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Laura McEnaney

Although historians have been studying gender for several decades, the study of gender in American foreign policy is a relatively new phenomenon. Indeed, the proliferation of scholarship on this topic in the 1990s suggests that gender has become a permanent and theoretically significant category of analysis for the historian of American foreign relations. It is important to note, however, that this approach has generated lively debate among many historians. In journals and on-line forums and at conferences, scholars at the beginning of the twenty-first century continued to argue about the degree to which gender has affected the creation, conduct, and outcomes of international diplomacy.


Many people understandably but mistakenly equate the study of gender with the study of women when, in fact, these are fairly different enterprises. Historians who study women (many but not all of them women) look at women's activities and contributions in various economic, political, cultural, and spatial contexts. Practitioners of women's history see all women as historical actors: they look at an individual woman or women together in social movements, at notable and elite women or anonymous, "ordinary" women, at women in the kitchen or women in the streets. Since the 1970s (and even earlier), women's historians have argued that historical narratives have largely ignored women's experiences, yielding an incomplete, or even misleading, portrait of the American past. Through critical analysis of traditional primary sourcesand by uncovering sources that historians previously did not think worthy of studywomen's history seeks to expand and complicate our histories of industrialization, electoral politics, and warfare, to name only a few topics. Historians of women insist that their scholarship should not merely add a new set of female characters to the plot line of American history, but rather that the whole story needs to be tested, reconsidered, and revised.

The study of gender is an outgrowth of women's history, which is why people tend to view the study of gender and women as the same thing. The scholarly interest in gender emerged as practitioners of women's history, informed by scholarship in anthropology, psychology, and literary criticism, began to ask critical questions of their own methodologies. Shifting the focus from women to gender, historians of gender explore how males and females (sex) become men and women (gender). That is, to study gender is to examine how a society assigns social meanings to the different biological characteristics of males and females. Historians who study gender see it as a cultural constructsomething that human beings create and that changes over time. The differences between men and women, they argue, are rooted in society, not in nature, and as such can be historicized. Moreover, gender scholars point out, if women's lives have been shaped profoundly by gender prescriptions, then so, too, have men's. Cultural ideals and practices of masculinity and femininity have been created together, often in opposition to one another; therefore, both men and women have gender histories that must be analyzed in tandem. Indeed, gender studies is relational in that research into the history of gender ideals and practices is always linked to investigations about the operation of the economy, the construction of racial ideologies, the development of political institutions, and other phenomena typically studied by historians.

So what does it mean to do women's history in comparison to gender history? Actually, most historians in this field do a little bit of both. Still, whereas a women's historian would focus on, for example, women's labor force participation during World War II, a gender historian would examine how gender ideologies shaped the organization of labor on the battlefield and the home front, and how the war remapped the meanings of masculinity, femininity, and labor. Put another way, women's historians foreground women as historical actors, while gender historians foreground ideological systems as agents of history. Certainly, those who do women's history engage the question of how gender norms shape women's experiences and struggles, but they tend to focus on women, as such, more than they examine historical ideological shifts in the meanings of masculine and feminine. At the same time, gender historians do not ignore women altogether; rather they interrogate the very meaning of the term "woman," highlighting historical changes in the construction of masculinity and femininity, manhood and womanhood. Again, many historians do some combination of both, combing the documents for clues about how men and women have both shaped and been shaped by gendered beliefs, practices, and institutions.

The theories and methodologies of gender history have been adapted to many fields, but the integration of gender into the study of American foreign relations has been slow and uneven. Part of the reason for this is that the "high" politics of diplomacy seem far removed from the politics of everyday life that have long been the concern of gender and women's history. Until the late twentieth century, both diplomatic and women's historians were themselves inattentive to the connections between their fields and thus very few conversations took place across the disciplinary divide. Scholarly work in various disciplines since the 1980s, however, has revealed important links between American diplomacy and American culture, and the most recent scholarship reflects a more self-conscious attempt by historians to identify a dynamic interrelationship between the creation of foreign policy and the construction of gender.


The integration of these two seemingly disparate literaturesgender studies and diplomatic historyis ongoing, and it is important to note that this subfield is still "under construction." Nevertheless, it is possible to describe and analyze the myriad approaches historians have used thus far. One of the first ways historians have made gender visible in foreign policy is by spotlighting the presence and contributions of the anomalous women who have shaped American foreign policy. This approach reveals how women like Senator Margaret Chase Smith, Eleanor Dulles (the younger sister of John Foster and Allen), and first lady Eleanor Roosevelt have influenced foreign policy in a variety of rolesas elected officials, lobbyists, mid-level bureaucrats, and even first ladies. More recently, women such as Jeane Kirkpatrick, Madeleine Albright, and Condoleeza Rice have risen to the highest levels of statecraft. President Ronald Reagan appointed Kirkpatrick in 1980 to be the U.S. representative to the United Nations. Kirkpatrick's staunch anticommunism and advocacy of a reinvigorated national defense fit comfortably in the Reagan administration, and she became a widely known spokesperson for Reagan's foreign policy positions. President Bill Clinton, too, selected a woman to represent U.S. interests at the UN. Albright served several years at the UN until Clinton appointed her secretary of state in 1996. Secretary Albright was the first woman to serve in that role, and in 2001, President George W. Bush made Rice the first woman assistant to the president for national security affairs.

Tracking these "firsts" and the careers of other notable but lesser known women in the diplomatic corps marks an important contribution to the literature simply because it makes women visible. Biographical information on how these women worked their way through institutions controlled by men can yield important insights about the role of feminism in paving the way for their entry, and about the challenges involved in managing a career in a field still populated with very few women. This approach also encourages scholars to not simply acknowledge women such as Kirkpatrick or Albright but to evaluate their contributions and legacies. Many critical questions have emerged from this literature about the weight of women's influence in foreign policymaking (Albright, for example, enjoyed much more access to policy inner circles than did Kirkpatrick), about whether female policymakers' contributions reflect "a woman's view," and whether American women can effect more change if they operate inside or outside of policy circles.

Still, this quasi-biographical approach to gender and foreign policy has some significant limitations. It tends to focus on elite women, so it is narrow by definition. As a result, we lose something of the story of how the nonelite majority of American women have shaped foreign policy through different means. Further, its "notable women" orientation just adds women to the story, leaving untapped the methods, questions, and theories that define diplomacy and the discipline of diplomatic history itself. Finally, this approach also supports (probably unintentionally) the misguided notion that truly exceptional women, with enough resources and pluck, can enter the inner circle of statesmen, and that the vast majority of women cannot, because of either native inability or subjugation by a male power structure. Neither of these notions can be supported historically, nor are they the intended arguments of writers, but the impressions remain. Many more important biographies and studies of such women need to be done, but they can contribute only modestly to the knowledge about gender and American foreign relations.

Beyond this approach lies another, broader in scope, more inclusive of nonelite women, and more sensitive to the array of historical forces that have shaped women's inclusion or exclusion from foreign affairs. In this approach, women are written into the history of foreign relations as missionariesemissaries of Americanism. These more prosperous white women (teachers, reformers, and members of faith communities) become part of the larger narrative about the energetic expansion of the United States in the late nineteenth century, and here they can be cast as both villains and victims. Historians have documented the ways in which women missionaries exported "civilization" to nonwhite populations through "uplift" programs that valorized whiteness, Christianity, and conventional gender and family ideologies. Some newer work has complicated this story further, suggesting that women such as turn-of-the century female travelers abroad and the women photojournalists who documented the violence of the Spanish American War participated in missionary types of civilizing projects, even if not formally engaged in missionary work themselves. At the same time, however, all of these works acknowledge that nineteenth-and early-twentieth-century gender systems prevented women's participation in diplomacy (and domestic electoral politics), relegating women to a separate sphere of foreign affairs. Excluded from formal policymaking, these women were still political actors; they promoted the tenets of American foreign policy through the means available to women of their status. Like their sister reformers who worked in immigrant communities in American cities, female missionaries practiced their "social housekeeping" on a global stage. In this approach, then, women become visible in the dramas of foreign policymaking as collaborators in exile, historical actors who support the worldviews and expansionist agendas of male foreign policymakers but only from a position of exclusion.

Like women missionaries, women in peace movements tried to participate in foreign policy-making from the outskirts. Historians have found in peace histories of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries a meaningful paper trail of women's participation in important national and international debates about U.S. foreign policy. In examining the theories, strategies, and tactics of organized women's peace movements, it becomes difficult to capture the whole of their contributions to policymaking. Historians hold different views about the degree to which peace movements generally have influenced decision makers' choices about interventions and arms buildups. Moreover, historians of women's pacifism have tended to focus less on the policy impact side of the story and more on the social movement storythat is, how it was that women in different eras were able to muster the ideological and material resources to create and sustain movements that addressed foreign policy issues long considered to be "men's business."

It is difficult to generalize about the politics of women's peace movements, because female pacifism has both enshrined conventional gender roles and advanced the ideas of feminism. One safe generalization might be that women in peace movements have capitalized on their outsider perspective; their very exclusion from the "man's world" of diplomacy enabled them to criticizemore perceptively, they arguedthe overseas adventurism of the United States. Many female peace activists, whether mothers or not, claimed a maternal identity as the basis of this outsider critique of American diplomacy. Although there was no national, independent women's peace movement before 1914, there were individual women and small peace groups that lobbied in various locales. In these activities we can see a nascent feminist peace consciousness developing over the course of the nineteenth century, and much of this activism sprung from female reformers' maternalist sensibilities. These women, largely middle class, white, and Protestant, argued that U.S. expansion overseas should not extend what they charged were male values of conquest and acquisition, but rather should reflect women's purity, virtue, and maternal morality. By the late nineteenth century, many nationally organized women's groups, such as the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), had fully incorporated a peace plank into their reform agendas. In fact, the WCTU created a Department of Peace and Arbitration in 1887, which enabled them to link more systematically their crusade against alcohol (a critique of male violence in the family) with a campaign for peace (a critique of male violence overseas).

Over the course of the twentieth century, through both world wars and after, female pacifists continued to claim the mantle of motherhood as an entry into foreign policy politics. Like their nineteenth-century predecessors, these later activists nurtured the notion of a maternalist citizenship, a concept that included not only the demand for the vote, but a full voice in governmental affairs, electoral politics, and any other arena in which foreign policy was made. During the years of World War I, for example, we see the emergence of what Harriet Hyman Alonso calls the "suffrage-pacifists," women who saw peace issues as inextricably linked with women's suffrage. The formation of the Woman's Peace Party in 1915 reflected this fusion of peace and women's rights; its platform called for arms limitation, international jurisprudence and peacekeeping, an end to the war in Europe, and the right to vote for women. Representation from numerous women's clubs at the founding meeting, including the WCTU, the General Federation of Women's Clubs, the Women's Trade Union League, and the Women's National Committee of the Socialist Party, reveals the breadth of interest in suffrage-peace politics. Social reformer and Woman's Peace Party leader Jane Addams encouraged women already active in local matters to pay attention to international affairsto link local with global. Addams and others noted that peace activism was a natural extension of women's nurturance of family and community, and the Peace Party's appeal to "the mother half of humanity" reflected their maternalist orientation.

Years later, well after women won the right to vote, motherhood continued to be an important identity and organizing base for women's peace groups. In 1961, Women Strike for Peace, an organization of "concerned housewives," called on President John F. Kennedy to "end the arms racenot the human race." They, too, claimed the experiences and insights of motherhood as a foundation for activism. As caretakers of the nation's children, they argued, all women had a responsibility to lobby for peace. Taking a multitude of positions on issues from the nuclear test ban treaty of 1963 to U.S. intervention in Vietnam, members of Women Strike for Peace went further than mere criticism of U.S. policies: they argued passionately that the moral, maternal citizenship they embodied promised a new path to more harmonious local, national, and international relationships.

This ideological fusion of motherhood with peace made women's entrance into national debates about global affairs more hospitable than it might have been had they argued for participation based on more feminist principles of justice and equality. But as historians have aptly pointed out, women's pacifism was a politics of feminism as well as maternalism. Indeed, women active in peace movements saw a connection between militarist diplomacy and male supremacy, and they infused their critique of American foreign policy with a critique of male domination. Maternalist peace activism enabled women to understand not only their exclusion from the military state, but also their cultural and economic disenfranchisement in American society as women and mothers. They identified a link between military violence abroad and domestic violence at home. They argued that the violence of war devalued and destroyed women's values and women's work, since it was womenas motherswho created and sustained life. The war machine was male owned and operated, they claimed, and an American foreign policy based on military intervention was the logical culmination of men's domination in the workplace, politics, and the family. In this sense, many women activists (especially those in the second wave of the feminist movement) went further than mere condemnation of their exclusion from policymaking bureaucraciesthey denounced the whole system itself. These ideological currents could be seen in both nineteenth-and twentieth-century peace movements, and it is significant that women's participation in peace movements often grew out of and coexisted with activism in abolitionist, suffrage, and other feminist causes.

Although the focus on women missionaries and pacifists has been instrumental in writing women into the history of American foreign policy, this approach, too, has its problems. It can often assume an essentialized femininity (the idea that women are all the same) across all racial, class, and regional boundaries. At the same time, it can posit a theory of female differencethat women are a special class of human being, uniquely nurturant, maternal, and peaceful. As historians have suggested, this seemingly powerful vision of women can lead to their exclusion from politics and policymaking, based on the assumption that women would be unfit or somehow corrupted by the rough and tumble world of diplomacy.

More importantly, ideas about women's inherent pacifism are not true. As many studies have demonstrated, women have been an integral part of military engagements as auxiliary military forces, production workers, and home front volunteers. In fact, women themselves have invoked a maternalist ideology to endorse as well as oppose military preparedness and war. And, of course, American foreign policymakers have often depended on the rhetoric of maternalism and family to whip up popular support for their decisions. At different historical moments, American women have strenuously affirmed and participated in a whole range of military mobilizations.

Taken together, these histories reveal women's varied levels of engagement with American diplomacy. They underscore the fact that "women were there" in the making of foreign policy: there were a few in policymaking circles, more in missionary work, and even more in peace movements. Yet finding them has not made it easy to generalize about the meanings of their presence, for women were positioned differently in relation to the state that made foreign policy decisions, and they viewed and acted on those decisions in different ways. Perhaps the most important outcome of writing these women into diplomatic history is that now scholars must widen their lens as they seek to understand how foreign policy has been made and implemented by varieties of historical actors in varied political contexts.


If finding women in foreign policy has broadened the study of American foreign relations, then locating gender has stretched the discipline even further. In the most basic sense, applying a gender analysis to the study of American foreign policy is an attempt to see things differently, or to see new things entirely. Like other tools of analysis, gender offers another angle, another peek into the complicated world of policymaking. Diplomatic historians who use gender analysis are no different than their colleagues in the field; they, too, seek answers to longstanding questions about the emergence of colonialism, the development of tariff and trade policies, the rise of anti-imperialist movements, the origins of the Cold War, and the like. The use of a gender analysis does not preclude the use of any of the customary methodologies of the historian; gender merely adds to the historian's toolbox.

As explained earlier, the emergence of gender studies has made it possible for historians not only to find women but to see both women and men as gendered actors. Indeed, the research on women and femininity as historical subjects has inspired new investigation into the histories of men and masculinity. This has opened a rich vein of scholarship that does not take men's participation in foreign affairs for granted; rather, it interrogates how masculine values and worldviews have shaped diplomacy, enabling students of foreign policy to see anew how normative ideas about manhood inform policymakers' decision making in both domestic and international contexts.

But a gender analysis shows us more than masculinity in action; it offers a critical tool for understanding power in all of its guises. Seeing gender enables historians to scrutinize the organization of power in any arena, from the most public to the most intimate. Gender ideologies can represent relationships of power as innate, fixed, or biologically rooted, but gender history can make transparent the human agency behind those "natural" relationships. Gender analysis can also reveal how ideologies of masculinity and femininity are embedded in language and social structures; the language of warfare, for example, depends on gendered ideas of strength and weakness, protector and protected, which, in turn, shape how an institution like the military utilizes men and women to carry out American foreign policy. A gender analysis can be powerful precisely because it interrogates power itself; it raises fundamental questions about how particular groups have achieved dominance by naturalizing power relations that are, in fact, humanly constituted.

Cold War history offers an illustrative, although by no means exclusive, case of how gender analysis can affect the study of American foreign policy. It was in this field where scholars first began to commingle the study of politics, culture, and gender to expand traditional narratives of diplomatic history. The Cold War's rich imagery of nuclear apocalypse and hyperbolic talk of patriotism and subversion first caught the attention of historians of culture and social history, who sought to explain the relationship between the social-cultural politics of the postwar home front and the diplomatic politics of the Cold War. This work tended to locate gender and national security themes in popular culture (film, mass-circulation magazines) and in the burgeoning social scientific "expert" literature translated for public consumption. Scholars have traced how messages about muscular masculinity and dangerously aggressive femininity made their way into the films, novels, advice columns, and even comic book literature of the era. According to this research, new opportunities for women's independence unleashed by World War II (as witnessed by women's rising participation in the postwar wage labor force) generated new fears about the stability of gender roles and family practices. Female independence, often portrayed in popular culture in highly sexualized ways, was likened to the lethal potency of a mushroom cloud. Social science experts and popular advice literature advocated family stabilityand female domesticity, in particularas antidotes to the past disruptions of World War II and the future uncertainties of the nuclear age. This scholarship revealed intriguing symbolic linkages between the generalized anxiety about atomic energy and the popular apprehension about the slow but steady transformations in gender roles and family life.

In a similar vein, historians have pondered how containment doctrine, a policy hatched in high-level diplomatic circles, became a language and practice in the popular realm. Historians of the family and sexuality, for example, have explored how anticommunism and national security policies became manifest in everyday life. The ambient fear of nuclear annihilation, paired with concerns about the resilience of the nuclear family, spurred campaigns to "contain" the social forces that might prove disruptive to gender and family traditionalism. In fact, scholars have argued, postwar America's red scare was as much an attempt to root out nontraditional gender roles and sexual practices as it was an effort to secure America's foreign policy dominance. The preoccupation with national security abroad was bolstered by a security effort at home that enshrined "family values." According to popular cold warriors, with Joseph McCarthy being merely one of a chorus of voices, only heterosexual nuclear families with breadwinner fathers, stay-at-home mothers, and children could anchor a patriotic domestic security endeavor. Anything outside of that configuration was suspect, probably subversive, a potential menace to national security.

This gender conservatism underpinning the red scare was more than simply a cultural mood. Historians have shown it had concrete policy manifestations as well. Despite the changing gender and sexual practices of the wartime and postwar years, McCarthy-era intolerance led to the criminalization of homosexuality, resulting in the federal government's purge of gays and lesbians in government service. Advocates of the purge argued that homosexuals were "sex perverts" whose tastes and habits imperiled national security. Like communists, gays and lesbians could avoid detection and spread their propaganda under the radar screen. Homosexuals were dangerous as well because they were gender outlaws: mannish women who could not be domesticated and weak-willed, "sissified" men who could not stand firm and tall against communist aggression, at home and abroad. The theme of the "homosexual menace" pervaded postwar political culture, reaching from the very top echelons of the federal government to the most local bureaucracies and organizations. Using the screening and firing mechanisms of President Harry Truman's loyalty-security program, anticommunist officials were able to either screen out or discharge thousands of gay and lesbian citizens from government service. This episode illustrates how policymakers, opinion leaders, and ordinary folk imagined gender and sexual dangers as foreign policy or national security dangers. Without a gender analysis, these symbolic and material linkages would be difficult to see.

This early scholarship on the gendered meanings of Cold War culture and the national security state was highly suggestive, urging historians to think about connections not yet made and pointing out directions for future study. This work took the traditional approach of historiansdocument analysisand pushed it into new directions, borrowing from postmodern approaches that take discourse (written and spoken language, images, and symbols) analysis seriously. Historians saw in this Cold War discourse rich and varied gender meanings that could broaden our understanding of how language constructed the national security environment in which policymakers formulated their momentous decisions. In the broadest sense, the work on gender, culture, and foreign policy provocatively suggests that the relationship between text and context is more than incidentalthat text actually constructs the historical context, it does not merely reflect it. This work has also performed an invaluable service to both diplomatic and social history, because it has successfully linked these heretofore separate historical literatures. The fusion of this previously bifurcated historiography of the postwar era has yielded a more complex understanding of the Cold War as a creature with both domestic and diplomatic dimensions.

Still, the first historians to do this work tended to look for a genderforeign policy connection primarily in popular culture, leaving unanalyzed the gender content of the more traditional documents (letters, memos, telegrams, agency reports, treaties) found in presidential and security agency archives. In fact, there was arguably a kind of gendering of the sources themselves, whereby scholars who wanted to find gender in diplomacy tended to look at popular discourses (gendered feminine) rather than at the records of diplomacy (gendered masculine). This left the impression, as Amy Kaplan (1994) has argued, that gender "enters diplomatic history only through the aegis of culture." More recent scholarship on gender and Cold War foreign policy has built on these earlier approaches, and historians continue to fine-tune and adapt the methodologies of literary and cultural studies to traditional historical analysis of diplomacy. Much of the newer work on gender and foreign policy now analyzes gender in sources that few postwar Americans would have laid eyes on. Cold War historians excavate the classified archival materials of presidents, defense bureaucracies, military leaders, intelligence agencies, and nongovernmental actors engaged in diplomacy at various levels. Their analysis of these institutional documents produced in relatively remote political environments is no different than the cultural historian's analysis of documents produced for mass consumption. Like Cold War films or science fiction literature, traditional diplomatic documents are cultural artifacts that can reveal something about the operation of gender in the Cold War era.

An examination of particular moments in Cold War history from the Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy administrations may help readers see how this work is done. Diplomatic historians have long debated questions about the emergence of chilly relations between the United States and the Soviet Union in the aftermath of World War II. Volumes have been written about how the two superpowers sought military, economic, and territorial advantages as they tried to construct a postwar world hospitable to their own interests. Many scholars have focused on the development of the doctrine of containment, foreshadowed by the 1947 Truman Doctrine (which pledged the United States to fight communism in Greece and Turkey), and then articulated more thoroughly by George Kennan, the State Department analyst who penned the now famous "long telegram" in early 1946, followed by the "Sources of Soviet Conduct" article in July 1947. Historians have scrutinized Kennan's policy recommendations and rhetorical flourishes for decades, but until the late 1990s, no historian had done a close textual analysis that incorporated gender analysis. In fact, the question of how gender has shaped the political assumptions, worldviews, and policies of cold warriors has yet to be asked in a systematic way for the whole of the Cold War. Nevertheless, new studies have yielded some compelling findings on particular episodes in Cold War history.

Using the insights of gender studies, historian Frank Costigliola found that George Kennan's writings were rife with gendered metaphors that represented the Cold War as an emotional, sexually charged struggle between a man and woman. Kennan's favorite analogies to describe the changing postwar relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union depended heavily on gender, family, and sexual ideologies and imagery. For example, Kennan likened the relationship between Soviet citizens and their government to a wife who becomes gradually disillusioned with her husband and seeks a divorce from him. Russian people, in general, were gendered feminine, Kennan's way of conveying his firm view that the Soviet citizenry was beholden to their cruel and despotic government, gendered as a hypermasculine authority figure. In his telegram, Kennan went so far as to portray the Soviet government as a rapist who tried to exert "unceasing pressure" with "penetration" into Western society. These gendered metaphors and tropes are not just casual talk; they are the stuff of politics, according to Costigliola and others. Kennan's writings shaped the political environment in which policymakers thought about and negotiated with the Soviets; the invocation of highly gendered and sexualized motifs, Costigliola notes in "'Unceasing Pressure for Penetration'" (1997), "created an emotionalized context" that made the exaggerations of a Soviet threat seem "rational and credible," thus closing off deeper deliberation about the reality and dimensions of that threat. Other scholars, too, have delved into diplomatic sources to see how policymakers relied on gender to understand diplomatic relations between states. Historian Michelle Mart examined the gendered discourses of U.S. relations with Israel in the Truman and Eisenhower years. In this case, gender helps explain how Israeli Jews became worthy of a close relationship with the United States from 1948 through the 1950s, that is, only after they had proclaimed statehood and strenuously resisted subsequent Arab attacks. An analysis of the diplomatic exchanges between the United States and Israel reveals that the manly pursuits of statehood and warfare transformed Israeli Jews, in the eyes of the U.S. policymakers, from marginal global players to muscular fighters, sex symbols, and triumphant underdogs. Jewish "tough guys" had proven their mettle in the battle for statehood, and the reward for their virile and vigorous struggle was a dependable, long-term alliance with the United States. Gender defined the parameters of that alliance, for a toughminded masculine orientation was considered by U.S. policymakers an important indicator of a country's fitness for a close political and military alliance with a global superpower.

A study of U.S. relations with India in the same time period reveals how the very gendered perceptions that enabled diplomatic partnership with the Israelis disqualified India as a serious player in Cold War politics. According to a study by Andrew Rotter, America's postwar relationship with India was structured, in part, by the gendered perception that India's desire to remain a neutral player in the standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union was a signal of its passivity and cowardice. American policymakers, frustrated with India's desire for neutrality, portrayed India itself and Indian diplomats as feminine, meaning in this case, weak-willed, irrational, naive about world affairs, and ultimately undependable. Cold War gender ideologies that valorized masculine rationality and decisiveness as a counterpoint to feminine emotionality and passivity thus shaped policymakers' views that India was acting like a frightened woman who could not be relied upon to sustain a long-term diplomatic alliance in Asia.

Moving forward from the Cold War diplomacy of the Truman and Eisenhower administrations into the early 1960s, scholarly work has uncovered the centrality of gender to the policy assumptions and decision making of the Kennedy administration. John F. Kennedy's cultivation of youth, energetic patriotism, and moral courage has been discussed widely. As historian Robert D. Dean argues, scholars and media observers of the Kennedy presidency have often cited President Kennedy's preoccupation with "toughness" as an issue of personal style or habit, not a matter of gender politics. In fact, Kennedy's foreign policy interests and energies were a reflection of his views that American manhood was threatened by indulgent consumption at home and communist insurgency abroad, both of which required the diplomatic muscle flexing of tough-minded cold warriors. Kennedy's physical fitness programs would strengthen youth at home, while his new Peace Corps would dispatch an energetic corps of youth to all ends of the globe to fight the Cold War with American ideology and first-world technology. Meanwhile, his counterinsurgency measures, embodied by the elite Green Berets, would counter Soviet aggression by discouraging any potentialand quashing any realSoviet-sponsored indigenous uprisings. In essence, Dean claims, Kennedy's policies were a projection of his perception that American men had grown soft and idle in the postwar period, and that the antidote to this crisis of masculinity was an infusion of bellicose and brawny political leadership at home and abroad.

We can reach further back in time, to the nineteenth century, to apprehend gender meanings in American foreign policy. Kristin L. Hoganson's 1998 study about the operation of gender in the Spanish-American War, for example, nudges historians to confront difficult questions about the causal role of gender in American foreign policy decisions. Like the scholarship on gender and the Cold War, her study is premised on the notion "that the conduct of foreign policy does not occur in a vacuum, that political decision makers are shaped by their surrounding cultures," and that "inherited ideas about gender" are a part of that culture and thus shape profoundly the views of foreign policymakers. In the case of the Spanish-American War, Hoganson states that gender ideals "played an exceptionally powerful and traceable role" in the decision to go to war. Advocates of intervention in Cuba and the Philippines believed that international aggression would fortify American nationalism and manhood at the same time. They drew on nineteenth-century ideas about "manly" character and citizenship, arguing that a war for territorial and economic expansion would energize and rehabilitate American manhood, which, they claimed, had grown soft without the challenges of frontier expansion, agricultural production, and warrior experience. Layered upon these concerns was another: women's growing political activism and their insistence on the right to vote. An imperial war, according to interventionists, would certify gender traditionalism (man as protector, women as the protected) and restore the manly (and womanly) virtues and character that were the basis of American democracy.

Interestingly, we see a striking repetition of gender themes between the foreign policy environments of the late nineteenth century and the Cold War era: a perceived crisis of masculinity (notably, associated with consumption in both centuries), an emergent anxiety about women's independence, and a confidence that a virile and robust American diplomatic posture abroad could go far to solve the twin problems of gender disorder at home and global threats abroad. In both periods of expansionist impulse, concerns about masculinity and femininity merged with concerns about affairs of state. Whatever the century or whatever the case study, then, late-twentieth-century scholarship made big and insistent claims that gender ideologies were a fundamental part of foreign policy formulation. In all of the examples cited, it appears that gender shaped the identities of foreign policymakers themselves before they arrived in Washington, and that it continued to shape their assumptions, anxieties, aspirations, and actions once they were fully ensconced in diplomatic circles.


Historians who study gender will find all of the above themes familiar, but scholars who have not yet tangled with gender analysis in their studies of foreign policy might find the approaches dubious and the conclusions unconvincing. Indeed, since gender topics first appeared in the pages of diplomatic history journals, historians have debated the merits of gender analysis at conferences, in on-line forums, in journals, and in their own monographs. One of the reasons for this debate is that some of the gender-themed studies of American foreign relations gained momentum in fields outside of diplomatic history and, indeed, outside of the history discipline itself, in the more literary-focused arena of cultural studies. Skeptics of the gender approach have wondered aloud what diplomatic historians can learn from stories about sexual metaphors, "tough Jews," feminized Indians, and the gender tropes of imperial expansion and war. They have accused gender historians of paying too much attention to issues of representation at the cost of asking hard questions about causation. Some have argued that gender scholars have borrowed too heavily from other disciplines and have introduced questionable theories, methodologies, and insights into the field.

These criticisms are important and worth some elaboration. In fact, a great deal of the work on gender is indebted to postmodernist and cultural studies approaches, which cross disciplinary boundaries, take language seriously, and insist that historians interrogate not only the construction of reality in primary documents but the social construction of their own historical narratives. Cultural studies approaches differ, of course, but all involve close scrutiny of the unarticulated assumptions that underlay the legitimation, expression, and resistance of power. As Costigliola observes in "The Nuclear Family" (1997), "gender norms acted as silent organizers" of power in the diplomatic and political realms. Perhaps, then, what has made gender analysis controversial in diplomatic history is the fact that those who recognized these silences in their documents have also exposed some of the methodological silences of their discipline as well. Turning their critical eye from primary to secondary sources, gender scholars have provocatively suggested that gender norms might have also tacitly shaped the historiography of American foreign relations, thus calling into question some of the disciplinary "truths" of diplomatic history. Drawing on the insights of postmodernism, these scholars have argued that the historiography itself is a social construction, and that narratives about foreign policy (or any historical phenomena) are human creations, subject to the inherited biases and assumptions of time and place.

Such challenges to the discipline and its historiography have evoked spirited criticism of postmodernism, gender analysis, and critical theory in general. Some historians claim that post-modernist gender approaches are jargon-filled intellectual exercises that have done little to enlighten the key debates in the field. More than a few have said that investigations of language and representation have taken diplomatic history too far afield from its traditional units of study (the nation-state, for example) and its tried and true methodology of document analysis and synthesis. In particular, critics have challenged the post-modernist claim that historical evidence does not benignly reveal a "real" world or a central "truth," and that the evidence itself is a selective representation that can suppress multiple truths and heterogeneous realities. They maintain that such critical approaches, of which gender analysis is an elemental part, have spilled too much ink probing language and ideology rather than apprehending the real reasons for foreign policy decisions and outcomes.

While critics have argued that the new work on gender has better explained the connections between gender, culture, and diplomacy, rather than causation, those whose scholarship has been integral to this historiographical turn maintain that clear causation is hard to identify for any scholar, working on any problem, in any era. In fact, most gender scholars would agree that gender analysis does not explain reductively a single cause for a particular action, and that sometimes, gender meanings are not the most salient or significant aspects of a historical puzzle. Rather, they would argue, gender analysis abets the historian's effort to get closer to a reasonable and reliable set of explanations about a particular historical problem. Historians who seriously engage gender do not shy away from questions about causation, but they tend to approach overarching causal explanations with caution. The precise effect of George Kennan's "long telegram" on policymaking, for example, is impossible to discern, but it seems clear that his writings simplified what should have been a complex debate about Soviet intentions, and that his highly gendered, emotional musings naturalizedand thus rationalizeda set of diplomatic maneuvers that positioned the Soviets as unreliable allies and credible threats. In the case of the Spanish-American War, the societal panic about masculinity in decline reveals how gender "pushed" and "provoked" warfare as an antidote to the changes in nineteenth-century family and gender relations. And in the case of President Kennedy's foreign policy programs, the gender experiences of Kennedy and his elite policy cohort, along with the gender ideologies and anxieties of the postwar era, motivated the president to respond to his Cold War environment as an Ivy League tough guy who could martial the resources to assure American hegemony.

These debates about gender and causation will, no doubt, continue, but in some ways they may miss the point. No historian has endowed gender with monocausal superpowers; in fact, many scholars of gender point out that the causal relationship between gender and foreign policy needs to be teased out even further. And although asking the "how" and "why" questions continues to be a staple of the discipline, perhaps historians need to reexamine this preoccupation with causation. The studies of Kennan and Kennedy are instructive here. As Costigliola's "'Unceasing Pressure for Penetration'" has made clear, the questions about gender's causal effects in foreign policy formulation "arise from the premise that there must be single, clear, unequivocal causes for policies and actions," a premise that historians have repeatedly tested and found wanting. Even vocal critics of the gender approach have acknowledged that no single theory or explanatory framework can possibly explain the complexities of American foreign policymaking. As Dean has aptly stated, "gender must be understood not as an independent cause of policy decisions, but as part of the very fabric of reasoning employed by officeholders." And so, too, it should be for historiansthat gender become one part of the fabric of our historical analysis, not a separate, unrelated path of inquiry.

Together, women's history and gender studies have enabled historians to conceive of foreign policy more broadly, inviting more actors, methods, and theories into the endeavor. A gender analysis offers one way to recast and expand the debates about the history of diplomacy. Its newness, relative to other approaches, has generated both excitement and skepticism, and as new work is published, historians will have new opportunities to debates its impact and merits.


Alonso, Harriet Hyman. Peace as a Women's Issue: A History of the U.S. Movement for World Peace and Women's Rights. Syracuse, N.Y., 1993.

Cohn, Carol. "Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals." Signs 12 (winter 1987): 687718. A gender analysis of nuclear strategy debates.

Cooke, Miriam, and Angela Woollacott, eds. Gendering War Talk. Princeton, N.J., 1993. An interdisciplinary collection on gender and war.

Costigliola, Frank. "'Unceasing Pressure for Penetration': Gender, Pathology, and Emotion in George Kennan's Formation of the Cold War." Journal of American History 83 (March 1997): 13091339.

. "The Nuclear Family: Tropes of Gender and Pathology in the Western Alliance." Diplomatic History 21 (spring 1997): 163183.

Crapol, Edward P. Women and American Foreign Policy: Lobbyists, Critics, and Insiders. Wilmington, Del., 1992.

"Culture, Gender, and Foreign Policy: A Symposium." Diplomatic History 18 (winter 1994): 4770. A collection of articles and commentaries on the application of gender analysis to diplomatic history.

Dean, Robert D. "Masculinity as Ideology: John F. Kennedy and the Domestic Politics of Foreign Policy." Diplomatic History 22 (winter 1998): 2962.

D'Emilio, John. "Bonds of Oppression: Gay Life in the 1950s." In his Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities. Chicago, 1983. Discusses links between anticommunism and containment of sexuality.

Enloe, Cynthia. Does Khaki Become You? The Militarisation of Women's Lives. London, 1983. One of the earliest works to theorize about women, war, and international relations.

. Bananas, Beaches, and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics. Berkeley, Calif., 1989. A useful primer on gender and foreign relations.

Goedde, Petra. "From Villains to Victims: Fraternization and the Feminization of Germany, 19451947." Diplomatic History 23 (winter 1999): 120.

Harris, Adrienne, and Ynestra King, eds. Rocking the Ship of State: Toward a Feminist Peace Politics. Boulder, Colo., 1989. An introduction to issues of women, gender, and peace activism.

Higonnet, Margaret Randolph, Jane Jenson, Sonya Michel, and Margaret Collins Weitz. Behind the Lines: Gender and the Two World Wars. New Haven, Conn., 1987.

Hoganson, Kristin L. Fighting for American Manhood: How Gender Politics Provoked the Spanish-American and Philippine-American Wars. New Haven, Conn., 1998.

Hunter, Jane. The Gospel of Gentility: American Women Missionaries in Turn-of-the-Century China. New Haven, Conn., 1984.

Jeffords, Susan. The Remasculinization of America: Gender and the Vietnam War. Bloomington, Ind., 1989.

Jeffreys-Jones, Rhodri. Changing Differences: Women and the Shaping of American Foreign Policy, 19171994. New Brunswick, N.J., 1995.

Kaplan, Amy. "Domesticating Foreign Policy." Diplomatic History 18 (winter 1994): 97105.

Mart, Michelle. "Tough Guys and American Cold War Policy: Images of Israel, 19481960." Diplomatic History 20 (summer 1996): 357380.

May, Elaine Tyler. Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era. New York, 1988. An analysis of gender, family, and Cold War culture.

McEnaney, Laura. Civil Defense Begins at Home: Militarization Meets Everyday Life in the Fifties. Princeton, N.J., 2000. Includes lengthy analysis of women, gender, nuclear preparedness, and the national security state.

Meyer, Leisa. Creating G.I. Jane: Sexuality and Power in the Women's Army Corps During World War II. New York, 1996. A discussion of gender, sexuality, and military mobilization.

Papachristou, Judith. "American Women and Foreign Policy, 18981905: Exploring Gender in Diplomatic History." Diplomatic History 14 (fall 1990): 493509.

Rosenberg, Emily S. "Gender." Journal of American History 77 (June 1990): 116124. An overview of historiographical approaches on women, gender, and foreign policy.

. "Revisiting Dollar Diplomacy: Narratives of Money and Manliness." Diplomatic History 22 (spring 1998): 155176. A useful discussion of gender, critical theory, and diplomatic history.

. "Consuming Women: Images of Americanization in the 'American Century.'" Diplomatic History 23 (summer 1999): 479497.

Rotter, Andrew J. "Gender Relations, Foreign Relations: The United States and South Asia, 19471964." Journal of American History 81 (September 1994): 518542.

Smith, Geoffrey S. "National Security and Personal Isolation: Sex, Gender, and Disease in the Cold-War United States." International History Review 14 (May 1992): 307337.

Swerdlow, Amy. Women Strike for Peace: Traditional Motherhood and Radical Politics in the 1960s. Chicago, 1993.

Tickner, J. Ann. Gender in International Relations: Feminist Perspectives on Achieving Global Security. New York, 1992.

Wexler, Laura. Tender Violence: Domestic Visions in an Age of U.S. Imperialism. Chapel Hill, N.C., 2000. A study of female photojournalists and the gendered representations of war and foreign relations.

See also Cold War Evolution and Interpretations; Pacifism; Peace Movements .


"The harsh fact of the matter is that there is also an increasingly large number of young Americans who are neglecting their bodieswhose physical fitness is not what it should bewho are getting soft. And such softness on the part of individual citizens can help to strip and destroy the vitality of a nation. Thus in a very real and immediate sense, our growing softness, our increasing lack of physical fitness, is a menace to our security."

John F. Kennedy on men's physical fitness and national strength, 1960

"The new stronghold of national security is in our homes. For the first time, the personal defense of our homes is being rated as co-equal in importance with our military defense."

Katherine Howard, Federal Civil Defense Administration Women's Affairs Division, on family responsibility and Cold War national security, 1954

"This group of women came together to protest in the name of Womanhood against the cruelty and waste of war, and to give united help toward translating the mother-instinct of life-saving into social terms of the common good."

Women's International League for Peace and Freedom statement, 1919

"Exactly as each man, while doing first his duty to his wife and the children within his home, must yet, if he hopes to amount to much, strive mightily in the world outside his home, so our nation, while first of all seeing to its own domestic well-being, must not shrink from playing its part among the great nations without."

President Theodore Roosevelt on men's domestic and international responsibilities, 1901

"What does all this mean for every one of us? It means opportunity for all the glorious young manhood of the republicthe most virile, ambitious, impatient, militant manhood the world has ever seen."

Senator Albert J. Beveridge on the annexation of the Philippines in 1900

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Gender, race, ethnicity, and social class are the most commonly used categories in sociology. They represent the major social statuses that determine the life chances of individuals in heterogeneous societies, and together they form a hierarchy of access to property, power, and prestige.

Gender is the division of people into two categories, "men" and "women." Through interaction with caretakers, socialization in childhood, peer pressure in adolescence, and gendered work and family roles, women and men are socially constructed to be different in behavior, attitudes, and emotions. The gendered social order is based on and maintains these differences.

In sociology, the main ordering principles of social life are called institutions. Gender is a social institution as encompassing as the four main institutions of traditional sociology—family, economy, religion, and symbolic language. Like these institutions, gender structures social life, patterns social roles, and provides individuals with identities and values. And just as the institutions of family, economy, religion, and language are intertwined and affect each other reciprocally, as a social institution, gender pervades kinship and family life, work roles and organizations, the rules of most religions, and the symbolism and meanings of language and other cultural representations of human life. The outcome is a gendered social order.

The source of gendered social orders lies in the evolution of human societies and their diversity in history. The gendered division of work has shifted with changing means of producing food and other goods, which in turn modifies patterns of child care and family structures. Gendered power imbalances, which are usually based on the ability to amass and distribute material resources, change with rules about property ownership and inheritance. Men's domination of women has not been the same throughout time and place; rather, it varies with political, economic, and family structures, and is differently justified by religions and laws. As an underlying principle of how people are categorized and valued, gender is differently constructed throughout the world and has been throughout history. In societies with other major social divisions, such as race, ethnicity, religion, and social class, gender is intricately intertwined with these other statuses.

As pervasive as gender is, it is important to remember that it is constructed and maintained through daily interaction and therefore can be resisted, reformed, and even rebelled against. The social construction perspective argues that people create their social realities and identities, including their gender, through their actions with others—their families, friends, colleagues. It also argues that their actions are hemmed in by the general rules of social life, by their culture's expectations, their workplace's and occupation's norms, and their government's laws. These social restraints are amenable to change—but not easily.

Gender is deeply rooted in every aspect of social life and social organization in Western-influenced societies. The Western world is a very gendered world, consisting of only two legal categories—"men" and "women." Despite the variety of playful and serious attempts at blurring gender boundaries with androgynous dress and desegregating gender-typed jobs, third genders and gender neutrality are rare in Western societies. Those who cross gender boundaries by passing as a member of the opposite gender, or by sex-change surgery, want to be taken as a "normal" man or woman.

Although it is almost impossible to be anything but a "woman" or a "man," a "girl" or a "boy" in Western societies, this does not mean that one cannot have three, four, five, or more socially recognized genders—there are societies that have at least three. Not all societies base gender categories on male and female bodies—Native Americans, for example, have biological males whose gender status is that of women. Some African societies have females with the gender status of sons or husbands. Others use age categories as organizing principles, not gender statuses. Even in Western societies, where there are only two genders, we can think about restructuring families and workplaces so they are not as rigidly gendered as they are today.


Gender was first conceptualized as distinct from sex in order to highlight the social and cultural processes that constructed different social roles for females and males and that prescribed sex-appropriate behavior, demeanor, personality characteristics, and dress. However, sex and gender were often conflated and interchanged, to the extent that this early usage was called "sex roles" theory. More recently, gender has been conceptually separated from sex and also from sexuality.

Understanding gender practices and structures is easier if what is usually conflated as sex/gender or sex/sexuality/gender is split into three conceptually distinct categories—sex (or biology, physiology), sexuality (desire, sexual preference, sexual orientation, sexual behavior), and gender (social status, position in the social order, personal identity). Each is socially constructed but in different ways. Gender is an overarching category—a major social status that organizes almost all areas of social life. Therefore bodies and sexuality are gendered—biology and sexuality, in contrast, do not add up to gender.

Conceptually separating sex and gender makes it easier to explain how female and male bodies are socially constructed to be feminine and masculine through sports and in popular culture. In medicine, separating sex from gender helps to pinpoint how much of the differences in longevity and propensity to different illnesses is due to biology and how much to socially induced behavior, such as alcohol and drug abuse, which is higher among men than women. The outcome is a greater number of recorded illnesses but longer life expectancy for women of all races, ethnicities, and social classes when compared to men with the same social characteristics. This phenomenon is known in social epidemiology as "women get sicker, but men die quicker."


As with any other aspect of social life, gender is shaped by an individual's genetic heritage, physical body, and physiological development. Socially, however, gendering begins as soon as the sex of the fetus is identified. At birth, infants are placed in one of two sex categories, based on the appearance of the genitalia. In cases of ambiguity, since Western societies do not have a third gender for hermaphrodites as some cultures do, the genitalia are now "clarified" surgically, so that the child can be categorized as a boy or a girl. Gendering then takes place through interaction with parents and other family members, teachers, and peers ("significant others"). Through socialization and gendered personality development, the child develops a gendered identity that, in most cases, reproduces the values, attitudes, and behavior that the child's social milieu deems appropriate for a girl or a boy.

Borrowing from Freudian psychoanalytic theory, Nancy Chodorow developed an influential argument for the gendering of personalities in the two-parent, heterogendered nuclear family. Because women are the primary parents, infants bond with them. Boys have to separate from their mothers and identify with their fathers in order to establish their masculinity. They thus develop strong ego boundaries and a capacity for the independent action, objectivity, and rational thinking so valued in Western culture. Women are a threat to their independence and masculine sexuality because they remind men of their dependence on their mothers. However, men need women for the emotional sustenance and intimacy they rarely give each other. Their ambivalence toward women comes out in heterosexual love–hate relationships and in misogynistic depictions of women in popular culture and in novels, plays, and operas.

Girls continue to identify with their mothers, and so they grow up with fluid ego boundaries that make them sensitive, empathic, and emotional. It is these qualities that make them potentially good mothers and keep them open to men's emotional needs. But because the men in their lives have developed personalities that make them emotionally guarded, women want to have children to bond with. Thus, psychological gendering of children is continually reproduced.

To develop nurturing capabilities in men and to break the cycle of the reproduction of gendered personality structures would, according to this theory, take fully shared parenting. There is little data on whether the same psychic processes produce similarly gendered personalities in single-parent families, in households where both parents are the same gender, or in differently structured families in non-Western cultures.

Children are also gendered at school, in the classroom, where boys and girls are often treated differently by teachers. Boys are encouraged to develop their math abilities and science interests; girls are steered toward the humanities and social sciences. The result is that women students in the United States outnumber men students in college, but only in the liberal arts; in science programs, men still outnumber women. Men also predominate in enrollment in the elite colleges, which prepare for high-level careers in finance, the professions, and government.

This data on gender imbalance, however, when broken down by race, ethnicity, and social class, is more complex. In the United States, upper- and middle-class boys are pushed ahead of girls in school and do better on standardized tests, although girls of all social statuses get better grades than boys. African-American, Hispanic, and white working-class and poor boys do particularly badly, partly because of a peer culture that denigrates "book learning" and rewards defiance and risk taking. In the context of an unresponsive educational structure, discouraged teachers, and crowded, poorly maintained school buildings, the pedagogical needs of marginal students do not get enough attention; they are also much more likely to be treated as discipline problems.

Children's peer culture is another site of gender construction. On playgrounds, girls and boys divide up into separate groups whose borders are defended against opposite-gender intruders. Within the group, girls tend to be more cooperative and play people-based games. Boys tend to play rule-based games that are competitive. These tendencies have been observed in Western societies; anthropological data about children's socialization shows different patterns of gendering. Everywhere, children's gender socialization is closely attuned to expected adult behavior.


Whether they have fully internalized Western society's gender binarism and social construction of gender differences or rebelled against gender typing, adults encounter a gendered work world. The workplaces in industrialized societies are either gender-segregated or composed of all one gender. During the 1970s and 1980s, decades in which women were thought to have made inroads into many occupations previously dominated by men in the United States, about 6 percent of occupations saw an increase of women workers that was significantly greater than the increase of women overall in the paid labor force during that period. Rather than desegregating occupations, most of the new women workers went into occupations where most of the employees were women, and those who went into occupations where the employees were predominantly men soon found that their coworkers became predominantly women. Some U.S. occupations that went from having a predominance of workers who were men to mostly women workers were personnel, training, and labor relations specialists; computer operators; and insurance adjusters, examiners, and investigators. These occupations had resegregated. When women and men work in nontraditional occupations, gender typing is often maintained symbolically, as when policewomen view their work as social work and men nurses emphasize the technical and physical strength aspects of what they do.

The processes that sort women and men of different racial and ethnic groups into different types of work include a matching of ranked workers and jobs, or queues of workers and jobs. Workers are ranked by employers from their first picks to their last. Jobs are ranked by workers similarly. Lower-ranked workers get the chance to move into better jobs than they have held in the past when these jobs are abandoned by favored workers or there are too few of these workers to go around, such as in wartime. The process works the other way, too; when there are too few of the best jobs for the preferred workers, as in a recession, only the best qualified or experienced among them will be hired; those with fewer credentials and less seniority move down the queue, bumping out lower-ranked workers. When workers are moving up, the most preferred on the basis of race, ethnicity, and gender usually get the better jobs. If gender segregation is so rigid that men will not apply or be hired for "women's work," when manufacturing jobs decline or are taken elsewhere, women in service, sales, and clerical work may continue to work as men's unemployment rates rise.

Workers rank jobs on the basis of payoff for education and experience in salaries and also in fringe benefits, prestige, autonomy, security, and chances of promotion. For some workers, having any job may be an improvement over economic dependency. Employers' preferences for workers, however, are not so uniform. Some will rank gender and race above qualifications; others will choose the most highly qualified of the preferred race and gender and then go down the line, looking for the most qualified each time. Another variable employers factor in is the going pay scale for the workers they want; they may have to settle for less preferred workers to see more of a profit or sacrifice some profits to avoid protests from highly paid entrenched workers.

Although worker demographics, industry growth, and employer preferences produce changes in occupational gender composition, the main factor that redistributes workers of different races and genders is change in the structure of the work process and in the quality of particular jobs within occupations, which can be manipulated by employers. That is, jobs can be automated and deskilled or made part time or home based to justify reducing labor costs, with a few better-paid workers retained in supervisory positions.

During shifts of labor queues up and down the job ladder, the potential for conflict between women and men as well as between members of dominant and subordinated racial and ethnic groups is high. Dominant men want to perpetuate the work conditions that justify their high pay; employers who want to reduce their labor costs degrade the work process so they can hire cheaper labor, and then these new workers are accused of depressing the job's qualifications and skills. Gender segregation of jobs is historically the way employers have kept their men workers satisfied, while expanding the number of cheaper women workers. Such job divisions undercut unions that want to organize women and demand the same pay for them as similarly situated men workers. In a growing or stable job market, dominant men are much less resistant to incoming new types of workers, since they do not see them as competition. In those cases, the job may come closer to being integrated along lines of gender and race.

Occupational gender segregation does not result in separate but equal jobs. Rather, women's work tends to be lower in pay, prestige, and fringe benefits, such as health insurance. Workers themselves rate jobs where most of the employees are women as inferior to jobs where most of the employees are men. The criteria are number and flexibility of hours, earnings, educational requirements, on-the-job training, having a union contract, extent of supervision and place in the hierarchy, repetitiveness, risk of job loss, and being a government employee. Workers rate women's jobs as better in vacation days and not getting dirty at work, even though changing bedpans is as "dirty" as changing oil pans. If wages were used to compensate for unattractive nonmonetary job characteristics, women's jobs would have to pay four times as much as men's jobs for workers to rate them equally. Nor is there a trade-off of pay for compatibility with child care—most full-time jobs held by mothers are incompatible with parenting demands; flexibility of schedules and control and timing of work-related tasks are the prerogatives of men managers, not their women secretaries.

The best-paid jobs are shaped on an ideal, dominant man's career—long-term, continuous work in the same occupation, with steady pay raises and a pension at retirement. Men's gender status is an advantage to them as workers; they are expected to earn more money when they marry and when they have children, so employers tend to view them as better workers than women. Women workers are felt to be entitled only to supplementary wages, whether they are married or single, because they are not considered legitimate workers but primarily wives and mothers. In actuality, research has shown that married women with children work harder and are more productive than married men with children.

The structured patterns of opportunities and access far override most individual employers' tastes or individual workers' motivations, ambitions, personal desires, and material needs. By the 1970s in the United States, adolescent girls were considerably less likely than in previous years to plan on entering an occupation in which most of the workers were women, especially if they lived in a woman-headed household. But they continued to value working with people, helping others, using their abilities, and being creative; boys wanted jobs with status, high earnings, freedom from supervision, and leadership potential. The jobs women are likely to end up in are more gender typed and less fulfilling than their occupational aspirations, but ambitious and hard-working men can often reach their early goals.

Women of all educational levels and men disadvantaged because of race, immigrant status, lack of education, or outmoded job skills are profitable workers because they tend to receive low wages; they also get promoted less frequently and therefore receive fewer raises. Many work part time and get no benefits. They can be paid little because the pool of such workers is larger that of privileged men workers. The size and social characteristics of the pool of low-waged workers are affected by state policies encouraging or discouraging the employment of women, the influx of immigrants, and the flight of capital from one area of a country to another or offshore.

Other processes that segregate and stratify occupations are segmentation and ghettoization. Segmented occupations are horizontally or vertically divided into sectors with different educational or credential requirements for hiring, different promotion ladders, different work assignments, and different pay scales. Typically, these segments are gendered and frequently also exhibit racial and ethnic clustering. However, occupations in which almost all the workers are of one gender can also be segmented. For instance, in the United States, doctors and nurses are gender-segregated segments in hospitals. Physicians are segmented between those in primary care and those who are hospital-based specialists, who have more prestige and power and higher incomes. Women physicians are often found in primary care. Nursing is also segmented into registered nurses, licensed practical nurses, nurses' aides, and home health workers. Nurses are virtually all women, but the segments are racially differentiated: The majority of registered nurses tend to be white or Asian-American; most of the lower-paid health workers tend to be black or Hispanic. Men who go into nursing tend to specialize in the more lucrative specializations and become administrators.

Segmentation is legitimized by bureaucratic rules or legal requirements for qualifying credentials, but ghettoization separates the lower-paid "women's" jobs from the better-paid "men's" jobs within an occupation through informal gender typing. What is dubbed "women's work" or "men's work" has a sense of normality and naturalness, an almost moral quality, even though the justification for such typing is usually an after-the-fact rationalization. The assumption is that the skills, competence, strength, and other qualities needed to do a job are tied up with masculinity and femininity, but gendered identities as workers are constructed in the gendered organization of the workplace and reinforced in training and organizational sociability, such as company golf games and sports teams. Within gender-typed occupations, jobs or specialties may be gender typed in the opposite direction. For example, the majority of physicians are men in the United States and women in Russia, but the same specialties are seen as appropriate for one gender—pediatrics for women and neurosurgery for men. In both countries, neurosurgery pays better and has more prestige than pediatrics.

Both structural segmentation and gender typing that puts some jobs into a low-wage ghetto have the same results. They limit the extent of competition for the better positions, make it easier for privileged workers to justify their advantageous salary scales, and create a group of workers whose lack of credentials or requisite skills legitimate their lower pay. Credentials and skills, however, as well as experience, are manipulated or circumvented to favor workers with certain social characteristics, as when men with less lower-rank experience in women's jobs are hired as supervisors. In addition, femaleness and maleness are stereotypically linked to certain capabilities, such as finger dexterity and physical strength; gender then becomes the discriminant criterion for hiring, not what potential employees can actually do with their hands, backs, and heads.

Promotion ladders are also gender segregated. Women and men who are not of the dominant racial or ethnic group tend not to rise to the top in their work organization, unless practically all the workers are women or men of the same racial or ethnic group. White men tend to dominate positions of authority whether or not they are numerically predominant. This pattern is known as the glass ceiling—the lid on women's rise to the top of their work organizations. In occupations where the majority of the workers are women, positions of authority tend to be held by men—elementary school teachers are predominantly women in the United States, but principals and superintendents are predominantly men. That is, token men in a woman's occupation tend to be promoted faster than the women workers. This parallel phenomenon has been dubbed the glass escalator.

These pervasive patterns of occupational segregation and stratification are the result of deliberate actions and also inaction on the part of governments, owners and managers, and organized groups of workers—and change has to come from the same sources. Since gender segregation involves occupations and professions, job titles, and specific work sites, integration has to involve more than simply increasing the numbers of women. True occupational gender equality would mean that women and men would have the same opportunities to obtain professional credentials and occupational training, and would be distributed in the same proportions as they are in the paid work force across workplaces, job titles, occupations, and hierarchical positions. Instead, in most industrialized countries, women are overrepresented in clerical and service jobs, low-prestige professional and technical work, and sales. In developing countries, and in areas of industrialized countries where there are concentrations of poor people and recent immigrants, women tend to be concentrated in labor-intensive factory work, agriculture, and the informal (off-the-books) economy.

This gendered organization of paid labor dovetails with the gendered organization of domestic labor. Low pay, uninteresting jobs, and the glass ceiling encourage single women to marry and married women to devote energy and attention to child rearing and domestic work. The job market encourages women to be a reserve army of labor—available for full-time work in times of scarce labor, but fired or put on part-time schedules when there is less work. Better job opportunities are offered to men of the dominant racial and ethnic groups to encourage them to give their all to the job. Employers (mostly men) benefit from women's cheap labor and men's need to earn more to support a family; men who live with women benefit from women's unpaid labor at home. Highly educated and professional women are caught in the structural conflicts of these two forms of labor; in order to compete with the men of their status, they have to hire "wives"—other women to do their domestic work. This pool of paid domestic labor historically is made up of the least advantaged women—native poor and recent immigrants of a variety of racial and ethnic groups.


Gender inequality takes many different forms, depending on the economic structure and social organization of a particular society and on the culture of any particular group within that society. Although we speak of gender inequality, it is usually women who are disadvantaged when compared to similarly situated men. In the job market, women often receive lower pay for the same or comparable work and are frequently blocked in their chances for advancement, especially to top positions. There is usually an imbalance in the amount of housework and child care a wife does compared to her husband, even when both spend the same amount of time in waged work outside the home. When women professionals are matched with men of comparable productiveness, men get greater recognition for their work and move up career ladders faster. On an overall basis, work most often done by women, such as teaching small children and nursing, is paid less than work most often done by men, such as computer programming and engineering. Gender inequality also takes the form of girls getting less education than boys of the same social class. It often means an unequal distribution of health care services between women and men, and research priorities that focus on diseases men are more likely to get than women.

Gender inequality takes even more oppressive and exploitative forms. Throughout the world, women are vulnerable to beatings, rape, and murder—often by their husbands or boyfriends, and especially when they try to leave an abusive relationship. The bodies of girls and women are used in sex work—pornography and prostitution. They undergo cosmetic surgery and are on display in movies, television, and advertising in Western cultures. In other cultures, their genitals are mutilated and their bodies are covered from head to toe in the name of chastity. They may be forced to bear children they do not want or have abortions or be sterilized against their will. In countries with over-population, infant girls are much more often abandoned in orphanages than infant boys. In cultural groups that value boys over girls, if the sex of the fetus can be determined, it is girls who are aborted.

Gender inequality can also disadvantage men. In many countries, only men serve in the armed forces, and in most countries, only men are sent into direct combat. It is mostly men who do the more dangerous work, such as firefighting and policing. Although women have fought in wars and are entering police forces and fire departments, the gender arrangements of most societies assume that women will do the work of bearing and caring for children, while men do the work of protecting them and supporting them economically.

Most women in industrial and postindustrial societies do not spend their lives having and caring for babies, and most women throughout the world do paid and unpaid work to supply their families with food, clothing, and shelter, even while they are taking care of children. The modern forms of gender inequality are not a complementary exchange of responsibilities, but a social system within which women are exploitable. In a succinct summary of gender inequality, it was estimated by a United Nations report in 1980 that women do two-thirds of the world's work, receive 10 percent of the world's income, and own 1 percent of the world's property.

The major social and cultural institutions support this system of gender inequality. Religions legitimate the social arrangements that produce it, justifying them as right and proper. Laws support the status quo and also often make it impossible to redress the outcomes—to prosecute husbands for beating their wives, or boyfriends for raping their girlfriends. In the arts, women's productions are so often ignored that they are virtually invisible, which led Virginia Woolf to conclude that Anonymous must have been a woman. Much scientific research assumes that differences between women and men are genetic or hormonal and looks for data to support these beliefs, ignoring findings that show gender overlaps or input from the social environment. In the social sciences, gender is entered into research designs only as a binary, erasing the effects of racial, social class, and ethnic variations.

Except for the Scandinavian countries, which have the greatest participation of women in government and the most gender-equal laws and state policies, most governments are run by socially dominant men, and their policies reflect their interests. In every period of change, including those of revolutionary upheaval, men's interests, not women's, have prevailed, and many men, but few women, have benefited from progressive social policies. Equality and justice for all usually means for men only. Women have never had their revolution because the structure of gender as a social institution has never been seriously challenged. Therefore, all men benefit from the "patriarchal dividend"—women's unpaid work maintaining homes and bringing up children; women's low-paid work servicing hospitals, schools, and myriad other workplaces.

Gender inequality is deeply ingrained in the structure of Western, industrialized societies. It is built into the organization of marriage and families, work and the economy, politics, religion, sports, the arts and other cultural productions, and the very language we speak. Making women and men equal, therefore, necessitates social, not individual, solutions.


Changing a gendered society entails structural and institutional change. Attitudes and values must change, too, but these are often altered when social policies and practices shift. Which changes have occurred since the beginning of the feminist movement of the early 1970s and which have not? What kind of programs target institutions and social structures? What is still needed for gender equality?

Affirmative action and comparable worth pay scales were two efforts to effect structural change—one to desegregate occupations and the other to distribute economic rewards for work on a gender-neutral basis. Affirmative action (hiring women in occupations dominated by men and men for work usually done by women) was widely implemented in the United States and did desegregate some occupations, but without continuous effort, gender segregation reestablishes itself as jobs and work organizations change. Another effort to establish gender-neutral work policies was comparable worth pay scales—assessing the characteristics of the job and paying on the basis of type of work done, not on who does the work. These programs were not widely implemented; women's work continues to be paid less than men's even when a man does the work. Women have entered the professions, especially medicine and the law, in large numbers and have moved up career ladders, but in most large-scale corporations and professional organizations, the top positions of authority are still held by men.

Sexual harassment guidelines have been another effective effort at changing thinking about acceptable behavior, and again, while the results are imperfect (and the guidelines are being used in ways that do not empower women), thinking about what was "normal" behavior in the workplace did change drastically.

In Europe, but not in the United States, subsidized parental leave for either parent and child care for every mother has changed mothering from a full-time occupation to something that can be combined with paid work out of the home without a constant struggle. The Scandinavian countries provide "daddy days"—leave time in the first year of a newborn's life that the father must take or it is forfeited.

A radical effort at restructuring government has taken place in France—a proposed program for mandating equal numbers of women and men representatives at the national level of government. Parity is not likely to become a widespread policy, but even redressing gender imbalance would give women and men a more equal opportunity to make laws and influence social policy. Gender differences in voting patterns in the United States indicate that women do have a different perspective on many issues. For women to be elected in greater numbers, powerful men now in politics would have to encourage young women to consider a career in politics, foster their advancement through mentoring, nominate them for national offices, and campaign with them and raise money for them when they run for office. Paradoxically, it has seemed easier for women to become heads of state than for these same states to vote in an equal number of women and men in their governing bodies. It has also been easier for women to become heads of parliamentary governments, where a party chooses the prime minister. The appointment of women to high positions, such as Madeleine Albright as U.S. Secretary of State, has also been welcomed. Yet when it comes to directly putting women into leadership positions of great authority, whether in government or in major corporations, there is still a public reluctance to grant women as much power as men.

On a more personal level, some people have structured their families to be gender-equal on every level—domestic work, child care, and financial contribution to the household economy. However, as long as work is structured for a married-man-with-wife career pattern, and men's work is paid better than women's work, gender-equal families will be very hard to attain by the majority of people. Other heterosexual couples have reversed roles—the woman is the breadwinner and the man cares for the children and keeps house. Here, the problem is that the domestic world is so gendered that male househusbands suffer from ostracism and isolation, as well as from a suspicion of homosexuality. Oddly, lesbian and gay couples who have reared children in a variety of family arrangements have blended more easily into hetero-coupled social worlds, at least in some communities. Corporate and government policies that offer health insurance and other benefits to any couple in a long-term household arrangement have also helped to restructure family life in ways that do not assume heterosexuality and marriage. Note, however, that communal domestic households have waned in popularity in Western countries, although they are the norm in polygamous cultures.

Least amenable to change have been the gendered divisions of work in the global economy. Financed by capital from developed countries, work organizations around the world exploit the labor of young, unmarried women under sweat-shop-like conditions, while reserving better-paid jobs and support for entrepreneurship to men. The policies of the International Monetary Fund and other financial restructuring agencies do not include among their goals gender desegregation or encouraging women's education and access to health resources. In many developing countries, violence and sexual exploitation, as well as the heterosexual spread of AIDS, seriously undermine efforts to upgrade the lives of women and girls.

In sum, to change gendered social orders to be more equal (or, alternatively, less gendered) will take individual effort and modification of gender-stereotyped attitudes and values, but most of all, a restructuring of work and family through the policies and practices of large-scale corporations and the governments of dominant nations.


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Judith Lorber

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Traditionally, the term "gender" refers to the grammatical categories of masculine, feminine, and neuter, but in recent usage it refers more widely to sex-based social categories. Social scientists and anthropologists commonly distinguish gender, which is applied to social and cultural categories, from sex, which is reserved for biological categories. The distinction between sex and gender is underpinned by theories in the life and social sciences about the respective roles of nature and culture in the creation of human identity. Debates around sex and gender have tended to be controversial, and in recent years these have been intensified by medical and scientific research that has provided grounds both for and against the mapping of biological sex onto gender. Some of the most interesting perspectives on sex and gender have come from researchers studying intersexuality. In an influential paper published in 1993, biologist Anne Fausto-Sterling posits the existence of not two but five sexes—male, female, and three degrees of hermaphroditism. In the ensuing debate, which has practical bearings on gender assignment for hermaphrodite children as well as on a whole array of gender-rights issues, it has become clear that the variety of possible sexes and genders is greater than traditionally thought. Within most cultures, however, binary gender division is a persistent norm.


Feminist arguments against the concept of biologically determined gender identity began with the assertion by Simone de Beauvoir (1908–1986) that women are not born but made. The sex-gender paradigm was taken up widely in the 1970s and 1980s in feminist arguments for rights denied to women and girls on spurious biological grounds. The emphasis of feminist analysis was thus skewed toward deconstructions of gender, while sex itself remained relatively unexamined. Some feminist positions took advantage of the notion of a "real" or "natural" femininity that existed prior to the impositions of capitalist patriarchy, although ultimately all arguments for women's equality were undermined by such essentialism, to a greater or lesser extent.

In a groundbreaking essay published in 1975, Gayle Rubin coined the term "sex-gender system" to describe the ways in which societies transform biological sex into cultural gender and align the processes of human reproduction with those of economic production. Rubin's analysis places marriage, kinship systems, and heterosexuality at the heart of the sex-gender system. Her hypothesis exposed certain contradictions and differences that were particularly marked within American feminism at the time. One of these concerns the legacy of African Americans, whose slave ancestors were denied marriage and kinship and therefore a place in the sex-gender system as Rubin describes it, and for whom gender consequently has different meanings. The situation of African Americans draws attention to the need to conceptualize gender and its relationship with other social systems within historically specific frameworks. Lesbians also fall outside the gambit of Rubin's sex-gender system: by opting out of heterosexuality and its attendant kinship structures, they become radically other to the system. Although this outsider status legitimated lesbianism as a logical and effective expression of feminist dissent, it also contributed to the creation, in the 1980s, of an idealized image of lesbian sexuality that was widely rejected by queer culturalists in the 1990s. The "sex-gender system" failed as a universal paradigm but succeeded in establishing the importance of mapping convergences between particular social and economic systems in the production of gender.

The recognition that differences among women are at least as important to feminism as differences between women and men has enriched feminist thinking massively, but it has also placed the fundamental assumption of feminism—the commonality of women—under great pressure. Postmodern critical theorists see this as a good thing, potentially enabling the emergence of multiple and mutable sexual identities. In Gender Trouble (1990), the most widely influential deconstruction of gender identity published in the 1990s, Judith Butler argues that feminist assertions of the commonality of women as a group unwittingly contribute to the regulation of gender relations. Membership of the class of women, according to Butler, is not the inescapable consequence of biological femininity. Gender identities are not expressions of an essential core but performances built from citations and imitations specific to a given context. The hegemony of patriarchal heterosexuality is therefore neither natural nor inevitable. Butler argues that performances that subvert, confuse, or ironize gender norms have the power to unsettle or even unseat those norms. However, this reformulation of gender is not without drawbacks. Its dissolution of the concept of women as a class or category could be premature. Feminism is the struggle for women as a class and for the disappearance of that class, but it is possible that women as a class might disappear from postmodern feminist discourse while continuing to exist in all their diversity within other discursive and social formations. Further, the notion of gender identity as "free-floating" and flexible needs to be circumscribed by a recognition of the effects that normative social forces and their uneven application have on people of different cultures and conditions. Individualistic subversions of gender norms are not equally possible for all and do not necessarily benefit those who are left behind in the ghetto of women.


The absence of the physical body of the actor, and indeed, the relative unimportance of the spectator's own body, in the experience of film viewing should make cinema the perfect medium for the performance of diverse and free-floating gender identities, but the converse is more generally the case: the extent to which images of men and women are conventionalized in the cinema demonstrates the power of gender norms. Nevertheless, the history of cinematic representations of gender is characterized by tensions, contradictions, and change.

Between its invention in 1895 and the imposition of the Production Code in the early 1930s, American cinema was torn between the modern idea of the New Woman and the antimodern Cult of True Womanhood—a Victorian ideology that prescribed for women the four cardinal virtues of purity, piety, domesticity, and submission. In early cinema, before the stabilization of industry standards and norms and while cinema still lacked respectability, women on the screen were often active, sexual, and even feminist. Three types of movies were especially popular with women in the 1910s: serials such as The Perils of Pauline (1914), white slave films, and suffragist films. The possibility that these genres encouraged active, curious, militant female spectatorship was the cause of some social concern at the time, especially in the case of the white slave films. There was also concern that the movie theaters were drawing women into new and unsafe public spaces. Early cinema formed part of a modern urban cultural scene in which women's increased mobility was both cause and effect of changes in their social roles.

In later silent cinema, the dialectical tension between old and new model femininities can be most clearly seen in the contrasting stereotypes of the virgin, personified by stars like Mary Pickford (1893–1979) and Lillian Gish (1893–1993), and the vamp, most notoriously embodied by Theda Bara (1885–1955) and Clara Bow (1905–1965). D. W. Griffith (1875–1948), the director most prominently associated with the development of longer narrative films and with the effort to establish the cultural respectability of cinema, consciously drew on the theatrical and literary melodrama of the nineteenth century, in which heroines were virtuous, passive, and long-suffering. However, flapper films of the 1920s, such as The Dancing Mothers (1926) and It (1927), depicted and addressed the modern, active, independent women of the decade that began with their enfranchisement. The Hollywood libertarianism that made stars of Greta Garbo (1905–1990), Marlene Dietrich (1901–1992), and Mae West (1893–1980) and that created the new and violent masculinity of the gangster film seemed to have carried the day when, in the early 1930s, under pressure from the Legion of Decency, the Production Code came into force, installing sublimation and double standards at the heart of the Hollywood aesthetic.

The impact of historical events on gender roles often appears in indirect and mediated ways in Hollywood cinema. The Depression and the New Deal generated an ethos of selflessness that arguably informed maternal melodramas such as Stella Dallas (1937), although the film makes no explicit reference to the economics or ideology of the times. Many critics have noted the influence of World War II on gender roles in the woman's film and film noir, genres that have been said to participate in the complex postwar readjustments of social roles for both men and women. The twin figures of the war veteran misfit and the woman whose contribution to the work-force is no longer required have been said to inform the maladjusted femininities and masculinities of many films of the late 1940s that otherwise lack explicit sociological content, including Leave Her to Heaven (1945), Mildred Pierce (1945), and Out of the Past (1947).

b. Rodolpho Alfonzo Raffaelo Pierre Filibert Gugliemi di Valentina d'Antonguola, Castellaneta, Italy, May 6, 1895, d. New York, New York, August 23, 1926

In his short career as a leading man, Rudolph Valentino was one of the great idols of the silent era and also one of its most controversial, splitting the audience along gender lines between women who adored him and men who loathed him.

After stints of begging, dishwashing, and taxi dancing, Valentino went to Hollywood, where he got his big break in 1921 when he was cast as the lead in Rex Ingram's Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, the box-office hit that made him a star. At screenings of The Sheik (1921), women fainted in the aisles, inflamed by its heady cocktail of slavery, capture, peril, and romance. Valentino's star image was established by The Sheik in the form of a split personality: the hard-eyed wild man who, once wounded, could be tamed by the love of a good woman.

Valentino acquired a scandalous reputation as a result of bigamy charges brought by his first wife, Jean Acker, gossip about his sexual proclivities and competence, and a second marriage to the domineering Natacha Rambova, whose gift to him of a slave bracelet and whose friendship with lesbian actress Alla Nazimova undermined the star's protestations of "caveman" virility. On the release of The Son of the Sheik (1926), an editorial in the Chicago Tribune famously called him a "pink powder puff" and a "painted pansy." Women felt otherwise: after his death from peritonitis at the age of thirty-one, thousands of women took to the streets for his funeral, grieving hysterically. For a number of years, he remained the object of a posthumous cult with intimations of necrophilia.

Valentino's star image is a fascinating condensation of desires and anxieties popularized in the 1920s. His ethnic "otherness" was sublated into an erotic glamor that mobilized both desire for the exotic and fear of the alien. His sleek and muscular body was adorned and displayed in ways that triggered expressions of anxiety about the nature of manliness. His sexual persona combined aggressiveness and passivity, sadism and suffering, active seduction and objectification in such a way as to make his films polymorphously perverse fantasies for female spectators frustrated by the conditions of their lives and their usual exclusion from active, desiring spectatorship in the cinema. If manliness in the cinema depends on the conventional deployment of a fetishistic gaze and stardom always invites a degree of fetishization, perhaps contradictions are inevitable in the notion of a manly film star. In Valentino's star image, with its visual emphasis on smooth, hard physicality and glamorous costuming, these contradictions coalesce, so that instead of exercising a fetishistic gaze, he became a fetish himself.


The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921), The Sheik (1921), Blood and Sand (1922), Monsieur Beaucaire (1924), The Eagle (1925), The Son of the Sheik (1926)


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Studlar, Gaylyn. This Mad Masquerade: Stardom and Masculinity in the Jazz Age. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996.

Walker, Alexander. Rudolph Valentino. New York: Stein and Day, 1976.

Alison Butler

Genre (which shares its etymological root with the word "gender") plays a crucial role in constructions of gender in classical Hollywood films. In the musical and the romantic comedy, the genders are represented as

ultimately complementary to each other, whatever initial incompatibilities might exist. In the western, gender divisions tend to be mapped onto archetypal oppositions between civilization and wilderness, posing a dilemma for the male hero, while the female characters are one-dimensional embodiments of the virtues and shortcomings of civilized society, above all in the stereotypes of the good-hearted saloon girl and the frontier wife and mother. The woman's film is defined by its female protagonist and the "feminine" concerns to which it gives pride of place; men are both extremely important in determining the fate of the heroine and somewhat peripheral to the dramatic interest of the film. Femininity is defined paradoxically in the woman's film, which conveys its undoubtedly conservative morality through cautionary tales of women who break its selfsame rules. Thus Bette Davis (1908–1989) in Jezebel (1938), Joan Crawford (1904–1977) in Mildred Pierce, and Lana Turner (1921–1995) in Imitation of Life (1959) offer female spectators a vicarious escape from ordinary, dutiful lives as wives and mothers, while the punitively moralistic endings of the films reinforce the ideological correctness of conventional lives.

The end of the Production Code in the 1960s allowed for more sexualized renditions of established gender roles but did not necessarily give rise to more flexible and varied constructions of gender. The desublimation of Hollywood cinema resulted not only in more complex and adult female characters, like the neurotic prostitute (Jane Fonda) in Klute (1971), but also in the notorious sexual violence of Straw Dogs (1972). The most extreme transgressions of orthodox gender roles in this period occurred not in the films with liberal social values and realist aesthetics, but in those that engaged most profoundly with fantasy and desire. In Psycho (1960), for example, the Hitchcockian motif of the double operates across the gender divide, not only in Norman Bates's identification with his mother but also in the parallels that are established between Norman and Marion Crane. Although for Hitchcock the merging of male and female personalities signifies psychosis and death, Psycho nevertheless articulates the mutability of identity and the artificiality of the gendered self. More recently, the Alien films (1979, 1986, 1992, 1997) have developed this tradition, giving forceful expression to a wide range of (progressive and regressive) fantasies and anxieties about gender through the figure of Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), the female hero, and her alter ego, the shape-shifting, alien brood mother.

Hollywood constructions of gender have worldwide significance because of the global reach of the US film industry, but they are also part of American national culture. Ideologies such as "Momism" inflect femininity and masculinity in ways unique to US culture. Outside of Hollywood, configurations of gender are shaped by other cultural histories. In Polish cinema, for instance, representations of men and women are influenced by the iconography of the historic struggle for nationhood, in which the purity and selflessness of the mother serves and motivates the heroism of the son. In French cinema, conversely, it has been suggested that one of the most common Oedipal narrative tropes is the father–daughter relationship, in which female subjectivity is centered but also framed by paternal control. The distinctiveness of configurations of gender in national cinemas confirms the importance of conceptualizing gender in film studies within concrete historical and specific cultural terms.


The study of gendered representations in the cinema began in the early 1970s with Molly Haskell's From Reverence to Rape: the Treatment of Women in the Movies (1974). Haskell looks at images of women in movies made from the 1920s to the 1970s (the 1980s are included in the second edition), mainly—but not exclusively—in Hollywood. The book's scope is ambitious, identifying major themes in American cinema such as "The flight from women and the fight against them in their role as entrappers and civilizers" (p. 61). Haskell's critical method, which maps genres and stars historically, has been questioned subsequently by academic film theorists, although some of her ideas, such as the notion of star images as "two-way mirrors linking the immediate past with the immediate future" (p. 12), are more sophisticated than her detractors might suggest.

The study of images of women was crucial to the development of feminist film culture in the early 1970s but was superseded in the feminist film theory that emerged in the middle of that decade by textual approaches concerned less with the manifest content of films than with the ideological predispositions embedded in their syntax and in the apparatus itself. Drawing on post-structuralism, semiotics, and psychoanalysis, Claire Johnston developed a theory of cinematic representation based on an understanding of film narrative as a mythic system that naturalizes conventional gender relations. Within this system, the figure of woman functions not as a representation of female subjectivity but as the object of male desire. Thus Johnston's remark that "despite the enormous emphasis placed on woman as spectacle in the cinema, woman as woman is largely absent" (p. 26). However, rather than calling for the production of realistic or positive images of women, she argues that the more stylized and unrealistic a film's iconography, the more it de-naturalizes both itself and the ideology it serves. Unlike many feminists in the 1970s, Johnston does not reject popular cinema as a "dream machine" but embraces its contradictory possibilities. In her comments on the films of Dorothy Arzner (1900–1979), one of a very few female directors in the studio system, Johnston lays claim to a reflexive and critical strain within Hollywood cinema.

Working within the same feminist framework, in 1975 Laura Mulvey wrote what is perhaps the most celebrated and contentious essay in the history of film studies, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema." Mulvey's essay is also concerned with Hollywood but concentrates on looking at relations as they are systematized by mainstream conventions. In mainstream cinema, Mulvey contends, a gendered division of labor allies the male hero with the movement of the narrative and the female figure with its spectacle. The cinematic apparatus aligns the gaze of the spectator with that of the camera, and editing conventions subsume the look of the camera into that of the protagonist. This system of looks assumes narcissistic identification with the male protagonist of the narrative and voyeuristic enjoyment of the female object of the gaze. This enjoyment is, however, ambivalent, because of the castration anxiety engendered by the sight of the woman. The two forms of pleasure associated with the female image are also defenses against this threat: sadism, which acknowledges sexual difference and takes pleasure in investigating woman's guilt, and fetishism, which disavows sexual difference and worships woman (or a particular body part or item of clothing) as phallic substitute. Mulvey concludes her essay with a radical attack on the pleasures of mainstream cinema and calls for a cinema of "passionate detachment" in terms that strongly evoke the materialist avant-garde and the political counter-cinema of the 1970s. This analysis has been revisited and modified by many theorists and historians, including, on several occasions, Mulvey herself, and from this debate film studies has developed a complex understanding of cinema as a social technology of gender.

The initial emphasis on femininity in the study of gender in cinema clearly resulted from the political impulse to identify and work against gender inequalities. However, as Steve Neale and a number of other critics have argued, it is also important to analyze cinematic masculinities in order to better understand not only how these function to reinforce normative gender relations but also how they may transgress or destabilize them and in what ways they may be subject to transformation. Neale finds numerous instances in mainstream cinema of the male body functioning as visually pleasurable spectacle, but he argues that these images are encoded so as to disavow their eroticism—for instance, in shoot-outs in westerns or in fight sequences in epics. Rather than disputing Mulvey's account of gendered looking relations in mainstream cinema, Neale confirms it but points out the high degree of contradiction within an apparently normative system. Peter Lehman argues more trenchantly that in the proliferation of critical discourse on sexual representations of the female body and the relative paucity (until the 1990s) of critical discourse on sexual representations of the male body, film studies actually replicated the sexual ideology it aimed to deconstruct.

Scholarship on masculinity in films has clustered around a number of themes, including the idea of a crisis in masculinity during the postwar period and after, the fine line between homosociality and homosexuality, and the effects on male subjectivity of psychopathologies, such as hysteria and masochism. The notion of masquerade, initially introduced into feminist film theory by Claire Johnston and Mary Ann Doane, and developed in relation to Judith Butler's theorization of gender performativity, has been applied to cinematic masculinities by film theorists. Male masquerade is a notion with interesting implications, destabilizing hegemonic masculinity and effectively rendering all gender identities and relationships relational and contingent. The notion of male masquerade has been taken up most productively in historical work, such as Gaylyn Studlar's study of male stars of the silent era, which relates their performances of masculinity to specific cultural manifestations of the gender ideology of the times, ranging from the idealized masculinity of Douglas Fairbanks (1883–1939), contextualized in the movement to reform "boy culture" and resist the perceived threat of feminization, to the transgressive appeal of Lon Chaney (1883–1930), whose association with the grotesque and the liminal grounded his popularity with male fans.

Unlike the feminist criticism of the 1970s and 1980s, scholarship on masculinity in cinema has tended to focus on highly specific, often historical, examples rather than on developing a general theory, partly because of the prevailing fashion for historical rather than theoretical inquiry in film studies since the early 1990s, but also because it lacks the political impetus that feminist theory derived from the women's movement. Against the backdrop of declining feminism and resurgent, retro-styled masculinity in postmodern popular culture, there is a risk that critical discourses on masculinity in the cinema will lapse, unintentionally or otherwise, into conservatism and nostalgia. This risk is confronted directly and effectively by Sharon Willis's work on race and gender in contemporary Hollywood film, especially her essay on Quentin Tarantino (b. 1963), which uses a psychoanalytic framework to argue that his admiring imitation of African American masculinity is inflected by the conflict played out in his films between Oedipal structures (borrowed style, aging male stars) and ferocious preoedipal impulses (relentless bathroom references, anal rape). Tarantino's postmodern recycling of popular cultural masculinity, Willis notes, is self-consciously multicultural but inflected by regressive fantasies: his sense of the past from which he takes his reference points is nostalgic and private rather than historical and shared. Tarantino's films stand as a salutary reminder that irony, pastiche, and sexual transgression are not in themselves guarantees of a progressive or transformative critique of gender identities and relations.


Until the late 1980s, theories of gendered spectatorship were characterized by a strong demarcation between the genders; transgender identification, when it was mentioned as a possibility, was understood as an imposition of patriarchal ideology or, at best, a tactic by which the female spectator might accommodate herself within the binary system of gendered looking without disturbing the hierarchical relationship between its basic terms. However, studies of stars and genres that seem to appeal to spectators across gender lines have enabled critics to develop complex models of cinematic identification that are more complex, fractured, and mutable.

Miriam Hansen's study of the massive popularity of Rudolph Valentino (1895–1926) among women concludes that the sexual ambiguity that became central to his image offered a space of resistance and rebellion to a particular group of female spectators caught up in the social and ideological contradictions of New Womanhood and the particular contradictions of Hollywood in an era in which female audiences were being recruited to the cinema as passive witnesses to their own subordination. In his films and in the star discourse around him, Valentino functioned as the focal point of a remarkably fluid field of sexual possibilities—a public fantasy figure whose constant shifts between sadism and masochism, potency and impotence, heterosexuality and homosexuality, femininity and masculinity, subjectivity and objectification allowed for complex and multiple permutations of desire and identification. The "Valentino syndrome," according to Hansen, is an example of a female subculture that, although distorted by consumerism, gave temporary expression to female desire and even a kind of female fetishism.

Transgender identification is even more central to the hypothesis offered by Carol J. Clover in her study of horror films made since the late 1970s. Overturning the common-sense view that horror films in which female characters are terrorized by male killers encourages male spectators to take sadistic pleasure in violence against women, Clover argues that the predominantly adolescent male audience of slasher films actually identifies with the female victim-hero, or "Final Girl," as Clover calls her, who after a terrifying ordeal, eventually overcomes the villain. Clover observes that both of the principal characters in the genre may be ambiguously gendered—the killer taking on aspects of a monstrous phallic femininity, for example, while the Final Girl is often a tomboy. Clover distinguishes between the actual gender of the characters and their figurative gender—that is, the ways their significant attributes can be correlated to gendered subject positions. On this basis, she argues that the Final Girl is figuratively a boy whose suffering allows the majority audience to explore castration anxiety within the relative safety of vicariousness. Clover is reluctant to make any claims for the progressiveness of horror films on the basis of these insights, but her approach does highlight the mobility of cinematic identification and the permeability of the boundary between genders.

Yvonne Tasker argues that in the 1980s masculinity became more visible, a marked category in American action cinema signified by the "built" body created by the performer rather than by nature. The knowing performance of masculinity by the built male star enacts but also questions and parodies a previously naturalized gender stereotype. Moreover, the performance of masculinity is not the automatic prerogative of biological males. Tasker coins the term "musculinity" to describe the body type associated with the action hero, regardless of actual gender, and discusses the ways in which female bodies take on masculine functions in recent action cinema, as well as the ways in which male characters are sometimes reinscribed as feminine. Tasker concludes her study with a discussion of the films of Kathryn Bigelow (b. 1951), including Blue Steel (1990), a psychological thriller that consciously and critically explores the role of women in action cinema. Blue Steel uses cross-dressing rather than muscles to indicate the female hero's assumption of certain masculine functions while problematizing her relationship to these functions: Megan Turner (Jamie Lee Curtis) joins the police department in order to share in its patriarchal authority, but when the phallic power of her gun attracts a psychotic soul mate, she finds herself alone and under suspicion. Through this exploration of the antagonistic relationship between the female hero and patriarchal law, Bigelow constructs an allegory of the dilemma with which action cinema confronts both the female spectator and the feminist director. A noticeable difference between Blue Steel and the alternative feminist cinema of the 1970s is that rather than rejecting the idea of a woman acting like a man, the film simply points out that this is not institutionally sanctioned behavior.

Cross-dressing is a recurrent trope in both the women's films and the feminist theory of the 1990s, making the composite figure of the transsexual or the woman who passes for a man an emblem of social and sexual change for feminism as well as for queer cultural politics. In a short contribution to a debate about Boys Don't Cry (Kimberly Pierce, 1999) in the British journal Screen, Judith Halberstam suggests that the film is significant because, in a brief sequence, it requires the spectator to adopt a transgender gaze. The film is a fictionalized account of the life and death of Brandon Teena (Hilary Swank), a girl who passed for a boy and was raped and

b. San Carlos, California, 27 November 1951

Among women directors, Kathryn Bigelow is exceptional for her acceptance by critics and audiences as an auteur and for the sustained and intelligent way she has engaged with traditionally "male" action genres. She trained as a painter at the San Francisco Art Institute and through the Whitney Museum's Independent Study Program before going on to study film at Columbia University, where she encountered critics Andrew Sarris and Peter Wollen. Her work has often been described as "painterly" for its stylish and controlled visual composition, but this is misleading praise insofar as it overlooks the equally controlled complexity of her well-crafted stories. Her first film, the experimental short The Set-Up (1978), deconstructs screen violence and established concerns she has pursued in her feature films. Like a number of female directors, Bigelow began her career in independent film in the 1980s, crossing over to Hollywood in the 1990s.

Bigelow's first feature, The Loveless (1982), co-written and co-directed by Monty Montgomery, is a revisionist biker movie that pays homage to the iconography of The Wild One (1954). The film's slow pace and formal style, characterized by long takes with a static camera, introduce a meditative distance on the subject matter. Its treatment of female characters suggests a nascent interest in exploring the place of women in a "male" genre. Near Dark (1987) is a generic hybrid—a vampire western in which the sympathetic outlaws are again subcultural outsiders, with the main female character a point of articulation for a complex clashing and blending of the generic codes of the western and the vampire film. Blue Steel (1990) is Bigelow's most explicitly feminist film, a psychological thriller that explores the position of the female hero in the action film. The ambivalence of Bigelow's engagement with action cinema is less pronounced in Point Break (1991), perhaps because of the film's emphasis on its male characters, although it does foreground the genre's submerged homoeroticism. A critical attitude to screen violence re-emerges in the neo-noir Strange Days (1995), in which the invention of a virtual reality device for recording and replaying sense impressions gives rise to an underground economy dealing in extreme experiences, which are inevitably violent, sexual, or both. The central male character is made to experience sexual violence from the perspective of both perpetrator and victim, undergoing a transgender identification in the process, but as an allegory of voyeurism, Strange Days is ultimately unclear.

After a five-year break from directing for the cinema, Bigelow returned with The Weight of Water (2000), a surprising feminine thriller that was neither a critical nor a box-office success, and K-19: The Widowmaker (2002), a return to action, spectacle, and masculinity. Although the career difficulties that Bigelow has encountered since Strange Days are by no means entirely due to her situation as a woman director, the material with which she has worked most successfully emerged from a particular convergence of art, feminism, and cinema, and these may not adapt well to changed times.


Near Dark (1987), Blue Steel (1990), Point Break (1991), Strange Days (1995)


Grant, Barry Keith. "'Man's Favorite Sport'?: The Action Films of Kathryn Bigelow." In Action and Adventure Cinema, edited by Yvonne Tasker, New York and London: Routledge, 2004: 371–384.

Islam, Needeya. "'I Wanted to Shoot People'—Genre, Gender and Action in the Films of Kathryn Bigelow." In Kiss Me Deadly: Feminism and Cinema for the Moment, edited by Laleen Jayamanne, Sydney, AU: Power Institute of the Arts, 1995: 91–125.

Lane, Christina. Feminist Hollywood from Born in Flames to Point Break. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 2000: 99–123.

Redmond, Sean, and Deborah Jermyn, eds. The Cinema of Kathryn Bigelow: Hollywood Transgressor. London: Wallflower Press, 2003.

Alison Butler

murdered when his/her biological sex was discovered. The film presents Brandon's gender in an interesting way, showing the spectator right at the beginning how Brandon constructs his masculinity through costume and performance. Most spectators nevertheless suspend disbelief in Brandon's masculinity and, like his girlfriend Lana (Chloe Sevigny), accept him at face value for much of the film's duration. Knowledge and belief are thus made issues within the film's diegesis and for the audience, coming to a crisis in the sequence in which Brandon's attackers strip him naked in front of his friends. Lana refuses to look at Brandon's genitals, while Brandon escapes into fantasy in what Halberstam takes to be a representation of an "out of body" experience: he sees himself, fully clothed, amongst the onlookers, gazing at his naked body. The transgender gaze, Halberstam suggests, is a divided look, split between a self that is castrated and a self that is not. The deployment of a transgender gaze in conjunction with an empowered female gaze, according to Halberstam, establishes the authenticity of Brandon's masculinity, at least until the film's conclusion, when, Halberstam argues, Lana's acceptance of Brandon as a woman reestablishes normative gender conventions within a humanist perspective.

Transgender identification in the cinema is not a new phenomenon, but its occurrence in the context of the overt and positive representation of a transgender subject is, indicating that significant changes in the social organization and cinematic representation of gender have taken place. These changes, however, have not affected all aspects of society equally, as a glance at current statistics on the employment of women in the film industry shows.

In early cinema, before the production of film became a vertically integrated industry, women directors were common. Almost all of their careers ended with the transition to sound, which required massive financial backing and resulted in a reorganization of the film industry that closed down many of the small companies in which women directors worked. Between the late 1920s and the late 1970s, only a handful of women directors worked in Hollywood. With the impact of the women's movement, a number of female directors emerged through avant-garde and independent filmmaking, but most of them have had difficult careers, and their presence has not greatly altered the gender balance or macho character of the film industry (although it is interesting to note that in the last two decades, women have been comparatively successful as producers). In 2004, women comprised only 5 percent of all directors working on the top-grossing 250 Hollywood films (the figure rises to a still low 16 percent if executive producers, producers, writers, cinematographers, and editors are taken into account). Internationally, film is a male-dominated industry, although there are two countries with larger numbers of women directors: France and Iran. It is perhaps significant that both of these nations treat cinema as an art as well as a business, offering state support to filmmaking that is culturally distinctive in style and concerns. The slowness of change in gendered employment patterns in the film industry, compared to the relative speed with which the impact of feminism has been assimilated at the level of the cinematic image, shows how complex and uneven social and ideological changes can be.

SEE ALSO Feminism;Gay, Lesbian, and Queer Cinema;Sexuality


Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Clover, Carol J. Men, Women and Chainsaws. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993.

De Beauvoir, Simone. The Second Sex. London: Jonathan Cape, 1953.

Fausto-Sterling, Anne. "The Five Sexes: Why Male and Female are not Enough." The Sciences 33, no. 2 (1993): 20–24.

Halberstam, Judith. "The Transgender Gaze in Boys Don't Cry." Screen 42, no. 3 (2001): 294–298.

Hansen, Miriam. Babel and Babylon: Spectatorship in American Silent Film. Cambridge, MA, and London: Harvard University Press, 1991.

Haskell, Molly. From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies. 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987 [1974].

Johnston, Claire. "Women's Cinema as Counter Cinema." In Notes on Women's Cinema, edited by Claire Johnston, London: Society for Education in Film and Television, 1973.

Lehman, Peter. Running Scared: Masculinity and the Representation of the Male Body. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1993.

Mulvey, Laura. Visual and Other Pleasures. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1989.

Neale, Steve. "Masculinity as Spectacle." Screen 24, no. 6 (1983): 2–16.

Rubin, Gayle. "The Traffic in Women: Notes on the Political Economy of Sex." In Toward an Anthropology of Women, edited by Rayna Rapp Reiter. New York: Monthly Review,1975.

Studlar, Gaylyn. This Mad Masquerade: Stardom and Masculinity in the Jazz Age. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996.

Tasker, Yvonne. Spectacular Bodies: Gender, Genre and the Action Cinema. London and New York: Routledge, 1993.

Willis, Sharon. High Contrast: Race and Gender in Contemporary Hollywood Film. Durham, NC, and London: Duke University Press, 1997.

Alison Butler

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GENDER. Until the 1980s, "gender" was a word used primarily in the realm of linguistics. The women's movement changed that, as it changed so much else. Advocates of women's rights in the present looked at what they had been taught about the past and realized that it described only the male experience, though often portraying this as universal. This realization, combined with increasing numbers of women going into the field of history, led to investigation of the lives of women in the past. Women were first fitted into existing conceptual categoriesnations, historical periods, social classes, religious allegiancesbut focusing on women often disrupted these classifications, forcing a rethinking of the way history was organized and structured.

This disruption of well-known categories and paradigms ultimately included the topic that had long been considered the proper focus of all historyman. Viewing the male experience as universal had not only hidden women's history, it had also prevented the analysis of men's experiences as those of men. Historians familiar with studying women increasingly began to discuss the ways in which systems of sexual differentiation affected both women and men, and by the early 1980s they began to use the word "gender" to describe these systems. They differentiated primarily between "sex," by which they meant physical, morphological, and anatomical differences (what are often called "biological differences") and "gender," by which they meant a culturally constructed, historically changing, and often unstable system of differences. Historians interested in this new perspective asserted that gender was an appropriate category of analysis when looking at all historical developments, not simply those involving women or the family. Every political, intellectual, religious, economic, social, and even military change had an impact on the actions and roles of men and women, and, conversely, a culture's gender structures influenced every other structure or development.

Historians of the early modern period figured prominently in the development of both women's and gender history and continue to be important voices in their subsequent growth and that of related areas of study such as the history of sexuality. Though summarizing their conclusions in a brief article goes against the central premise of the fieldthat gender issues should be a part of every historical analysisthree main areas can serve as examples of the way in which thinking about gender challenges understandings of the early modern era: gender and periodization, gender and political power, gender and the social order.


One of the most important insights in women's and then gender history began with a simple questionDid women have a Renaissance?first posed by the historian Joan Kelly in 1977. Her answer, "No, at least not during the Renaissance," led to intensive historical and literary research as people attempted to confirm, refute, modify, or nuance her answer. This question also contributed to the broader questioning of the whole notion of historical periodization. If a particular development had little, or indeed a negative, effect on women, could it still be called a "golden age," a "Renaissance," or an "Enlightenment"? Can the seventeenth century, during which hundreds or perhaps thousands of women were burned as witches on the European continent, still be described as a period of "the spread of rational thought"?

Kelly's questioning of the term "Renaissance" has been joined more recently by a questioning of the term "early modern." Both historians and literary scholars note that there are problems with this term, as it assumes that there is something that can unambiguously be called "modernity," which is usually set against "traditional" and linked with contemporary Western society. The break between "medieval" and "early modern" is generally set at 1500, roughly the time of the voyages of Columbus and of the Protestant Reformation, but recently many historians argue that there are more continuities across this line than changes. Some have moved the decisive break earlierto the Black Death in 1347 or even to the twelfth centuryor have rejected the notion of periodization altogether. Gender historians, most prominently Judith Bennett, have been among those questioning the validity of the medieval/modern divide, challenging, in Bennett's words, "the assumption of a dramatic change in women's lives between 1300 and 1700" and asserting that historians must pay more attention to continuities along with changes.


During the fifteenth through the seventeenth centuries male and female writers in many countries of Europe wrote both learned and popular works debating the nature of women. Beginning in the sixteenth century, this debate also became one about female rulers, sparked primarily by dynastic accidents in many countries that led to women serving as advisers to child kings or ruling in their own right. The questions vigorously and at times viciously disputed directly concerned the social construction of gender: could a woman's being born into a royal family and educated to rule allow her to overcome the limitations of her sex? Should it? Or stated another way: which was (or should be) the stronger determinant of character and social role, gender or rank?

The most extreme opponents of female rule were Protestants who went into exile on the Continent during the reign of Mary Tudor (ruled 15531558), most prominently John Knox, who argued that female rule was unnatural, unlawful, and contrary to Scripture. Being female was a condition that could never be overcome, and subjects of female rulers needed no other justification for rebelling than their monarch's sex. Their writings were answered by defenses of female rule which argued that a woman's sex did not automatically exclude her from rule, just as a boy king's age or a handicapped king's infirmity did not exclude him. Some theorists asserted that even a married queen could rule legitimately, for she could be subject to her husband in her private life, yet monarch to him and all other men in her public life. As Constance Jordan has pointed out, defenders of female rule were thus clearly separating sex from gender and even approaching an idea of androgyny as a desirable state for the public persona of female monarchs.

Jean Bodin (15301596), the French jurist and political theorist, stressed what would become in the seventeenth century the most frequently cited reason to oppose female rule: that the state was like a household, and just as in a household the husband/father has authority and power over all others, so in the state a male monarch should always rule. Male monarchs used husbandly and paternal imagery to justify their assertion of power over their subjects, though criticism of monarchs was also couched in paternal language; pamphlets directed against the crown during the revolt known as the Fronde in seventeenth-century France, for example, justified their opposition by asserting that the king was not properly fulfilling his fatherly duties.

This link between royal and paternal authority could also work in the opposite direction to enhance the power of male heads of household. Just as subjects were deemed to have no or only a very limited right of rebellion against their ruler, so women and children were not to dispute the authority of the husband/father, because both kings and fathers were held to have received their authority from God; the household was not viewed as private, but as the smallest political unit and so part of the public realm.

Many analysts see the Protestant Reformation and, in England, Puritanism as further strengthening this paternal authority by granting male heads of household a much larger religious and supervisory role than they had under Catholicism. The fact that Protestant clergy were themselves generally married heads of household also meant that ideas about clerical authority reinforced notions of paternal and husbandly authority; priests were now husbands, and husbands priests. After the Reformation, the male citizens of many cities and villages increasingly added an oath to uphold the city's religion to the oaths they took to defend it and support it economically. For men, faith became a ritualized civic matter, while for women it was not. Thus both the public political community and the public religious communitywhich were often regarded as the same in early modern Europewere for men only, a situation reinforced in the highly gendered language of the reformers, who extolled "brotherly love" and the religious virtues of the "common man."

Religious divisions were not the only development that enhanced the authority of many men. Rulers intent on increasing and centralizing their own authority supported legal and institutional changes that enhanced the power of men over the women and children in their own families. In France, for example, a series of laws were enacted between 1556 and 1789 that increased both paternal and state control of marriage. Young people who defied their parents were sometimes imprisoned by what were termed lettres de cachet, documents that families obtained from royal officials authorizing the imprisonment without trial of a family member who was seen as a source of dishonor. Men occasionally used lettres de cachet as a means of solving marital disputes, convincing authorities that family honor demanded the imprisonment of their wives, while in Italy and Spain a "disobedient" wife could be sent to a convent or house of refuge for repentant prostitutes. Courts generally held that a husband had the right to beat his wife in order to correct her behavior as long as this was not extreme, with a common standard being that he not draw blood, or that the diameter of the stick he used not exceed that of his thumb.

Access to political power for men as well as women was shaped by ideas about gender in early modern Europe. The dominant notion of the "true" man was that of the married head of household, so that men whose class and age would have normally conferred political power but who remained unmarried did not participate to the same level as their married brothers; in Protestant areas, this link between marriage and authority even included the clergy.

Notions of masculinity were important symbols in early modern political discussions. Both male and female rulers emphasized qualities regarded as masculinephysical bravery, stamina, wisdom, dutywhenever they chose to appear or speak in public. A concern with masculinity pervades the political writings of Machiavelli, who used "effeminate" to describe the worst kind of ruler. (Effeminate in the early modern period carried slightly different connotations than it does today, however, for strong heterosexual passion was not a sign of manliness, but could make one "effeminate," that is, dominated by as well as similar to a woman.) The English Civil War (16421649) presented two conflicting notions of masculinity: Royalist cavaliers in their long hair and fancy silk knee-breeches, and Puritan parliamentarians with their short hair and somber clothing. Parliamentary criticism of the court was often expressed in gendered and sexualized terminology, with frequent veiled or open references to aristocratic weakness and inability to control the passions.


The maintenance of proper power relationships between men and women served as a basis for and a symbol of the functioning of society as a whole. Women or men who stepped outside their prescribed roles in other than extraordinary circumstances, and particularly those who made a point of emphasizing that they were doing this, were seen as threatening not only relations between the sexes, but the operation of the entire social order. They were "disorderly," a word that had much stronger negative connotations in the early modern period than it does today, as well as two somewhat distinct meaningsoutside of the social structure and unruly or unreasonable.

Women were outside the social order because they were not as clearly demarcated into social groups as men. Unless they were members of a religious order or guild, women had no corporate identity at a time when society was conceived of as a hierarchy of groups rather than a collection of individuals. One can see women's separation from such groups in the way that parades and processions were arranged in early modern Europe; if women were included, they came at the end as an undifferentiated group, following men who marched together on the basis of political position or occupation. Women were also more "disorderly" than men because they were unreasonable, ruled by their physical bodies rather than their rational capacities, their lower parts rather than their upper parts. This was one of the reasons they were more often suspected of witchcraft; it was also why they were thought to have nondiabolical magical powers in the realms of love and sexual attraction.

Disorder in the proper gender hierarchy was linked with other types of social upheaval and viewed as the most threatening way in which the world could be turned upside down. Carnival plays, woodcuts, and stories frequently portrayed domineering wives in pants and henpecked husbands washing diapers alongside professors in dunce caps and peasants riding princes. Men and women involved in relationships in which the women were thought to have poweran older woman who married a younger man, or a woman who scolded her husbandwere often subjected to public ridicule, with bands of neighbors shouting insults and banging sticks and pans in their disapproval. Adult male journeymen refused to work for widows although this decreased their opportunities for employment. Fathers disinherited disobedient daughters more often than sons. The derivative nature of an adult woman's authoritythe fact that it came from her status as wife or widow of the male household headwas emphasized by referring to her as "wife" rather than "mother" even in legal documents describing her relations with her children. Of all the ways in which society was hierarchically arrangedclass, age, rank, race, occupationgender was regarded as the most "natural" and therefore the most important to defend.

See also Family ; Marriage ; Patriarchy and Patriarchalism ; Sexual Difference, Theories of ; Sexuality and Sexual Behavior ; Women .


Amussen, Susan Dwyer. An Ordered Society: Gender and Class in Early Modern England. London, 1988.

Bennett, Judith. "Medieval Women, Modern Women: Across the Great Divide." In Culture and History 13501600: Essays on English Communities, Identities and Writing, edited by David Aers, pp. 147175. London, 1992.

Breitenberg, Mark. Anxious Masculinity in Early Modern England. Cambridge, U.K., 1996.

Hanley, Sarah. "The Monarchic State in Early Modern France: Marital Regime, Government and Male Right." In Politics, Ideology, and the Law in Early Modern Europe: Essays in Honor of J. H. M. Salmon, edited by Adrianna Bakos, pp. 2752. Rochester, 1994.

Hardwick, Julie. The Practice of Patriarchy: Gender and the Politics of Household Authority in Early Modern France. University Park, Pa., 1998.

Jordan, Constance. Renaissance Feminism: Literary Texts and Political Models. Ithaca, N.Y., 1990.

Kelly, Joan. "Did Women Have a Renaissance?" In Becoming Visible: Women in European History, edited by Renate Bridenthal and Claudia Koonz, pp. 138164. Boston, 1977.

Pateman, Carole. The Sexual Contract. Stanford, 1988.

Perry, Mary Elizabeth. Gender and Disorder in Early Modern Seville. Princeton, 1990.

Pitkin, Hannah Fenichel. Fortune is a Woman: Gender and Politics in the Thought of Niccolò Machiavelli. Berkeley, 1984.

Wiesner-Hanks, Merry E. Gender in History. London, 2001.

Merry Wiesner-Hanks

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To speak of gender is necessarily to make a distinction between sex and gender. While sex is the biologically defined capacity of the human body, gender connotes the social significance attached to members of a particular sex. Gender is, therefore, a human construction that nevertheless draws upon divinely inspired texts, social and cultural conventions, and biological capacities to define its role in public and private life and societal institutions.

Gender-Related Verses in the Qur˒an

In the Qur˒an, which is regarded as divine revelation by Muslims, female life is considered intrinsically valuable (Q. 81:9). The creation of the female is attributed, along with that of the male, to a single soul (4:1) from which the other is created as its mate (4:1). Another verse declares: "Allah created you from dust, then from a little fluid, then He made you pairs" (35: 11). These verses have been interpreted as granting both sexes equality from the perspective of origin and spiritual status. Although the Qur˒anic texts do not specify which sex is the primary creation, some argue that the feminine form of the noun "soul" (nafs) in Qur˒an 4:1 could be read to suggest that the female was created first. Unlike the account found in the second book of Genesis, the Qur˒an does not make the creation of the female derivative from the male or for the purpose of the male. However, such a view enters the Islamic interpretive framework through various sources, chiefly through the writings of the very earliest commentators on the Qur˒an, as detailed in Barbara Stowasser's excellent study.

With respect to morality and spirituality, men and women are equally accountable to God for their actions and for their religious beliefs and responsibilities (33:35), and in this regard, the Qur˒an holds an egalitarian vision, as has been pointed out by Leila Ahmed. In the social sphere, women are entitled to inherit (4:7) half the portions received by men (4:11), two women's testimonies count in weight to that of a single male's (2:282), and men are placed in charge of women because they excel over them and are financially responsible for them (4:34). Women must remain monogamous, although nowhere is this specified in the Qur˒an but rather is implied in the injunction that "all married women" are forbidden to men (4:24). Men are permitted as many as four wives on the condition that each wife be treated equally, with the additional caveat that if a man cannot provide for four he should marry only one. He may also possess as many concubines as he can afford ("their right hand may possess") (4:3). Verse 3:129 further declares that "You will not be able to deal equally between [your] wives, however much you wish [to do so]," suggesting to some Muslims that the Qur˒an preferred monogamy as the marital state, but in keeping with the customs of the time allowed polygamy. Men may marry any of the women of the ahl al-kitab ("people of the Book") (5:5) whereas women may marry only Muslim men (this being a traditional stipulation rather than a Qur˒anic injunction). Marriage to idolatresses is forbidden (2:221), as is marriage to one's father's wives (4:22), one's mother, daughters, sisters, father's sisters, mother's sisters, brother's daughters, sister's daughters, foster-mothers, foster-sisters, mothers-in-law, stepdaughters born of women with whom one has had conjugal relations, the wives of blood-sons, and two sisters from the same family (4:23) as well as all married women except slaves already owned (4:24). Marriage with former wives of adopted sons is permitted (33:37). Women with whom marriages have not yet been consummated may be divorced, and should a marriage portion have been promised, half of that must be paid unless the woman—who is encouraged to do so as a pious act—is willing to give it up (235–237).

Conjugal relations are forbidden with menstruating women (2:222); otherwise, conjugal relations are permitted at will (2:223). Disobedient wives are subject to a graduated set of measures ranging from admonishment to beating, depending on how the term darraba (admonish, strike) is interpreted (4:34). Should a conflict arise between a married couple, then an arbiter from each one's kinsfolk should be appointed to attempt a reconciliation (4:35). According to the Qur˒an, a man who forswears his wife must wait four months (2:226) during which time he may change his mind; however, if divorce is determined as a course of action, then the woman must wait a term of three menses to ensure that she is not impregnated; if the wife is found to be pregnant it is recommended that the husband take her back as his wife (2:227). Should divorce proceed in such an instance, the wife is entitled to support from the husband until she gives birth (65:4), and, if mutually agreeable, while she nurses (65:6). A woman may be divorced no more than twice by the same husband in order to be retained; after the third time, she may not be taken back unless she has married another man in the meantime. In cases where a man chooses to divorce a pregnant wife, the Qur˒an urges the man to release her with honor only after the birth of the child. Additionally, the husband must not obstruct her remarriage if there has been a mutual agreement based on kindness. Furthermore, upon divorce, nothing that has been given to the woman can be taken back (2:229–232). Widows may choose their own course of action regarding remarriage after a waiting period of four months and ten days (2:234). A married man who is about to die should make provisions for his wife or wives for a period of one year, including a provision for housing, unless the wife or wives choose to leave of their own accord prior to his death (2:240).

Women should suckle their children for two years unless both parents mutually agree to wean the child earlier, and the father is charged with the duty of feeding and clothing the nursing mother appropriately. The child may also be given out to a wet nurse, provided the nurse is adequately compensated (2:233).

In matters of dress and comportment, both men and women are enjoined "to lower their gaze and be modest" (24:30–31); however, in addition women are asked to draw their veils (khumur) over their bosoms, and only reveal of their adornment (˓awra, lit. pudendum) that which is manifest, and reveal their adornment only to a specified list of close relatives with whom marriage is disallowed (mahram), eunuchs, and children not yet conscious of women's nakedness. Similarly, women should not stamp their feet in such a manner that might reveal their adornments by drawing attention to their bodies (24:31). Testimony against women accused of lewdness must be brought by four witnesses, and if the charge is proved, the woman must be confined to her house until her death or until God provides new legislation (4:15). Those accused of adultery, including the adulterer and the adulteress, are subject to a punishment consisting of one hundred lashes (24:2).

Special sanctions are placed upon the wives of the Prophet: the punishment for lewdness is doubled compared to other women (33:30), as is the reward for surrendering to God and the Prophet and engaging in righteousness (33:31); they are declared not to be "like any other women" and cautioned to keep their speech customary, not soft, lest it causes another's desire (33:32). They are commanded to stay in their houses (33:33) and abstain from ornamentation, as was the case in the days before Islam. The Prophet's wives should pray regularly, engage in charity, and obey God and his messenger (33:33), keeping in mind the revelations of God and wisdom (33:34). Conversation with the wives of the Prophet is to be conducted from behind a curtain (hijab) and visits to the Prophet's household are to occur upon invitation, with the guests departing after the meal is ended. The Prophet's wives may not remarry after his death (33: 53). They may converse freely only with a stipulated set of males: fathers, sons, brothers, nephews, the sons of their female slaves, or their male slaves (33:55).

Further, the wives of the Prophet, his daughters, and the women of the believers are enjoined to "draw their cloaks" (jilbab) close around them while going out in order that they may be recognized as Muslims and not be harassed (33:59). Women past childbearing age with no hope of marriage may discard such outer clothing, provided they do not reveal their adornments, though it is better for them to retain such coverings (24: 60).

The Qur˒an views women as human beings who are creations of God and are vouchsafed full ontological equality with men. With regard to their moral agency, women are not subordinate to men and, like men, they are called upon to surrender to God and the Prophet and embark upon a path of righteousness for which they will be justly rewarded.

In the social sphere, the Qur˒an protects and safeguards women's right to life, inheritance, legal recognition, dowry, upkeep, child support after divorce, protection from male voyeurism, and safety while in public. These considerations are laudable given the seventh-century context into which the Qur˒an was revealed. As previously stated, restrictions are, however, placed on the portion women may inherit (4:11) and on the weight of their legal testimony. The Qur˒an's least egalitarian verse is to be found in 4:34, which declares: "Men are in charge of women, because Allah hath made the one of them to excel the other, and because they spend of their property [for the support of women]. So good women are the obedient." Traditionally, this verse has been interpreted as granting to men authority over women, as well as advocating a social division of labor, suggesting that it is men's responsibility to support women (and hence, that women need not work but rather should tend the affairs of the hearth). Many Muslims, women included, believe that the Qur˒an's objective with regard women is to vouchsafe their rights as they apply to the economic and legal spheres, especially during childbearing and child-rearing years. With regard to dress codes, there do not appear to be any specific Qur˒anic guidelines for male dress, although both men and women are called to observe modesty, a term that could include dress as well as behavior. Qur˒an 34:59 asks the Prophet to "Tell thy wives and thy daughters and women of the believers to draw their cloaks (jilbab) close around them [when they go out]. That will be better, that they may be recognized and not annoyed." The Qur˒an's concern here clearly is to protect women from the male gaze, especially harassment from the "hypocrites" or religious backsliders (munafiqun), thereby tacitly suggesting that women are vulnerable to impropriety on the part of males and that males posed a significant threat to women's safety in that era. In all of these stipulations, the Qur˒an's spirit of affording protections and rights to women illustrates that it is a sacred document in support of women.

Sources for Gender Construction

Should the Qur˒an be construed as a patriarchal text? Later Muslim theology developed the notion that the Qur˒an, as a body of revelation, is eternal and a copy of a heavenly prototype, that is, it is eternally valid in all its aspects. The Egyptian shaykh Muhammad ˓Abduh (d. 1905) argued that while all Qur˒anic injunctions pertaining to ˓ibadat (worship or ritual acts) were eternally valid and binding on Muslims, other Qur˒anic injunctions, such as those pertaining to maslaha or societal well-being, were valid within the context in which they were revealed. Hence, Muslims must assume responsibility for following the intention, and not necessarily the letter, of the Qur˒an in matters pertaining to societal wellbeing. Some modern scholars, such as Amina Wadud-Muhsin, have also argued that the social aspects of the Qur˒an should be viewed in a historical and cultural context. From this perspective, pronouncements that were received and intelligible to the patriarchal milieu of an earlier period must be reviewed in light of present-day social arrangements and thus reinterpreted.

Historians such as Leila Ahmed have convincingly shown that Islam did not invent patriarchy; rather, it was a form of social organization well established in the Mesopotamian, Greek, Iranian, and Byzantine spheres of influence that Muslims encountered during the first century of Islam. Thus, the key discourses generated in the classical period of Islamic civilization (from the seventh century to 1250 c.e.) took place within a patriarchal frame of reference. Indeed, Eleanor Doumato has argued that much of the legislation derived from the Qur˒an and other sources was consistent with the contemporary Jewish and Christian legal praxis.

There are several strands of literature during the first three centuries of Islamic self-definition that are critical to the formation and articulation of gender constructs. These include the qisas al-anbiya˒; the asbab al-nuzul; the hadith; the tafsir; and the fiqh. The qisas al-anbiya˒, literally the "stories of the prophets," was one of the pathways through which Biblical lore entered the Islamic realm of discourse, through which Muslims in general—bearing in mind that many Muslims were converts from Judaism or Christianity—gained an intimate familiarity with Biblical figures and stories. The asbab al-nuzul, literally the "context of the revelation," was a genre imbedded within many tafasir (commentaries) on the Qur˒an, seeking to explain the reasons for a particular revelation, reasons that were orally transmitted until such time as the Qur˒anic commentators sought to incorporate them within their commentaries. The hadith (tradition literature), which recalled narratives of the Prophet's thoughts and deeds, was also orally transmitted through succeeding generations until hadith collectors such as al-Bukhari (d. 869 c.e.) and others sought them out, collated them, checked them for accuracy using various methods, and combined them to form canonical collections in the ninth and tenth centuries. Finally, the fiqh (jurisprudence) drew upon various sources, including primarily the Qur˒an, the hadith, ˓urf or local custom, and juridical reasoning (variously ra˒y, qiyas, ijtihad, ijma˓), to formulate the legal regimes adopted by Muslim rulers. It is in these bodies of literature that extra-Qur˒anic features of the social construction of gender are largely located. For instance, the interpretive lens through which the Qur˒an was understood and utilized as a basis for social organization adopted the essentialized notions pertaining to the female gender that were well established as part of the patriarchal norms of the conquered societies. Further, key social institutions such as the legal regimes that would govern Muslim societies were inscribed with gendered markings consonant with the cultural practices of the conquered societies comprising the Muslim empire. To illustrate, while nowhere in the Qur˒an is Adam's partner named or identified as having proceeded from the male, for the purpose or in service of the male, biblical antecedents of the derivative and service-oriented origin of the female from the rib of the male enter the Islamic interpretive frame through biblical lore, most likely through the qisas al-anbiya˒ literature, thereby ensuring for the Muslim female a subordinate role in society. To be sure, the Muslim interpreters granted greater weight to the subordinate account found in Genesis 2:21 than to the more equitable account found in Genesis 1:27, but they did so in a social and intellectual context in which such a view was favored within their subject peoples. The subordinate role, with respect to the essential nature of the female, however, was firmly lodged through the Muslim appropriation of the biblical notion that the female, unnamed in the Qur˒an but named Hawwa by Muslim tradition, was ultimately responsible for the fall of the male, Adam, from the paradisiacal garden as a consequence of her seduction by Iblis, the Arabic equivalent of the devil, or Satan. Such moral frailty on the part of the female is attributed by Muslim commentators variously to her weak intelligence, her willful disobedience, or to her sexually heightened powers of seduction, and punishments similar to those meted to the biblical female sex are attached to the Muslim female. All this despite the many occasions in the Qur˒an where either both the primordial couple together or Adam explicitly are named as responsible for the act of disobedience, and where no punishment save expulsion from the beatific state enjoyed in the garden is visited upon the couple; indeed the primordial couple is assured of God's guidance, with the pledge that "whoever follows My guidance shall have no fear, nor shall they grieve" (2:38).

Having appropriated and elaborated upon the Biblical Eve in order to establish women's essential nature as morally frail, seductively powerful in order to create moral and social chaos, and eternally punishable, the Qur˒anic commentators continued their implicit project of gender construction through their interpretations of the female figures mentioned in the Qur˒an, whether Biblical, pre-Islamic, or Muslim (such as the wives of the Prophet). In this project, they were aided by the bodies of discourse also being produced at that time and by the social and institutional arrangements already in place in Arabia and in the conquered territories. Included in these discourses are the asbab al-nuzul literature that "remembered" the context in which a verse was revealed; the qisas alanbiya literature that glorified the lives and acts of prior biblical figures; and the isra'illiyat literature that comprised the narratives deemed biblical lore. These discourses served both to illuminate and reinforce the contemporaneous understanding of the role of God's prophets and their concomitant social arrangements as divinely ordained rather than as an ever-dynamic result of historical factors, and played a significant role in directing the attitude toward the female gender in the construction of the emerging legal regimes between the first century after the Prophet's passing and the third century (eighth to tenth centuries of the common era).

Stowasser suggests that the Qur˒anic commentators interpreted the references to biblical figures mentioned in the Qur˒an as paradigmatic for women's behavior. Thus, the story of Joseph and Zulaykha was seen to be reflective of the social chaos (fitna) engendered by a woman, and the story of Moses's future brides was considered paradigmatic for female conduct in the presence of males (work only if there is no other male to do so; walk behind the male, remain bashful and shy in his presence). Ironically, the cumulative effect of such discourse was to define the male in relation to and by contrast to the female, and thus, as argued by Abu-Odin, was far more relevant to the construction of male gender than, as might ostensibly appear, to the construction of female gender. To be sure, the picture was never entirely a simple one: The prophetic status of Mary, the mother of Jesus, was debated, and the wives of some of the prophets were depicted as moral agents in their own right, able freely to choose the path of righteousness or disobedience. However, the notion that a woman might be a moral agent in her own right was not pursued except insofar as how that freedom might be contained given woman's essential nature.

Similarly, in the hadith literature, an ambiguous picture of women emerges again: on the one hand, women are accorded authority by implication through the relatively large number of hadith narrations attributed to women, such as the Prophet's wife ˓A˒isha; On the other hand, as Mernissi has pointed out, perhaps the adjudicators of the hadith literature's veracity were less vigilant when it came to retaining hadith from sources that reflected unfavorably on women from less than trustworthy sources, as, for example, the hadith stating the prophetic remark, "Those who trust their affairs to a woman will never know prosperity" (Mernissi, quoting a hadith cited in Bukhari). Such a hadith inculcated in many Muslims a mistrust of the innate capacity and ability of women to hold political office. In a similar vein, commentators on the Qur˒an gave relatively short shrift to the account and interpretation of the female political leader, Bilqis (the Queen of Sheba), mentioned in the Qur˒an. Despite the later historical record in which women successfully negotiated their way through political institutions to attain leadership roles (as, for instance, the medieval Yemeni Sulayhid queen Sayyida Hurra) and the modern record in which there have been more female heads of state in Muslim nations than in North America, the force of the hadith continues to be cited by opponents as an impediment when Muslim women agitate for inclusion in the political process or in political leadership.

The legal regimes developed over the course of this formative period, from the eighth to the tenth centuries, again reflect a patriarchally informed lens that led to a greater weighting of the socially restrictive verses in the Qur˒an over the morally equitable verses also found in the Qur˒an. Thus, for instance, the legal formulators found it far more important to lay down the rules under which polygamy was to be practiced than heeding the Qur˒anic suggestion that God was aware that men would not be able to deal justly with more than one wife. The discrepancies with respect to gender issues between the various Sunni legal schools, and between the Sunni and the Shi˓ite legal schools, suggest, at the very least, that jurists exercised their discretionary interpretive skills in addressing issues of gender, thereby belying the notion that the legal regime is divinely ordained, eternally valid, and therefore immutable. The jurists also saw fit to inscribe legal codes with concurrent views of gender, thus, for instance, although the Qur˒an says nothing about the validity of ritual prayer as predicated on proximity to women, a legal code invalidates all prayers performed by men if not distanced from women by a space of at least two arms' length, perhaps in keeping with the segregation of men and women in Jewish and possibly Christian ritual prayer contexts. The essentialist views pertaining to women's weakness that enter the Islamic commentarial discourses through biblical lore may explain why the statement found in 4:34 ("Men are in charge over/superior to women") resulted in the legal arrogation of guardianship rights to the male, extending to women's buying and selling property, their commercial activity, and their ability to contract their own mates and so forth, again, none of which rights are accorded to men in the Qur˒an explicitly. Rather, these rights are given over to the male through the explicit statement found in 4.34, and the creative interpretation of a Qur˒anic verse that required guardians to handle the legal affairs of orphans and children (4:6) and those of inferior intellect (4:5).

The present observations regarding the legal regimes produced in the three centuries following the Prophet's death are not meant to suggest that males willfully and misogynistically curbed women's legal agency and comportment. Nevertheless, the claim that authoritative discourses in the Islamic world are divinely decreed or generated needs to be more carefully examined and analyzed, as it does not take into account the historical and social factors and processes through which shari˓a law came to be constructed, defined, and implemented, a process that took at least a couple of centuries. Further, the claim imputes to the divine being legal and social discrimination against women, who are creatures considered in the Qur˒an to be equally worthy of life as men, created from the same soul, equally morally accountable, and as much moral agents as men. Such a claim does not stand up to theological reason. Rather, the historically and sociologically constructed nature of many of the authoritative discourses in the Islamic world must be acknowledged, namely, that the hadith collectors, the Qur˒anic commentators, and the jurists were doing the best they could to contribute to and illumine a self-understanding of what it meant to be Muslim in their day, in social frameworks intelligible to and consistent with the cultural modes of the time in the diverse geographical locales of the Muslim empire(s). Studies in legal praxis, such as those of Mir-Hosseini and Tucker, indicate that jurists treated the shari˓a as a fluid set of directives that allowed them some limited scope in taking context into account and in treating each case on its own merit, something that one sees in practice in Iran today.

The Challenges of Gender Reform

Several developments at various points in history left in their wake significations of gender that are almost impossible to dislodge, and render gender legal reform difficult in the contemporary world. A brief examination of three such developments is merited. In the first, the influential theologian and jurist al-Ghazali (d. 1111) who, in a move reminiscent of St. Augustine, linked piety to shari˓a observance. He suggested, thereby, that a Muslim, by definition, was one who adhered to the shari˓a, in contrast to the more loosely articulated view that defined a Muslim as one who ascertained the shahadah (lit. testimony, namely, "There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is His messenger," to which Shi˓a add: "and Allah is the Master of the believers"). In addition to according the shari˓a quasi-divine status, such a move on al-Ghazali's part ensured the difficulty of ameliorating the shari˓a in any manner as to do so would be to suggest that it was a humanly crafted instrument for the governance of society, albeit one taking its cue from a divinely ordained text, the Qur˒an. The implications of this theological development for gender are immense: Does any attempt to introduce gender-equitable treatment under the shari˓a then suggest that one is tampering with what it means to be a Muslim? It is no surprise that the Hudood Ordinances introduced by President Zia ul-Haq in Pakistan in 1978 under the advisement of the shari˓a bench have proven to be one of the greatest obstacles in assuring Muslim women in Pakistan equal consideration under the law. Indeed, the infamous zina˒ (adultery) laws have provoked international debate with respect to the setback rather than the protection, let alone reparation, they provide raped women who, as a consequence of these laws, are punishable for the rape. Muslim women academics and activists, such as Asifa Qureishi, have proposed different ways in which the issue of rape might be conceived within an Islamic framework.

The second development was the caliphal prerogative, rendered justifiable by his titular mandate as "Defender of the Faithful," to set up institutions whereby his office could govern society in manners he saw fit. Thus, for instance, in Abbasid and Ottoman times, the caliph could and did set up institutions through which criminal, property, and foreign policy law was handled by his appointees, while laws pertaining to worship and to the family were rendered under the jurisdiction of the religious specialists, thereby further linking worship with laws pertaining to gender issues and making it even more difficult to modernize or otherwise ameliorate the latter without implicating the former. Legal institutions under the direct control of the caliph, on the other hand, were more amenable to context-driven adjustments, as reflected in the work of the Ottoman administrator Ahmad Cevdet Pasha (d. 1895), a member of the ulema, who took his inspiration from Roman and French legal systems, while remaining within the fold of Islamic principles in working out the Ottoman code in order to take into account early modern legal challenges and approaches.

The third development concerned the colonial, especially British, practice of relegating personal and family law issues to the control of religiously defined communities, thereby undermining traditional or customary practices developed over time and resurrecting and perpetuating legal regimes developed by religious institutions that were, in the Muslim case, formulated several centuries ago. Such a practice further reinforced the connection of family law with religious identity and perpetuated gender equities inscribed in the religiously formulated legal system. The colonial attitude of pointing to the "backwardness" of Islamic societies by holding up, for example, the segregation of women from public spaces, has ironically created, as observed by Leila Ahmed, the very signifiers through which Muslims now assert their identity as different from the West and their former colonial masters. In other words, the bodies of women are the sites on which the postcolonial struggles to define and delineate the authenticity, integrity, and marks of an Islamic identity are to be fought. Such a resignification of women's bodies, comportment, and legal status has been no more vociferously and proudly proclaimed than by resurgent Muslim groups. Such groups, often armed with a political agenda that includes taking control of the institutions of governance—assisted by all the tools of modern technology, including print, Internet, and educational media—and attempting to convince Muslim youth disenchanted with global Western political and economic hegemony, as well as with the ineptitude of local government and economic instability, that wearing one's Islamic identity on one's head and a public expression of Muslim piety establish one's identity as a site of resistance to the West. There is no doubt that modern Muslims face significant challenges, both internal and external, to building viable and healthy postcolonial societies; however, the use of religion for political ends has resulted in the creation of organizations calling themselves Muslim who serve to whip minorities, governments, secularists and non-Muslims into pious (thereby unquestionable) submission to a specific political aim in the name of God by offering the indisputable promise: (their form of) Islam is the solution. Their goals and methods run contrary to the Qur˒anic call to humans to believe, to act righteously and with social justice (76:5–9; 90:13–17), and to impose no compulsion in matters of religion.

In contemporary times, Muslim women are caught in the nexus of Islamic resurgence, state agendas, feudal social structures, and the economic forces of globalization with its sometimes devastating impact on developing societies. State agendas include the desire to deliver education, training, health, and legal parity in order to facilitate social development that can harness the productive capacity of women in order to build viable societies. However, the need for states at times to buy into the legitimating power of Islamic parties has meant a nimble bartering away of women's rights, or simply a stalling of reforms in exchange for political power. Islamist parties have often reinforced feudal social structures that reinforce a gendered division of labor, thus dovetailing nicely with the Islamist perception of gender roles and laws. The effects of globalization have resulted in an increasing number of women finding it essential to join the paid workforce, a labor migration in search of work, often separating families or creating a subclass of domestic worker or sex-worker slavery, and a movement away from the rural areas into urban outskirts in search of work, leading both to urban congestion and rural impoverishment, thereby providing increasing fodder for Islamist movements. Globalization paradoxically supports both the state agenda for its female population and the Islamist resistance to western economic hegemony, leaving the often already weak state machinery further vulnerable to negotiations with the political threat posed by Islamist parties. Any attempt at discussion of gender issues in many parts of the Muslim world has been silenced through tactics that have attempted to delegitimize the discussant; such tactics include accusing the discussant of being brainwashed by the West, being a western feminist, blaspheming, and so forth.

Muslim gender activists, mostly but not exclusively women, have explored various routes toward addressing issues of gender equity in Muslim societies. In Iran, for instance, women's magazines have taken on the challenge of reexamining patriarchal interpretations of the Qur˒an, arguing that the verse supporting male privilege could be understood differently if greater attention were paid to the language of the Qur˒an, as in the spirit of the work of the Moroccan feminist sociologist Fatima Mernissi and the American Muslim activist Amina Wadud. Iranian Islamist women, as elsewhere, have also sought to create a parallel universe for women that would enable women to participate in activities not normally possible in a gender-segregated society, as for instance in the Iranian Women's Games. Islamist women in various parts of the world have argued that nowhere do sacred texts prevent women from acquiring an education or participating in the political and the legal spheres. Many Islamist women hold the position that the broad display of headwear and piety has earned them the right to have a say in public affairs, and here the example of the Egyptian Zaynab al-Ghazali comes to mind. Islamist women also argue that the application of Islamic law has ameliorated women's rights over and against feudal or tribal or customary practices. Characteristic of all these approaches is the underlying assumption that Islam as a social and legal system offers gender equality, often drawing upon the oxymoronic adage "equal but different" that bears the semblance of erasing hierarchy but reinscribes it in making the woman the upholder of the shari˓a vision of respectability as the "difference" inevitably reintroduces differential equations of power. In the current climate of Islamic resurgence, it is likely that the Islamist form of gender activism, which entails a form of reinscription of Islamic legal frameworks, is likely to prevail and will continue to do so until such a time as Muslim societies can work out forms of governance that keep Islam out of politics and enable a fresh approach to juridical principles that emphasize women's agency, control over their bodies and destinies, and full humanity. Such a prospect requires fresh thinking on how it might be possible to remain a Muslim spiritually while allowing for clear thinking on what an egalitarian and just society might look like without being fettered by social and legal norms developed historically under very different circumstances. In this regard, issues of health, poverty, and universal access to education, work, and childcare should be addressed, and regimes seeking populist affirmation through Islamization policies need to be examined closely.

Another approach has been to argue that a Muslim cannot be Islamized, since a person who is already a Muslim should not be made subject to punitive laws in the name of Islam or be subject to an interpretation of Islam that does not accord well with its principles of fairness and social justice. Further, one does not need to be an Islamist, that is, one who believes that public and state institutions must adhere to shari˓a prescriptions, developed under different circumstances several centuries ago, in order to work for the benefit of society, especially with respect to gender. Thus, for instance, Maha Azzam has argued that the challenges facing Muslim women ought to be articulated and addressed "with the use of analytical frameworks that, for example, draw on the sociology of religion and on the political and economic dynamics of nationalism and dependency" (quoted in Esposito and Haddad, p. 49) and not conducted within a religious framework that dispenses what the correct comportment of a Muslim woman should or should not be from a seventh-century social perspective. Others, such as the sisters Asma Jahangir and Hina Jilani Jahangir in Pakistan, have sought to address gender equity issues under the rubric of the law and state enforceability, while activist lawyers, academics, and other intellectuals such as Asifa Quraishi, Amira Sonbol, Riffat Hasan, and Amina Wadud in North America have sought to address issues as widely divergent as rape laws in Pakistan, gender issues in legal regimes in parts of the Muslim world, honor killings, and rereading sacred texts, to name a few. A significant form of activism is the consciousness raising evident in the production of literary and analytical works by Muslim women throughout the world, which, if read by Muslims and non-Muslims alike, may result in transnational feminist activism that may finally unmask and address the endless varieties in which Islam, as all world faiths, is used for patriarchal purposes.

See alsoDivorce ; Feminism ; Ghazali, Zaynab al- ; Marriage ; Masculinities .


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Zayn R. Kassam

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The term gender in its current usage challenges the idea of masculinity and femininity as fixed biological determinants. It suggests that there is a voluntaristic aspect to one's sexual role or nature, and especially that women can escape biological destiny to live an existence apart from the family. According to some anthropologists and sociologists, the term not only implies that the relationship between men and women is a social construction but also that this relationship is hierarchical and that sexual difference and the socially imposed division of the sexes are "imperative."

Gender is one of the most restless terms in the English language. It denotes a much-contested concept and a site of unease rather than agreement, drawing attention to the artificiality of what many perceive as "natural behavior." Gender continues to function as a grammatical term and as a euphemism for a person's sex but is now most widely used to refer to the social and cultural aspects of sexual difference. Because of the historical interdependency of theories of mind and body, it is hard to determine where sex ends and gender begins. The initial use of the late modern concept of gender cannot be traced precisely; it began to emerge in the United States during the post-1945 boom in sexology and psychoanalysis. In the 1960s sexologists, psychoanalysts, and anthropologists began to separate sex from gender analytically.


Gender categorizations explore the binary division of people into male and female and the patterns of behavior that are associated with each group. A division into male and female bodies thus results in a masculine set of behavior appropriate for bodies classified as male and in a set of feminine traits considered appropriate for bodies defined as female. Sex differences have been explored for at least two hundered years. Even though shifts and changes occurred in the discussion about what constituted male and female identities, certain common themes emerged and are still evident. The most persistent dichotomy views males as rational and capable of universalist thought and females as emotional and bound to the particularities of their bodies. By the late nineteenth century, males and females were seen as opposites and biological facts were supposed to reveal underlying differences. Closer examination of evidence for masculine and feminine traits showed that it was unstable and that categories of distinction overlapped significantly. Strength, endurance, spatial and linguistic ability, and aggression can be weighted toward the male or the female, but there are always members of the other group who outperform members of the group to which the trait is supposedly attached. Apparently, John Stuart Mill's nineteenth-century dictum that we will not be able to discern the natural differences between men and women until we treat them the same socially still holds true to some extent.


The discovery of DNA in the late nineteenth century, the identification of the Y chromosome in 1905, the unveiling of the famous "double helix" or DNA structure in 1953, and, finally, the mapping of the human genome early in the twenty-first century have enhanced and challenged the notion that gender differences are based on natural divisions between male and female. The insight that biological sex results from a variation in just one chromosome made those categories appear a matter of pure chance and fixed irreversibly by nature. By contrast, studies on the basis of genetic variation reveal a remarkable genetic similarity between males and females, since their genome sequences are about 99.9 percent identical. In the debate following the discovery of the double helix, the supposed objectivity of science itself was challenged and the fact that scientific theories—in all fields—reflect the culture from which they emerge was recognized. Consequently, the distinction between sex and gender based on "natural traits," be they chromosomes, hormones, or brain size, became problematic.


Following World War I, the first influential theories on gender were developed by anthropologists, notably the American Margaret Mead. Her descriptions of non-Western societies challenged Western gender roles and thus eventually led to a reappraisal of gender roles that had appeared to be fixed by "nature."

New philosophical approaches after 1945 combined Marxist, Freudian, literary, and anthropological theories. In her 1949 bestseller, The Second Sex, the French philosopher and novelist Simone de Beauvoir (1908–1986) drew on phenomenological and existential theories to claim that women, in contrast to men, acted in accordance with men's view of them, thus developing an inauthentic identity. In her view, femininity was not a natural condition but rather the result of a bad choice. For existentialists such as de Beauvoir, an authentic life entailed escaping the world of biology. Her suggestion that one's sexual role was a choice and her assertion that women's lives were not predetermined by their "nature" became one of the central foundations of gender theory and were highly influential throughout Western Europe and the United States, where Betty Friedan (1921–2006) spread them in the 1960s.

By 1980 the idea of the "social construction of gender" was widely accepted by sociologists, anthropologists, and some psychologists. At the same time, some scholars of gender theory took up the psychoanalytic insights of Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) and the somewhat nuanced Freudianism of Jacques Lacan (1901–1981). Scholars such as the American anthropologist Gayle Rubin criticized both Freud and Lacan for advocating sexism yet valued them for describing sexism as a pervasive psychosocial institution, for freeing men and women from biological determinism, and for establishing their psychosexual identity in relation to each other. Other feminist theorists have defended both the invention of psychoanalysis and its paradigms, finding them useful for understanding femininity. Proponents of "French feminism" such as Luce Irigaray (b. 1930) combined Lacanian, structuralist, and other approaches to further contribute to gender theory. Building on the concept of de Beauvoir's "other," these French feminists saw woman not only as one more version of masculinity but also as a fragmented self. In particular, they posed the question of how to write a history of fragmented, "decentered subjects" for whom conventions of historical interpretation did not exist.

Standard interpretations of social and political power were also challenged by the French philosopher Michel Foucault (1926–1984), who downplayed the traditional sense of human agency. Examining the mechanisms of surveillance and regulation in the activities of doctors, the clergy, and government officials, Foucault posited that power relations in the modern state operate primarily through the body.

Poststructuralist versions of gender theory, most notably the writings of the American historian Joan Wallach Scott, largely dismissed Marxist, anthropological, and psychoanalytical approaches because of their essentialist (or at least enduring) characteristics and advocated using Foucault's theories to introduce the concept of gender into political history, where it could serve as a category to analyze how power operates. Poststructuralist scholars such as Scott and the philosopher Judith Butler developed a critique of essentialism, arguing that it was impossible to legitimately claim a group identity based on one's own experience, and of universalism, which posited that women have a quality known as "womanhood" in common.

Scientific research underscored theories that emphasized the arbitrary and invented nature of gender. Scientists such as Ann Fausto-Sterling (b. 1944) demonstrated that it is possible to distinguish five different sexes on the basis of physiological and chromosomal characteristics. Studies of the lives of those born with ambiguously sexed bodies reveal the inability of society to deal with more than two sexes, since parents, teachers, and doctors try to steer them toward identifying themselves as either male or female.

While postmodern theories have been praised for breaking down universalist assumptions, they have also been criticized for their fragmented and partial interpretations. Apparently, "sex" and "gender" cannot be neatly categorized as "natural" and "cultural" but are now seen as intimately related cultural categories used to describe and understand human bodies and human relationships. Sex and gender often overlap, sometimes confusingly so, and the concept of a male or female body in many contemporary societies has become increasingly open to reinvention, be it through drugs, dress, exercise, or surgery. This has resulted in widely different conceptions of masculinity and femininity, so much so that it makes sense to speak of "masculinities" and "femininities." In the last quarter of the twentieth century, however, opposing theoretical positions within Western feminism joined together in alliances around particular issues such as reproductive rights, the banning of nuclear power, and the outlawing of pornography.


In the twentieth century, gender relations underwent dramatic changes in some parts of Europe but remained more static in others. The factors contributing to or inhibiting these changes—notably religion, education, political structures, the gendered nature of work, and the availability of contraceptives—must be taken into account. Along with historical differences, class, race, marital status, and age must be considered.

Battles over the behavior and characteristics of women and men allowed European societies to address other painful issues. A prominent example is the debate about gender roles and "normalcy" that ensued in many European countries after both world wars. Thus, in the wake of World War I, many French perceived a loss of supposedly feminine traditions as a threat to civilization, and after World War II Germans were faced with the everyday tasks of survival but quickly returned to the model of the traditional "breadwinner" family. It was permissible to speak about gender, whereas the question of Germany's responsibility for the war and genocide was unspeakable. In England and France, the percentage of female workers in industry and agriculture rose during World War II, and this phenomenon contributed to the postwar longing for a return to "normalcy."

Another issue that emerged in Europe after both world wars was how to reconstruct gender relationships after men had been away for four years killing, while women had led very different lives. While the experience on the battlefields was similar for the soldiers from different European countries, women's war experiences varied according to country and region—most British and German women, for example, watched the war from afar, whereas their Belgian and French peers were much closer to actually experiencing battle. This often resulted in differing 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. European wars of the twentieth century thus complicated gender, with sexologists and other social experts playing a large role in "making peace."

Ideas about the "natural role" of women and men as "nurturers" and "providers" surfaced as well in the 1920s and 1930s, particularly in the gendered nature of work. The authoritarian regimes in Germany and Italy (and, initially, in the Soviet Union) transformed these ideas into government policy and celebrated work as inherently masculine.

Throughout much of the twentieth century, men's tasks were considered "work" and women's tasks "assistance," "housework" or "women's work." These gender hierarchies were temporarily challenged in times of crisis but generally survived massive economic changes. Elementary education, for example, was considered women's work (with the supervision of teachers reserved for men), except in Germany, where it was defined as a male profession. In Russia, the medical staff was predominantly female, which meant that medicine was low-status, poorly paid work.

Access to education itself was highly gendered. While literacy rates varied greatly across Europe, women's rates of literacy and of secondary schooling were consistently lower than men's at the beginning of the twentieth century, particularly in the Catholic and rural societies of southern Europe and in Eastern European countries, where the gender gap in literacy did not close until after World War II. While European universities had generally opened their doors to women by the 1920s, fascist regimes succeeded in driving women out of the universities (and the professions).

Social movements were often gendered as well. In the early twentieth century, women marched to demand the vote, access to birth control, legal abortions, and other social rights; food riots, a traditional form of protest among women, continued in times of crisis, most notably during both world wars but also during the Bolshevik Revolution. In some respects, gender tensions increased in the 1920s, and not only in Germany, where male workers were hardened by their military service, frustrated by the abortive revolution, and bitter about inflation and unemployment. In the Weimar Republic, fascists and communists alike organized militant and confrontational marches while women preferred to participate in peace parades, International Women's Day, or similar events.


Changes in clothing, behavior, and imagery were among the most striking transformations in gender roles. When the twentieth century started out, women's skirts were ankle length, as they had been for over five hundred years. Hemlines started to rise with the beginning of World War I and, while fluctuating throughout the remainder of the century, never returned to ankle length again. Contemporaries were shocked. Not only could they now get a glimpse of the female ankle, but part of the leg, clad in transparent silk stockings, was also revealed. The ideal female figure also changed, from the "hourglass" silhouette produced by a tight corset to a more "boyish" shape. In addition, women started to cut off their hair, which had been considered "woman's crowning glory" but was heavy, hot, difficult to wash, and potentially dangerous when working with machinery or open fire. During the 1920s the "Eton crop" or the Bubikopf (bob) became a fashion standard with young and middle-aged women of all classes, with the English "flapper" as well as with the French gamine. Fashionable women even donned pants for sports activities, and sport idols such as the French tennis player Suzanne Lenglen (1899–1938) and the Norwegian ice-skater (and subsequent Hollywood star) Sonja Henie (1912–1969) pioneered short sleeves and bare legs.

Women who demanded the masculine privileges of short hair, pants, and freedom of movement, and who used cosmetics—which had been associated with prostitutes until World War I—certainly irritated their contemporaries. The fashions of the "Golden Twenties" were short-lived for several reasons. First, the Great Depression impoverished the working class and large parts of the middle classes, and clothing became scarce during World War II, so many women made do with little. Second, the totalitarian regimes in Germany and the Soviet Union (as well as in Spain and Italy) developed distinct versions of masculinity and femininity, giving rise to more traditional clothing. In Germany, the National Socialists propagated an ideal of femininity that incorporated both traditional and modern elements. The party youth organization for girls stressed gymnastics as well as traditional household training. According to party ideology, "the German woman" was trim and fit (to ensure her reproductive capabilities) but did not smoke or drink, and she wore sensible shoes and clothing (the dirndl made a comeback) and her hair braided in a crown.

Notions of what constituted femininity and masculinity were increasingly polarized in the 1930s and ultimately served the all-out war effort, when soldier-husbands were defending wives and children against the Red Army, and soldier-wives, steadfast and never complaining, awaited their return while educating their children to be good soldiers or mothers. National Socialist doctrine and the speeches of Adolf Hitler sang the praises of brutal men and loving women. Hitler himself considered the masses passionate, weak, and "intrinsically feminine" and derived no small part of his success from styling himself as a swaggering, masculine master who dictated "like a man." This extreme masculinity was perpetrated throughout the party organizations in Germany as well as in other European countries under fascist rule.

Although gender images in Europe's authoritarian regimes displayed similarities, there were also significant differences. The "new Soviet man" of the Stalin era was portrayed first and foremost as the epitome of human capability in the workplace, whereas his female counterpart was expected to exceed expectations both at home and at work. While the "romantic" approach (as characterized by Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English), which confined women to the home, remained dominant in western Europe, the Soviet rulers combined it with the "rationalist" approach, which saw women primarily as a vital economic resource. The ultimate "new Soviet woman" was thus both a mother of several children and a Stakhanovite, an industrial worker granted recognition and privileges for exceeding production standards. In the face of male workers' animosity, the regime celebrated women who had mastered technology, such as the tractor driver Praskovya Angelina ("Pasha") or the textile worker Mariya Vinogradova ("Marusya"), in countless newsreels and propaganda campaigns. Those heroines of the field and factory were portrayed as committed to the well-being of society and as dutiful daughters of their "dear father Stalin."

After a period of khaki jumpsuits and heavy work boots, propaganda posters in the 1930s showed women agricultural workers in wide skirts, peasant blouses, and head scarves, an image that in 1941 was transformed into an enormous "Mother Russia" who urged her children to fight the German invaders. This image of woman-as-mother was promoted even when war demanded that she turn into a fighter and killer, as many women did in the Red Army. There were attempts to revitalize the image of Pasha during a rural labor shortage in the 1970s; in the early 1990s, the demise of the woman tractor driver also signaled the end of the Soviet state and the new "chivalry" of emerging capitalism.

Throughout much of western Europe, the fashion immediately following World War II was dictated by scarcity. The abundance of fabric that characterized Christian Dior's "New Look" in the 1950s reflected a longing both for the end of rationing and for a return to traditional gender roles. For the woman who aspired to elegance, cosmetics and accessories such as hats and gloves were indispensable. By the end of the 1960s, the shift dress made its fashion debut and western European women copied the pillbox hats and pink costumes of the American First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy. In 1964 "Swinging London" took the place of Paris as the European fashion capital. The supershort hemlines of the miniskirt created by Mary Quant were revolutionary—made possible by the invention of pantyhose. The American hippie movement of the late 1960s also inspired new European fashions, especially male fashion, which had remained relatively unchanged for much of the century. Men and women alike now dressed "unisex"—in jeans and oriental-style shirts with colorful sunglasses and accessories bedecked with flowers and beads. The pantsuit became a socially acceptable alternative for women. Hemlines were much discussed in the 1970s, varied widely, and were often combined, as when a miniskirt was matched with a "maxi" coat. Fashion of the 1980s was influenced by the dark colors and ragged clothing of the "punk" subculture that had originated in England, and by the bold hues and luxury seen on the American TV series Dallas and Dynasty. The end of the 1980s saw a return to understated but elegant and refined clothing that fit the needs and the lifestyle of the new "young urban professionals." With the collapse of communism, Western styles spread more widely and more rapidly into Eastern Europe.


Throughout the twentieth century the advancement of contraceptive technologies and the increasing availability of this information had a significant impact on changing gender relations in Europe. During the nineteenth century, both middle- and working-class families in northern and western Europe had begun to see a large number of children as an economic liability and had realized that smaller families generally meant a higher standard of living. By the turn of the century, similar patterns were established in southern and eastern Europe. At the same time, according to some scholars, the rate of sexual activity increased, most notably among young people and the lower classes. Until the advent of hormonal contraception in the 1960s, birth control methods in the twentieth century did not differ much from those of the nineteenth. Coitus interruptus and abstinence were widespread, especially in working-class families. The invention of the process for vulcanizing rubber in the 1840s increased the artificial means available, though knowledge of and about condoms spread only gradually. The use of "Parisian articles" was still considered something exotic until massive state information campaigns geared toward the soldiers on the battlefields of World War I. The use of the diaphragm spread among middle-class families.

While upper- and middle-class women seem to have had better information about and access to contraceptive devices (as well as to comparatively safe abortions), until the 1970s poor women had to rely on clinics operated by radical doctors or sex reformers. Facing almost universal hostility from the medical community, the Dutch physician and feminist Aletta Jacobs (1854–1929) opened the world's first birth control clinic in Amsterdam in 1882 and had become an internationally respected authority on contraception by the 1920s. A few northern European nations allowed birth control means to be dispensed in a limited manner during the interwar years. Jacobs's clinics were never legal, but there were only a few government attempts to close them. The situation was somewhat similar in Germany until 1933 and in Denmark, where the novelist Thit Jensen and the socialist Marie Nielsen advocated birth control and sex education in schools. Although sex education did not materialize in most European countries until well after World War II, increased literacy and better scientific knowledge about women's ovulatory cycles allowed more effective practice of the rhythm method. British feminists and sex reformers also battled over access to birth control. The government prevented them from distributing contraceptive information on grounds of obscenity until 1930. Even though contraceptives were nominally available in a few northern European cities, women had difficulties obtaining them in smaller towns well into the 1950s and 1960s.

The history of birth control is epitomized by a gap between policy and practice, which certainly widened in the twentieth century. Until the 1960s, governments throughout Europe—democratic, communist, and fascist alike—promoted population growth and restricted access to contraception. In 1920 France took the lead by outlawing abortions as well as information about and the sale of contraceptives; penalties for abortionists and their clients were increased in 1923 and 1939. In Germany, the National Socialists outlawed birth control immediately after they seized power and increased penalties for abortions among "Aryans" (while forcing the "racially unfit" to submit to sterilization). Throughout Eastern Europe, contraceptive devices were either unavailable or of poor quality well into the twentieth century, which at times forced Soviet women to rely on abortions as their chief method for avoiding childbirth. Even in the early twenty-first century, birth control techniques varied considerably, depending on custom and available options. Surgical sterilization, the birth control pill, IUDs, and the morning-after pill became available throughout Europe. Generally, Western European women seemed to prefer the birth control pill, while many Eastern Europeans distrusted it.

After an initial surge after World War II, birth-rates continued to decline throughout Europe. Couples restricted their fertility even in Catholic societies, where contraception and abortion remained illegal. Only extreme policies were able to reverse this trend, as in Romania, where the birthrate nearly doubled between 1966 and 1967 because of stringent antiabortion laws. Nevertheless, faced with new levels of adolescent sexual activity, concerned about the spread of disease, and pressured by feminist movements, most European governments moved toward legalizing birth control in the 1960s. Change was most dramatic in Catholic countries such as France, where the sale of contraceptive devices and the dissemination of contraceptive information were legalized in 1968, and Spain, which followed suit in 1978. Yet contraceptives remain illegal in Ireland even in the early twenty-first century.

Reproduction rates in many European countries were near their all-time lows in the first years of the twenty-first century. Many marriages remained childless, some involuntarily, and the two-parent family was no longer the norm. Single parenthood (meaning chiefly single motherhood) was on the rise throughout Europe and was widely socially accepted. New contraceptive technologies not only altered motherhood but also the way it was represented. The spread of birth control and legalized abortions in the last third of the twentieth century resulted in more autonomy for many women in every aspect of their lives and not only with respect to reproduction and sexuality, as better availability of "choice" shifted gender relations in profound ways.


In the twentieth century, Europeans started to reconsider homosexuality, which had been regarded as a disorder. As with the shifting senses of the term gender, the coining of new words and their changing usage offer important clues: the terms drag (to connote cross-dressing) and lesbian (to refer to female homosexuals), for instance, date back to the 1870s and thus predate Oscar Wilde's 1895 trial for homosexual acts, an event considered decisive in redefining the acceptable boundaries of gendered identity. The use of such terms as homo and queer (to refer to homosexuals) entered the English language in the 1920s. These linguistic shifts imply that modern gay and lesbian identities emerged from a complex interaction of subcultural values and practices on one hand and of attempts at control by the state and the professions on the other. Whereas homosexual was a term sometimes used by doctors and antivice campaigners, gay men commonly identified themselves as queer in the 1910s and 1920s. By the 1940s, when the cultural climate had turned more hostile, queer had acquired a different meaning, implying a passionate emotion, and homosexuals came to prefer gay, a word that was much more guarded: outsiders would not readily understand what "having a gay time" meant. The 1990s saw a strategic redeployment of the word queer to connote a form of political activism and to qualify a theory of literary and cultural criticism.

Gay men were persecuted in many European countries throughout the twentieth century, most severely under authoritarian regimes. Female homosexuality was generally ignored until the beginning of the century, when the writings of sexologists as well as popular discourse started to reflect a new weariness with lesbianism, which resulted in a curtailing of the range of behavior allowed to (privileged) women. Novels and films now emphasized the dangers of lesbian teachers in girls' schools and urged mothers to protect their daughters from female (and male) sexual aggression. Crushes on other women, a boyish or mannish style of dress, and even the ambition to pursue a career were seen as warning signs of "sexual inversion." In the 1920s lesbians appeared in western (and eastern) European medical and popular discourses. While the life of lesbians in Paris and Berlin has often been romanticized, limits were certainly placed on it. Although female homosexuality was not persecuted outright, lesbians in the cosmopolitan centers of Europe were still watched by the police and their clubs were periodically raided.

Lesbians had been active in European feminist movements throughout the twentieth century, but their sexual orientation had usually been ignored, sometimes denied. The British suffragist Christabel Pankhurst (1880–1958) was a lesbian who dressed mannishly and fell in love with the author Virginia Woolf. The German feminists Anita Augspurg (1857–1943) and Lida Gustava Heymann (1868–1943) lived in a lesbian relationship for decades. In the late 1960s the culture and society of male and female homosexuals increasingly came out into the open. Building on traditions of the first gay movement of the 1920s, a new gay liberation movement formed alongside the U.S. civil rights movement and the worldwide protest against the U.S. involvement in Vietnam. The women's liberation movement embraced the issue of open and legitimate lesbian relationships, and by the late 1970s society's general acceptance of male and female homosexuals had become a goal of both movements. In the 1980s and 1990s the politics of gay and lesbian groups shifted toward AIDS research and the right for homosexual couples to marry and adopt.

"Second wave" feminism also explored whether lesbians were "naturally" feminists (and vice versa), with some lesbians claiming that only lesbians were true feminists. Lesbian separatism demanded the demise of heterosexual relationships altogether, a demand that raised many perplexing questions. Ultimately, moderation replaced militancy and lesbian and heterosexual feminists found common ground. Second wave feminism must be credited with acknowledging the contributions of lesbian feminists, and specifically with a new perspective on society that eventually extended to the whole women's movement: their viewpoint took woman as the "center," not the "other," the standard, not the variant, and provided a crucial tool for analyzing all of European culture and society.


The study of masculinity developed as a notable component of gender theory. Like femininity, masculinity was increasingly seen as a constructed, social, and not necessarily natural set of characteristics. Scholarship on men and masculinity in Europe was relatively scarce in the early twenty-first century, certainly lagging behind the developments in the United States, yet there were some partial and tentative results concerning such issues as boyhood, fatherhood, working-class masculinity, and crime.

Studies of masculinity and modernity traced the emergence of a masculine ideal to the growth of a commercial and industrial bourgeoisie in the nineteenth century. Masculinity essentially required an intense struggle of man against himself and his body, which was subject to self-discipline and restraint. Any emotion was to be held in check, and the differences between masculine and feminine traits were sharply emphasized and had to be kept firmly in their proper place. Although masculine ideals underwent many local modifications, some of the same features occurred throughout Europe and did not start to break down in western Europe until the 1950s.

In addition to on the warfront, questions of masculinity were also posed elsewhere. In the twentieth century, European men of all classes increasingly sought recreational outlets to display their masculinity. Sports provided not only a way for educating boys to be men but also an opportunity for adults to participate on the field and as spectators. Early in the century, youth movements such as scouting offered boys an opportunity to develop their masculinity outside the female-dominated school environment. Masculine aggressiveness was asserted much more explicitly in the emerging fascist movements, which combined the masculinity of party boots and uniforms with the promise to return women to their traditional roles and more traditional clothing.

Gender differentiations certainly became less pronounced in the second half of the twentieth century. With women's increasing participation in the workforce, the breadwinner justification for masculinity diminished, even though male superiority in the workplace was still widespread. Couples started to share consumer interests, family vacations, and sometimes housework. Male-female relationships became more informal and less committed, not the least because of the availability of birth control. A large family was no longer a sign of sexual prowess. It must be kept in mind, however, that not only was late-twentieth-century maleness defined by a complex interplay between recent changes and persevering traditions, but that these definitions varied greatly between Stockholm and Naples, Moscow and Paris.

See alsoBeauvoir, Simone de; Feminism.


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Anja SchÜler

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When considering issues of aging, gender must be considered as an integral component. The Census Bureau estimates that the number of women age sixty and older in the world will double between the years 2000 and 2025. In 2000, in developed countries, one in ten persons was a woman age sixty or older. This is projected to increase to one in seven by 2025. While developed countries may have higher percentages of older women, developing countries actually have higher numbers of older women, with faster growth rates for older women than more developed countries.

The different life experiences of women and men are reflected in several key demographic measures. Primary among these is the skewed sex ratio at older agesthere are a far greater number of older women than older men. This phenomenon is directly related to higher life expectancy and lower death rates among women. However, older women do experience their own set of health problems, and older women are more economically disadvantaged than older men. They are also more likely to live alone. On the other hand, women have stronger social support systems than men.

Sex ratios

Figure 1 presents sex ratios for three age groups throughout the world. The sex ratio is the number of males per 100 females. At birth, the sex ratio is generally around 105. In other words, there are more male babies born than female babies. This pattern is found in almost all societies. In the middle ages of the life course, there tends to be almost equal numbers of men and women, but by age sixty-five, the sex ratio is skewed heavily in favor of females. Generally, based on the world average, there are one-third more females than males age sixty-five and older. However, there are regional differences. In Asia, Latin America, and Africa there are about one-fifth more older females than older males, while in Europe there are almost two-fifths more older women. There is more detailed information for the United States, in which the sex ratio falls below 50 for ages eighty-five to eighty-nine, indicating that there are more than twice as many females as males in this age range. For those over one hundred years old, the sex ratio is a mere twenty-onethat is, there are twenty-one males per one hundred females. This pattern of highly skewed sex ratios is the result of gender differences in life expectancy, which are discussed in the next section.

Life expectancy and death rates

It is well known that women live longer than men. Exactly how much longer? And does this advantage continue as people age? In 2000, the average life expectancy for women worldwide was sixty-eight years, while for men it was sixty-four years. Nevertheless, the difference between women and men in life expectancy varies throughout the world. In developing countries women live, on average, three years longer than men. The difference is only two years in sub-Saharan Africa. In contrast, women live an average of seven years longer than men in developed countries. The difference in life expectancy tends to decrease at older ages. At age sixty, the difference ranges from one to four years (see Table 1).

In most countries, there are additional differences in life expectancy based on race, class, and other social-status differences. In the United States, for example, overall life expectancy at birth is 79.2 years for females and 73.6 years for males. However, there are important race differences: life expectancy for white women is 79.8 years; for black women, 74.7 years; for white men, 74.3 years; and for black men, 67.3 years. Therefore, it is white women who have the largest advantage in life expectancy, while black men lag 12.5 years behind. However, the difference between white women and black men decreases to five years by age sixty-five, when white women are expected to live 19.1 more years and black men 14.2 more years.

Although both black and white women have longer life expectancies than their male counterparts, the differences decrease at later ages, especially among blacks. While black women are expected to live 7.4 years longer than black men at birth, by age sixty-five the advantage in life expectancy is only 3.2 years. Similarly, white women's advantage decreases from 5.5 years at birth to 3.2 years at age sixty-five. It is also interesting to compare the similarities (and differences) between black women and white men. Although life expectancy is similar for these two groups, there are differences in death rates. Black females have higher death rates than white males at ages under five years old, with the difference being especially great under one year old. Black females also suffer higher death rates from thirty-five to sixty-four years old. However, at age sixty-five and older, the death rate for white males surpasses that for black females. Indeed, at age eighty-five and older, black females have lower death rates than white females and black males have lower death rates than white males.

The importance of the gender difference in life expectancy is obvious: if women live longer than men then there will be more older women than older men. This has several implications for individual women as well as for society. For individual women, it is likely to mean outliving one's spouse, living alone, and poorer economic conditions, as fewer resources are used to cover more years.

These gender differences in life expectancy lead to inquiries about what older men and women are dying from. In the United States, for those forty-five years old and older, the top two causes of death for both women and men are heart disease and cancer, though the death rates from these diseases are higher for men. At the younger ages (forty-five to sixty-four years old), men have higher death rates for nine of the ten leading causes of death, the exception being cerebrovascular diseases (stroke). It is interesting to note that the death rate for causes with large social-behavioral components, such as accidents, liver disease, HIV infection, and suicide, are two to six times greater for men than women in this age group. For those age sixty-five and older, the leading causes of death are similar for women and men, though men have higher death rates from heart disease, cancer, and pulmonary diseases and women have higher rates from cerebrovascular diseases and Alzheimer's disease.

In addition, although women generally experience lower death rates than men, they suffer from higher rates of several chronic conditions, including arthritis, high blood pressure, cataracts, chronic sinusitis, hay fever, varicose veins, chronic bronchitis, asthma, hemorrhoids, frequent indigestion, and migraines. Men, on the other hand, are more likely to experience hearing impairments, heart conditions, orthopedic impairments, diabetes, visual impairments, tinnitus, and dermatitis.

Why do these differences exist? Surely, part of the reason lies in biology. Males have higher death rates than females at all ages, even before they are born (miscarriages disproportionately occur with male fetuses). These biological differences are likely to be exacerbated by social factors. Men are more likely to engage in risk-taking behaviors, such as driving faster, which lead to higher death rates from accidents. Men are also more likely to smoke and drink alcohol, increasing their risk of lung cancer and liver disease, among other diseases. Finally, men tend to neglect their health more than women, as witnessed by fewer visits to the doctor. The smaller differences that exist in developing countries are likely to be due to harsher living conditions for all.

Economic status and retirement

Men enjoy an economic advantage over women, and older men are no exception. Older men have completed more years of school, are more likely to be in the labor force, and are less likely to be living in poverty than older women. Table 2 shows economic activity rates for older women and men. The economic activity rate is the percentage of people who are engaged in paid activities or are available to work in such activities. In every region, older men are more likely to be economically active than older women. However, in Europe, Canada, the United States, and central Asia, participation rates are low for both men and women. In contrast, sub-Saharan Africa has the highest activity rates for both women and men. Finally, large gender differences in activity among older individuals exist in western Asia, northern Africa, and Central America.

In the United States, labor-force participation rates peak at 93.2 percent for men twenty-five to thirty-four years old while women's participation rates peak at 77.1 percent for thirty-five to forty-four year olds. Between ages fifty-five and sixty-five, men's labor force participation rates drop to 68.1 percent and women's rates fall to 51.2 percent. Finally, those sixty-five years old and older have low rates of participation. Still, men are almost twice as likely to be in the labor force at this age (16.5 percent versus 8.6 percent).

Of those with an income, men have higher incomes than women. When median income peaks (at forty-five to fifty-four years old), women are making 55 percent of what men make. Both men's and women's median income decreases at older ages, though women's decreases faster initially. The big drop in men's median income occurs after age sixty-four. In 1998, men age sixty-five and older earned a median income of $18,166, while the median income for women age sixty-five and older was only $10,504. Related to their lower income, 13 percent of women age sixty-five and older live below the poverty level, compared to 7 percent of their male counterparts.

Among those who are employed, women and men tend to retire at similar ages, with the median age being around sixty-three for both women and men. Often, retirement is hastened by the retirement of one's spouse, though this reason is cited more often by women. An exception is when wives are not employed during the child-rearing years. These wives often retire later than their husbands, perhaps making up for time spent out of the labor force. Husbands also retire faster when they have Social Security income or a pension. On the other hand, wives retire faster when their husbands' income is high. Women's economic well-being does tend to be more influenced by their husbands than vice versa. For example, widowhood is more likely to increase poverty for women than for men. In fact, a man's economic well-being may actually improve when his wife dies.

Marital status, living arrangements, and social support

In every region, at least one-third of older women are widowed (see Table 3). Rates of widowhood are especially high in northern Africa and central Asia, where almost three-fifths of older women are widowed. In contrast, widowhood is much less common among men around the world. For example, only 7 percent of men in sub-Saharan Africa outlive their wives. In Africa, older women are over six times more likely to be widowed than older men.

Gender differences in marital status tend to increase with age. In the United States, at ages forty-five to fifty-four years old, the majority of both men and women are married (see Table 4), and only 7 percent of women and 9 percent of men in this age group have never been married. Widowhood is rare for men (1 percent) and very uncommon for women (4 percent). On the contrary, this age range represents the age at which the highest percent of women and men are divorced, with 18 percent of women and 14 percent of men being divorced. The picture changes considerably for those seventy-five years old and over. While the majority of men are still married at this age, only 30 percent of women in this age group are married. Instead, fully 60 percent of women seventy-five and older are widowed. In fact, the percentage of women widowed at ages seventy-five and older is 2.5 times greater than the percentage of men widowed.

Because women tend to be the survivors of marriage, they are also more likely to live alone or with someone else. This can be seen by looking at household headship. In every region of the world, women age sixty and older are more likely than older men to be household heads. In fact, almost one-half of older women in Europe are household heads. In the United States, women sixty-five years old and over are as likely to live alone as with a spouse, with 41 percent in each type of living arrangement. In contrast, only 17 percent of men sixty-five and older live alone, while 73 percent live with a spouse. In addition, only 10 percent of these men live with someone other than a spouse, compared to 18 percent of women this age.

Marital status can affect receipt of social support from children. Men who are divorced suffer disruptions in their relationships with their children, especially with their daughters. This may have consequences for caretaking, since disabled parents are more likely to receive care from their daughters. Widowhood may also have negative consequences for men's support networks. Men who are widowed receive less support from their children than those who are still married. In addition, women who are widowed more often develop friendships than men who are widowed, and women are more likely to receive support from friends. Even among older persons who are unmarried and childless, women receive more support than men. Generally, children report better relationships with their mothers than with their fathers. This may be due to the fact that women are more active in maintaining intergenerational relationships. Therefore, although older women are more likely than older men to find themselves widowed and living alone, they seem better equipped to manage their lives on their own, with some help from family and friends.

Gender roles

Do gender roles relax or persist at older ages? This is an often debated question. It has been argued that men become more feminine and women more masculine as they age, and the idea that men become more sensitive and family-oriented while women become more assertive and confident is a popular one. Many older men tend to look back on their lives and think of such things as time missed with children when they were younger. On the other hand, older women's images of themselves tend to be higher, in terms of self-esteem and confidence, than those of younger women. These women feel that they can be more forceful in doing what they want.

An alternative explanation to reversed roles is the idea that roles may not change that much, but rather that roles may be more easily expressed at older ages. In other words, those who engage in more traditional roles at younger ages will continue to express traditional gender roles, while those who have more egalitarian views at younger ages will find it easier to express these views at older ages. Therefore, older ages provide more flexibility in enacting people's true gender roles. It seems that there is less pressure to behave in ways that conform to gender stereo-types at older ages.

Future gender differences

After decades of widening, the gap between men and women in life expectancy showed some signs of narrowing at the end of the twentieth century. In 2000, the gap in the United States was about two years less than it was in 1970. As a result, a less skewed sex ratio at older ages may emerge, though it will certainly remain weighted toward females for a long time to come.

As for economic roles, it is widely known that women's labor force participation increased dramatically over the last decades of the twentieth century. Female labor force participation rates in the United States increased from 43 percent in 1970 to 60 percent in 1998. The increase was especially dramatic among women forty-five to sixty-four years old, the ages right before retirement. Participation rates for this age group went from around one-half to three-quarters between 1970 and 1998. However, there have also been important changes in men's labor force participation. Over the last few decades of the twentieth century, men's labor force participation rates declined, with larger declines at older ages. Between 1970 and 1998, participation rates for men fifty-five to sixty-four years old decreased from 83 percent to 68 percent, while rates for men sixty-five and older decreased from 27 percent to 17 percent. These changes suggest that more recent and future cohorts of women will be better off economically as they enter old age. Fewer women will be financially dependent on their husbands or other family members. At the same time, more and more men may need, or at least benefit from, their wives working.

Changing family roles may also be important for different cohorts of aging men and women. Although a relatively small number of those sixty-five and older are divorced, the percentage increase between 1980 and 2000 in the United States was fairly large (from 3.4 percent to 7.1 percent for women and from 3.6 percent to 6.1 percent for men). This will likely have important implicationsespecially for older men, since fathers who are not married to their children's mother tend to receive less support from their children. In addition, it will be interesting to see if changing roles at home among younger couples translate into more egalitarian arrangements among older couples in future cohorts.

Gayle Kaufman

See also Feminist Theory; Genetics; Inequality; Marital Relationships; Population Aging; Retirement.


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Brubaker, T. H., and Brubaker, E. "Family Care of the Elderly in the United States: An Issue of Gender Differences?" In Family Care of the Elderly: Social and Cultural Changes. Edited by J. I. Kosberg. Newbury Park, Calif.: Sage, 1992. Pages 210231.

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Marks, N. F. "Midlife Marital Status Differences in Social Support Relationships with Adult Children and Psychological Well-Being." Journal of Family Issues 16 (1995): 528.


See Cohort change; Age-period-cohort model

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resisting gender roles
gender in the napoleonic code and thereafter
industrialization, urbanization, and gender
the attack on male privilege
blows against gender inequality at the turn of the century

Gender as the idea and practices of differences between men and women functioned on a number of cultural levels and in social practice. The French Revolution of 1789 brought to the fore ideas of gender that had been echoing during the Enlightenment, though the trends in thinking and behavior were often contradictory. A slogan of the Revolution was "liberty, equality, fraternity," and this emphasized the brotherhood behind the ideas of citizenship in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. The French Revolution attacked the authority of an absolutist monarch and substituted for him the rule of citizens, who had metamorphosed from the king's subjects. Women during the Revolution asked that they receive the same rights as men, most notably in Olympe de Gouges's celebrated Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Female Citizen (1791). When the Revolution declared the absolute power of fathers to have ended, there was a simultaneous move to reduce the power of husbands. Both of these tendencies worked to reduce the hierarchy of gender in order to bring a commitment to equality into practice. When France entered into war with Austria and Prussia in 1792, women demanded to enter the army so that they too could perform their civic duty. Again, they emphasized equality rather than gender difference.

resisting gender roles

The Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House (1879) was an international sensation because it showed gender being contested by a wife, Nora, who senses her ignorance and inferiority and wants to correct the situation. This scene occurs at the end of the play when Nora decides she will leave her husband and children. Her husband's reaction is to try to enforce gender order and codes.

HELMER: Nora, how can you be so unreasonable and ungrateful? Haven't you been happy here?

NORA: No; never. I used to think I was; but I haven't ever been happy.

HELMER: Not—not happy?

NORA: No. I've just had fun. You've always been very kind to me. But our home has never been anything but a playroom. I've been your doll-wife, just as I used to be Papa's doll-child. And the children have been my dolls. I used to think it was fun when you came in and played with me, just as they think it's fun when I go in and play games with them. That's all our marriage has been, Torvald.

HELMER: There may be a little truth in what you say, though you exaggerate and romanticize.

But from now on it'll be different. Playtime is over. Now the time has come for education.

NORA: Whose education? Mine or the children's?

HELMER: Both yours and the children's, my dearest Nora.

NORA: Oh, Torvald, you're not the man to educate me into being the right wife for you.

HELMER: How can you say that?

NORA: And what about me? Am I fit to educate the children?


NORA: Didn't you say yourself a few minutes ago that you dare not leave them in my charge?

HELMER: In a moment of excitement. Surely you don't think I meant it seriously?

NORA: Yes. You were perfectly right. I'm not fitted to educate them. There's something else I must do first. I must educate myself. And you can't help me with that. It's something I must do by myself. That's why I'm leaving you.

HELMER (jumps up): What did you say?

NORA: I must stand on my own feet if I am to find out the truth about myself and about life. So I can't go on living here with you any longer.

HELMER: Nora, Nora!

NORA: I'm leaving you now, at once. Christine will put me up for tonight—

HELMER: You're out of your mind! You can't do this! I forbid you!

Source: Henrik Ibsen, A Doll's House (New York, 1966), 96–97.

gender in the napoleonic code and thereafter

Aside from this sense of equality, there was a countermove toward gender dimorphism that made men and women more distant in social roles. This appeared in the growing popularity of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's work. Many revolutionaries on the left believed, following the sense of Rousseau's Émile and the New Héloïse, that women should not be active in public life. Instead, they should raise their children to be honest and virtuous citizens. No longer were women simply breeding to perpetuate the family lineage, their role as mother became cultural, and this pivotal duty was called republican motherhood. With the writing of the Napoleonic Code in 1803 and 1804 and its spread to other European countries, equality among men and women received a blow, with gender hierarchy emphasized—not equality. Although Napoleon's code of laws allowed brothers and sisters to receive equal inheritances, other parts of the code forbade married women from owning property, including their own wages. Women were not allowed to work or run a business without written permission from their husbands, and a woman could not serve as a witness in court or be a guardian to her own children should her husband die. A woman was required to live wherever her husband determined. Should she commit adultery, she was to be imprisoned and fined. The only time a man could be punished for a similar offense was if he brought a concubine to live in the conjugal household. The Napoleonic Code established the gender framework for the nineteenth century, and that framework highlighted and enforced gender difference.

The framework by which gender was constructed around male privilege and female inferiority affected all classes and walks of life, making gender into a category that was acted out in everyday tasks and behavior. In this largely agrarian society women often worked as hard as men but had less stature and fewer rights—even when it came to food. Their portions were simply smaller and the esteem in which they were held, lower. Gender also determined the jobs one performed, with men mostly working in the fields and caring for the large animals and with women tending vegetable gardens, the smaller animals, and the dairy. Gender shaped the disparagement of women in rural life. Many a proverb talked about women in the same breath with animals: "A good horse and a bad horse need the spur; a good wife and a bad wife need the rod," common wisdom held. It was not uncommon for there to be sexual assault and battering of women, both of these sanctioned because of the woman's perceived lesser status within the hierarchy of gender. Nonetheless, in multigenerational agrarian households such as those in eastern Europe, senior women determined the assignment of tasks to younger women and had more stature than daughters, daughters-in-law, and younger sisters-in-law. Here, age and status hierarchy coexisted alongside and within gender hierarchy.

Ideas of gender determined the operation of the middle-class home in the nineteenth century. As contact with South Asia, the Middle East, and China grew, an ideology of "separate spheres" for men and women had also developed in the eighteenth century, from which Rousseau's ideology of gender developed. In this theory, which also was a centerpiece of developing republican ideas, men were meant to direct public life and women should be confined to the home—à la the harem or zenana. Great paeans to separate spheres filled volumes of poetry, fiction, and song. "The family is the kingdom of woman—her life," wrote one Russian author at midcentury of the feminized household. In a celebrated novel in verse from the mid-1850s, Coventry Patmore praised women as the "Angel in the House," while John Ruskin's Sesame and Lilies (1865) enthused about the delicate women who sweetened life for other family members—particularly the hard-working husband and father. For these reasons, men of letters announced, women should not be educated, work, or participate in public life. Such ideas filtered down to affect the lives of working women, who became virtual pariahs—as the French reformer Flora Tristan (1803–1844) saw it—because they needed to support their families. So while women worked, workingwomen were somewhat disgraced in the larger public eye because of their gendered beliefs. Furthermore, the delicacy imputed to middle-class women by these men of letters contributed to labor-force segmentation. Women, it was said, could do only "delicate" and intricate jobs, with the further thought that the heavy, muscular work of men was more valuable. Yet, gender's hierarchies in the home shaped domestic and working life in tandem. Whereas once there had been more male household servants than female ones, by the end of the nineteenth century domestic service, because it was situated in the feminized home, was predominantly female. It was as poorly paid and as arduous a job as existed because of the long hours—stretching to almost twenty hours per day—and the heavy nature of the work in the days before the invention of household conveniences.

Even dress resonated gender dimorphism, as women's fashions became incredibly elaborate and simultaneously constricting—even dangerous. In the eighteenth century men and women alike in the aristocracy and upper classes had worn wigs, makeup, high heels, corsets, and lacy and luxurious fabrics. Both wore clothing that emphasized sexual characteristics. But this changed along with the changes in gender ideology. Women continued to don increasingly tight corsets, petticoats, and dainty slippers, each of which in its own way was a health hazard. While the hypersexualized shape of these clothes emphasized the sexuality of women's bodies, men, in contrast, abandoned the corsets, high heels, and makeup they had worn earlier in favor of the somber and streamlined black suit. Men's sexuality was more masked as women's was emphasized—both of these in line with the gendered roles that women's place was reproducing in the home while men's was in the public dealing with somber and weighty issues. Middle-class men's appearance testified to their responsibilities, while women's announced their procreativity. As mass armies and imperial power developed in the Europe of the nineteenth century, common men sported sailor's and soldier's uniforms and the elite donned hunting and tropical clothes—all of these associated with the authority and power of masculinity.

industrialization, urbanization, and gender

As Europe industrialized during the nineteenth century, both young men and young women found opportunity in cities. In a society bifurcated at its base by gender, men were paid higher wages than women, who often received wages below subsistence level. Women increasingly found it difficult to find well-paying jobs allowing them to work outside the home. From midcentury on, trade legislation, called "protective," kept women from actually working in a variety of jobs and regulated their hours though not men's. In Britain this legislation was said to protect the unborn fetus, the beginning of governmental concern for embryos, and to keep women out of jobs that would hurt women's health. The irony behind this was that men were actually at greater risk and had higher rates of illness. The regulations thus showed that gender ideology was more important than scientific fact.

Most women had to have income to support their families, but gender ideology affected their ability to gain it. In the face of the variety of gendered proscriptions blocking them from wellpaid industrial jobs, many did casual work at home such as making toys, doing piecework in sewing, painting buttons, plaiting straw, and similar outwork. This was usually very low paid work, although in some cases women could enlist the entire household to work alongside them. Those women who could not make ends meet on below subsistence pay turned to casual or full-time prostitution to support themselves. Many lived in common-law unions, producing illegitimate children who were disadvantaged, along with their

mothers, by this illegitimacy. Ill health was not uncommon in these conditions, and plays, novels, and operas abounded that testified to the plight of disadvantaged women. Nevertheless, the tears and sentiment these works produced validated the situation rather than leading to its eradication. Charitable groups also arose to aid women in distress.

As trade unions grew in the second half of the nineteenth century, they came to be gendered male. Because so many women toiled in outwork, their participation in union activity was far lower than men's. In addition to dues that low-paid women could not afford, men did not want women in unions because of the workings of gender. Women in jobs, it was said, would drag down men's confidence, and most would not attack the gender privilege on which this labor segmentation rested. Some men in craft unions, stressing the independent and noble masculinity of the artisan, actually endorsed women working in factories. In France, for instance, shoemakers and independent weavers found it unproblematic to send their wives and daughters to work in factories in order to support their own craft existence and gendered dignity as an autonomous worker. Within neighborhoods, however, women's gendered segregation in the domestic sphere promoted the success of unions as they built solidarity around shared tasks, daily crisis management of everyday life concerns, and information sharing while doing work such as laundering together. While men often dominated in the public activity of strikes, gendered divisions called on women to provide behind-the-scenes support—and they did.

In addition to ordinary jobs in factories and work in agriculture, professional and creative jobs were gendered male. Laws kept women from the legal and medical professions and from financial fields such as stockbroking. Women in most countries could not receive professional training or degrees, which made countries such as Switzerland, which did allow women in medical school, magnets for women seeking higher education. When women were allowed into universities in Greece, England, and Germany, riots broke out or women were not allowed to receive degrees. Even when they surpassed men in exams, Oxford and Cambridge Universities did not grant women degrees until well into the twentieth century. In Germany women were often made to sit behind curtains when attending lectures or they were cordoned off behind ropes. Nor were they always allowed into libraries or other repositories. Knowledge was gendered male to such an extent that German men protested women teaching in the new kindergartens that were springing up. As with union opposition to women in factories, these protests came for good reason. When women entered such professions as nursing, librarianship, and teaching, these jobs became degraded according to the hierarchy in the workings of gender. Salaries, status, and the general prestige accorded the job fell once it became categorized as female. The situation was powerfully endorsed in the works of the British naturalist Charles Darwin, who, in his many writings on natural selection and evolution during the 1850s, 1860s, and 1870s, concluded that women and people of color were far less evolved than white European men.

If science and knowledge were for men, Christianity was increasingly for women as part of the unfolding of gender. In much of eastern Europe in contrast, Jewish men spent great amounts of time studying the Torah and engaging in devotional activities. While both men and women attended Christian churches, as the century wore on men defected to clubs, sports, and other forms of sociability. This pertained to both working- and middle-class men. Women increased their religious commitment through church attendance, religiously based charities including those committed to conversion, and the training of their children in their religious duties. The number of women in religious orders increased far more than did the number of men. The dimorphism was so great that people spoke and worried about the "feminization of religion." There was even more to the gendering of religion in this century to the extent that the authority in Christian churches, whether Protestant or Catholic, remained male. Despite the defection of male parishioners, churches remained a bastion of gender hierarchy because of the small number of men in positions of great authority over increasing numbers of women faithful.

the attack on male privilege

Women and men alike attacked these unequal conditions based on gender from the beginning, when Rousseauian ideas of gender gained currency. The French Revolution itself sparked brilliant tracts such as Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792)—a work that resonates down to the present day. In this work, Wollstonecraft equated male privilege with aristocratic privilege, advocating the solution of equal education and equal opportunity for men and women alike. Women attempted to overcome gender inequality, Wollstonecraft maintained, by simpering ways and sexual plots—none of this allowing for the development of rational skills. Wollstonecraft was a child of the Enlightenment, and others simultaneously pushed for a greater recognition of women's superior feelings and the love that women brought to society. These ideas were found in Wollstonecraft's own daughter's work. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) fit this Romantic mold, while other writers such as Germaine de Staël and George Sand celebrated women's goodness, finer feelings, and more highly developed sense of culture—a position

that validated women's inequality by praising their subordinate skills, some believed. To others, women's superior sensibility was the ground on which their claims to equality were based. Major social thinkers such as Henri de Saint-Simon and Auguste Comte held similarly Romantic views, and like early feminists they hoped that greater place given to women would make society better—as long as these societies were led by men's great capacities for engineering, technology, and science.

Socialist ideas of gender also gained currency after midcentury. As developed in the work of Karl Marx and the Manchester factory owner Friedrich Engels, the inequality of women stemmed from the institution of private property. Private property caused the subordination of women because property owners, especially those in the middle and upper classes, needed a guarantee of paternity so that their property would pass to legitimate heirs. Engels outlined the theory in great detail in his germinal work, The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1884). Gender inequality would disappear, Engels maintained, once socialism had been realized in society and accomplished its main goal of abolishing private property. After that, there would be no need for the repression of women. This theory influenced socialist parties across Europe in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Although women were active in socialism because of the promised gender equality, some women, such as Clara Zetkin (1857–1933), the major German activist, attacked feminism as an ideology for gender equality that would benefit only the middle classes. Socialism, these women maintained, would help everyone economically as well as politically.

Gender increasingly shaped political imagery and political issues, especially with the rise of organized feminism after midcentury. Although Queen Victoria (r. 1837–1901) served as Britain's monarch despite the guarantee of male privilege in the common law, the royal family simultaneously played the role of middle-class couple in which a wife obeyed and worshipped male authority. In their carefully staged photographs, they abandoned royal garb for those of the gendered social elite: the queen looked adoringly at Prince Albert, while he struck commanding poses—thus aligning themselves with gender expectations. In other cases, the queen's rule had real and palpable consequences, as Parliament used the fact of a female monarch to continue to drain the monarchy of power. Some members of the middle class, however, drew inspiration from Victoria's rule to contest the gender order. Women activists saw Victoria radiating the force of womanhood, and they worked all the more for more egalitarian laws about marriage, property ownership, and work. Barbara Smith Bodichon (1827–1891) and Bessie Parkes (1829–1925) were but two who claimed that gender hierarchy needed to be reversed in all of these spheres, and the cause of gender equality was advanced by Harriet Taylor Mill and John Stuart Mill's The Subjection of Women (1869)—a book translated into the major European languages and read around the world. In England in 1882, the Married Women's Property Act consolidated women's ownership of property, including their wages, and later in the century women gained the right to divorce and to guardianship of their children. These reforms ended some of the economic and social prerogatives awarded men because of their privileged status in gender theory.

The final stage in the prewar struggle against the ideas and practices of gender hierarchy came with the creation of organized national and international suffrage movements. National suffrage societies were strongest in Great Britain, though the feminist movement had hundreds of thousands of adherents in France, Germany, and most of the rest of Europe. But in countries such as France and Germany feminists took different approaches to ending the lack of esteem and rights for women and the concomitant privilege of men. In Germany women fought for the right to Bildung—that is the acquisition of general humanistic self-development through education and cultivation of the mind. In France, while the majority of women eschewed suffrage, they worked for gender equality across the board, for example through legal, educational, and institutional reform. The end result of the feminist and suffrage movements was not only legal change and eventually the vote (the first occurred in Finland in 1906), but also a louder, more widely heard voice on behalf of gender equality, although there were those, such as Francesco Crispi, prime minister of Italy late in the nineteenth century, who maintained that instead of filling out ballots "women's hands were meant for kissing."

blows against gender inequality at the turn of the century

By the end of the nineteenth century a "new woman" had appeared in the middle and lowermiddle classes to challenge by her very way of life strict gender roles. These women held jobs, sometimes lived in boardinghouses apart from the supervision of their families, and led independent lives and often maintained their single status. In some countries there was seen to be a "surplus women" problem, so large was the number of single women. There were other eye-catching aspects to the new woman: some smoked, wore slim and more practical clothing, and ventured forth in cities doing philanthropic work on their own. Some played sports such as soccer. The new woman was a phenomenon that disturbed the gender order, although it would not be until after World War I with the advent of the "flapper" or garçonne (in France) that new womanhood was seen as having spread to the working class.

What many of these independent or new women did was increasingly bold by the gender norm stressing female chastity and male sexual adventurism. Women such as Maria Montessori not only went to medical school to develop their professional capacities, they also had children out of wedlock, often refusing to be cramped in the confines of inegalitarian marriage. Novels abounded describing, usually sympathetically, the decisions single women made to flaunt the conventions of gender. Journalists were often less understanding, as they denounced the more public appearance of prominent homosexuals. Heterosexuality mirrored the gendered norm of male control of and superiority to women. The increasing publicity given to single-sex couples—both male and female—brought down the wrath of the press in its role as one of the guardians of gender. Not surprisingly, however, members of the homosexual entourage of the German kaiser sent letters to one another maintaining their superiority to heterosexuals because they needed no contact whatsoever with inferior beings—that is, women. This was a time when, simultaneous to the endorsement of gender equality by some, political and intellectual leaders such as those in the kaiser's entourage equated the lowness of the Jew with that of women. Anti-Semitism and misogyny in gender norms went hand in hand as the twentieth century opened.

Gender norms were affected as birth control became more available to men and women alike by the end of the nineteenth century with the appearance of rubber condoms and the diaphragm. Knowledge of women's ovulatory cycle was more widespread, and this too affected gender. These innovations brought fatherhood and motherhood—key components of gender definitions—under attack. For one thing, between 1880 and 1930 fertility dropped drastically in most of Europe, lessening women's role as reproducers. Simultaneously, obligatory public schooling began to take hold, removing children from parental care for extended periods of time. Schools came to teach children the skills once taught by parents of both sexes. Boys followed in their father's footsteps less often than before, especially as many agricultural and artisanal jobs were industrialized and the attendant skills were no longer required. The role of father as paterfamilias and mother as nurturer for perhaps her entire life weakened ideas of gender, especially since the time of Rousseau. Before World War I, many spoke of a "crisis of masculinity" in the face of the new woman and her place in a growing service sector, legal reforms that reduced some male privileges such as the right to take a wife's property to keep her economically impoverished, and the expansion of state power. The decline of small agriculture during this period reduced the number of men who could have control over an extended domain.

Gender resonated both at home and abroad through imperialism. The image of the virile hunter, adventurer, and conqueror filled the media and found its way into popular novels and stories. Although he had much criticism to offer, Rudyard Kipling memorialized rugged soldiers, wise administrators, and the rough and ready European common man who braved the seas in a variety of capacities. Many European men kept concubines from local peoples and lived outside the standard European family when working abroad. These situations were seen in novels such as Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (1902), which portrayed many toughminded male characters, an equally forceful African woman, and a clueless white woman back in Belgium. When governments began allowing or even insisting that men take their families to the colonies, it used to be maintained that women were the worst imperialists and they were the ones who turned imperialism into a nasty business—again a highly gendered interpretation based on the wisdom of the imperialist male and the stupidity of the imperialist female. Moreover, men, it was said, lived lovingly among the local folk, although scholarship now shows the exploitation behind the concubinal relationship. Colonial societies often urged women to go to the colonies, first, to do their gendered duty of civilizing the European man living on his own, and, second, to help build the white presence in the colonies by breeding with men there the superior Caucasian race. In an unexpected turn of events, imperialism was another of those situations that offered opportunities for gendered resistance. Men often did not have to behave as responsible breadwinners, and they could and did flaunt the norms of Western heterosexuality by engaging in sexual relationships with men when they were beyond the purview of European scrutiny. Women found sexual

freedom: the case of the English lepidopterist Margaret Fontaine (1862–1940), who traveled the world quite alone before World War I, reveals a life of adventure—including sexual adventure—and escape from the gendered confines of domesticity. Fontaine was one of many hundreds—male and female—for whom the colonies offered freedom from gendered proscriptions.

At the turn of the century intellectuals and scientists joined those who contested gender in their daily lives. Theories such as those of the physicians Havelock Ellis and Sigmund Freud came to maintain that sexual and gender behavior were not sanctioned by a divinity. Ellis in his pioneering work Sexual Inversion (1896) claimed that homosexuality was not a moral issue but rather a natural act and even a part of personality. Freud wrote many works addressing gender issues, but his theories in general suggested that there was no one pattern for being male and female. Before World War I, then, there were changing practices and theories about gender. Some hoped that the war would clarify the transitional situation, restoring men's masculinity and God-given privilege and reasserting women's natural inferiority and domestic role. The gendered results of the war are still being debated.

See alsoBourgeoisie; Comte, Auguste; Conrad, Joseph; Darwin, Charles; Ellis, Havelock; Engels, Friedrich; French Revolution; Freud, Sigmund; Gouges, Olympe de; Ibsen, Henrik; Kipling, Rudyard; Labor Movements; Marx, Karl; Mill, John Stuart; Montessori, Maria; Napoleonic Code; Saint-Simon, Henri de; Sand, George; Shelley, Mary; Staël, Germaine de; Suffragism; Victoria, Queen; Wollstonecraft, Mary; Working Class.


Clark, Anna. The Struggle for the Breeches: Gender and the Making of the British Working Class. Berkeley, Calif., 1995.

Duberman, Martin Bauml, Martha Vicinus, and George Chauncey Jr. Hidden from History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past. New York, 1989.

Engel, Barbara Alpern. Women in Russia, 1700–2000. Cambridge, U.K., 2004.

Frevert, Ute. Women in German History: From Bourgeois Emancipation to Sexual Liberation. Translated by Stuart McKinnon-Evans in association with Terry Bond and Barbara Norden. New York, 1989.

Haan, Francisca 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., 1996.

Kaufman, Suzanne K. Consuming Visions: Mass Culture and the Lourdes Shrine. Ithaca, N.Y., 2005.

Kent, Susan Kingsley. Gender and Power in Britain, 1640–1990. London, 1999.

Malone, Carolyn. Women's Bodies and Dangerous Trades in England, 1880–1914. Woodbridge, Suffolk, U.K., 2003.

Merrick, Jeffrey, and Bryant T. Ragan Jr., eds. Homosexuality in Modern France. New York, 1996.

Nye, Robert A. Masculinity and Male Codes of Honor in Modern France. New York, 1993.

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

Smith, Bonnie G. Changing Lives: Women in European History since 1700. Lexington, Mass., 1989.

Wildenthal, Lora. German Women for Empire, 1884–1945. Durham, N.C., 2001.

Bonnie G. Smith

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Archaeologists have long been interested in the lives of prehistoric women and men. Many of these discussions are based, however, on uncritical generalizations, such as the idea that men make stone tools and women weave cloth. A surprising amount of archaeological literature is vague about the actual people using stone tools, building houses and tombs, firing pottery, and so forth. Much of the literature is dominated by an androcentric (that is, male-focused) bias that relegates women to passive and often invisible roles in past societies. An explicit interest in gender in archaeology developed in the late 1970s, associated with post-processual archaeology; this broad school of thought emphasizes, among other things, the importance of individuals in prehistory and the diverse and potentially conflicting roles and interests of individuals within each ancient community. Another inspiration for an "engendered archaeology" is the development of feminism as a sociopolitical movement within universities and in the wider society.

Engendered archaeology began with a focus on discovering women in the past, inspired by the realization that traditional archaeological accounts focused almost exclusively on the activities of men. By the beginning of the twenty-first century the topic had expanded to include a broader interest in gender as a theoretical topic and in the interrelationships of men, women, and others in past daily lives. While the majority of authors on the topic have been female, the number of men writing about gender has increased as the topic has become incorporated into mainstream research.

In Europe, Scandinavian scholars pioneered gender studies in archaeology in the late 1970s. In addition archaeologists working at Anglo-American universities have been major contributors. By the late 1990s the field had matured to the point where several published overviews were available. For European archaeology specifically, Women in Prehistory by Margaret Ehrenberg, Gender and Archaeology: Contesting the Past by Roberta Gilchrist, and Gender Archaeology by Marie Louise Stig So⁄rensen are starting points for inquiry from authors who take diverse points of view. Another significant area of engendered research is the examination of women's status and participation in the work world of archaeology. Chapters in Excavating Women: A History of Women in European Archaeology by Margarita Díaz-Andreu and So⁄rensen show that different national traditions of scholarship as well as idiosyncrasies of individual life histories have influenced women's participation in archaeology as a career.

what is gender?

As archaeological interest in gender expanded beyond simply seeking evidence for women's activities in the past, the major theoretical discussion has been about the definition of gender itself and the complex interrelationships of gender, sex, and sexuality. In Gender and Archaeology, Gilchrist defines gender as "cultural interpretation of sexual difference," while So⁄rensen, in Gender Archaeology, emphasizes that "gender is a process, a set of behavioral expectations, or an affect, . . . not a thing." Clearly different authors emphasize different aspects. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s there was a reasonable consensus on differentiating sex and gender: the former refers to biological characteristics, while the latter refers to cultural interpretations of biological categories and characteristics. As a theoretical concept gender includes, at a minimum, gender identity, the defining characteristics of different genders in a society; gender role, the culturally defined appropriate activities and behaviors associated with each gender; and gender ideology, the symbolic values assigned to each gender. Regarding gender identity, scholars emphasize that despite conventional understandings of modern Western society, more than two genders can exist within a society, and they probably did in prehistoric cultures. Following ethnographic research, these other groups are known variously as third genders, berdache, or two-spirit, among other terms.

By the end of the 1990s scholars were challenging this conceptualization of "sex ≈ biology/gender ≈ culture." They argued that sex and gender are culturally constructed; that there is more biological variation in human primary and secondary sexual characteristics than is widely understood; and that the dominant model of two dichotomous sexes is a culturally specific conceptualization, which is found in Western societies only since the eighteenth century. It is unclear at present how this theoretical development will become incorporated into archaeological practice. In addition there is expanding interest in sexuality and sexual orientation in prehistory.

While these diverse conceptualizations of sex, gender, and sexuality enrich archaeological scholarship, it also has been argued that identification of "third genders" can simply be another, albeit theoretically more sophisticated, way to deny visibility to women in the past. This discussion is particularly relevant to analysis of mortuary remains, especially those where the osteological (bone) identification of the sex of the skeletal remains conflicts with the cultural identification of the gender associations of the grave goods.

sources of data

The most important archaeological sources of data are skeletal remains, artifacts, and structures of mortuary remains; figurines, sculptures, and representations in rock art of human figures; architectural patterning of houses and tombs; and spatial distributions of artifacts and features within domestic sites and between domestic and nondomestic sites (e.g., ritual, extractive, and so on). In addition, collaboration with scholars in anthropology, history, and biology is important for the study of gender. New DNA and chemical analyses of skeletal remains give promise of evidence about migration patterns of populations and genetic relationships between individuals in a tomb or cemetery. The early classical authors, such as the Greek Stoic philosopher Posidonius, Julius Caesar, and the Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus, also provide information about gender roles and relationships. These sources cannot be taken at face value and must be interpreted, but they are important complementary data sources for the Iron Age. It remains a contested question how far back in time they should be applied. For later periods some researchers use medieval written sources as complementary data, whereas other scholars have turned to sagas, mythology, and folklore.

Ethnographic data from traditional societies across the globe also have been influential. Regarding gender, ethnographic evidence underlies broad generalizations about the division of labor, production of material goods, status of women in different political systems, and role of women in ritual, for example. While these generalizations sometimes are simplistic and may be based on an uncritical use of the source material, it would be foolish to eliminate ethnographic data from research. These data provide an enriched understanding of the variations in human cultures and societies and may help establish diverse cross-cultural patterns that assist in interpreting the archaeological record. Close reading of ethnographic literature can provide counterexamples to entrenched androcentric assumptions.

Despite the theoretical literature about the subtleties of gender, sex, and sexuality, most empirically based literature on gender focuses straightforwardly on women and men and their activities, statuses, and relationships in different prehistoric settings. Although the traditional chronological terms probably oversimplify the cultural developments of prehistoric Europe, they provide a convenient framework for reviewing gender research.


For the Mesolithic period (beginning about 9000 b.c. and ending between 7000 and 4000 b.c., depending on the area of Europe), research relies significantly on ethnographic analogy with foraging peoples. Stone tools dominate the archaeological record. A division of labor often is assumed between men who hunt and women who gather plant foods, bird eggs, and shellfish. Hunting usually is assigned more cultural importance, and stone tools almost always are assumed to have been produced by men, although the ethnographic record is in fact not homogeneous on this point. Joan Gero points out that women who moved around the countryside independently, actively gathering more than half the diet, preparing most of the meals as well as creating clothing, basketry, housing, and other items of material culture were hardly likely to have waited for men to fashion the tools they used every day. There is nothing about the physical demands of stone tool production that women could not have accomplished.

During the Mesolithic recognizable cemeteries appeared. Much discussion of these cemeteries focuses on the question of whether or not incipient ranking appears in the Mesolithic, presaging social developments in later periods. The grave goods may include stone, bone, and shell objects. Evidence from Brittany and from southern Scandinavia suggests that in some situations gender is highlighted symbolically in grave structure and grave goods, but in other cases mortuary practice does not differentiate between men and women. In some cases burials indicate more differences between adults and juveniles than between men and women. Evidence for any kind of ranking is limited, however, unless one assumes—as some archaeologists do—that certain objects, such as axes, have an intrinsically superior symbolic value.

Certain Mesolithic burials from Sweden and southwestern Russia, which are atypical in burial posture and artifact richness and which mix male-associated and female-associated grave goods, may be of shamans, individuals who held both special religious powers and distinctive gender positions in the society. Robert Schmidt reviews ethnographic evidence from northern Eurasia that suggests shamans often were people who did not fit into dichotomous conceptions of sex, gender, or sexuality. Some were transvestites, some were intersexual, others were believed to change from male to female or from female to male, and still others participated in both heterosexual and homosexual encounters.

Lepenski Vir, along the Danube River in the former Yugoslavia, is a well-known Late Mesolithic site (c. 4500 b.c.) with numerous house foundations, burials, and unusual carved stone boulders often interpreted as ritual objects. The excavators describe a prehistoric culture in which women were passive and men were the active players in subsistence, leadership, art, and ritual. Russell Handsman posits, however, that this androcentric interpretation ignores what must have been the diverse, active contributions of women. He interprets the changes in the architectural remains over time (perhaps extending into the earliest Neolithic) as demonstrating growing inequality between lineages and expanding elaboration of the domestic sphere, perhaps indicating an increasing symbolic valuation of the domestic activities of women.


During the Neolithic period (approximately 7000–3000 b.c., but earlier in southeastern Europe and later in the northwest), cultivation and husbandry of domesticated plant and animal resources became dominant, permanent villages were established, population sizes increased, and new types of material culture, especially pottery, gained importance. There was significant regional variation in the material culture and social and cultural organization of Neolithic societies in Europe, and gender has important implications for each of these topics.

There is a vast literature on the beginnings of the Neolithic in Europe, debating the relative importance of climate change, local innovation, migration, and other causal factors. Gender has not been integrated explicitly into these discussions, but innovation usually is implicitly assigned to men. In the North American context, Patty Jo Watson and Mary C. Kennedy point out that the logical conclusion of the assumption that women were plant gatherers in preagricultural periods is that they were the most knowledgeable about plant species and life cycles and thus most likely the innovators in terms of cultivation of domesticated plants. While the situations are not identical (e.g., domesticated animals are present in Europe but not in North America), these authors emphasize that in any convincing analysis women must be recognized as active participants in daily life. There are no reasons to expect that women would be less innovative than men, and the unspoken presumption that child care somehow absorbed all of women's time and creativity is simply wrong. In fact even in traditional societies women do not spend their entire adult lives in active mothering.

The best-known material remains from the Neolithic that have been discussed from a gender perspective are the numerous figurines from southeastern Europe (dating to c. 5500–4000 b.c.). They include a broad range of animal and human or humanoid figures, some with a great deal of detail and others very abstract. More female than male forms are identifiable in the assemblage, although a large number of figurines are either neuter or unidentifiable with respect to sex. They derive from domestic and midden contexts and occasionally from apparent special-purpose rooms or structures that may have been shrines of some kind; they rarely come from burials. Although many scholars have discussed these finds, they are associated most closely with Marija Gimbutas and her interpretations of Neolithic and Copper Age cultures in what she referred to as "Old Europe." Almost alone among archaeologists of the 1950s and 1960s, Gimbutas incorporated what is recognized as a gendered perspective into her interpretations, though without any explicit theoretical attention to the topic.

Gimbutas found evidence within this assemblage for a religious cult focusing on a "great goddess" (fig. 1). She then extended her analysis to claim that the Neolithic cultures of the region were peaceful, egalitarian, and matriarchal communities that took their values from the female-dominated religion. According to Gimbutas's interpretation, this cultural pattern was destroyed during the following Copper and Bronze Ages by incursions of patriarchal, metal-using, horse-riding nomads from the steppe regions to the east who established the hierarchical and militaristic social patterns that have dominated Europe virtually ever since.

There have been two kinds of responses to Gimbutas's interpretation of southeastern European Neolithic societies. On the one hand, in the 1970s and 1980s her work became popular among nonacademic audiences, predominantly women, who found an image of a kind of "paradise lost" that allegedly existed in the past and could be reclaimed through women asserting their ritual powers. On the other hand, archaeologists either ignored or criticized these interpretations. As explained by Lynn Meskell, feminist archaeologists have found themselves in something of a dilemma regarding Gimbutas's work. Gimbutas was innovative in the 1960s and 1970s in escaping an androcentric perspective and highlighting the role of women in prehistoric ritual, but her interpretations rest on very broad generalizations that ignore the variations in the figurines and the contexts from which they were recovered. Furthermore the power of prehistoric women, in Gimbutas's interpretation, rested exclusively on their biological capacity for reproduction, a narrow viewpoint and an unpopular perspective with most feminist archaeologists. Other archaeologists have tackled the assemblage of figurines from southeastern European Neolithic sites, working on a more nuanced understanding of the finds. The figurines probably had diverse functions, including parts in ritual, play, education, and cultural symbolism.

Houses and tombs are the major sources of data for the book The Domestication of Europe: Structure and Contingency in Neolithic Societies by Ian Hodder. He links the beginning of domestication to changes in symbolic structures that came to emphasize issues of social and cultural control of both nature and people. Painting with a broad brush, Hodder underscores the symbolic opposition of domus (the concept of house/culture/control) with agrios (the concept of field/nature/wildness). He also suggests gender implications of this opposition as domus ≈ female/agrios ≈ male. Ironically, while focusing on dramatic gender-linked symbolic oppositions in most European Neolithic societies, he is unwilling to examine the actual daily-life roles and statuses of men and women.

The latter part of the Neolithic, after c. 4000 b.c. (and the following transitional period, known as the Copper Age or Chalcolithic), often is characterized by the development of the Secondary Products Revolution, which is the use of domesticated animals for resources other than meat: wool, milk, dung, and traction. This economic development probably had an impact on both women's and men's labor, as textile and dairy production might have absorbed women and plowing and transport might have occupied men. In eastern Hungary, John Chapman suggests that "increased divergence of economic resources in the Copper Age stimulates the emergence of a more gendered division of labor." At the same time differentiation in burial patterns between men and women increased in this region. At the end of the Copper Age new burial patterns in large mounds appeared, and the primary burials were all male; archaeologists have not found female graves. Thus Chapman suggests that around 3000 b.c. women were made symbolically invisible.

bronze age

Building on themes developed in Late Neolithic and Copper Age studies, the central topic of Bronze Age (c. 2500–800/500 b.c. in temperate Europe) research is the development and nature of hierarchical societies. There is evidence of "prestige goods economies," where important labor goes into producing and displaying status symbols, especially of bronze and gold. Much of the Bronze Age literature is implicitly androcentric, with an emphasis on metalworkers, traders, warriors, and chiefs who were all putatively male; there is little discussion of what the other half of the population was doing. In fact given that most of the male population were not chiefs or warriors, the literature tends to focus on what must have been a very small segment of the population while ignoring, to a large degree, the daily life of most people. The emphasis in most Bronze Age literature on hierarchy and chiefs tends to diminish attention to potential horizontal factors of social differentiation, such as gender, which also would have contributed to social complexity.

The rich Bronze Age cultures of southern Scandinavia have inspired several gender-focused analyses. Unusual preservation conditions, including oak-coffin burials and bog finds, have yielded clothing and wooden objects, and a rich bronzeworking tradition produced numerous artifact types. Some apparently are clearly associated with women and others with men, and certain artifact types are not gendered, including rich feasting equipment in both bronze and gold. The rock art shows a significant number of phallic human figures as well as nonphallic ones (fig. 2). Almost all have been assumed by many researchers to be male, because among other things, they are shown with swords; there also are suggestions that the nonphallic figures might be third-gender individuals. The obvious care that the artists took to differentiate phallic and nonphallic figures suggests that some or many of the latter could be members of the major nonphallic category of humans: women.

The burial analyses indicate that in the earlier Bronze Age more males than females were buried in archaeologically visible situations (especially earthen mounds), but these conclusions are based on many burials for which there is no independent osteological assessment of the sex of the skeletal material. In the later Bronze Age, when cremation was universal in the region, very rich hoards of female-associated objects are known, often from watery places. They frequently are interpreted as ritual deposits of some kind.

So⁄rensen shows that in Bronze Age Scandinavia cloth and clothing was not much differentiated between men and women, but head coverings and metal ornaments and equipment were distinguished. At least two female styles of costume are known, but there is only one male style. The female costumes might have identified rank or marital status. The emphasis in the later Bronze Age on male figures in the rock art and female-associated objects in ritual deposits suggests that males and females participated in different kinds of rituals and may have gained status in different ways. Even the common association of men with metalworking probably is overly simplified. The metalworking technological style required several steps, including creating molds out of stone and clay, processing and casting metal, and engraving objects after casting. There is no reason to assume that all of these tasks were accomplished by one craft worker or by one gender.

No other region of Europe has attracted as much gender research attention for the Bronze Age, but individual projects are contributing to a richer understanding. Elizabeth Rega analyzed a large Early Bronze Age cemetery, Mokrin, in the northeastern part of the former Yugoslavia. Only some grave goods had clear gender associations, but adult males and females were differentiated clearly by body position; the position of children suggests that they were gendered in death as well. Analysis of bone chemistry and paleopathologic conditions show that there were no dietary differences between women and men. The structure of the cemetery suggests that some sort of kin groups were distinguished symbolically. This analysis, integrating evidence from grave structure, artifacts, skeletal biology, and overall cemetery organization is a fine model of interdisciplinary research that can contribute to an engendered archaeology.

iron age

Research in the Iron Age continues to focus on the development of stratified societies as well as on the growth of the first towns and interregional connections. Iron Age studies are influenced strongly by information from classical written sources. These sources can provide information about the daily life of both men and women, but because they all apparently are written by men and based on men's observations and testimonies, they cannot be assumed to be complete pictures of Iron Age society. Nevertheless the sources give us intriguing information about marriage patterns, property, and women's roles in agriculture, religion, and warfare.

The archaeology of villages and towns is well developed in Iron Age studies. Food preparation, weaving, potting, metallurgy, and other crafts are all evidenced in the archaeological record. Some authors have tried to distinguish male and female domestic spaces within households, but this differentiation is based on simplistic assumptions about division of labor. Almost certainly different tasks had different gender associations, and many may have followed modern conventional understandings, but this remains to be established. The potential for an engendered analysis is great.

Some of the best-known archaeological finds are the so-called princely graves of the Hallstatt culture (c. 800–400 b.c.) from southern Germany and adjacent areas. While the occupants of these graves often are assumed to be men, it has been determined that the tomb at Vix in eastern France is the burial of a woman accompanied by extraordinary wealth and imported items comparable to the other "princes." Traditional accounts explain this burial as a wife or daughter of a powerful male ruler, but Bettina Arnold points out that this is special pleading: everywhere else, this grave structure and these goods are said to designate a powerful leader. Only a very simplistic view of human societies would insist that leadership could not be invested in women in some cases. If rank and power were more important than gender in this case, one would expect to find just what has been recovered. In fact Vix is not unique; for example, at least one woman was buried with chiefly grave goods, including a complete chariot, in northern England, c. 300–100 b.c.

later periods

Although classical historians have conducted some gender research, the Roman period in temperate Europe (c. 200 b.c.–a.d. 400) has received little attention from archaeologists interested in gender. The burial record from the medieval period, after a.d. 400, is very rich in some parts of Europe and has significant potential for gender research. Wealthy female graves, as in other cases, often are attributed to the status of the deceased's male relatives. Keys found in some female burials in the early centuries a.d. and weighing equipment from Viking period female burials suggest, however, important aspects of some women's economic power in both the private domestic realm and the public realm of the marketplace. Various authors see archaeological evidence for female control of textile production. In contrast, the underrepresentation of female graves in many Viking contexts (c. a.d. 800–1200 in Scandinavia) may reflect preferential female infanticide. Problems remain in mortuary analysis where burials are assigned to a sex based on grave goods rather than biological analysis. This perspective, found widely in medieval archaeology, which emphasizes dichotomous sex categories and simplistic associations of males with weapons and females with jewelry, can be improved by recognition of the complexities of gender role and symbolism.

For example, a chronological overview of burial evidence from southern Norway from the Roman through the Viking periods shows that the visibility of men and women changes over time and that gender distinctions between grave goods are minor in the earlier phases and become sharper over time. Age may have an impact on burial symbolism as well. Other evidence suggests that the religious emphasis changed during the medieval period in Scandinavia from a focus on fertility to a focus on warriors, a shift that may be related to changing gender values as well.

Within medieval archaeology there is interest in churches and other religious institutions. As in other research, women's roles have been neglected, but there is interesting architectural evidence about nunneries, monasteries, walled gardens, cloisters, and church decoration that is relevant to a variety of roles of religious women and men. As Roberta Gilchrist notes, the spaces of the church reflect both gender roles and ideology.


Over the last two decades of the twentieth century archaeological attention to gender expanded dramatically. Within European archaeology, the emphasis has been on gender ideology and symbolism, although there also have been discussions of the division of labor and status relationships as well as theoretical attention to the definition of gender. There is room within an engendered archaeology for those who seek to expand the understanding of women's roles in past societies as well as for those who are interested in more complex topics. The challenge is to integrate theoretical discussions with empirical evidence.

The trends of current research are twofold. First, archaeologists are trying to grapple with the complexities of human statuses and roles in the past, recognizing that one cannot study gender or status or age alone but must integrate them into analyses. Second, scholars realize that gender archaeology should not be isolated from other studies; virtually every archaeological research question—the beginnings of agriculture, development of new technologies, migration of populations, evolution of social complexity, and role of interregional exchange, among others—can be enriched by incorporating an engendered perspective. The gender relationships and ideologies of past societies cannot be assumed based on simplistic generalizations that have typically made women passive or invisible. Rather, the complexities of gender must be incorporated into ongoing attempts to use archaeological remains to illuminate the human past.

See alsoBronze Age Coffin Burials (vol. 2, part 5); Bronze Age Cairns (vol. 2, part 5).


Arnold, Bettina. "The Deposed Princess of Vix: The Need for an Engendered European Prehistory." In The Archaeology of Gender: Proceedings of the Twenty-second Annual Chacmool Conference. Edited by Dale Walde and Noreen D. Willows, pp. 366–374. Calgary, Canada: University of Calgary, 1991.

Bacus, Elisabeth A., et al., eds. A Gendered Past: A CriticalBibliography of Gender in Archaeology. University of Michigan Museum of Anthropology Technical Report, no. 25. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Museum of Anthropology, 1993. (Annotated entries for 197 sources on gender in archaeology.)

Bertelsen, Reidar, Arnvid Lillehammer, and Jenny-Rita Næss, eds. Were They All Men? An Examination of Sex Roles in Prehistoric Society. Stavanger, Norway: Arkeologisk Museum i Stavanger, 1987. (Publication of an influential conference held in 1979.)

Chapman, John. "Changing Gender Relations in the Later Prehistory of Eastern Hungary." In Invisible People and Processes: Writing Gender and Childhood into European Archaeology. Edited by Jenny Moore and Eleanor Scott, pp. 131–149. London: Leicester University Press, 1997.

Díaz-Andreu, Margarita, and Marie Louise Stig So⁄rensen, eds. Excavating Women: A History of Women in European Archaeology. London: Routledge, 1998.

Ehrenberg, Margaret. Women in Prehistory. London: British Museum Publications, 1989.

European Journal of Archaeology. London: Sage Publications, 1998–. (Published as Journal of European Archaeology during 1993–1997. A good source for research in the region, including gender research.)

Gero, Joan M. "Genderlithics: Women's Roles in Stone Tool Production." In Engendering Archaeology: Women and Prehistory. Edited by Joan M. Gero and Margaret W. Conkey, pp. 163–193. Oxford: Blackwell, 1991.

Gilchrist, Roberta. Gender and Archaeology: Contesting thePast. London: Routledge, 1999.

Gimbutas, Marija. The Gods and Goddesses of Old Europe,7000 to 3500b.c.: Myths, Legends, and Cult Images. London: Thames and Hudson, 1974.

Handsman, Russell G. "Whose Art Was Found at Lepenski Vir? Gender Relations and Power in Archaeology." In Engendering Archaeology: Women and Prehistory. Edited by Joan M. Gero and Margaret W. Conkey, pp. 329–365. Oxford: Blackwell, 1991.

Hays-Gilpin, Kelley Ann, and David S. Whitley, eds. Reader in Gender Archaeology. London: Routledge, 1998. (Reprints articles from several sources.)

Hodder, Ian. The Domestication of Europe: Structure andContingency in Neolithic Societies. Oxford: Blackwell, 1990.

Meskell, Lynn. "Goddesses, Gimbutas, and 'New Age' Archaeology." Antiquity 69 (1995): 74–86.

Nelson, Sarah Milledge. Gender in Archaeology: AnalyzingPower and Prestige. Walnut Creek, Calif.: Altamira Press, 1997.

Rega, Elizabeth. "Age, Gender, and Biological Reality in the Early Bronze Age Cemetery at Mokrin." In Invisible People and Processes: Writing Gender and Childhood into European Archaeology. Edited by Jenny Moore and Eleanor Scott, pp. 229–247. London: Leicester University Press, 1997.

Schmidt, Robert A., and Barbara L. Voss, eds. Archaeologies of Sexuality. London: Routledge, 2000.

So⁄rensen, Marie Louise Stig. Gender Archaeology. Malden, Mass.: Polity Press, 2000.

——. "The Construction of Gender through Appearance." In The Archaeology of Gender: Proceedings of the Twenty-second Annual Chacmool Conference. Edited by Dale Walde and Noreen D. Willows, pp. 121–129. Calgary, Canada: University of Calgary, 1991.

Watson, Patty Jo, and Mary C. Kennedy. "The Development of Horticulture in the Eastern Woodlands of North America: Women's Role." In Engendering Archaeology: Women and Prehistory. Edited by Joan M. Gero and Margaret W. Conkey, pp. 255–275. Oxford: Blackwell, 1991.

Wicker, Nancy L., and Bettina Arnold, eds. From the GroundUp: Beyond Gender Theory in Archaeology. BAR International Series, no. 812. Oxford: Archaeopress, 1999.

Janet E. Levy

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In The Second Sex (first published in 1949), the French feminist Simone de Beauvoir led the way in distinguishing biological anatomy and chemistry from socialized gendered expectations: One is not born but rather becomes a woman (de Beauvoir 1953, p. 249). For de Beauvoir, being a female did not constitute being a woman. Rather, ones biological makeup is subscribed with a social-cultural shaping of ones gendered characteristics; for women this is the development of appropriate feminine behaviors. Though the term is highly contested and laden with political implications, at its most basic level gender is used to describe socially constructed characteristics of masculinity and femininity, whereas sex is used to describe ones biological makeup (chromosomes, hormones, and reproductive/sexual anatomy).


The distinction between sex and gender was an essential element for many issues addressed during the second-wave feminist movement (1960-1995). Though immensely diverse, many feminist schools of thought did agree that characteristics associated with femininity in the United States created norms and roles that oppressed women by limiting their access to public space and economic opportunities. Discussions of gender during the second-wave feminist movement often attempted to overturn what the scholar Harold Garfinkel described as the natural attitude towards gender (1967, p. 122)the common belief that the gender dichotomy is a natural distinction between the two sexes. This assumption, according to activists, perpetuated inequality for women. In understanding the creation of the natural attitude, many feminists turned to the structure of the family and womens connection to childbearing. Womans biological ability to give birth, combined with industrial changes, had led to social expectations of woman as nurturer, domestic caretaker, and other roles traditionally associated with the private sphere. Dichotomously, mans inability to give birth and his larger physical makeup had led to social expectations to fulfill the role of protector, provider, and roles traditionally associated with the public sphere.

For feminists, these gendered characteristics, complicated by an array of other factors, had perpetuated a division of labor that empowered men and disempowered women. Mens more active and dominant roles created an unequal relationship between the sexes that gave rise to an oppressive ideology both within the home and, more broadly, within institutionalized sexism. Overall, the most prominent goal of the second-wave feminist movement was to bring about a sense of gender equality. Concerns such as motherhood, beauty regimes, and domestic upkeep were seen as essential components of a public discussion about expectations of femininity that focused on issues of equal access to the workplace, equal pay for equal work, and an overall attempt to allow women to have control over their lives and their bodies. Theories on how to deal with this hierarchal division of labor were vastly varied. For example, Marxist feminists saw the capitalistic economic structure as inherently patriarchal. Thus, attempts at more equal power relations between men and women were reliant upon a restructuring of the economic system. Conversely, more conservative feminists, who constituted the liberal feminist school of thought, looked more closely at ways to reform the current system to allow for more women within the public sphere. These various feminist schools reflect the differences in conceptualization and approach to the concept of gender. Some feminists worked relentlessly to prove that both men and women could be rational, active members of public space, challenging the preconceived notion that masculine gendered characteristics are inherent to men. Others fought to revalorize qualities of femininity, attempting to recognize the power of womens roles as well as the usefulness of feminine approaches in public space. What united many of the perspectives was a desire to engage in a larger public discussion about issues of masculinity and femininity and how they influence the daily lives of women and men.


Since the beginning of the second-wave movement, the meaning of the term gender has been disputed. Despite some public understanding of the second waves fight for gender equality for women, the movement was fractured, with discontentment from many sides. For example, although Betty Friedans The Feminine Mystique (1963) was commended for its attack on womens limited role as domestic caretaker, her analysis was criticized for its elitism. Although Friedan called attention to the oppression rooted in gendered expectations and roles, her white, heterosexual, middle-class perspectives were specific to a single group of women. Such criticisms called into question the stability of the category woman. Do all women share a similar experience? Questions of race, class, and sexual orientation brought forth recognition that gender expectations and gender identity were not the same for all women, nor were they the same for all men.

Though cross-cultural comparisons were used to draw attention to the socialization of gender roles and expectations, many second-wave feminists still failed to recognize the cultural differences within their own communities. As gender expectations and what it means to be a woman were debated, critics began to question the assumption that all women shared the same experiences. In her 1981 book Aint I a Woman, the literary scholar bell hooks discussed the racism that circulated and continues to circulate in feminist literature. She identified the struggle for black women to find a space of visibility within a movement embedded in racism. Her analysis, and those of other critics, draws attention to both the racial and economic advantage embedded in the positions of many noted feminists of the second wave. Theorizing about women when in actuality only discussing the experiences of white women exemplified this privileged perspective. Core issues such as beauty and domestic expectations were far removed from racially oppressed women whose economic and social positions typically demanded out-of-home labor. As hooks pointed out, the racism within the womens movement coupled with the sexism in the civil rights movement left little to no space for a public debate about the experiences and oppression of black women.

Compounding the criticisms of racial and economic privilege were the objections voiced by members of the lesbian feminist school of thought, who pointed out the homophobia inherent in the womens movement. The notion of a shared sisterhood of all women provoked anger from those women who felt their experiences differed and their perspectives were silenced. Often, core discussions of gender focused on social expectations of men and women as they function in heterosexual relationships. Lesbian feminists pointed out the institutionalization of heterosexuality and the unwillingness of many heterosexual feminists to challenge this unequal power dynamic.

Overall, there was a sense from critics that discussions of power within the second-wave feminist movement were oversimplified. Many feminists failed to recognize that they could be both oppressed and oppressor, thus ignoring the intersections of race, class, and sexual orientation in a society that privileges white, male, middle- or upper-class status, and heterosexuality.


As gender became a more common topic of discussion in both academic institutions and activist forums, its unstable and complex nature was a frequent part of debate. Attempting to move past the charges of elitism and oversimplification, scholars such as Joan Scott defended the usefulness of gender as an analytic category. Scott maintained that gender is not constant, but rather constantly shifting and changing as it operates in multiple fields (1986). She argued that discussions and studies utilizing gender as an analytic category must be carefully understood based on context and history. Her analysis defended its usefulness while simultaneously complicating the power dynamics that intersect with gender construction.

Similarly, the gender scholar Judith Butler significantly contributed to the complication of a theoretical understanding of gender. Her Gender Trouble (1990) is foundational in pointing out the intricate connection between gender and sexuality. Butler drew attention to the policing of heterosexuality through gender norms, arguing that a core component of the current gender system, which calls women to be highly feminine and men to be highly masculine, is as much about upholding heterosexuality as it is about policing public space. Additionally, Butler is noted for her theory of gender performativity, which holds that gender is maintained through performative acts that naturalize and create an appearance of an internal essence. Her position can be understood as an extreme social constructionist stand that sees both sexuality and gender as constitutive of our practices, policies, language, and overall daily norms.

Both Scott and Butler echo the reflective position taken by many gender scholars in the last decades of the twentieth century. The desire to complicate gender and illuminate its instability is found in works that addressed the realization that gender cannot be equated with woman. Masculinity studies became much more common, and indeed expected when addressing issues of gender, and gender literature and courses more frequently recognized the gendered nature of every individual. Most gender literature focused on femininity and oppression; however, a look towards masculinity revealed the limiting role placed upon many men who are primarily defined by success in the public realm. Expectations of aggression, detachment, and control are problematic for both men and women. The antisexist male activist Jackson Katz has since 1993 created high school and college-based educational programs, which include videos and lectures that focus on the construction of masculinity in the United States and the violence inherent in many male-gendered norms. The aim is to liberate not only women but also men from limited roles and expectations; recognizing that all individuals are gendered allows for a more complete understanding of how the patriarchal system is maintained. Privy to earlier criticisms, scholars studying masculinity are acutely aware of the vast differences in norms and expectations across racial and class divides.

Many gender scholars have called for an understanding of gender that moves beyond basic binary discussions of masculinity and femininity to a greater understanding of transgendered issues and the fluidity of gendered identities. The twenty-first century has brought more frequent discussions and practices that illustrate at least a partial public understanding of gender bending. Public populations are often not familiar with the work of Butler who calls for disruptions of gender expectations. However, cross dressing, transexuality, and overall gendered norm violations are infiltrated in media and other mainstream elements of United States culture. Thus, the public is both exposed and often partially aware of transgendered or gender bending practices. Overall, gender has come to be understood as unstable, allowing for resistance, reinforcement, or recreation of gender identity and expectations in a multitude of ways.

For women who identify with the third wave of feminism, this unstable and complex view of gender is central. Though there still is dispute over whether or not a new wave has indeed emerged, many young women active in gender discussions claim a third wave of feminism whose focus is on creating a solidarity that recognizes difference. In its discussion of difference, coalitions, and popular culture, this third wave, thought to have begun in the mid-1990s, both veered away from and built upon the second-wave movement. Although third wavers are as diverse in their positions as the feminists who preceded them, there is a general sense that the movement needs to be privy to difference and to build coalitions with other activist movements, because many gendered issues entail struggle against racism, homophobia, class privilege, and imperialism simultaneously. Additionally, although earlier movements criticized popular culture and many of the feminine-gendered expectations, some third wavers distinguish their understanding of gender by claiming power in their sexuality and femininity, seeking ways to co-opt patriarchal ideologies for their own empowerment. This is exemplified in debates over wearing high heels and makeup and embracing ones feminine sexuality. Some third wavers argue that the pop star Madonna does not represent female oppression, but rather sexual agency. This position strays from the second waves desire to free women (typically and critically, mostly white women) from such beauty expectations.


Twenty-first-century feminism is as diversified as ever, but earlier charges of elitism, both national and international, have produced feminist schools of thought that seek to better understand gendered issues on a global scale. Many postcolonial feminist scholars seek ways to create a feminist solidarity that addresses global concerns while recognizing racial, economic, regional, national, and religious differences. A leader in academic discussions about transnational gender issues is feminist postcolonial theorist Chandra Talpade Mohanty. In Feminism without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity (2003) she provides a summary of her feminist position, which argues for economic stability worldwide for all individuals. Her vision is antiracist and anticapitalist and seeks to create democratic participation through a more complex and reflective solidarity.

Also illustrating a global commitment to gender equity are the many transnational feminist networks such as the Womens Environment and Development Organization, which advocates for womens equality in global policy. It seeks to empower women as decision makers to achieve economic, social, and gender justice, a healthy, peaceful planet, and human rights for all (2004). This desire to address issues of gender globally comes with a great deal of cultural reflexivity and international collaboration. Global scholars and transnational feminist networks seek to acknowledge and manage issues of difference that arise in multicultural coalitions. Despite these challenges, twenty-first-century gender scholars and activists find it increasingly difficult to ignore globalization and the fact that worldwide gender inequity involves a multiplicity of economic, environmental, ethnic, and many other postcolonial factors.

Although gender research has followed numerous threads, the intellectual compass seems to be pointing toward a focus on global issues. This recent direction is frequently freighted with a complicated theory of power and difference that requires a highly reflective researcher who can represent such issues without colonizing the voices of those they study. Despite shifts in the focus of gender research, the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have proven the importance and longevity of gender as an essential topic of political and social discussion.

SEE ALSO Feminism; Gender, Alternatives to Binary; Gender Gap; Gender Studies; Glass Ceiling; Inequality, Gender; Patriarchy; Sexuality; Transgender


Beauvoir, Simone de. [1949] 1953. The Second Sex. Trans. H. M. Parshley. New York: Knopf.

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

Connell, Robert W. 2002. Gender. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers.

Friedan, Betty. 1963. The Feminine Mystique. New York: Dell.

Garfinkel, Harold. 1967. Studies in Ethnomethodology. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

hooks, bell. 1981. Aint I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism. Boston: South End Press.

Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. 2003. Feminism without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Scott, Joan W. 1986. Gender: A Useful Category for Historical Analysis. American Historical Review 91 (December): 10531075.

Tong, Rosemarie. 1998. Feminist Thought. 2nd ed. Boulder, CO:

Westview Press. Whelehan, Imelda. 1995. Modern Feminist Thought: From the Second Wave to Post-Feminism. New York: New York University Press.

Womens Environment and Development Organization. 2004. About Us.

Wood, Julia T. 2005. Gendered Lives: Communication, Gender, and Culture. 6th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Erin Foley-Reynolds