- Purchase/rental options available:
Journal of Women's History 11.1 (1999) 6-8
[Access article in PDF]
In September 1998, I enjoyed a brief stint as a guest professor in the Department of Economic History at the University of Stockholm. At a seminar for Sveriges Kvinno-och Genushistoriker (Sweden's Women's and Gender Historians), we got into an interesting discussion of the relationship between women's history and gender history. Someone admitted that the group had just added "Gender Historians" in order to sound up-to-date, prompting a digression into the problematic nature of the term "gender" in different languages. In Danish, gender as a social construct is translated as "køn," a grammatical term that also means biological sex. Swedish does not use the related word "kön," which refers only to sex and not to grammar; instead, Swedish uses the Latin term "genus," which as a foreign and academic term has little meaning to a broader public but is becoming, as the explanation for the name of the group suggests, increasingly necessary in the academic world.
I'm sure there is a global story to tell about the different ways to translate the term "gender," but I bring this up here to spotlight the fine, or perhaps even nonexistent, line between "women's" and "gender" history in practice. Obviously, gender history can focus on men, or on gender systems, but so much of gender history takes as its subject women and so much of women's history concerns itself with the construction of gender in different times and places that I sometimes wonder what the vehemence in the arguments between advocates of gender history versus women's history is all about. The articles in this issue nicely illustrate the tendency in current scholarship to cross the permeable boundaries between women's history and gender history.
Two of the articles deal with the construction of gender within the family. Sarah Chambers is interested in what prosecutions (or the lack thereof) of men who killed their wives in late colonial and early republican Arequipa, Peru, tell us about gender. But this is not just a story about an abstract system. Rather, Chambers details women's own expectations with regard to family responsibility, fidelity, and appropriate levels of violence, and she argues that women's interpretations, complaints, and forms of resistance, including, ironically, attacks on other women, show that women were less protected by societal limitations on male violence and more assertive in their own defense than previous scholarship has maintained. Turning to Russia in the early twentieth century, we find Laura Phillips dissecting the struggle between working-class women and men over alcohol consumption and gendered responsibilities. Although some Russian working-class women sometimes drank, despite the hopes of [End Page 6] middle-class temperance societies that they would support abstinence, many women did take steps—simply their own steps—to keep men from drinking up their paychecks. Women gathered on payday outside the factories where male wage earners in their families worked, and they engaged in collective attacks on vodka shops during times of revolutionary upheaval, in this way challenging their exclusion from an important political realm as well as protecting their interests within the family.
Two other articles treat the gendered construction of illness. Marilyn Blackwell portrays the role played by poor women in Brattleboro, Vermont, at the turn of the nineteenth century in the medicalization of female poverty. Blackwell, like Chambers, sees women as actors within severe constraints and also points out the complexities and ironies of women's situations. By seizing on ill health as an explanation for their poverty and a rationale for their receipt of aid from a private trust, women evaded personal responsibility for their financial state and gained a powerful argument in their negotiations with charity providers, but this strategy also deepened their dependence. Keeping the focus on questions of health, Sandra Holton uses the life of Alice Clark, best known as an early practitioner of women's history, to explore the gendered nature of illness. Clark, she suggests, played a part in constructing her identity as an "invalid," although...