A question of gender

When I explain to people that I study women and politics in the medieval world, I’ve repeatedly heard the response ‘Oh, so you’re a gender historian then?’ At first, I would nod and say ‘Yes, I suppose so’. However, as I’ve gone further with my research I’ve become increasingly uneasy with this response.

Why is this? I have enormous respect for historians who study gender. Their research is incredibly important for understanding how medieval men and women thought about themselves and identities, how they constructed their own gender roles and saw themselves as male or female. Their work has been especially helpful for some of my earlier research on female monasteries and abbesses, and representations of gender do still play a role in my current work.

But, when it comes to my own research, is this all that I’m interested in? I study power, politics and religion, and how those three areas meshed together in the medieval world. What grabs my attention are how monasteries, communities of people devoted to living the ideal religious life, interacted with the world outside their walls. A number of other historians have looked at the same questions for male monasteries, yet they are rarely, if ever, called them gender historians. This is understandable – they aren’t really looking at the construction of masculine identities in these communities.

The Choir of Virgins from the 10th-century Benedictional of St. Aethelwold. BL Add MS 49598
The Choir of Virgins from the 10th-century Benedictional of St. Aethelwold. BL Add MS 49598. Image credit Wikipedia

However, few people have looked at female monasteries in this way, thinking about their involvement in politics. That’s where I come in. Convents were, (in my view at least) important players on the political stages of their kingdoms, but historians haven’t given them the same level of attention that they’ve given to male monasteries. The construction of the gendered identities of nuns is not my main focus. I’m interested in how religious communities worked within early medieval society. The ones that I look at, which need more attention from historians, happen to be made up of women.

I don’t want to come across as saying that I don’t care about gender or that it has no place in my work, because I do and it does. What I want to do with this post is point out a common misconception – that when people hear ‘studying women’ they often think this means ‘studying gender’. Perhaps we need to think about what our preconceived ideas are when we think of gender studies. When someone looks at gender in history, they are looking at both men and women. Equally, the history of power and politics involves studying both men and women. Collapsing ‘women’ and ‘gender’ together is a misrepresentation – we need to remember that they are closely related and often overlapping ideas, but that doesn’t mean they are the same thing.

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2 thoughts on “A question of gender

  1. I think the erroneous conflation of “gender” and “women” comes from the development of gender studies out of feminist theory. Traditionally, “men’s studies” had little to do with gender identities. The male subject was taken for granted. Only recently there has been a growth in masculine issues, and from what I’ve seen has been driven by feminist and gender theorists.

    I’m sure there is more to the intellectual history of gender studies, but from an uncritical perspective it would be easy to conflate gender and women, if one had no understanding of the intellectual difference and development.

  2. Concur, our college is currently holding a debate about whether to elide Women’s Studies with Gender Studies; or, to dissolve the Women’s Studies program altogether. I believe that Women’s Studies provides a course of study that privileges women, not for purposes of exclusion, but to highlight the much under-represented “herstory.”

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