In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • From Women’s History to Gender HistoryRevamping Interpretive Programming at Richmond National Battlefield Park
  • Ashley Whitehead Luskey (bio) and Robert M. Dunkerly (bio)

In recent years, and particularly in response to the “new social history” of the 1960s and 1970s, academic and public historians alike have committed themselves to providing “inclusive” historical narratives and interpretation to students, readers, and visitors. Traditionally, the concept of historical inclusivity has revolved around the “holy trinity” of race, class, and gender. Such frameworks have enormously enriched the breadth and depth of both academic and public histories, filling in critical gaps in African American and immigrant history, the history of the working classes, and women’s history, among others, and populating historical narratives that formerly championed elite, white males with women; the poor; and a variety of racial, ethnic, and otherwise marginalized social groups.1

However, far too often, many historians—both public and academic—have narrowly conceived of “race, class, and gender” strictly as social categories rather than as cultural constructs or as perceptual lenses through which individuals understand themselves and their world. Such conceptions have resulted in interpretation that is so intensely focused on including the experiences of various races, classes, and genders that it has neglected to address the specific cultural trends or “ways of perceiving” that have shaped the way individuals have engaged with, represented, and ultimately made sense [End Page 149] of those experiences.2 We need to help our audiences move away from the static notion of gender as something that simply prescribes roles for men and women in everyday life and toward understanding that gender is a fluid concept that shapes how people navigate the political and material realities of their particular historical world.

In response to calls for greater emphasis on gender history, numerous Civil War sites have revamped their programs and exhibits to include the stories of female civilians, soldiers’ wives, and nurses associated with the site. This shift reflects the popular notion of equating “gender” with “women’s history.” Although this limited understanding of gender has diversified the historical narrative in important ways, it has often failed to truly engage visitors with how gender itself shaped the way a particular event unfolded or was understood by its participants—that is, how notions of masculinity, womanhood, respectability, duty, and honor, to name a few, shaped the behaviors of historical actors in the moment and the ways those actors internalized, and ultimately represented, particular events. Such interpretations also forego the chance to interweave gender history with the history of race and class, among other topics, and open discussions of identity. Interpreting how competing notions of gender were contested within a class and racial framework will help our audiences appreciate the choices that historical actors made within their political and social surroundings as they saw and understood them. This is not to suggest that tours or exhibits should focus only on gender history or that they should be so densely packed with theoretical discussion and analysis that only academically trained audiences can decipher them. Rather, gender history can, and should, be blended with and infused into the majority of historical interpretation.

In recent years, frontline interpreters at Richmond National Battlefield Park have sought to revamp the ways gender is incorporated into interpretive programming through tours and talks, both on and beyond the battlefields, that challenge visitors to analyze the events that took place there through broader, gendered prisms of honor, respectability, duty, and dignity. Such prisms address not only the roles gender played in how events unfolded but [End Page 150] also how they were experienced, and ultimately represented and remembered, by historical participants and observers alike. Soldiers on both sides, for instance, played out heroic dreams in their headlong charges during the Seven Days’ campaign. Tours of the Seven Days’ battlefields, however, are not exclusively excursions into gender history but rather an attempt to explain how the act of organized killing was inspired by military discipline and generalship, and acted out with manly fervor. This interpretive programming also often involves critical interchanges with the public regarding their interpretations of primary documents, quotations, academic scholarship, historical language, and the dramaturgic symbolism of various historical actors during key...