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Journal of Women's History 18.1 (2006) 11-21

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Beyond the Americas

Are Gender and Sexuality Useful Categories of Historical Analysis?

The title of my article, despite appearances, is not meant to be a rhetorical provocation, begging a negative (or positive) response; not even a conditional one: yes, but; no, but perhaps. . . .

Rather, I hope to pose it as a provocative invitation to reflect upon how the very asking of such a question, with its implied geo-political crossing of borders, depends on particular work of national delineations. I would also like to add here a temporal dimension and ask: "Are gender and sexuality useful categories of historical analysis beyond the modern?"

At one level, these questions, at least as posed, would seem largely superfluous: after all, over the past few decades, a tremendous body of historically informed and analytically powerful scholarship, with gender and sexuality as their central analytical categories, has been produced that has focused on "beyond the Americas and beyond the modern." So much of it exists that it is now possible to teach well-designed courses that draw upon this scholarship. For example, in a recent issue of Radical History Review, Ulrike Strasser and Heidi Tinsman have given us a rich account of their very brave venture, teaching a segment of a world history survey course at University of California, Irvine.1 As they state in the opening of the essay, "Our course 'World History: Gender and Politics, 1400–1870' emerged out of our commitment as feminists to making gender and sexuality central to how the rapidly growing field of world history is being shaped."2

That a course like this is at all possible to teach, that an intelligible conversation is imaginable on engendering world history, is testament to the scholarly productivity of previous decades, a productivity based on the presumption of gender, and more recently sexuality, as useful analytic categories beyond the Americas and beyond the modern. So what could I mean by the question that forms the title of this essay?

Let me probe the issue by opening it up through a series of further questions and concerns.

First: For those of us who are historians of "beyond the Americas and the modern," how have we had to renegotiate meanings of gender and sexuality as well as their analytic utility? And what can we bring back to the Americas and the modern from this conceptual travel?3

Second, acknowledging the largely Anglo-American history of gender as a named category, in particular its burden of birth in connection with [End Page 11] psycho-behavioral categories of gender-role determination, how have we reckoned with the many effects of that genealogy?4

Third, and related to the second, have we really finally done away with gender binaries in our historical and analytical work? What can we make of the fact that the only categories of gender that run through so much of our gender scholarship are women and men, masculinity and femininity? How do we approach the problem of gender's historical and narrative effect for its own production as a binary?

I do not here mean to revisit the old discussions on third and fourth, et cetera, genders and sexes. That is a rich discussion, and I do not think we have learned enough from it. In part that is perhaps a failure of disciplinarity. Much of that debate took shape in anthropology; not enough of it seeped through our departmental walls into history. But my point here is a different one: the presumption of the very definitional matrix of the two terms. What happens if masculinity is analyzed as an internally fractured concept, as it is done in some of the studies that bring race and ethnicity to bear on masculinity (that is, when the lines of differentiation become redrawn; in rather simplistic binary terms, when white and black, rather than male and female, delineate the parameters of masculinity); or where lines of womanliness are drawn through locations in and across religious or national communities...