Sex, Gender, and History

 “We strive to hear the echo of a voice which, somewhere, probes, knocks against the world’s silences, begins again, is stifled.” Our most fundamental task as historians, I would argue, is to solicit those fragmented inner narratives to emerge from their silences”

-Gabrielle M. Spiegel (Presidential Address: Task of the Historian)

I really resonated with Spiegel’s quote when reading the other pieces. It was interesting to see how sex and the consciousness of sex or rather the repression of sex has impacted society in Michael Focault’s “The Repressive Hypothesis” piece. At the same time, Focault’s piece fit perfectly in conjunction with Joan W. Scott’s article, “Gender: A Useful Category of Historic Analysis,” which argues the that historians of gender history should focus on the social and political construction of gender.

In my journey toward becoming a historian, I find that there is a fascination in the changing views of gender and how society views each gender: male and female. While gender is sometimes used as a “substitute” for female, there is a societal view that continues to permeate even today in a, sometimes negative, connotation. I find that sometimes I cannot always control my understanding of the past. Essentially, presentism is sometimes hard to keep out of history entirely. I struggle with these readings and not having my own biased judgement.

When I reflect on my experiences as a family historian, I can remember my thoughts on how women and sex have an effect on the societies in which the people I’m studying lived in.  Focault talks about the “imposed silences” and “censorship” of sex. Focault’s words make me question history even more and the view that history has defined women both as a “biological” gender and in the realm of “social science.” I am conflicted in my views right now. I lack the understanding of trying to comprehend the information of the past. There are biases in the writings by the informants of the past, so how can I not insert my own?

If sex was such a taboo topic, why did people engage in the act? Was there a shame on women, as a gender? Or was there something deeper? Perhaps the way people, men, envision gender, more specifically women, is reflected on a fear of political and social reign. Women carry and give life, which is a power no male can ever harness. In a political sense, women have the ability hold the greatest power. Could the topics of sex be one of a “prudish” mind due, in part, to the way that men have sometimes perceived women?

I feel as though sex and gender must be tied, at least in some ways. Throughout linguistic history, men have written about women in some of the purest ways to some of the most exploitative ways. When history refers to gender, it is usually referencing the differences between the sexes, gender roles, or feminism – also a movement. But these readings cause me to re-evaluate both women and gender in a way that has me questioning my own presentism. In my journey through history, I must have at some point inserted my own bias. As a family historian, I know that I am to be unbiased about the people I’m researching, but sometimes it is hard. I have my own beliefs of what is right and what is wrong. I can understand that history and the views society had at certain times impact the actions of the people I’m studying, but I still insert those questions of presentism – the whys of a situation.

In the end, sex and sexuality are alike and different. The history of both is convoluted. There is a political and social aspect in which both must be examined through such a lens, as Scott argues. I want to understand. I wish that in my educational career that I had been given the opportunity to hear more female voices of the past than the voices of the male dominators. How did women feel about their own unique gender and sex? We read history. We read Focault’s telling of sex and sexuality spanning a few centuries in history, but from whose point of view did he recite? Was it a man’s or a woman’s? The answer matters because it’s telling.

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