manliness and Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1870–1917. Chicago, 1995.

Bernstein, Laurie. Sonia's Daughters: Prostitutes and Their Regulation in Imperial Russia. Berkeley, Calif., 1995.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York, 1990.

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

Duden, Barbara. The Woman beneath the Skin: A Doctor's Patients in Eighteenth-Century Germany. Translated by Thomas Dunlap. Cambridge, Mass., 1991.

Farge, Arlette. Fragile Lives: Violence, Power, and Solidarity in Eighteenth-Century Paris. Translated by Carol Shelton. Cambridge, Mass., 1993.

Foucault, Michel. History of Sexuality. Translated by Robert Hurley. New York, 1978.

Haan, Francesca de. Gender and the Politics of Office Work: The Netherlands 1860–1940. Amsterdam, 1998.

Herzog, Dagmar. Intimacy and Exclusion: Religious Politics in Pre-Revolutionary Baden. Princeton, N.J., 1985.

Hull, Isabel V. Sexuality, State, and Civil Society in Germany, 1700–1815. Ithaca, N.Y., 1996.

Hyman, Paula E. Gender and Assimilation in Modern Jewish History: The Roles and Representation of Women. Seattle, Wash., 1995.

Irigaray, Luce. This Sex Which Is Not One. Translated by Catherine Porter with Carolyn Burke. Ithaca, N.Y., 1985.

Kent, Susan Kingsley. Making Peace: The Reconstruction of Gender in Interwar Britain. Princeton, N.J., 1993.

Lacey, Kate. Feminine Frequencies: Gender, German Radio, and the Public Sphere, 1923–1945. Ann Arbor, Mich., 1996.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. Elementary Structures of Kinship. Translated by James Harle Bell, John Richard von Sturmes, and Rodney Needham. Boston, 1969.

Liu, Tessie P. The Weaver's Knot: The Contradictions of Class Struggle and Family Solidarity in Western France, 1750–1914. Ithaca, N.Y., 1994.

Mack, Phyllis. Visionary Women: Ecstatic Prophecy in Seventeenth-Century England. Berkeley, Calif., 1992.

Mead, Margaret. Coming of Age in Samoa: A Psychological Study of Primitive Youth for Western Civilization. New York, 1928.

Perrot, Michelle, ed. Une histoire des femmes est-elle possible? Paris, 1984.

Riley, Denise. "Am I That Name?": Feminism and the Category of "Women" in History. Minneapolis, Minn., 1988.

Roberts, Mary Louise. Civilization without Sexes: Reconstructing Gender in Postwar France, 1917–1927 Chicago, 1994.

Roper, Lyndal. Oedipus and the Devil: Witchcraft, Sexuality, and Religion in Early Modern Europe. London and New York, 1994.

Rubin, Gayle. "The Traffic in Women: Notes on the 'Political Economy' of Sex." In Feminism and History. Edited by Joan Wallach Scott. Oxford and New York, 1996. Pages 105–151.

Scott, Joan Wallach. Gender and the Politics of History. New York, 1988.

Scott, Joan Wallach. Only Paradoxes to Offer: French Feminists and the Rights of Man. Cambridge, Mass., 1996.

Sinha, Mrinalini. Colonial Masculinity: The "Manly Englishman" and the "Effeminate Bengali" in the Late Nineteenth Century. New York, 1995.

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