Women in History – Gender Roles & Civilization

I’m currently teaching Women in US History again. It’s one of my favorite classes to teach because students are always excited to learn new things about what women were doing in our past and to see the histories that they are familiar with told through new lens.

However, I always find myself asking new questions too and thinking about new ways we can engage with our history and how we represent women and gender in our past.

Today I was reading through my students’ assignments about performing one’s gender in the colonial period. For this week they had to read a powerful essay about a person who dressed as both a man and as a woman, who performed the expected gender roles of both a man and a woman and in doing so forced the community to reveal its expectations regarding gender (“An Indentured Servant Identifies as ‘Both Man and Women’: Jamestown, 1629” by Mary Beth Norton in Women’s America Eighth Edition). I love assigning this essay because the students are always impacted by the community’s response to T. Hall. Some of them are excited/surprised to find an intersex individual in the colonial period. Others are disheartened by the treatment of Hall.

However, I assign this article because it reveals the importance of gender in the European definition of civilization. So often popular ideas of history (such as pop history books or movies) tell us that women were not important in history, that there are few stories to tell (and those are the exceptional ones like the Salem Witch Trials, which inevitably almost always ends up focusing on the men anyway). While women who held positions of authority or influence were extraordinary and not the norm, women and they way they behaved and dressed played powerful roles in their society.

Take for instance the research done by Jennifer Morgan in her book Laboring Women (or her article, “‘Some Could Suckle over Their Shoulder’: European Depictions of Indigenous Women, 1492-1750”). Morgan demonstrates here that one of the most powerful arguments European male colonists made about American and African peoples being “uncivilized” was how their women dressed and behaved. Many American and African women took on powerful roles in their communities, “owning” their houses, working the land, and sometimes leading their groups or following a matrilineal line – in other words these women performed “male” roles according to the European definition. (Of course this is a broad assessment as each individual American and African group had their own gender roles and cultures.) When Europeans made claims that these peoples were uncivilized and therefore “fair” objects of colonization and enslavement, over and over again they pointed to the “backward” and “savage” behavior of “masculine” women and weak (“feminine”) men. This was the most successful argument – more than land ownership and religion as those often changed.

In other words, for colonial Europeans following their expectations and ideas about gender (which were also evolving and changing from the medieval period) equated civilization. Who women were and how they behaved  was the essence of civilization.

When modern-day people claim women didn’t matter or the focus on women’s roles is new (which itself is changing), they fail to see that women always mattered. And in some ways women could subvert and change this, especially when it gave them the opportunity to provide a hierarchal role over those being colonized and enslaved.

And this hasn’t changed. In fact, arguably, part of what people get so worked up about it comes to things like gender-neutral bathrooms is the idea that people will not perform their gender as expected. And this begs the question, what is the expectation?


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