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Focusing on the concept of 'subjectivity' in gender history, this article offers a critical review of some developments within cultural history over the past two decades. Although the term 'subjectivity' is often used within historical research broadly informed by the cultural turn, such work often possesses an abstract quality. Concentrating on matters of cultural form, it fails to acknowledge the basis of subjectivity within real human relationships and emotional states. Such approaches can tell us little about the emotional experience of historical actors. In response to these limitations, and informed by my current attempts to write a history of mother-son relationships in the First World War, the article offers some suggestions about how research on subjectivity might proceed. It demonstrates – via examples from my research – the kinds of topics and concerns that come to light when relationships, and the emotional processes that they entail, are placed at the centre of historical study.