Why has gender tended to replace women as a category of historical analysis?

Why has gender tended to replace women as a category of historical analysis?
By Libin Farah

Susan Kingsley Kent best describes the difference between the Gender history and Women’s history. She states that Women’s historians study women as subjects while Gender historians study the relationship of women to men in the context of different societies, paying particular attention to the interplay of male and female identities.

The debate that historians have had with the two fields is down to whether or not Gender history has aided or hindered the resurrection of women in history. Joan Scott, a pioneer of Gender history, challenges this arguing in her article Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis. She is supported by the likes of Sonya Rose and Susan Kinglsey Kent.

Alternatively, Joan Hoff arguably the most prominent critique of Gender history and Scott supports the idea that Gender history has done more harm than good and has overshadowed and undermined Women’s history. This essay will be split into two sections; the first half discussing the development of Women history’s and how the paradigm was a necessary prerequisite for the emergence of Gender history.

The latter half will discuss Gender history and how the development of this field was prompted by the shortcomings of Women’s history and why the shift from Women’s history to Gender history was a progressive step towards reclaiming the historical narrative.

The aim of women’s history from its inception was to account for the lives of women that had previously been marginalized by traditionalist historians. Analytically, Women’s history was an approach that focused on one gender and viewed relationships between genders in terms of historical processes.

Gerda Lerner, one of the founders and pioneers of women’s history, recalls during the 1970s only five scholars in US history defined themselves as primarily historians of Women’s history: Janet James, A. Elizabeth Taylor, Anna Firor Scott, Eleanor Flexner and Lerner. Their aim was to challenge what counted as being historically significant and reject the idea that women, in Janet James’ words, were only capable of behind the scenes influence.

The absence of women from history books prompted women historians to document their own histories. Women’s history was inspired by the women’s liberation movement that took place in the 1970s otherwise known as second-wave feminism. This movement galvanised a whole generation of feminist historians to bring women into the spotlight of history to serve as role models for the present and future.

Early Women’s historians included the influential Sheila Rowbotham’s ‘Hidden from History’ who had a commitment to understanding women’s situation in the present by uncovering the historical trajectory of their oppression. The development of women’s history as a discipline does not mean that women were never part of history.

Certain types of women, such as those from an elite social backgrounds or Queens are well documented in history. Women who possessed enough influence in the male political world were deemed important enough to be included in the histories. Lerner refers to this sort of inclusion as ‘compensatory history’. Due to the lack of inclusion in history Women’s history had a dual purpose: to restore women to history and history to women.

Women historians took on the task of uncovering the lives of women in the public as well as the domestic sphere. As an academic field, Women’s history was met with lot of resistance and scepticism therefore the fact that it was able to establish itself as an academic discipline is feat in and of itself.

Women’s history introduced the idea that women are historically present in the public and private sphere and their presence in history is not negligible. That being said, Women’s history has been said to have become stuck in a descriptive rut.

Lerner’s aspirations for ‘understanding why women had colluded in their own oppression by passing the rules of patriarchy on to their children of both sexes’ cannot be further developed with the field of Women’s history. Women’s history focuses on simply accounting the lives of women in the past.

Due to the narrow focus of the field, it limits the scope that historians such as Lerner can take because she is beginning to look at structural causes of oppression rather than descriptive narratives. Joan Scott, a pioneer of Gender history, intercedes and argues that the limitations of Women’s history are expanded upon within Gender history.

Gender can be used as an analytical tool to understand the socially and culturally constructed relations between men and women. Scott introduces the idea that power is central to understanding gender. The use of the word gender instead of women exposes the power dynamic that drives the social and cultural interaction between men and women.

Gender historian Sonya Rose argue that these power relations manifest into social structures that create a hierarchy between men and women. These structures marginalize women in society and therefore they are also neglected in the history books as well.

As women are disproportionally weaker in the power struggle, the hierarchical structure has persisted and has become naturalised into society. This naturalisation legitimises the gender identities that are products of power relations, social and cultural interaction and ultimately hierarchy.

The gendered norms that are produced fuel and maintain the structure of hierarchy which aims to keep women in a position of inferiority. This is at the heart of Joan Scott’s argument; that these ‘natural’ relationships between men and women have been constructed and in order to truly reclaim the historical narrative these structures must be understood and dismantled.

This highlights the limitation of Women’s history as a category for historical analysis because the scope of the field is limited to writing about the lives of women rather than looking at how the binary relationship between men and women generate social norms that marginalise women from society and relegate them from history.

The shift from Women’s history to Gender history as a category for historical analysis can greatly be put down to the work of Joan Scott and her influential article “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis.”

Sonya Rose describes the innovativeness of Scott’s work as she offered a new approach that did not focus on the recovery of women’s activity of the past, but instead queried how gender worked to distinguish masculine from feminine.

Scott approach is ground breaking in that there was a conscious move away from simply accounting for what women did in the past, which was the main focus and goal of Women’s history. Rather she argues gender provides a theoretical framework which enables for a more complex analysis of history across different societies.

Scott provides her own definition of the term: “gender is a constitutive element of social relationships based on perceived differences between the sexes, and gender is a primary way of’ signifying relationships of power.” The first part of this definition requires further analysis as it presents the notion that gender is a social construct.

Gender historians focus on the ways in which meaning is generated through language. Gender identities are products of social and cultural environments that dictate what is feminine and what is masculine. By examining how masculinity and femininity are constructed and how they shape societal frameworks, Scott argues that the marginalisation of women from history is structural, not accidental.

Therefore, in order to revive women from history writing about their lives and experiences simply isn’t sufficient in the long term. In this light, the ways in which Women’s history attempts to tackle the marginalisation of women in history, which is rooted in the ways in which historians discuss the binary relationship between masculine and feminine, is lacking because it doesn’t address the overarching structure of oppression.

The promise of Women’s history to rewrite the master narrative of history was not fulfilled because it was unable to explain the persisting inequalities between men and women. And this is why Gender historians argue that the shift away from Women’s history was vital because it attempted to understand the history of women through a gendered framework and look out how gendered assumptions result in women being pacified throughout history.

This structural analysis of gender relations highlights the limitation of Women’s history. Women’s history attempts to bring women into the forefront of history by making them the primary unit of analysis. By replacing men with women as the subject of historical analysis, Scott argues has little benefit as it is separating women from traditional history.

While Scott indeed is the most recognisable historian when it comes to Gender history, she was not the first to advocate a different approach to studying the history of women. Historians Joan Kelly and Natalie Zemon Davis called for reform when they identified that women needed to be studied in relation to men and not in isolation from men.

In Kelly’s article ‘The Social Relations of the Sexes’, published in 1976, she illustrates that the activity, power and cultural evaluation of women cannot be assessed except in relational terms: by comparison and contrast with that of men.

By understanding the study of the history of women in this way, it is clear to see that the shift from Women’s history to Gender history was a necessary one as it allows historians to deal with concepts such as power, social structure, culture, property and periodisation. And in dealing with these approaches they must be understood relative to the position of men within the societal and cultural norms.

In this way, Gender history provides deeper levels of analysis and is concentrates more on understanding society dictates the position of women and how that translates and manifests itself in the subjugation of women in history books which Women’s history does not account for.

The emergence of Gender history and the influence of Scott’s article was met with resistance from some Women’s historians. Joan Hoff’s essay ‘Gender as a Postmodern Category of Paralysis’ heavily critiqued Scott’s embrace of poststructuralism and focus on the language of sex difference.

Hoff questions the need for Gender history as an independent category of analysis as she argues that by distancing themselves from the lives and experiences of women, Gender historians discuss women in abstract terms. Women are studied as social constructs and symbols of sexual difference.

In addition to this, Hoff became concerned that the replacement of Women’s history with Gender history and the integral component of men and masculinity to the paradigm would once again reduce women to the sidelines of history. She feared that this provided access for men to dominate the narrative and redefine gender based on a male-defined postmodern version of gender.

Furthermore, the definition of gender as the socially constructed behaviour between the two sexes, Hoff argues, predates the founding of Gender history. The ways in which Women’s historians prior to Gender history discussed gender did not cut academic analysis off from the realities of women.

Hence, Hoff is apprehensive to accept Gender history as separate category of historical analysis as it undercuts the ‘flesh and blood women’ that are at the crux of both Women and Gender history. Nevertheless, Scott’s politicised use of the work ‘gender’ helped bridge the gap between feminist history and social history.

Kingsley Kent comes to the defence of Scott and rebuts that Gender historians have not abandoned women. Gender historians have attempted to understand the complex process in which gendered norms and identities have been ascribes, resisted or embraced.

Kingsley Kent completely rejects the idea presented by Hoff that Gender historians bring about the erasure of women from history by discussing the impact that social construction has on the lives of women. Gender history as a category for historical analysis propelled the understanding of women in history and contemporary times. Contrary to Hoff’s critique, men and masculinity are essential to understanding how the language of social construction produced gendered assumptions for women.

According to Rose despite both Women’s history and Gender history being influential and a necessary development in academia, she highlights that there are still tensions between the two fields. This rift is rooted in the usage of the term ‘women’ and ‘gender’.

She argues that even today feminist historians are struggling to have women and gender incorporated in some areas of historical writing. This is echoed by Joan Scott who deconstructs the historical uses of the term ‘gender’ in the article “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis”. In her article, she explains that traditionalist historians often would use gender as a synonym for women.

This however is deeply consequential because in doing so, traditionalist historians ignore the ways in which women are disproportionately weaker in the power dynamic between men and women. By using the terms interchangeably without recognising each term’s distinct meaning, it increases the difficulty for women to exercise their agency fully.

Furthermore, Scott accounts for the shift in the usage of the word to imply meaning. Previous traditionalist historians used gender as a descriptive or causal term. However, in contemporary times, feminist historians use the term as an analytical tool to examine the social and cultural interactions between men and women and how the dynamic changes and manifests itself throughout history.

Scott argued that a shift using ‘women’ to ‘gender’ was vital because the term ‘gender’ was politically charged with the capability to destabilise. It had the ability to startle and provoke historians to view the history of women from a new perspective.

Despite many Gender historians arguing that Gender history is superior to Women’s history, historian Kingsley Kent emphasises that Gender history was a product of Women’s history and the paradigm still relies heavily on Women’s history for the material it analyses.

Moreover, Women’s history would be deficient without the development of Gender history because without taking into account the interrelationships between males and females Women’s historians would only produce a partial view of women’s lives.

Nevertheless, both paradigms are abundant in women historians who have worked hard to make sense of the female experience in particular times and places while theorising about broader patterns in the social relations of the sexes.

While there is intellectual accommodation for both paradigms, the shift from Women’s history to Gender history is paramount to having a theoretical understanding to the lives of women. Gender history provides a structural and conceptual analysis of the subjugation of women in history which it then applies to the ordinary lives of women.

It further provides a channel for women to be revived from history by dismantling the binary relationship between masculine and feminine. In this way, Gender history provides a deeper level of understanding that Women’s history cannot account for making the shift toward Gender history as a category for historical analysis a progressive one for resurrecting women in the history books.


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Howard, Sharon. Women’s history and gender history: what and why?, accessed 3 Jan 18, https://earlymodernnotes.wordpress.com/2005/03/22/womens-gender-history-why

James, Edward T, Wilson James, Janet and Boyer, Paul S. Notable American Women 1607-1950. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

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Rose, Sonya. “What is Gender History?”, What is History? London: Polity, 2010

Scott, Joan W. “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis.” The American Historical Review 91, no. 5 (1986): 1053-075.

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‘”Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis” by Joan Wallach Scott – article review and summary’, Cultural Reader, published April 2011, http://culturalstudiesnow.blogspot.co.uk/2011/04/gender-useful-category-of-historical.html

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