The Social Construction of Gender Should be at the Centre of Historical Enquiry.’ Discuss.


Gender is defined as categorising males and females into groups based on the attributes associated with that sex, as opposed to the biological categorisation of genitalia,[1] implying that these categories are socially constructed; thus making the terms unstable and subjective.[2] Arguably this approach should be central to historical enquiry as the social construction of gender determines the roles men and women were expected to fulfil.[3] This allows for comparisons across class and race with regards to limitations, suggesting that power should be the alternate focus for historians.[4] Regardless, historical enquiry into gender is important as for centuries, with the exception of female authoritarian figures, women’s history and literature was dismissed until the rise of Feminist history in the 1970’s[5]. Ultimately, male and female history needs to be studied simultaneously to observe the interaction between the genders necessary in creating a complete history[6].

Main Text

The social construction of gender evolves from the desire to categorise behavioural traits[7]; Society fashions qualities attributed to males and females[8], using language and literature, described in behaviour manuals and religious texts.[9] Women during the medieval period are desirably labelled wife, widow, daughter or mother, as this would be their sole occupation (for males, the opposite terminology can be applied, labelling them as the worker, ruler, father, son, husband and master).[10] Women are presented in paintings as modestly dressed, nurturing children or reading the Bible, demonstrating the model behaviour.[11] Alternatively, women were named by state virginity, or called derogatory insults for their promiscuous behaviour, with society further shaping gender attributes for what is acceptable sexually for a woman.[12] Virginity was the most desirable state for a woman to possess, conveyed by the Biblical figure of Mary; however, this proved to be unattainable as this had to be sacrificed for the duty of bearing children – women’s purpose in life.[13] These labels are central to historical enquiry, particularly with regards to the witch trials as it provides explanation for why most those accused of witchcraft were not only women, but usually widows or single women – those who lacked the protection of a male.[14] Women were targeted for witchcraft as their gender roles predisposed them to accusations due to the nature of their ever day tasks; as the carer of livestock, children, the elderly and the sick, if a natural disaster or illness caused death, women were scapegoated as explanations – particularly as this goes against the stereotype of the nurturing figure females were expected to be.[15]

However, it is religion that is provides the early gender stereotypes, deriving from Eve tempting Adam after being influenced by the devil, condemning the first sin and creating a source of evil.[16] For this reason, women are naturally seen as temptresses and are viewed with scepticism.[17] The witch trials therefore, could instead be viewed as a hysteria based on religious heresy caused by possession of the devil, targeting women due to their connection to Eve, rather than a gender bias based on women’s roles in society.[18] This would then suggest that religious enquiry is more central for historians to focus upon. However, religion is a cultural construction, which has shaped the history of gender, arguing that social constructions are key to historical enquiry regardless.

Building on this, historical enquiry into gender gives us insight into power structures. The difference in opportunities for men and women derives from early opinions of why men, and women exist. The Bible tells of Eve being created from Adam’s rib for his pleasure and convenience.[19] This contributes to the male idea that women were created to serve and assist males.[20] Furthermore, Aristotle argues that women are biological imperfections, a deformity stemming from conception and are therefore intellectually inferior[21]. Through these opinions, ideals of gender are socially created, determining progress within society and thus shaping history. Based on these ideas, medieval men were formally educated to become leaders or take on a ‘proper’ job role. Alternatively, women were seen as incapable of possessing such skills and were instead educated in the running of the household and domestic skills.[22] Whilst some would regard this level of education ‘miserably deficient’ for women, this gender bias provides insight into social history.[23] As women were expected to be devoted to the household, there was no need for them to be educated formally as men were, particularly given the material expense of writing materials.[24] Even regarding educated women of authority such as Queen Victoria, women’s inferiority next to man was a point of criticism at the beginning of her rule, deeming her ignorant and uninformed in the way of politics.[25] This provokes question as to whether medical and political advancements would have occurred sooner if women were educated in such areas? Their lack of their education particularly in medicine, being ridiculous as it was seen as socially inappropriate for men to assist in childbirth, yet the males were the educated doctors, not the female midwives.[26] For this reason, enquiry into gender can be a strong focal point for historians, as a hierarchy is created in which men are deemed superior and hence receive opportunities to progress further in society, creating a generation of doctors, and politicians who shape historical advancement, whilst the minds of women are trapped with a lack of education.

Arguably power can be considered a beneficial basis for enquiry as gender can be intertwined with class and race to create a hierarchy, on the basis that a white woman has more power than a black woman, an upper-class woman has more authority than a lower-class man, but an upper-class man is more powerful than a woman of the same class.[27] Men created the laws and expectations regarding education,[28] showing male exertion of power over women. This creates a socially created hierarchy by through limiting the female opportunity. Wiesner refers to Christine de Pisan, who comments that this form of control is a projection of man’s insecurities – meaning they are afraid of women becoming smarter and more powerful than themselves.[29] Combined with the attitude that women are inferior and created only to please men, the roles of master and slave are devised, adding an element of fear and obedience which keeps the stability of the hierarchy and reinforces man’s power.[30] Therefore, if one was to step out of these prescribed gender roles, it would disrupt the whole social structure, as this paves the way for the blurring of class and race to also defy their categories, highlighting how intertwined these factors are with regards to power and social stability.[31] One could argue that the creation of a social structure through the joining of gender, class and race allow historians to obtain a more rounded version of history, rather than studying each factor in isolation,[32] despite social historians rejecting this comparison.[33] 

Unfortunately, the history of women has been largely dismissed until the rise of the Feminist approach in the 1970’s; this is due to history previously having been focused on politics and economics which revolved around the lives of men.[34] This makes an interesting point for historians to question in more than one aspect: why were women excluded from history and what were women’s lives like in the past? For comparisons and links between the history of genders to be made, and studied as one, historians must first have a history of women to work with. This could be a complete gender bias, in terms of males being the educated scholars able to produce history and only wishing to document the lives of men as women’s lives as housewives and mothers were considered unimportant,[35] this is unlikely to be the case, but rather a fault of historical enquiry, as women of authority such as Queen Elizabeth, were documented in detail.[36] This would suggest instead that it was rather social history that was considered unimportant, which constituted a gender bias, creating a vast gap in historical enquiry.[37] Arguably this dismissal of women’s history for the lack of politics is not applicable in all instances, as women’s history is political with regards to the feminist struggle. Since 1405 feminist literature was created in response to male misogynistic writings, although this wasn’t widely known due to the lack of contemporary publishing, ultimately under the control of the male force in control of the printing press.[38] More recently, the Married Women’s Property Acts of 1848 and 1850, New York were laws established by the government after female political pressure to gain rights to property they owned before marriage and earned afterwards.[39] Furthermore the Suffragette movement securing the franchise for women under Emmeline Pankhurst’s formation of the Women’s Social and Political Union in 1903;[40] her dedication to the cause is a strong example of women’s political history.[41] Similarly, women throughout history have been affected by the economy and wages as their economic dependence created a barrier for female progress.[42] This relates to the study of gender for historians as female wages are set by male officials, and are dependent on the expected interaction between males and females.

For historians to gather a whole economic history, both genders need to be studied together to understand the influence of one on the other.[43] Society created unequal wages for the genders, with men earning double what women did, suggesting that their time and effort was valued as being lesser than man’s.[44] However, this is not necessarily a strict gender bias in terms of inferiority, but rather society’s expectation that men and women are united, meaning employers assumed that women were working to provide income in addition to their husband’s wage, therefore they did not need paying as much as they were not the sole provider for the family.[45] The problem was, this did not take into account women who were widowed, single with children to provide for, or were the provider for the family due to the husband being incapable of working himself.[46] Taking this into consideration, society had made the wrong assumptions with regards to need for money, as the women who carried out the most work received less money than those who rarely worked because those who didn’t work out of necessity were provided for sufficiently, or in excess, whereas working women were part of families struggling to make ends meet.[47] This gives historians a basis for study with regards to gender and societies expectations of family life and income.

A problem historians might face when using gender as a focal point for historical enquiry is the instability of the terms male and female as the attributes to each gender are socially constructed. As they are unstable terms, any enquiry will be subjective, particularly as these constructs change over time not just culturally.[48] This becomes a problem when categorizing transgender figures, who dressed as a man to improve their chances of mobility.[49] This was the case for many women who managed to serve as soldiers, sailors and become explorers under the disguise of man’s dress.[50] This proves that the social construction of gender limits opportunities for females, as these are the same minds wearing the opposite genders’ clothing, however it defies the stereotypical categories of gender. Historians can then compare this change of identity for practicality, versus a change of identity due to mindset, with figures such as Maria of Antwerp who believed she was a man trapped inside of a woman’s body,[51] and Einar Wegener who was trapped in the body of a man,[52] further illustrating the problems of categorizing by gender if only referring to male or female. This only stresses the importance of historians having to define gender over sex before pursing historical enquiry, particularly contemporary definitions to gain a true understanding of the period of focus.


In conclusion, one could argue this approach the centre of historical enquiry is not the most beneficial way of retrieving information, as gender could be more effectively studied through other factors such as power structures. However, the study of gender highlights the inability to study males and females separately, as this would provide an incomplete history due to the influence each has on the other. However, to establish the influences and links between males and females throughout history, the histories of each need to be first documented, which given feminist history only increased in the 1970’s, one must study women’s history separately – otherwise no comparisons can be drawn and the study of gender in history is non-existent; this is an example of the social construction of gender due to the lack of publication of women’s texts due to the belief that women were intellectually inferior to men. For effective enquiry into gender-based history, regardless of which approach a historian is coming from, the definition and categorisation of gender must be established due to the subjectivity of the socially created definitions. Overall, historic enquiry into gender provides a well-rounded history, encompassing political and economic factors, but also provides a basis for social history which has previously been and dismissed as unimportant by historians.


Clark, Anna. The Struggle for the Breeches, Berkeley: University of California Press (1997), Ch.3, pp. 25-41

Ebershoff, David. The Danish Girl, W&N (2015)

Goodwin, Daisy. Victoria, Headline Review, Great Britain (2016)

Oxford University Press, English Oxford Living Dictionaries, Gender, [viewed: 06/02/17]

Pankhurst, Emmeline. My Own Story, Vintage Classics, (2015)

Schneir, Miriam. (ed.) The Vintage Book of Historical Feminism, Vintage, (1996)

Scott, Joan W. Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis: The American Historical Review, 91:5 (1986)

Wiesner, Merry, E. Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe, Cambridge University Press, (1993)

[1] Oxford University Press, English Oxford Living Dictionaries, Gender, [viewed: 06/02/17]

[2] Joan W. Scott, Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis: The American Historical Review, 91:5 (1986) p.1064

[3] Merry E Wiesner, Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe, Cambridge University Press, (1993) pp. 2-4

[4] Wiesner, Women and Gender, p.4

[5] Scott, Gender, p.1054

[6] Scott, Gender, p.1054

[7] Scott, Gender, p.1056

[8] Wiesner, Women and Gender, p.4

[9] Scott, Gender, p.1067

[10] Wiesner, Women and Gender, p.42

[11] Wiesner, Women and Gender, p.23

[12] Wiesner, Women and Gender, p.14

[13] Wiesner, Women and Gender, p.13

[14] Wiesner, Women and Gender, p.223

[15] Wiesner, Women and Gender, p.14

[16] Wiesner, Women and Gender, p.11

[17] Scott, Gender, p.1067

[18] Wiesner, Women and Gender, p. 220

[19] Mary Wollstonecroft: A Vindication of the Rights of Women, Miriam Schneir (ed.) The Vintage Book of Historical Feminism, Vintage, (1996) pp. 8-9

[20] Wiesner, Women and Gender, p.9

[21] Wiesner, Women and Gender, p.14

[22] Wiesner, Women and Gender, pp.43-4

[23] Sarah M Grimké: Letters on the Equality of the Sexes and the Condition of Women, The Vintage Book of Historical Feminism, p.44

[24] Wiesner, Women and Gender, p.123

[25] Daisy Goodwin, Victoria, Headline Review, Great Britain (2016) p.34

[26] Wiesner, Women and Gender, p.66

[27] Scott, Gender, p.1054

[28] Wiesner, Women and Gender, p.9

[29] Wiesner, Women and Gender, p.16

[30] John Stuart Mill: The Subjection of Women, The Vintage Book of Historical Feminism, p.167

[31] Wiesner, Women and Gender, p.253

[32] S. Watkins, M. Rueda, M. Rodriguez, Introducing Feminism, Totem Books (1994) p.96

[33] Wiesner, Women and Gender, p.2

[34] Scott, Gender, p.1055

[35] Schneir: Introduction, The Vintage Book of Historical Feminism, p.xxi

[36] Wiesner, Women and Gender, p.242

[37] Schneir: Introduction, The Vintage Book of Historical Feminism, p.xxi

[38] Schneir: Introduction, The Vintage Book of Historical Feminism, p.xxi

[39] Married Women’s Property Act, New York (1848) (1860), The Vintage Book of Historical Feminism pp.72/122

[40] Emmeline Pankhurst: I incite this meeting to rebellion, The Vintage Book of Historical Feminism, pp.293-5

[41] Emmeline Pankhurst, My Own Story, Vintage Classics, (2015)

[42] Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Women and Economics, The Vintage Book of Historical Feminism, p.230

[43] Scott, Gender, p.1070

[44] Wiesner, Women and Gender, p.86

[45] Wiesner, Women and Gender, p.86

[46] Wiesner, Women and Gender, p.86

[47] Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Women and Economics, p.234

[48] Scott, Gender, p.1063

[49] Wiesner, Women and Gender, p.54

[50] Wiesner, Women and Gender, p.54

[51] Wiesner, Women and Gender, p.56

[52] David Ebershoff, The Danish Girl, W&N (2015)

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