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History in Focus

the guide to historical resources • Issue 8: Gender •


An old photo soldiers sitting with their pet dog

Soldiers with their pet dog c. 1920s.

Articles (2)

Is the rise of gender history 'hiding' women from history once again?

By Dr Joanne Bailey and Dr John Arnold (this page).

Dr John Arnold (Birkbeck College, University of London)

There are two ways apparent to me in which the question could be understood. One, the more straightforward, is whether the study of gender, by bringing men and masculinity into the equation, is distracting historians from the project of women's history by focusing their attentions upon men. The second, more subtly, is whether the epistemological questions prompted by a study of gender, and the subsequent methodologies adopted by historians of gender, are displacing or even erasing the essential heart of the project of women's history. Focusing mainly, but not wholly, upon medieval studies, I will attempt to respond in both these areas.

Taking the former first, one's immediate reaction must be 'no, it's not'. Simply on the grounds of volume, publication upon medieval women continues to be a major industry - so major, in fact, that one can no longer see 'women' as a marginal topic within this area of academe. It was not always so of course, as some of our senior practitioners usefully remind us, and it may not be so again. (1) But books and articles directly addressed to the topic of women, and those that use 'gender' as an apparently more enticing label for what is nonetheless focused upon women, continue to be numerous. From fairly traditional social history to studies inflected by literary-critical perspectives, women are well represented. To give just a few examples that indicate the breadth of the field, David Wallace has just edited a Cambridge Companion to Medieval Women's Writing, a companion to the seminal collection of essays on Women and Power appeared a couple of years ago, and younger scholars such as Kim Phillips and Susan Johns have recently produced monographs that bring to light new areas and topics centred squarely on women and their lived experiences. (2) Those whose work was foundational in this field have incorporated their perspectives in general works of synthesis, (3) and other historians whose reputations were built in other fields have turned their attentions also to women. (4) In certain areas that I have recently studied, one might even say that we have focused upon women somewhat to the exclusion of men - I suspect, for example, that we probably currently know more about women's book ownership and the circulation of texts among female communities of readers in late medieval England than we do about men's. (5) Recent work on high politics and royalty - perhaps the most male of bastions, both historically and historiographically - has brought women back into the frame. (6)

None of this is to say, however, that women's history is sufficiently 'done'. There continue to be areas of investigation where women's experiences are not yet fully visible (for example, within the politics of town and village) and topics where some historians tend still to assume that little gender difference pertains (certain recent writers on late-medieval religion, for instance). (7) If one imagines each annual batch of new graduate students in cold 'human resources' terms, one might make the case that some people are being funnelled into areas of investigation where, were the bright and seductive lights of gender history not blinding their eyes, they might otherwise have been pursuing topics more centrally focused upon women. But I would not, frankly, want to count as a colleague anyone who seriously did think about new researchers and their projects in those terms. It is probably true that something labelled 'women's history' has, for some younger scholars, something of a 1970s and 80s flavour about it. But that doesn't mean that they're not still doing it, albeit under the badge of 'gender history'.

What then of the more subtle, methodological question? I am thinking here, I suppose, of several things that overlap, from a way of understanding what 'gender' is, to a sense of what one's intellectual (and perhaps political) project should be. The problematic can be adumbrated by pointing to two key (and interlinked) figures, and the reactions that they have provoked: Joan Wallach Scott and Judith Butler. Scott's famous article on gender as a category of historical analysis has prompted work that clearly moves away from the project of 'recovering women's experiences/voices'. In its place, we are encouraged to pursue the inter-related construction of male and female, masculinity and femininity. Thus the concept of gender - and here Judith Butler, theorist du jour, comes to the fore - is a radically unstable and fluid one, and can be seen only structurally, not in isolation. 'Women' in this context has no meaning separable from 'men'; the two are interdependent as cultural constructions. Moreover, the qualities that each historical age coalesces around masculinity and femininity reverberate in discourses beyond the social: in ideas about nationhood, good governance, justice and so forth. Historians interested in these approaches have necessarily turned their attentions away from reconstructing the daily lives of ordinary women. Moreover, as Scott has argued in another article, from a poststructuralist perspective, those daily lives are simply not reconstructable in the way that a more traditional and positivist historiography imagines. (8) Identity, at all levels and in all discourses, is radically unstable, and the traces of the past upon which we depend, are bound up with that instability.

This does challenge some of the underlying tenets of women's history, and the wider historiographical tradition from which it sprang. Some disquiet with its implications was explored in early issues of the journal Women's History Review a decade or so ago. At heart, the sense of project is a different one: not to 'recover' lost voices, but to problematise the assumed authority of gender norms, both now and in the past. However, it seems to me that recent research (including my own) has tried to incorporate something from both approaches: recognising gender as unstable (and pursuing a project of analysing that instability) whilst also reflecting upon how such discursive constructions affected the lived experiences of real women. And, indeed, real men. Work on medieval masculinity (as opposed to work on medieval men) is at an early stage, but much of it pursues a similar project - questioning what 'maleness' is in the medieval period in order to think about how men and women lived and interacted within (or against) these codes. It is important to note that the first book-length study of medieval masculinity was written by the same author as a study of female prostitution in medieval England. (9) There need be no hermetic divide between the two. But it is true that work on gender, and the methodologies it has assumed in the last twenty years, perhaps do displace the more traditional, reconstructionist approaches of women's history. If the 'women' we imagine 'recovering' from the medieval past are women seen as easily separable from the men around them, experiencing a notably different kind of life by dint of their femaleness, and possessed of a stable core of womanhood, then, yes, gender history is hiding these women. But I suspect that such 'women' are fantasised subjects of a particular moment of historiographical practice and political desire. As I share neither that politics nor that epistemology, I do not mourn their passing.


1. See Judith M. Bennett, 'Medieval women, modern women: beyond the great divide', in Culture and History: 1350-1600, ed. David Aers (1992); Judith M. Bennett, '"History that Stands Still": Women's work in the European past', Feminist Studies, 14 (1988), 269-84.

2. Gendering the Master Narrative: Women and Power in the Middle Ages, eds. M. Erler and M. Kowaleski (2002); K. M. Phillips, Medieval maidens: young women and gender in England 1270-1540 (2003); Susan M. Johns, Noblewomen, aristocracy and power in the twelfth-century Anglo-Norman realm (2003) [ For a review of this book, see Reviews in History].

3. Judith Bennett recently revised Warren Hollister's medieval textbook Medieval Europe: A Short History; P. J. P. Goldberg has just brought out Medieval England: A Social History.

4. For example, G. Duby, Women of the Twelfth Century (3 vols., 1998) [For a review of this book, see the book reviews section]; S. Cohn, Women in the Streets: Essays on Sex and Power in Renaissance Italy (1996).

5. Various recent works, including essays in Medieval Women: Texts and Contexts in Late Medieval Britain. Essays for Felicity Riddy, eds. J. Wogan-Browne and others (2000).

6. J. Laynesmith, The Last Medieval Queens (2004), N. B. Warren, Spiritual Economies: Female Monasticism in Later Medieval England (2001).

7. For more positive examples that do engage with gender, see A. Brown, Church and Society in England 1000-1500 (2003) and K. L. French, The People of the Parish (2001).

8. J. W. Scott, 'The Evidence of Experience', Critical Inquiry, 17 (1991), 773-97. See also J. Butler, Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex (1993).

9. R. M. Karras, From Boys to Men: Formations of Masculinity in Late Medieval Europe (2002) [for a review of this book see the book reviews section]; R. M. Karras, Common Women: Prostitution and Sexuality in Medieval England (1996).

If you would like to contribute to this discussion or write an article for one of the forthcoming issues of History in Focus, on 'The sea', 'The Cold War' and 'Race and ethnicity', please contact the Assistant Editor, Lindsey Dodd for details.

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