Publication Date

September 1, 1991

Perspectives Section


AHA Topic

Teaching & Learning


  • Europe


Women, Gender, & Sexuality

A decade ago Carolyn Lougee of Stanford University presented an elegant new syllabus for a Western civilization course. It integrated women into reading, lecture, and discussion material in striking new ways. From then on, Stanford’s Western civilization program incorporated Lougee’s directions, especially a three-fold set of themes. Western civilization courses, Lougee proposed in the AHA-published version of the syllabus, should present “as accurately as possible the ‘condition’ of European women.” In addition the courses needed to highlight “contributions made by women individually and as a gender group to the development of European civilization.” Finally, the introductory survey would “resurrect” and “heed” women’s voices as found in their autobiographies, fictional writing, letters, and elsewhere.

Lougee’s proposals were inspiring, especially to those with the energy to search out material for presenting those voices. It took time for teachers to find women contributors to Western civilization and to learn enough about those contributions to make changes in curricular materials. As for determining the “experience” of women, that was and remains a tall order, for women’s experience ran the gamut. From women influential in courts or queens responsible for reproducing dynasties to market women, members of disorderly crowds, women marrying and maintaining agricultural life—the abundant experience of all of these has filled up entirely discrete courses on European women, to say nothing of providing sound enrichment to the subject matter of Western civilization surveys. The only excuse for not integrating has been time—the material is so vast that one can no longer keep up.

A decade has passed, and in those few years yet another revolution has occurred in thinking about women and the Western civilization course. This revolution developed in part from the sheer mass of information and the premonition that despite the abundance there was still more to be discovered about women. The anticipation of more to come, more crucial books and articles still to read, ever more material to integrate into courses already teeming with kings, wars, great philosophers, and literary men, awakened an urgent need to figure out what the “knowledge explosion,” when it came to women, meant for history. Was history a democratic phenomenon in which everyone should have a “voice”? Was women’s “experience” a discrete narrative line tacked on in special sections on women and the family as part of “covering” their world in a representative way? When faced with substituting women’s voices and narratives for wars and kings, how did one justify such a decision? Indeed, many commentators began to think that research on women had gone far enough; some even claimed that it was time to stop. The mass of material threatened to overwhelm the teacher, the student, and indeed Western civilization itself.

In the midst of this anxiety new interpretative paths opened, offering ways to control the growing tension between traditional syllabi and the material about women. The most influential idea—not unconnected to what had gone before—announced that the ways of marking out the masculine and the feminine constituted the fundamental work of society, economics, and politics. Rather than maintaining the singular importance of such a thing as “women’s voice,” the interpretation that society rested on an ongoing process of “gendering” suggested that history was distorted if it did not take account of so basic a process. Creating definitions of masculine and feminine amounted to marking out “difference.” Political, economic, and cultural power was founded on such definitions, such markings, and on revising or maintaining the ensuing systems of gender difference. This insight gave new urgency to understanding what women’s history was about, for it meant that traditional history based only on knowing which king followed which had something missing. Exclusive attention to the chronology of politics often masked precisely those social issues involved in the creation and organization of political power. By contrast, the integration of gender with traditional historical subject matter helped one understand more of the content of politics.

A second insight is now emerging to accompany and inform this first one. From lesson one, some Western civilization surveys are beginning to see replenishment of the human population as a fundamental historical category. Just as the production of goods for human sustenance occurs in a matrix of social and political arrangements, so too reproduction constitutes a major endeavor from which political, social, and cultural power evolve. In addition to the topic of hunting and gathering, the matter of how the reproduction of the species operated is becoming indispensable to understand social, political, and cultural history. Formerly it was convenient to think of reproduction as “natural” and thus happening beyond the realms of power and social arrangements; such a supposition, therefore, placed it outside historical narrative and analysis. Yet reproductive experience, changes in population, and demographic behavior in general have a history and have influenced history. So basic a category has yielded power and produced politics.

During the last three decades, for instance, historians realized that the family was not “natural” but rather historical. Old and young, men and women had different kinds of power, different duties, and so on. Familial rules at any particular time involved assigning tasks so that productive work would sustain the family unit, while reproductive rules (e.g., age at marriage, courtship, or breast-feeding patterns) worked to arrange just the right number of children to permit familial and community survival. The development of women’s history has forced us to consider how the organization of reproduction may work differentially in the lives of men and women both in so small a unit as the family and in so large a one as the state. In this endeavor we encourage our students to connect the history of reproduction with insights about gender. By making these connections they can discuss how the differentials in reproductive arrangements yield differentials in power, whether that of the father, of the tribal chief, or of a national leader.

Specific areas where material about gender and reproductive organization can fit into the survey course are abundant, so I mention a few by way of suggestion. Conclusions about even these few are still in the formative stage, however, and teachers and advanced students can share in pursuing them further. Over the past decade, for instance, historians have come to consider the condition and experience of women in the ancient world. They note that the transition from the so-called dark age in Greece to that period when classical institutions arose involved a transition from a perilous population situation after wars and an accompanying agricultural decline. Textbook writers, newly aware of looking for women’s experience, have also begun to note that women were disadvantaged when it came to participating in that new construct of the “polis” and specifically in what is called “Athenian democracy.” Indications of women’s condition are usually presented following descriptions of how Athenian democracy operated and after assessments of that democracy’s conceptual importance to the development of future political systems. Democracy was not yet complete, new accounts proceed, because for the moment it excluded slaves and women. In this way Western civilization serves as a Whiggish celebration of an expanding democracy, made complete when slavery ultimately disappeared and women could vote.

Understanding the concept of gender and its constitutive social import allows us to rewrite such a scenario. The exclusion of women from the polis was not incidental to democracy; rather it was intrinsic to democracy. The idea of including women and slaves, or of “liberating” them, was outside the Athenian conceptional framework. Rather, a fundamental social and political process was at work in defining rights and access to politics in terms of male and female. Serving as warrior, as free landholder, as citizen, as theatre-goer, and as lover were the attributes of masculinity. In that particular society “adding” women or “liberating” them would have destroyed the social and political edifice because gender definitions would have collapsed. Moreover, the sexual segregation involved in the gendering of classical Greek society helped restore population and political order. Political regulations marked off spaces for masculine and feminine functioning and defined reproductive duties so that population growth would reoccur tranquilly.

The period of the French and Industrial Revolutions provides another specific instance during which demographic change and the reorganization of reproductive habits seem crucial to understanding the cataclysms of those years. In the eighteenth century population surged as never before; people wandered the countryside homeless and begging in ever greater numbers. In the midst of this disorganization a concern for population restraint appeared not just among political economists like Malthus. Segments of the European population began reorganizing the reproductive system and reducing fertility still more. Should we not ask our students (and ourselves) whether these conditions affected the shape of the Age of Revolution? One friend, hearing this suggestion, emphatically maintained that despite all the new information about women during the French and Industrial Revolutions, those events were about less faddish, more transcendent matters like liberty, class, and so on.

Yet one can hardly ignore that the revolutionary epoch redefined masculinity and femininity and that new conditions of population and the replenishment of the species existed. Thus the conscientious teacher will make some attempt to see the relationship between the political and productive revolutions on the one hand and the demographic and gender revolutions on the other. Only such considerations allow us to make sense of French revolutionary legislation proscribing women from attending political clubs, from meeting to talk politics, from gathering in groups of more than three. Only such considerations help us make sense of the regulation of women and reproduction in the provisions of the Civil Code. Husbands were made all powerful economically while married women had no right to property; they had to follow their husbands wherever they might move and legally had to reside with them. Instead of seeing these provisions as mere expressions of transcendent ideals, as whimsical acts, or predictable expressions of Napoleonic misogyny, we need to consider revolutionary legislation as part of an effort to regulate population and to redefine the terrain of men and women. What, as all of us know, was the result of the legislation of equal inheritance except the early onset of the birth control revolution in France? A modern political ethos arose through the impulse to regulate and reshape society along these lines.

Another modern historic situation—that of imperialism—adds to our sense of how the relationship between masculine and feminine constructs is crucial to historical understanding and pertinent to the Western civilization survey. We are now able to teach our students how such a phenomenon as imperialism intersected with ideas of masculinity and femininity. Europeans by the late nineteenth century had created an identity that depended on controlling other races. But gender also structured the idea of what “European” meant. White men forged identities as colonial soldiers and administrators, hunters, and journalists or scholars expert in the ways of native peoples. In a complementary way, politicians maintained the imperialist domination, and thus the survival of entire nations like Britain depended on the efforts of wives and mothers. To preserve the nation, they had to create an imperial race by nourishing, clothing, and otherwise tending their families more vigorously and more successfully than they had in the past. This was no task incidental to imperialist nations, for those very nations as then organized would collapse without the gendered roles of masculine and feminine carrying out the imperial mission. Finally, imperialism reached its crescendo precisely when one of the most central developments in Western history was taking place: the precipitous decline in the birthrate by approximately 50 percent and the concomitant creation of a dramatic new approach among couples to reproduction. Politicians in France questioned the potency of French men; other European leaders felt that women in general had rejected their maternal identity for the sake of being “new women.” Without doubt the ethos of imperial society and the history of its politics were intertwined with gendered and reproductive concerns.

Analyzing the rise of Adolf Hitler and Nazism for Western civilization classes calls for an understanding of gender, race, and ethnicity as pivotal to politics. Even the most conservative historians will note that Nazis and fascists displayed misogynist tendencies. Such misogyny, however, was hardly incidental to Nazism but rather permitted the deployment of the rest of its program. The Nazi ideologue’s power rested on his distinction from the women around him, on redefining himself as warrior and male after the shattering experience of World War I. Hitler’s first year in power saw major legislation working toward reestablishing gender clarity and the power of masculinity. That legislation mandated the removal of women from civil service and university jobs (male professors in particular responded with gusto) and provided subsidies for women who would stop working to have families. Not just legislation but the demeanor and speeches pointed to the ways in which Nazism built on the power derived from rebuilding the difference between men and women.

Nazism also depended on anti-Semitism in word and deed to heighten its power and to provide a motor force for its policy. Throughout history misogyny and anti-Semitism have been conjoined. The Western civilization student will see Chaucer, for instance, putting the vicious anti-Semitism of his society in the prim mouth of the distasteful prioress. For the modern period we see nineteenth- and twentieth-century Jewish men often described in feminine terms and thus defined as threatening to masculine definition. The Jew had the metaphorical power to destroy gender definition and thus society. By the twentieth century anti-Semitism increased in potency as the gender order and the reproductive order (given the birth control revolution and the blows at traditional definitions from the experience of war, feminism, and economic catastrophe) weakened. Genocide was so primal a matter because it worked to reorder all that. It signalled renewed control over the entire reproductive order as whole groups could be racially defined and then encouraged to reproduce, or, alternatively, be destroyed. Nazism, and ultimately the Final Solution, were about determining how biology would work. Aryans would be encouraged to reproduce; Slavs, Jews, Gypsies, and other peoples marked out by those with political power, would be destroyed as racial groups. Below the ethical outrage at the Final Solution, the naked display of the most fundamental but unnamed power over the forces of being terrified the world, and still does.

The suggestions above should indicate that an air of intellectual adventure still presides over women’s history. Even as teachers continue the important task of finding women’s voices and describing their experiences, even as we try to make the Western civilization course more democratic in terms of gender, race, and ethnicity, new interpretative frames have freshened our approach to integrating the ongoing results of scholarship on women. This new material and these new frames have transformed the way we look at everything from the conduct of government and political power to the conduct of the household. Intellectual life as displayed in, say, literary works or scientific institutions can benefit from considering their connections with gender definitions or their involvement in theorizing about structures for replenishing human society. Politics, low and high culture, the world of work, the social order—none of these exists outside the always fundamental definition of what is male and what is female, or beyond the concern for how human society will shape and control its own regeneration. Integrating such vital categories into our understanding of civilization’s history is the measure of our educational mission and the challenge for this generation of teachers.

Teachers wishing to start thinking about these issues may consult the following recent works. On the issue of how to frame historical questions concerning women and men see Joan Scott, “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis,” American Historical Review (1986); Judith Bennett, “Patriarchy,” Gender and History (1989). Texts, anthologies, and collections of primary material now exist in abundance, for instance: Susan Groag Bell, Women from the Greeks to the French Revolution (1980); Eleanor S. Riemer and John Fout, European Women: A Documentary History 1780-1945; Erna Olafson Hellerstein et al., eds., Victorian Women: A Documentary Account of Women’s Lives in Nineteenth Century England, France and the United States; Susan Groag Bell and Karen Offen, eds., Women, the Family, and Freedom: the Debate in Documents, 2 vols. (1983); Marilyn Boxer and Jean H. Quataert, eds., Connecting Spheres: Women in the Western World, 1500 to the Present (1987); Renate Bridenthal and Claudia Koonz, eds., Becoming Visible: Women in European History, 2nd ed. (1987); Bonnie Anderson and Judith Zinsser, A History of Their Own, 2 vols. (1989); , Changing Lives: Women in European History Since 1700 (1989).

Bonnie G. Smith teaches European history and women's history in the history department of Rutgers University, New Brunswick.