Embedding and embodying gender in history

This post is based on a paper I gave in 2010 when I was asked to think about gender history. I’d been thinking hard about gender while writing my book and at the centre of this musing is the question: why did I change my book’s title over the three years I was working on it from: Parents in England c. 1760-1830: gender, identities, and generations to Parents in England c. 1760-1830: emotions, identities, and generations?

I began by collecting all my accounts of parenting from 1760 to 1830. I soon found that where parental identities are concerned the historian faces two assumptions; that parenting is a natural instinct and that motherhood and fatherhood are profoundly gendered, distinct, identities. The first assumption presupposes stasis, the second allows for change in parental identities. If becoming a mother or a father is engendering – that is, a process that is understood to produce a woman or a man, then it provides a specific female or male identity. Outside influences that shape the way femininity and masculinity are seen will therefore influence the way maternal and paternal identities are constructed. Scholarship offers varied accounts of both continuity and change. Social histories identify considerable continuities in the elements of parenthood for both sexes. More culturally attuned studies [histories of art and literature], on the other hand, posit transformations in motherhood – with a cult of maternity, for example, notable in the eighteenth century. A cursory look at recent work in the social sciences suggests that maternal and paternal identities are seen to have undergone rapid shifts and concomitant tensions in the second half of the twentieth century.

Image

The Husbandman’s Return from Labour: Saturday Evening (1795) (colour engraving) after William Redmore Bigg (1755-1828) / Private Collection / The Bridgeman Art Library.

I decided that one way forward was to take an embodied approach to investigating gender identities. How was parenting imagined and experienced in terms of bodies and materiality? How did emotions shape gender identities? I found that thinking about bodies and emotions complicated my assumptions about gender difference and opened up the question of gender identities beyond binary oppositions. Parental embodiment in the eighteenth century, for example, need not be restricted to the well-researched concerns about maternal breastfeeding. An embodied approach opens up distinctions between gender-specific and gender-related parenthood and parenting, for the gendered stereotypes of mothers providing physical care and fathers offering material care and government becomes far more multi-layered and complex.

Loving arms and nurturing bosoms were also paternal, and the labouring bodies praised for providing for children were maternal as well as paternal. The culture of sensibility and Christian ideals of manhood celebrated sensitivity, physical care, and tenderness in men – all encompassed within the role of father and these were expressed through the body as tears, hugs, and kisses. Of course, the relationship between bodies and social conventions about gender remain open to investigation. For example, historians find it fruitful to scrutinise how paternity, grounded in biology, could be different to fatherhood, a social, male gendered identity – though both defined a man as a father.

Emotions history also lets me consider the ways in which the emotions associated with gendered identities were reconfigured in different ways at different times. Emotions are, after all, human and let us explore gender identities within a different framework. My research on parents in England therefore also encompasses anger, anxiety and sympathy and such historically specific forms of ‘feeling’ as tenderness, distress, and benevolence – and in some cases uncovers how these were not always mapped onto sexed bodies.

So why did I omit the word ‘gender’ from my book title? I think that my replacing ‘gender’ with ‘emotion’ signifies how much more embedded my understanding of gender has become. If it is any indication of wider developments, then it is that gender is being integrated more fully into a variety of topics, that we are more willing to think about the construction of feminine and masculine identities through different perspectives and lenses, and that new research agendas are being applied to the study of gender identities.

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