Gender and Modern Identity

Document Sample
Gender and Modern Identity Powered By Docstoc
					Gender and Modern Identity
Sarah Richardson

Introduction: Christopher Bayly and gender identities

Consider the cover of Christopher Bayly's book
(a text book for the Making of the Modern
World), The Birth of the Modern World. The
reproduction of Anne-Louis Girodet’s Portrait of
Jean-Baptiste Belley, Ex Representative of the
Colonies (exhibited in Paris in 1798) tells us
much about modernity, a modernity structured
through particular images of masculinity and
racial difference. But it is a modernity which
does not figure in Bayly's account.

Gender and Identity

Scholarly assessment of individuals, power
relationships and communities increasingly used
‘identity’ as a category of analysis. This
research considered how the key markers of
identity: class, age, gender, sexuality and
ethnicity were represented in past societies
but also how identities were constructed using
these different variables. But what does the
category of ‘gender’ have to offer to an
understanding of modern identity?

Two historiographical developments in the
1980s helped to further the understanding of
gender and modern identity: the emergence of gender history and the social
science approach.

Joan Scott’s Gender and the Politics of History published in 1985 sought to
distinguish between sex and gender: i) Sex is a biological ‘given’ (but consider
Foucault’s History of Sexuality and Lacquer’s analysis of the one-sex model) ii)
Gender is by contrast a cultural/social phenomenon. Gender is what a given
society makes of sexual/biological differences. If sex deals in men and women,
gender deals in concepts of femininity and masculinity.

The most influential example of the second approach was Leonore Davidoff and
Catherine Hall’s path-breaking Family Fortunes which was published in 1987.
They attempted to demonstrate the crucial impact of changing gender roles on
the formation of a distinct middle-class identity in the late eighteenth and early
nineteenth centuries. In so doing, they acknowledged the important nineteenth-
century rhetoric of ‘separate spheres’ in establishing boundaries between the
public and private worlds of the English middle class.

Problems of the gender history approach

Scott’s approach ran the risk of abandoning attempts to ‘get at women’s real
experiences in the past’ and of portraying women as lacking ‘agency’ trapped
inexorably in a web of discourse. There is a danger in taking ‘discourses’ and
texts for reality.

A further consequence of the debate between gender and women’s historians has
been burgeoning new research on competing versions of masculinity. Notions of
masculinity are beginning to be problematized as historians consider that the
contested versions of manhood symbolize wider debates about the structure of

In nineteenth century Britain for example, the dominant form of masculinity
emphasised the qualities of moral and physical courage and Christian virtue; by
the end of the century focus was placed on physical endurance and stoicism. This
was in contrast to previous aristocratic ideals of manhood based around sport and
codes of honour derived from military prowess, finding expression in hunting,
drinking, gambling and womanising. For the working man constructions of
masculinity were largely based around male bonding and drinking culture rather
than the individual self advancement and inner spirituality of the middle class

Early work on masculinity stressed that the construction of the male subject was
inherently unstable and focused on deviant and contested notions of masculinity,
notably homosexuality. Recent work has studied the dominant form of
masculinity and its control over women and ‘abnormal’ men and has focused on
such areas as adolescence, imperialism, warfare and technology.

The focus on Empire has also incorporated issues of race and ethnicity. See for
example Mrinalini Sinha’s comparative study of colonial masculinity which focuses
on the fortunes of two differently positioned elites in colonial Bengal and
considers how they were constituted respectively as ‘manly Englishmen’ and
‘effeminate Bengalis’.

Class and gender

Masculinity then (like femininity) has multiple social meanings. But does this
mean that masculinity is merely a characteristic feature of other social identities
For example gender status is often linked to a particular class

Traditional labour history was until the 1980s largely blind to gender issues. For
example, the classic study on the affluent worker in Luton by Goldthorpe and
Lockwood. See Catherine Hall’s analysis of Peterloo which considers the gendered
experiences not only of Samuel Bamford one of the leading Manchester radicals
but also of his wife, Jemima to critique E P Thompson’s classic The Making of the
English Working-Class. Autobiography/biography is one source to explore the
relationships between class, gender and identity (see How
successful have the authors of the Oxford DNB been in capturing the lives of
those previously hidden from history?

For an understanding of modern identity it is important to analyse the critical
interplay between the key markers of class, gender and race (as well as those of
sexuality and age).

Shared By: