Gender - Women and gender: different approaches

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 sources—and by uncovering sources that historians previously did not think worthy of study—women'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 construct—something 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.

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