Skip to main content
Select Source:



Laura McEnaney

Although historians have been studying gender for several decades, the study of gender in American foreign policy is a relatively new phenomenon. Indeed, the proliferation of scholarship on this topic in the 1990s suggests that gender has become a permanent and theoretically significant category of analysis for the historian of American foreign relations. It is important to note, however, that this approach has generated lively debate among many historians. In journals and on-line forums and at conferences, scholars at the beginning of the twenty-first century continued to argue about the degree to which gender has affected the creation, conduct, and outcomes of international diplomacy.


Many people understandably but mistakenly equate the study of gender with the study of women when, in fact, these are fairly different enterprises. Historians who study women (many but not all of them women) look at women's activities and contributions in various economic, political, cultural, and spatial contexts. Practitioners of women's history see all women as historical actors: they look at an individual woman or women together in social movements, at notable and elite women or anonymous, "ordinary" women, at women in the kitchen or women in the streets. Since the 1970s (and even earlier), women's historians have argued that historical narratives have largely ignored women's experiences, yielding an incomplete, or even misleading, portrait of the American past. Through critical analysis of traditional primary sourcesand by uncovering sources that historians previously did not think worthy of studywomen's history seeks to expand and complicate our histories of industrialization, electoral politics, and warfare, to name only a few topics. Historians of women insist that their scholarship should not merely add a new set of female characters to the plot line of American history, but rather that the whole story needs to be tested, reconsidered, and revised.

The study of gender is an outgrowth of women's history, which is why people tend to view the study of gender and women as the same thing. The scholarly interest in gender emerged as practitioners of women's history, informed by scholarship in anthropology, psychology, and literary criticism, began to ask critical questions of their own methodologies. Shifting the focus from women to gender, historians of gender explore how males and females (sex) become men and women (gender). That is, to study gender is to examine how a society assigns social meanings to the different biological characteristics of males and females. Historians who study gender see it as a cultural constructsomething that human beings create and that changes over time. The differences between men and women, they argue, are rooted in society, not in nature, and as such can be historicized. Moreover, gender scholars point out, if women's lives have been shaped profoundly by gender prescriptions, then so, too, have men's. Cultural ideals and practices of masculinity and femininity have been created together, often in opposition to one another; therefore, both men and women have gender histories that must be analyzed in tandem. Indeed, gender studies is relational in that research into the history of gender ideals and practices is always linked to investigations about the operation of the economy, the construction of racial ideologies, the development of political institutions, and other phenomena typically studied by historians.

So what does it mean to do women's history in comparison to gender history? Actually, most historians in this field do a little bit of both. Still, whereas a women's historian would focus on, for example, women's labor force participation during World War II, a gender historian would examine how gender ideologies shaped the organization of labor on the battlefield and the home front, and how the war remapped the meanings of masculinity, femininity, and labor. Put another way, women's historians foreground women as historical actors, while gender historians foreground ideological systems as agents of history. Certainly, those who do women's history engage the question of how gender norms shape women's experiences and struggles, but they tend to focus on women, as such, more than they examine historical ideological shifts in the meanings of masculine and feminine. At the same time, gender historians do not ignore women altogether; rather they interrogate the very meaning of the term "woman," highlighting historical changes in the construction of masculinity and femininity, manhood and womanhood. Again, many historians do some combination of both, combing the documents for clues about how men and women have both shaped and been shaped by gendered beliefs, practices, and institutions.

The theories and methodologies of gender history have been adapted to many fields, but the integration of gender into the study of American foreign relations has been slow and uneven. Part of the reason for this is that the "high" politics of diplomacy seem far removed from the politics of everyday life that have long been the concern of gender and women's history. Until the late twentieth century, both diplomatic and women's historians were themselves inattentive to the connections between their fields and thus very few conversations took place across the disciplinary divide. Scholarly work in various disciplines since the 1980s, however, has revealed important links between American diplomacy and American culture, and the most recent scholarship reflects a more self-conscious attempt by historians to identify a dynamic interrelationship between the creation of foreign policy and the construction of gender.


The integration of these two seemingly disparate literaturesgender studies and diplomatic historyis ongoing, and it is important to note that this subfield is still "under construction." Nevertheless, it is possible to describe and analyze the myriad approaches historians have used thus far. One of the first ways historians have made gender visible in foreign policy is by spotlighting the presence and contributions of the anomalous women who have shaped American foreign policy. This approach reveals how women like Senator Margaret Chase Smith, Eleanor Dulles (the younger sister of John Foster and Allen), and first lady Eleanor Roosevelt have influenced foreign policy in a variety of rolesas elected officials, lobbyists, mid-level bureaucrats, and even first ladies. More recently, women such as Jeane Kirkpatrick, Madeleine Albright, and Condoleeza Rice have risen to the highest levels of statecraft. President Ronald Reagan appointed Kirkpatrick in 1980 to be the U.S. representative to the United Nations. Kirkpatrick's staunch anticommunism and advocacy of a reinvigorated national defense fit comfortably in the Reagan administration, and she became a widely known spokesperson for Reagan's foreign policy positions. President Bill Clinton, too, selected a woman to represent U.S. interests at the UN. Albright served several years at the UN until Clinton appointed her secretary of state in 1996. Secretary Albright was the first woman to serve in that role, and in 2001, President George W. Bush made Rice the first woman assistant to the president for national security affairs.

Tracking these "firsts" and the careers of other notable but lesser known women in the diplomatic corps marks an important contribution to the literature simply because it makes women visible. Biographical information on how these women worked their way through institutions controlled by men can yield important insights about the role of feminism in paving the way for their entry, and about the challenges involved in managing a career in a field still populated with very few women. This approach also encourages scholars to not simply acknowledge women such as Kirkpatrick or Albright but to evaluate their contributions and legacies. Many critical questions have emerged from this literature about the weight of women's influence in foreign policymaking (Albright, for example, enjoyed much more access to policy inner circles than did Kirkpatrick), about whether female policymakers' contributions reflect "a woman's view," and whether American women can effect more change if they operate inside or outside of policy circles.

Still, this quasi-biographical approach to gender and foreign policy has some significant limitations. It tends to focus on elite women, so it is narrow by definition. As a result, we lose something of the story of how the nonelite majority of American women have shaped foreign policy through different means. Further, its "notable women" orientation just adds women to the story, leaving untapped the methods, questions, and theories that define diplomacy and the discipline of diplomatic history itself. Finally, this approach also supports (probably unintentionally) the misguided notion that truly exceptional women, with enough resources and pluck, can enter the inner circle of statesmen, and that the vast majority of women cannot, because of either native inability or subjugation by a male power structure. Neither of these notions can be supported historically, nor are they the intended arguments of writers, but the impressions remain. Many more important biographies and studies of such women need to be done, but they can contribute only modestly to the knowledge about gender and American foreign relations.

Beyond this approach lies another, broader in scope, more inclusive of nonelite women, and more sensitive to the array of historical forces that have shaped women's inclusion or exclusion from foreign affairs. In this approach, women are written into the history of foreign relations as missionariesemissaries of Americanism. These more prosperous white women (teachers, reformers, and members of faith communities) become part of the larger narrative about the energetic expansion of the United States in the late nineteenth century, and here they can be cast as both villains and victims. Historians have documented the ways in which women missionaries exported "civilization" to nonwhite populations through "uplift" programs that valorized whiteness, Christianity, and conventional gender and family ideologies. Some newer work has complicated this story further, suggesting that women such as turn-of-the century female travelers abroad and the women photojournalists who documented the violence of the Spanish American War participated in missionary types of civilizing projects, even if not formally engaged in missionary work themselves. At the same time, however, all of these works acknowledge that nineteenth-and early-twentieth-century gender systems prevented women's participation in diplomacy (and domestic electoral politics), relegating women to a separate sphere of foreign affairs. Excluded from formal policymaking, these women were still political actors; they promoted the tenets of American foreign policy through the means available to women of their status. Like their sister reformers who worked in immigrant communities in American cities, female missionaries practiced their "social housekeeping" on a global stage. In this approach, then, women become visible in the dramas of foreign policymaking as collaborators in exile, historical actors who support the worldviews and expansionist agendas of male foreign policymakers but only from a position of exclusion.

Like women missionaries, women in peace movements tried to participate in foreign policy-making from the outskirts. Historians have found in peace histories of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries a meaningful paper trail of women's participation in important national and international debates about U.S. foreign policy. In examining the theories, strategies, and tactics of organized women's peace movements, it becomes difficult to capture the whole of their contributions to policymaking. Historians hold different views about the degree to which peace movements generally have influenced decision makers' choices about interventions and arms buildups. Moreover, historians of women's pacifism have tended to focus less on the policy impact side of the story and more on the social movement storythat is, how it was that women in different eras were able to muster the ideological and material resources to create and sustain movements that addressed foreign policy issues long considered to be "men's business."

It is difficult to generalize about the politics of women's peace movements, because female pacifism has both enshrined conventional gender roles and advanced the ideas of feminism. One safe generalization might be that women in peace movements have capitalized on their outsider perspective; their very exclusion from the "man's world" of diplomacy enabled them to criticizemore perceptively, they arguedthe overseas adventurism of the United States. Many female peace activists, whether mothers or not, claimed a maternal identity as the basis of this outsider critique of American diplomacy. Although there was no national, independent women's peace movement before 1914, there were individual women and small peace groups that lobbied in various locales. In these activities we can see a nascent feminist peace consciousness developing over the course of the nineteenth century, and much of this activism sprung from female reformers' maternalist sensibilities. These women, largely middle class, white, and Protestant, argued that U.S. expansion overseas should not extend what they charged were male values of conquest and acquisition, but rather should reflect women's purity, virtue, and maternal morality. By the late nineteenth century, many nationally organized women's groups, such as the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), had fully incorporated a peace plank into their reform agendas. In fact, the WCTU created a Department of Peace and Arbitration in 1887, which enabled them to link more systematically their crusade against alcohol (a critique of male violence in the family) with a campaign for peace (a critique of male violence overseas).

Over the course of the twentieth century, through both world wars and after, female pacifists continued to claim the mantle of motherhood as an entry into foreign policy politics. Like their nineteenth-century predecessors, these later activists nurtured the notion of a maternalist citizenship, a concept that included not only the demand for the vote, but a full voice in governmental affairs, electoral politics, and any other arena in which foreign policy was made. During the years of World War I, for example, we see the emergence of what Harriet Hyman Alonso calls the "suffrage-pacifists," women who saw peace issues as inextricably linked with women's suffrage. The formation of the Woman's Peace Party in 1915 reflected this fusion of peace and women's rights; its platform called for arms limitation, international jurisprudence and peacekeeping, an end to the war in Europe, and the right to vote for women. Representation from numerous women's clubs at the founding meeting, including the WCTU, the General Federation of Women's Clubs, the Women's Trade Union League, and the Women's National Committee of the Socialist Party, reveals the breadth of interest in suffrage-peace politics. Social reformer and Woman's Peace Party leader Jane Addams encouraged women already active in local matters to pay attention to international affairsto link local with global. Addams and others noted that peace activism was a natural extension of women's nurturance of family and community, and the Peace Party's appeal to "the mother half of humanity" reflected their maternalist orientation.

Years later, well after women won the right to vote, motherhood continued to be an important identity and organizing base for women's peace groups. In 1961, Women Strike for Peace, an organization of "concerned housewives," called on President John F. Kennedy to "end the arms racenot the human race." They, too, claimed the experiences and insights of motherhood as a foundation for activism. As caretakers of the nation's children, they argued, all women had a responsibility to lobby for peace. Taking a multitude of positions on issues from the nuclear test ban treaty of 1963 to U.S. intervention in Vietnam, members of Women Strike for Peace went further than mere criticism of U.S. policies: they argued passionately that the moral, maternal citizenship they embodied promised a new path to more harmonious local, national, and international relationships.

This ideological fusion of motherhood with peace made women's entrance into national debates about global affairs more hospitable than it might have been had they argued for participation based on more feminist principles of justice and equality. But as historians have aptly pointed out, women's pacifism was a politics of feminism as well as maternalism. Indeed, women active in peace movements saw a connection between militarist diplomacy and male supremacy, and they infused their critique of American foreign policy with a critique of male domination. Maternalist peace activism enabled women to understand not only their exclusion from the military state, but also their cultural and economic disenfranchisement in American society as women and mothers. They identified a link between military violence abroad and domestic violence at home. They argued that the violence of war devalued and destroyed women's values and women's work, since it was womenas motherswho created and sustained life. The war machine was male owned and operated, they claimed, and an American foreign policy based on military intervention was the logical culmination of men's domination in the workplace, politics, and the family. In this sense, many women activists (especially those in the second wave of the feminist movement) went further than mere condemnation of their exclusion from policymaking bureaucraciesthey denounced the whole system itself. These ideological currents could be seen in both nineteenth-and twentieth-century peace movements, and it is significant that women's participation in peace movements often grew out of and coexisted with activism in abolitionist, suffrage, and other feminist causes.

Although the focus on women missionaries and pacifists has been instrumental in writing women into the history of American foreign policy, this approach, too, has its problems. It can often assume an essentialized femininity (the idea that women are all the same) across all racial, class, and regional boundaries. At the same time, it can posit a theory of female differencethat women are a special class of human being, uniquely nurturant, maternal, and peaceful. As historians have suggested, this seemingly powerful vision of women can lead to their exclusion from politics and policymaking, based on the assumption that women would be unfit or somehow corrupted by the rough and tumble world of diplomacy.

More importantly, ideas about women's inherent pacifism are not true. As many studies have demonstrated, women have been an integral part of military engagements as auxiliary military forces, production workers, and home front volunteers. In fact, women themselves have invoked a maternalist ideology to endorse as well as oppose military preparedness and war. And, of course, American foreign policymakers have often depended on the rhetoric of maternalism and family to whip up popular support for their decisions. At different historical moments, American women have strenuously affirmed and participated in a whole range of military mobilizations.

Taken together, these histories reveal women's varied levels of engagement with American diplomacy. They underscore the fact that "women were there" in the making of foreign policy: there were a few in policymaking circles, more in missionary work, and even more in peace movements. Yet finding them has not made it easy to generalize about the meanings of their presence, for women were positioned differently in relation to the state that made foreign policy decisions, and they viewed and acted on those decisions in different ways. Perhaps the most important outcome of writing these women into diplomatic history is that now scholars must widen their lens as they seek to understand how foreign policy has been made and implemented by varieties of historical actors in varied political contexts.


If finding women in foreign policy has broadened the study of American foreign relations, then locating gender has stretched the discipline even further. In the most basic sense, applying a gender analysis to the study of American foreign policy is an attempt to see things differently, or to see new things entirely. Like other tools of analysis, gender offers another angle, another peek into the complicated world of policymaking. Diplomatic historians who use gender analysis are no different than their colleagues in the field; they, too, seek answers to longstanding questions about the emergence of colonialism, the development of tariff and trade policies, the rise of anti-imperialist movements, the origins of the Cold War, and the like. The use of a gender analysis does not preclude the use of any of the customary methodologies of the historian; gender merely adds to the historian's toolbox.

As explained earlier, the emergence of gender studies has made it possible for historians not only to find women but to see both women and men as gendered actors. Indeed, the research on women and femininity as historical subjects has inspired new investigation into the histories of men and masculinity. This has opened a rich vein of scholarship that does not take men's participation in foreign affairs for granted; rather, it interrogates how masculine values and worldviews have shaped diplomacy, enabling students of foreign policy to see anew how normative ideas about manhood inform policymakers' decision making in both domestic and international contexts.

But a gender analysis shows us more than masculinity in action; it offers a critical tool for understanding power in all of its guises. Seeing gender enables historians to scrutinize the organization of power in any arena, from the most public to the most intimate. Gender ideologies can represent relationships of power as innate, fixed, or biologically rooted, but gender history can make transparent the human agency behind those "natural" relationships. Gender analysis can also reveal how ideologies of masculinity and femininity are embedded in language and social structures; the language of warfare, for example, depends on gendered ideas of strength and weakness, protector and protected, which, in turn, shape how an institution like the military utilizes men and women to carry out American foreign policy. A gender analysis can be powerful precisely because it interrogates power itself; it raises fundamental questions about how particular groups have achieved dominance by naturalizing power relations that are, in fact, humanly constituted.

Cold War history offers an illustrative, although by no means exclusive, case of how gender analysis can affect the study of American foreign policy. It was in this field where scholars first began to commingle the study of politics, culture, and gender to expand traditional narratives of diplomatic history. The Cold War's rich imagery of nuclear apocalypse and hyperbolic talk of patriotism and subversion first caught the attention of historians of culture and social history, who sought to explain the relationship between the social-cultural politics of the postwar home front and the diplomatic politics of the Cold War. This work tended to locate gender and national security themes in popular culture (film, mass-circulation magazines) and in the burgeoning social scientific "expert" literature translated for public consumption. Scholars have traced how messages about muscular masculinity and dangerously aggressive femininity made their way into the films, novels, advice columns, and even comic book literature of the era. According to this research, new opportunities for women's independence unleashed by World War II (as witnessed by women's rising participation in the postwar wage labor force) generated new fears about the stability of gender roles and family practices. Female independence, often portrayed in popular culture in highly sexualized ways, was likened to the lethal potency of a mushroom cloud. Social science experts and popular advice literature advocated family stabilityand female domesticity, in particularas antidotes to the past disruptions of World War II and the future uncertainties of the nuclear age. This scholarship revealed intriguing symbolic linkages between the generalized anxiety about atomic energy and the popular apprehension about the slow but steady transformations in gender roles and family life.

In a similar vein, historians have pondered how containment doctrine, a policy hatched in high-level diplomatic circles, became a language and practice in the popular realm. Historians of the family and sexuality, for example, have explored how anticommunism and national security policies became manifest in everyday life. The ambient fear of nuclear annihilation, paired with concerns about the resilience of the nuclear family, spurred campaigns to "contain" the social forces that might prove disruptive to gender and family traditionalism. In fact, scholars have argued, postwar America's red scare was as much an attempt to root out nontraditional gender roles and sexual practices as it was an effort to secure America's foreign policy dominance. The preoccupation with national security abroad was bolstered by a security effort at home that enshrined "family values." According to popular cold warriors, with Joseph McCarthy being merely one of a chorus of voices, only heterosexual nuclear families with breadwinner fathers, stay-at-home mothers, and children could anchor a patriotic domestic security endeavor. Anything outside of that configuration was suspect, probably subversive, a potential menace to national security.

This gender conservatism underpinning the red scare was more than simply a cultural mood. Historians have shown it had concrete policy manifestations as well. Despite the changing gender and sexual practices of the wartime and postwar years, McCarthy-era intolerance led to the criminalization of homosexuality, resulting in the federal government's purge of gays and lesbians in government service. Advocates of the purge argued that homosexuals were "sex perverts" whose tastes and habits imperiled national security. Like communists, gays and lesbians could avoid detection and spread their propaganda under the radar screen. Homosexuals were dangerous as well because they were gender outlaws: mannish women who could not be domesticated and weak-willed, "sissified" men who could not stand firm and tall against communist aggression, at home and abroad. The theme of the "homosexual menace" pervaded postwar political culture, reaching from the very top echelons of the federal government to the most local bureaucracies and organizations. Using the screening and firing mechanisms of President Harry Truman's loyalty-security program, anticommunist officials were able to either screen out or discharge thousands of gay and lesbian citizens from government service. This episode illustrates how policymakers, opinion leaders, and ordinary folk imagined gender and sexual dangers as foreign policy or national security dangers. Without a gender analysis, these symbolic and material linkages would be difficult to see.

This early scholarship on the gendered meanings of Cold War culture and the national security state was highly suggestive, urging historians to think about connections not yet made and pointing out directions for future study. This work took the traditional approach of historiansdocument analysisand pushed it into new directions, borrowing from postmodern approaches that take discourse (written and spoken language, images, and symbols) analysis seriously. Historians saw in this Cold War discourse rich and varied gender meanings that could broaden our understanding of how language constructed the national security environment in which policymakers formulated their momentous decisions. In the broadest sense, the work on gender, culture, and foreign policy provocatively suggests that the relationship between text and context is more than incidentalthat text actually constructs the historical context, it does not merely reflect it. This work has also performed an invaluable service to both diplomatic and social history, because it has successfully linked these heretofore separate historical literatures. The fusion of this previously bifurcated historiography of the postwar era has yielded a more complex understanding of the Cold War as a creature with both domestic and diplomatic dimensions.

Still, the first historians to do this work tended to look for a genderforeign policy connection primarily in popular culture, leaving unanalyzed the gender content of the more traditional documents (letters, memos, telegrams, agency reports, treaties) found in presidential and security agency archives. In fact, there was arguably a kind of gendering of the sources themselves, whereby scholars who wanted to find gender in diplomacy tended to look at popular discourses (gendered feminine) rather than at the records of diplomacy (gendered masculine). This left the impression, as Amy Kaplan (1994) has argued, that gender "enters diplomatic history only through the aegis of culture." More recent scholarship on gender and Cold War foreign policy has built on these earlier approaches, and historians continue to fine-tune and adapt the methodologies of literary and cultural studies to traditional historical analysis of diplomacy. Much of the newer work on gender and foreign policy now analyzes gender in sources that few postwar Americans would have laid eyes on. Cold War historians excavate the classified archival materials of presidents, defense bureaucracies, military leaders, intelligence agencies, and nongovernmental actors engaged in diplomacy at various levels. Their analysis of these institutional documents produced in relatively remote political environments is no different than the cultural historian's analysis of documents produced for mass consumption. Like Cold War films or science fiction literature, traditional diplomatic documents are cultural artifacts that can reveal something about the operation of gender in the Cold War era.

An examination of particular moments in Cold War history from the Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy administrations may help readers see how this work is done. Diplomatic historians have long debated questions about the emergence of chilly relations between the United States and the Soviet Union in the aftermath of World War II. Volumes have been written about how the two superpowers sought military, economic, and territorial advantages as they tried to construct a postwar world hospitable to their own interests. Many scholars have focused on the development of the doctrine of containment, foreshadowed by the 1947 Truman Doctrine (which pledged the United States to fight communism in Greece and Turkey), and then articulated more thoroughly by George Kennan, the State Department analyst who penned the now famous "long telegram" in early 1946, followed by the "Sources of Soviet Conduct" article in July 1947. Historians have scrutinized Kennan's policy recommendations and rhetorical flourishes for decades, but until the late 1990s, no historian had done a close textual analysis that incorporated gender analysis. In fact, the question of how gender has shaped the political assumptions, worldviews, and policies of cold warriors has yet to be asked in a systematic way for the whole of the Cold War. Nevertheless, new studies have yielded some compelling findings on particular episodes in Cold War history.

Using the insights of gender studies, historian Frank Costigliola found that George Kennan's writings were rife with gendered metaphors that represented the Cold War as an emotional, sexually charged struggle between a man and woman. Kennan's favorite analogies to describe the changing postwar relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union depended heavily on gender, family, and sexual ideologies and imagery. For example, Kennan likened the relationship between Soviet citizens and their government to a wife who becomes gradually disillusioned with her husband and seeks a divorce from him. Russian people, in general, were gendered feminine, Kennan's way of conveying his firm view that the Soviet citizenry was beholden to their cruel and despotic government, gendered as a hypermasculine authority figure. In his telegram, Kennan went so far as to portray the Soviet government as a rapist who tried to exert "unceasing pressure" with "penetration" into Western society. These gendered metaphors and tropes are not just casual talk; they are the stuff of politics, according to Costigliola and others. Kennan's writings shaped the political environment in which policymakers thought about and negotiated with the Soviets; the invocation of highly gendered and sexualized motifs, Costigliola notes in "'Unceasing Pressure for Penetration'" (1997), "created an emotionalized context" that made the exaggerations of a Soviet threat seem "rational and credible," thus closing off deeper deliberation about the reality and dimensions of that threat. Other scholars, too, have delved into diplomatic sources to see how policymakers relied on gender to understand diplomatic relations between states. Historian Michelle Mart examined the gendered discourses of U.S. relations with Israel in the Truman and Eisenhower years. In this case, gender helps explain how Israeli Jews became worthy of a close relationship with the United States from 1948 through the 1950s, that is, only after they had proclaimed statehood and strenuously resisted subsequent Arab attacks. An analysis of the diplomatic exchanges between the United States and Israel reveals that the manly pursuits of statehood and warfare transformed Israeli Jews, in the eyes of the U.S. policymakers, from marginal global players to muscular fighters, sex symbols, and triumphant underdogs. Jewish "tough guys" had proven their mettle in the battle for statehood, and the reward for their virile and vigorous struggle was a dependable, long-term alliance with the United States. Gender defined the parameters of that alliance, for a toughminded masculine orientation was considered by U.S. policymakers an important indicator of a country's fitness for a close political and military alliance with a global superpower.

A study of U.S. relations with India in the same time period reveals how the very gendered perceptions that enabled diplomatic partnership with the Israelis disqualified India as a serious player in Cold War politics. According to a study by Andrew Rotter, America's postwar relationship with India was structured, in part, by the gendered perception that India's desire to remain a neutral player in the standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union was a signal of its passivity and cowardice. American policymakers, frustrated with India's desire for neutrality, portrayed India itself and Indian diplomats as feminine, meaning in this case, weak-willed, irrational, naive about world affairs, and ultimately undependable. Cold War gender ideologies that valorized masculine rationality and decisiveness as a counterpoint to feminine emotionality and passivity thus shaped policymakers' views that India was acting like a frightened woman who could not be relied upon to sustain a long-term diplomatic alliance in Asia.

Moving forward from the Cold War diplomacy of the Truman and Eisenhower administrations into the early 1960s, scholarly work has uncovered the centrality of gender to the policy assumptions and decision making of the Kennedy administration. John F. Kennedy's cultivation of youth, energetic patriotism, and moral courage has been discussed widely. As historian Robert D. Dean argues, scholars and media observers of the Kennedy presidency have often cited President Kennedy's preoccupation with "toughness" as an issue of personal style or habit, not a matter of gender politics. In fact, Kennedy's foreign policy interests and energies were a reflection of his views that American manhood was threatened by indulgent consumption at home and communist insurgency abroad, both of which required the diplomatic muscle flexing of tough-minded cold warriors. Kennedy's physical fitness programs would strengthen youth at home, while his new Peace Corps would dispatch an energetic corps of youth to all ends of the globe to fight the Cold War with American ideology and first-world technology. Meanwhile, his counterinsurgency measures, embodied by the elite Green Berets, would counter Soviet aggression by discouraging any potentialand quashing any realSoviet-sponsored indigenous uprisings. In essence, Dean claims, Kennedy's policies were a projection of his perception that American men had grown soft and idle in the postwar period, and that the antidote to this crisis of masculinity was an infusion of bellicose and brawny political leadership at home and abroad.

We can reach further back in time, to the nineteenth century, to apprehend gender meanings in American foreign policy. Kristin L. Hoganson's 1998 study about the operation of gender in the Spanish-American War, for example, nudges historians to confront difficult questions about the causal role of gender in American foreign policy decisions. Like the scholarship on gender and the Cold War, her study is premised on the notion "that the conduct of foreign policy does not occur in a vacuum, that political decision makers are shaped by their surrounding cultures," and that "inherited ideas about gender" are a part of that culture and thus shape profoundly the views of foreign policymakers. In the case of the Spanish-American War, Hoganson states that gender ideals "played an exceptionally powerful and traceable role" in the decision to go to war. Advocates of intervention in Cuba and the Philippines believed that international aggression would fortify American nationalism and manhood at the same time. They drew on nineteenth-century ideas about "manly" character and citizenship, arguing that a war for territorial and economic expansion would energize and rehabilitate American manhood, which, they claimed, had grown soft without the challenges of frontier expansion, agricultural production, and warrior experience. Layered upon these concerns was another: women's growing political activism and their insistence on the right to vote. An imperial war, according to interventionists, would certify gender traditionalism (man as protector, women as the protected) and restore the manly (and womanly) virtues and character that were the basis of American democracy.

Interestingly, we see a striking repetition of gender themes between the foreign policy environments of the late nineteenth century and the Cold War era: a perceived crisis of masculinity (notably, associated with consumption in both centuries), an emergent anxiety about women's independence, and a confidence that a virile and robust American diplomatic posture abroad could go far to solve the twin problems of gender disorder at home and global threats abroad. In both periods of expansionist impulse, concerns about masculinity and femininity merged with concerns about affairs of state. Whatever the century or whatever the case study, then, late-twentieth-century scholarship made big and insistent claims that gender ideologies were a fundamental part of foreign policy formulation. In all of the examples cited, it appears that gender shaped the identities of foreign policymakers themselves before they arrived in Washington, and that it continued to shape their assumptions, anxieties, aspirations, and actions once they were fully ensconced in diplomatic circles.


Historians who study gender will find all of the above themes familiar, but scholars who have not yet tangled with gender analysis in their studies of foreign policy might find the approaches dubious and the conclusions unconvincing. Indeed, since gender topics first appeared in the pages of diplomatic history journals, historians have debated the merits of gender analysis at conferences, in on-line forums, in journals, and in their own monographs. One of the reasons for this debate is that some of the gender-themed studies of American foreign relations gained momentum in fields outside of diplomatic history and, indeed, outside of the history discipline itself, in the more literary-focused arena of cultural studies. Skeptics of the gender approach have wondered aloud what diplomatic historians can learn from stories about sexual metaphors, "tough Jews," feminized Indians, and the gender tropes of imperial expansion and war. They have accused gender historians of paying too much attention to issues of representation at the cost of asking hard questions about causation. Some have argued that gender scholars have borrowed too heavily from other disciplines and have introduced questionable theories, methodologies, and insights into the field.

These criticisms are important and worth some elaboration. In fact, a great deal of the work on gender is indebted to postmodernist and cultural studies approaches, which cross disciplinary boundaries, take language seriously, and insist that historians interrogate not only the construction of reality in primary documents but the social construction of their own historical narratives. Cultural studies approaches differ, of course, but all involve close scrutiny of the unarticulated assumptions that underlay the legitimation, expression, and resistance of power. As Costigliola observes in "The Nuclear Family" (1997), "gender norms acted as silent organizers" of power in the diplomatic and political realms. Perhaps, then, what has made gender analysis controversial in diplomatic history is the fact that those who recognized these silences in their documents have also exposed some of the methodological silences of their discipline as well. Turning their critical eye from primary to secondary sources, gender scholars have provocatively suggested that gender norms might have also tacitly shaped the historiography of American foreign relations, thus calling into question some of the disciplinary "truths" of diplomatic history. Drawing on the insights of postmodernism, these scholars have argued that the historiography itself is a social construction, and that narratives about foreign policy (or any historical phenomena) are human creations, subject to the inherited biases and assumptions of time and place.

Such challenges to the discipline and its historiography have evoked spirited criticism of postmodernism, gender analysis, and critical theory in general. Some historians claim that post-modernist gender approaches are jargon-filled intellectual exercises that have done little to enlighten the key debates in the field. More than a few have said that investigations of language and representation have taken diplomatic history too far afield from its traditional units of study (the nation-state, for example) and its tried and true methodology of document analysis and synthesis. In particular, critics have challenged the post-modernist claim that historical evidence does not benignly reveal a "real" world or a central "truth," and that the evidence itself is a selective representation that can suppress multiple truths and heterogeneous realities. They maintain that such critical approaches, of which gender analysis is an elemental part, have spilled too much ink probing language and ideology rather than apprehending the real reasons for foreign policy decisions and outcomes.

While critics have argued that the new work on gender has better explained the connections between gender, culture, and diplomacy, rather than causation, those whose scholarship has been integral to this historiographical turn maintain that clear causation is hard to identify for any scholar, working on any problem, in any era. In fact, most gender scholars would agree that gender analysis does not explain reductively a single cause for a particular action, and that sometimes, gender meanings are not the most salient or significant aspects of a historical puzzle. Rather, they would argue, gender analysis abets the historian's effort to get closer to a reasonable and reliable set of explanations about a particular historical problem. Historians who seriously engage gender do not shy away from questions about causation, but they tend to approach overarching causal explanations with caution. The precise effect of George Kennan's "long telegram" on policymaking, for example, is impossible to discern, but it seems clear that his writings simplified what should have been a complex debate about Soviet intentions, and that his highly gendered, emotional musings naturalizedand thus rationalizeda set of diplomatic maneuvers that positioned the Soviets as unreliable allies and credible threats. In the case of the Spanish-American War, the societal panic about masculinity in decline reveals how gender "pushed" and "provoked" warfare as an antidote to the changes in nineteenth-century family and gender relations. And in the case of President Kennedy's foreign policy programs, the gender experiences of Kennedy and his elite policy cohort, along with the gender ideologies and anxieties of the postwar era, motivated the president to respond to his Cold War environment as an Ivy League tough guy who could martial the resources to assure American hegemony.

These debates about gender and causation will, no doubt, continue, but in some ways they may miss the point. No historian has endowed gender with monocausal superpowers; in fact, many scholars of gender point out that the causal relationship between gender and foreign policy needs to be teased out even further. And although asking the "how" and "why" questions continues to be a staple of the discipline, perhaps historians need to reexamine this preoccupation with causation. The studies of Kennan and Kennedy are instructive here. As Costigliola's "'Unceasing Pressure for Penetration'" has made clear, the questions about gender's causal effects in foreign policy formulation "arise from the premise that there must be single, clear, unequivocal causes for policies and actions," a premise that historians have repeatedly tested and found wanting. Even vocal critics of the gender approach have acknowledged that no single theory or explanatory framework can possibly explain the complexities of American foreign policymaking. As Dean has aptly stated, "gender must be understood not as an independent cause of policy decisions, but as part of the very fabric of reasoning employed by officeholders." And so, too, it should be for historiansthat gender become one part of the fabric of our historical analysis, not a separate, unrelated path of inquiry.

Together, women's history and gender studies have enabled historians to conceive of foreign policy more broadly, inviting more actors, methods, and theories into the endeavor. A gender analysis offers one way to recast and expand the debates about the history of diplomacy. Its newness, relative to other approaches, has generated both excitement and skepticism, and as new work is published, historians will have new opportunities to debates its impact and merits.


Alonso, Harriet Hyman. Peace as a Women's Issue: A History of the U.S. Movement for World Peace and Women's Rights. Syracuse, N.Y., 1993.

Cohn, Carol. "Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals." Signs 12 (winter 1987): 687718. A gender analysis of nuclear strategy debates.

Cooke, Miriam, and Angela Woollacott, eds. Gendering War Talk. Princeton, N.J., 1993. An interdisciplinary collection on gender and war.

Costigliola, Frank. "'Unceasing Pressure for Penetration': Gender, Pathology, and Emotion in George Kennan's Formation of the Cold War." Journal of American History 83 (March 1997): 13091339.

. "The Nuclear Family: Tropes of Gender and Pathology in the Western Alliance." Diplomatic History 21 (spring 1997): 163183.

Crapol, Edward P. Women and American Foreign Policy: Lobbyists, Critics, and Insiders. Wilmington, Del., 1992.

"Culture, Gender, and Foreign Policy: A Symposium." Diplomatic History 18 (winter 1994): 4770. A collection of articles and commentaries on the application of gender analysis to diplomatic history.

Dean, Robert D. "Masculinity as Ideology: John F. Kennedy and the Domestic Politics of Foreign Policy." Diplomatic History 22 (winter 1998): 2962.

D'Emilio, John. "Bonds of Oppression: Gay Life in the 1950s." In his Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities. Chicago, 1983. Discusses links between anticommunism and containment of sexuality.

Enloe, Cynthia. Does Khaki Become You? The Militarisation of Women's Lives. London, 1983. One of the earliest works to theorize about women, war, and international relations.

. Bananas, Beaches, and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics. Berkeley, Calif., 1989. A useful primer on gender and foreign relations.

Goedde, Petra. "From Villains to Victims: Fraternization and the Feminization of Germany, 19451947." Diplomatic History 23 (winter 1999): 120.

Harris, Adrienne, and Ynestra King, eds. Rocking the Ship of State: Toward a Feminist Peace Politics. Boulder, Colo., 1989. An introduction to issues of women, gender, and peace activism.

Higonnet, Margaret Randolph, Jane Jenson, Sonya Michel, and Margaret Collins Weitz. Behind the Lines: Gender and the Two World Wars. New Haven, Conn., 1987.

Hoganson, Kristin L. Fighting for American Manhood: How Gender Politics Provoked the Spanish-American and Philippine-American Wars. New Haven, Conn., 1998.

Hunter, Jane. The Gospel of Gentility: American Women Missionaries in Turn-of-the-Century China. New Haven, Conn., 1984.

Jeffords, Susan. The Remasculinization of America: Gender and the Vietnam War. Bloomington, Ind., 1989.

Jeffreys-Jones, Rhodri. Changing Differences: Women and the Shaping of American Foreign Policy, 19171994. New Brunswick, N.J., 1995.

Kaplan, Amy. "Domesticating Foreign Policy." Diplomatic History 18 (winter 1994): 97105.

Mart, Michelle. "Tough Guys and American Cold War Policy: Images of Israel, 19481960." Diplomatic History 20 (summer 1996): 357380.

May, Elaine Tyler. Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era. New York, 1988. An analysis of gender, family, and Cold War culture.

McEnaney, Laura. Civil Defense Begins at Home: Militarization Meets Everyday Life in the Fifties. Princeton, N.J., 2000. Includes lengthy analysis of women, gender, nuclear preparedness, and the national security state.

Meyer, Leisa. Creating G.I. Jane: Sexuality and Power in the Women's Army Corps During World War II. New York, 1996. A discussion of gender, sexuality, and military mobilization.

Papachristou, Judith. "American Women and Foreign Policy, 18981905: Exploring Gender in Diplomatic History." Diplomatic History 14 (fall 1990): 493509.

Rosenberg, Emily S. "Gender." Journal of American History 77 (June 1990): 116124. An overview of historiographical approaches on women, gender, and foreign policy.

. "Revisiting Dollar Diplomacy: Narratives of Money and Manliness." Diplomatic History 22 (spring 1998): 155176. A useful discussion of gender, critical theory, and diplomatic history.

. "Consuming Women: Images of Americanization in the 'American Century.'" Diplomatic History 23 (summer 1999): 479497.

Rotter, Andrew J. "Gender Relations, Foreign Relations: The United States and South Asia, 19471964." Journal of American History 81 (September 1994): 518542.

Smith, Geoffrey S. "National Security and Personal Isolation: Sex, Gender, and Disease in the Cold-War United States." International History Review 14 (May 1992): 307337.

Swerdlow, Amy. Women Strike for Peace: Traditional Motherhood and Radical Politics in the 1960s. Chicago, 1993.

Tickner, J. Ann. Gender in International Relations: Feminist Perspectives on Achieving Global Security. New York, 1992.

Wexler, Laura. Tender Violence: Domestic Visions in an Age of U.S. Imperialism. Chapel Hill, N.C., 2000. A study of female photojournalists and the gendered representations of war and foreign relations.

See also Cold War Evolution and Interpretations; Pacifism; Peace Movements .


"The harsh fact of the matter is that there is also an increasingly large number of young Americans who are neglecting their bodieswhose physical fitness is not what it should bewho are getting soft. And such softness on the part of individual citizens can help to strip and destroy the vitality of a nation. Thus in a very real and immediate sense, our growing softness, our increasing lack of physical fitness, is a menace to our security."

John F. Kennedy on men's physical fitness and national strength, 1960

"The new stronghold of national security is in our homes. For the first time, the personal defense of our homes is being rated as co-equal in importance with our military defense."

Katherine Howard, Federal Civil Defense Administration Women's Affairs Division, on family responsibility and Cold War national security, 1954

"This group of women came together to protest in the name of Womanhood against the cruelty and waste of war, and to give united help toward translating the mother-instinct of life-saving into social terms of the common good."

Women's International League for Peace and Freedom statement, 1919

"Exactly as each man, while doing first his duty to his wife and the children within his home, must yet, if he hopes to amount to much, strive mightily in the world outside his home, so our nation, while first of all seeing to its own domestic well-being, must not shrink from playing its part among the great nations without."

President Theodore Roosevelt on men's domestic and international responsibilities, 1901

"What does all this mean for every one of us? It means opportunity for all the glorious young manhood of the republicthe most virile, ambitious, impatient, militant manhood the world has ever seen."

Senator Albert J. Beveridge on the annexation of the Philippines in 1900

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Gender." Encyclopedia of American Foreign Policy. . 15 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Gender." Encyclopedia of American Foreign Policy. . (December 15, 2017).

"Gender." Encyclopedia of American Foreign Policy. . Retrieved December 15, 2017 from



Gender is a dichotomous social category that prescribes behaviors, attitudes, feelings, and other characteristics as being appropriate for a male or a female. That is, knowing an individual's gender allows us to place him or her in a distinct social category (male or female) and then judge his or her behaviors based on our expectations for that category. This entry introduces the prominent theories and empirical research related to the conceptualization of gender, gender roles and gender stereo-types, gendered power relations, and the interaction of gender with other social categories.

Conceptualization of Gender

The categorization of people on the basis of their biological sex ultimately leads to questions of difference. Theorists debate whether the differences between men and women are extensive enough to merit the common label of opposite sex. Maximalists believe that the differences between men and women are large and deeply rooted. Minimalists, in contrast, maintain that differences among men and among women are larger than the differences between men and women (Anselmi and Law 1998).

Another topic of debate is the location of gender. Specifically, are we gendered beings, or do we live in a gendered society? The essentialist stance contends that we are gendered beings; that is, gender is located within the individual. Essentialists argue that the behavioral differences between men and women are fundamental and rooted in biological sex differences. Accordingly, research based on an essentialist stance focuses on finding neurological, hormonal, and evolutionary differences between men and women. Because they emphasize the biological, essentialists often do not differentiate between the terms sex and gender. Cross-cultural similarities are used to support the essentialist perspective (Anselmi and Law 1998).

Social constructionists offer the contrasting view that gender is located within social arrangements. Specifically, as people relate to one another in a cultural and social context, gender differences arise that are sometimes related to biological sex differences, but are more often viewed as arising from cultural expectations for what are appropriate behavior and characteristics for females and males. Accordingly, research based on a social constructionist stance focuses on identifying conditions that are associated with similarities or differences across gender. From this perspective, sex is treated as a biological category, and gender is treated as a social category. Cross-cultural differences are used to support the social constructionist perspective (Anselmi and Law 1998).

Janice Bohan (1997) offers a useful analogy in understanding the difference between essentialism and social constructionism. After having a conversation with a person, one might either label the individual as friendly or, alternately, label the conversation as friendly. Labeling the person as friendly is analogous to essentialism, as friendly is viewed as a quality of the person. In another view, labeling the conversation as friendly is analogous with social constructionism, as friendly is viewed as a quality of the social interaction,

A third possibility is that gender is located both within individuals and within cultural and societal arrangements. A few biological differences, such as women's ability to bear children, shape social arrangements and influence social interactions. From this perspective, individuals internalize sociocultural expectations for their assigned gender and then behave accordingly. This view integrates essentialism and social constructionism to form an interactionist conceptualization of gender.

Gender Roles and Stereotypes

Gender roles are "socially and culturally defined prescriptions and beliefs about the behavior and emotions of men and women" (Anselmi and Law 1998, p. 195). Many theorists believe that perceived gender roles form the bases for the development of gender identity. Prominent psychological theories of gender role and gender identity development include evolutionary theory (Buss 1995; Shields 1975), object-relations theory (Chodorow 1989), gender schema theory (Bem 1981, 1993) and social role theory (Eagly 1987).

Evolutionary theories of gender development are grounded in genetic bases for differences between men and women. Functionalists (e.g., Shields 1975) propose that men and women have evolved differently to fulfill their different and complementary functions, which are necessary for survival. Similarly, sociobiologists (e.g., Buss 1995) suggest that behavioral differences between men and women stem from different sexual and reproductive strategies that have evolved to ensure that men and women are able to efficiently reproduce and effectively pass on their genes. These evolutionary-based theories share similarities with the essentialist and maximalist perspectives discussed previously.

In contrast, object-relations theorists focus on the effects of socialization on gender development. For example, Nancy Chodorow (1989) emphasizes the role of women as primary caregivers in the development of sex differences. Chodorow asserts that the early bond between mother and child affects boys and girls differently. Whereas boys must separate from their mothers to form their identities as males, girls do not have to endure this separation to define their identities as females. Chodorow (1989) explains that the devalued role of women is a product of the painful process men undergo to separate themselves from the female role.

Gender schema theory (Bem 1981) focuses on the role of cognitive organization in addition to socialization. This theory postulates that children learn how their cultures and/or societies define the roles of men and women and then internalize this knowledge as a gender schema, or unchallenged core belief. The gender schema is then used to organize subsequent experiences (Bem 1993). Children's perceptions of men and women are thus an interaction between their gender schemas and their experiences. Eventually, children will incorporate their own self-concepts into their gender schema and will assume the traits and behaviors that they deem suitable for their gender.

Alice Eagly (1987) offers yet another explanation of gender development that is based on socialization. Eagly's social role theory suggests that the sexual division of labor and societal expectations based on stereotypes produce gender roles. Eagly (1987) distinguishes between the communal and agentic dimensions of gender-stereotyped characteristics. The communal role is characterized by attributes, such as nurturance and emotional expressiveness, commonly associated with domestic activities, and thus, with women. The agentic role is characterized by attributes such as assertiveness and independence, commonly associated with public activities, and thus, with men. Behavior is strongly influenced by gender roles when cultures endorse gender stereotypes and form firm expectations based on those stereotypes (Eagly 1987).

As Eagly suggests, gender roles are closely linked with gender stereotypes. Stereotypes are "overgeneralized beliefs about people based on their membership in one of many social categories" (Anselmi and Law 1998, p. 195). Gender stereotypes vary on four dimensions: traits, role behaviors, physical characteristics, and occupations (Deaux and Lewis 1983). For example, whereas men are more likely to be perceived as aggressive and competitive, women are more likely to be viewed as passive and cooperative. Traditionally, men have been viewed as financial providers, whereas women have been viewed as caretakers. Physical characteristics and occupations have also been considered consistent or inconsistent with masculine or feminine roles.

Traditional gender stereotypes are most representative of the dominant (white, middle-class) culture. Hope Landrine (1999) asserts that although race and social class may not be mentioned when inquiring about gender stereotypes, most people will make assumptions about these categories. Her research suggests that when race and social classes are specified, different gender stereotypes emerge.

Gender roles and stereotypes affect couple and family interaction. Often, for example, the division of household labor is based on gender. Traditionally, white women in heterosexual couples remained at home and completed most of the domestic labor, while their male partners worked outside the home to provide the family income. Although women have increasingly joined the workforce over the past thirty years, they continue to do the majority of the household labor. Lawrence Kurdek (1993) studied white, heterosexual, gay, and lesbian couples without children. He found that heterosexual and gay couples were more likely than lesbian couples to divide household labor so that one partner did the majority of the work. Lesbian couples were most likely to share domestic tasks or take turns doing the tasks (Kurdek 1993).

Gender roles often become more differentiated when men and women become parents. Overall, women provide more direct care for and spend more time with children (Walzer 2001). This care includes taking responsibility for the mental work of gathering and processing information about infant care, delegating the tasks related to infant care, and worrying about infant health and well-being. In sum, the unequal division of both household labor and childcare, with women doing the bulk of the work, is thought to contribute to the reported lower marital satisfaction for women (Walzer 2001).

Gender roles and stereotypes affect men and women in other ways. Specifically, men and women may be judged by how well they conform to traditional stereotypes. In his theory of masculine gender role strain, Joespech Pleck (1976) asserted that boys and men are pressured to fulfill a standard of masculinity. Boys and men, for example, who do not fulfill the standard often suffer from low self-worth (Pleck; Sonnenstein; and Ku1993). Other lifelong consequences befall men who experience traumatic socialization practices such as rites of passage that entail violence. Even men who successfully fulfill the standard of masculinity suffer psychologically or emotionally from rigid constraints on acceptable parenting roles for men (Pleck; Sonnonstein; and Ku 1993). Richard Lazur and Richard Majors (1995) contend that gender role strain is pronounced with men of color. Men of color must balance the dominant standards of masculinity with their cultures' standards of masculinity in an effort to fulfill both satisfactorily. In addition, men of color must overcome prejudice and other obstacles to fulfill the standards of masculinity. The result is increased gender role strain for men of color (Lazur and Majors 1995). Likewise, white women and women of color may be constrained by standards of femininity, such as the pressure to have children.

Gender stereotypes can also affect men's and women's performance. Stereotype threat is defined as "an individual's awareness that he or she may be judged by or may self-fulfill negative stereo-types about her or his gender or ethnic group" (Lips 2001, p. 33). Research indicates that stereo-type threat can negatively affect performance by increasing anxiety. For example, Steven Spencer, Claude Steele, and Diane Quinn (1999) found that women performed significantly worse than men on a math test when the participants were led to believe that the test would probably produce gender differences. In contrast, women and men performed equally well when the participants were led to believe that the test did not produce gender differences. These findings suggest that negative stereotypes can and do negatively affect performance even when the stereotype has not been internalized or incorporated into the view of the self.

Interaction between Gender and Power

Differences in male and female gender roles are related to the power differential between men and women. Structural and institutional power reside in the forms of access to educational, economic, and political resources and opportunities. In most societies, access to these structural forms of power are aspects of male privilege.

Education, for example, provides people with the power to gather and process information, thus understanding the world in which they live. Although women in North America receive educations comparable to those of men, women in other nations often lack access to education and the power it affords. The United Nations (2000) reported that females comprise two-thirds of the world's 876 million illiterates. For example, under Taliban religious rule, women in Afganistan were not allowed to attend school, and those who attempted to teach them were harshly punished. One of the first responses when Taliban rule ended was the reinstitution of education for women.

Economies provide people with the power to financially support themselves and their families. The United Nations (2000) stated that women's participation in the workforce, although increasing, tends to be limited to a few occupations. In addition, women continue to occupy lower-status and lower-paying jobs. Women also experience greater unemployment than men (United Nations 2000). Fewer opportunities in the job market may partially explain the recent increases in the proportion of poor women in the United States. The United States 2000 Census data show that, compared to men at 9.9 percent, a higher percentage of women (12.5%) reside below the poverty line in all age categories. The differences are even more dramatic when race is included in the calculations. Whereas 8.3 percent of Caucasian American men fall beneath the poverty line, 24.1 percent of African American women fall beneath the poverty line (US Census Bureau 2001). Whether in the United States, or in other countries, women have less economic power than men.

Similar patterns are apparent in the arena of political power. Governments provide people with the power to voice their needs and wants through voting and holding elected positions. However, women did not have the right to vote in ten of the world's eleven oldest democracies until the twentieth century (Lips 2001). In addition, women are significantly underrepresented in legislative positions. Specifically, in 1998, women filled only 9 percent of the United States Senate seats and 12.9 percent of the House of Representative (Lips 2001).

Some theorists believe that men's greater power and status in societies underlie the differences in gender roles. Social structure theory (Eagly and Wood 1999) postulates that the powerful roles that men hold lead to the development of related traits, such as aggressiveness and assertiveness. Likewise, women who have less access to powerful roles develop traits consistent with their subordinate roles, such as submissiveness and cooperativeness. In sum, the power differential in favor of men may explain why stereotypical male traits are more valued than stereotypical feminine traits.

The existing power differential between men and women can also be manifested within marriages and families. For example, men may actively use their power to avoid sharing the household labor. Women may be relegated to providing more unpaid domestic labor because the gendered structure of their society inhibits their access to economic power.

Findings indicate that men who lack other types of power may compensate by exerting power through violence toward their partners. Women, who often lack economic power and interpersonal power and resources, all too frequently become trapped in increasingly violent relationships. Marital or intimate violence is a worldwide problem. For example, research suggests that one out of four Chilean women are beaten by their partners (McWhirter 1999). Similarly, findings from the National Violence Against Women Survey suggest that almost 25 percent of American women have been sexually and/or physically assaulted by an intimate partner. (Patricia Tjaden and Nancy Thoennes 2000) Unfortunately, social institutions (legal, religious, medical) have historically supported male perpetrators of domestic violence rather than their female victims, effectively maintaining and reinforcing the power differential.

Interaction between Gender and Other Social Categories

Thus far this discussion of gender has focused on the distinction between men and women. However, this complex social category interacts with other social categories, such as race and socioeconomic status. A person is not simply a man or a woman, but is also defined by his or her membership in other social categories.

Too much of the extant literature on gender has been limited to Western, white, middle-class men and women. Pamely Trotman Reid (1999) states that, "for the most part, theory and empirical study in the psychology of women have failed to recognize many distinctions among women" (p. 337). She specifically criticizes the exclusion of poor women in psychological research. Likewise, women of color have often been excluded in the study of women. Despite such limited research samples, researchers frequently interpret their results as if they describe all men and all women, which can lead to false deductions and conclusions (Weber, Higginbotham, and Leung 1999). Certainly a clearer understanding of gender requires careful consideration of the intersections between gender and socioeconomic class, race, ethnicity, and a plethora of other categories that create and perpetuate power differentials in cultures around the globe.

See also:Childhood; Division of Labor; Family Roles; Gay Parents; Gender Identity; Husband; Intimacy; Lesbian Parents; Names for Children; Play; Power: Family Relationships; Power; Marital Relationships; Sexuality; Sexual Orientation; Stress; Sexuality in Childhood; Wife; Women's Movements


anselmi, d. l., and law, a. l., eds. (1998). questions ofgender: perspectives and paradoxes. boston: mcgraw hill.

bem, s. l. (1981). "gender schema theory: a cognitive account of sex-typing." psychological review 88:354–364.

bem, s. l. (1993). the lenses of gender: transforming thedebate on sexual inequality. new haven, ct: yale university press.

bohan, j. s. (1997). "regarding gender: essentialism, constructionism, and feminist psychology." in toward a new psychology of gender, ed. m. m. gergen and s. n. davis. new york: routledge.

buss, d. m. (1995). "psychological sex differences: origins through sexual selection." american psychologist 50:164–168.

chodorow, n. (1989). feminism and psychoanalytic theory. new haven, ct: yale university press.

deaux, k., and lewis, l. l. (1983). "assessment of genderstereotypes: methodology and components." psychological documents 13:25.

eagly, a. h. (1987). sex differences in social behavior: asocial role interpretation. hillsdale, nj: erlbaum.

eagly, a. h., and wood, w. (1999). "the origins of sexdifferences in human behavior: evolved dispositions versus social roles." american psychologist 54(6):408–423.

kudek, l. a. (1993). "the allocation of household labor in gay, lesbian, and heterosexual married couples." journal of social issues 49:127–139.

landrine, h. (1999) "race x class stereotypes of women."in gender, culture, and ethnicity: current research about women and men, ed. l. a. peplau, s. c. debro, r. c. veniegas, and p. l. taylor. mountain view, ca: mayfield.

lazur, r. f., and majors, r. (1995). "men of color: ethnocultural variations of male gender role strain." in a new psychology of men, ed. r. f. levant and s. pollack. new york: basic books.

lips, h. m. (2001). sex and gender: an introduction. 4th edition. mountain view, ca: mayfield.

mcwhirter, p. t. (1999). "la violencia privada: domesticviolence in chile." american psychologist 54(1):37–40.

pleck, j. h. (1976). "the male sex role: definitions, problems, and sources of change." journal of social issues 32:155–164.

pleck, j. h., sonnenstein, f. l., and ku, l. c. (1993). "masculinity ideology and its correlates." in gender issues in contemporary society, ed. s. oskamp and m. costanzo. newbury park, ca: sage.

reid, p. t. (1999). "poor women in psychological research: shut up and shut out." in gender, culture, and ethnicity: current research about women and men, ed. l. a. peplau, s. c. debro, r. c. veniegas, and p. l. taylor. mountain view, ca: mayfield.

shields, s. a. (1975). "functionalism, darwinism, and the psychology of women: a study in social myth." american psychologist 30(7):739–754.

spencer, s. j.; steele, c. m.; and quinn, d. m. (1999)."stereotype threat and women's math performance." journal of experimental social psychology 35(1):4–28.

walzer, s. (2001). "thinking about the baby: gender and the division of infant care." in men and masculinity: a text reader, ed. t. f. cohen. belmont, ca: wadsworth.

weber, l., higginbotham, e., and leung, m. l. a. (1999). "race and class bias in qualitative research on women." in gender, culture, and ethnicity: current research about women and men, ed. l. a. peplau,s. c. debro, r. c. veniegas, and p. l. taylor. mountain view, ca: mayfield.

other resources

tjaden, p., and thoennes, n. (2000). extent, nature, andconsequences of intimate partner violence: findings from the national violence against women survey. available from

united nations. the world's women 2000: trends andstatistics. available from

united states census bureau. (2001). annual demographic survey. available from http://ferret.bls.

kelly rice wood

sharon scales rostosky

pam remer

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Gender." International Encyclopedia of Marriage and Family. . 15 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Gender." International Encyclopedia of Marriage and Family. . (December 15, 2017).

"Gender." International Encyclopedia of Marriage and Family. . Retrieved December 15, 2017 from



When considering issues of aging, gender must be considered as an integral component. The Census Bureau estimates that the number of women age sixty and older in the world will double between the years 2000 and 2025. In 2000, in developed countries, one in ten persons was a woman age sixty or older. This is projected to increase to one in seven by 2025. While developed countries may have higher percentages of older women, developing countries actually have higher numbers of older women, with faster growth rates for older women than more developed countries.

The different life experiences of women and men are reflected in several key demographic measures. Primary among these is the skewed sex ratio at older agesthere are a far greater number of older women than older men. This phenomenon is directly related to higher life expectancy and lower death rates among women. However, older women do experience their own set of health problems, and older women are more economically disadvantaged than older men. They are also more likely to live alone. On the other hand, women have stronger social support systems than men.

Sex ratios

Figure 1 presents sex ratios for three age groups throughout the world. The sex ratio is the number of males per 100 females. At birth, the sex ratio is generally around 105. In other words, there are more male babies born than female babies. This pattern is found in almost all societies. In the middle ages of the life course, there tends to be almost equal numbers of men and women, but by age sixty-five, the sex ratio is skewed heavily in favor of females. Generally, based on the world average, there are one-third more females than males age sixty-five and older. However, there are regional differences. In Asia, Latin America, and Africa there are about one-fifth more older females than older males, while in Europe there are almost two-fifths more older women. There is more detailed information for the United States, in which the sex ratio falls below 50 for ages eighty-five to eighty-nine, indicating that there are more than twice as many females as males in this age range. For those over one hundred years old, the sex ratio is a mere twenty-onethat is, there are twenty-one males per one hundred females. This pattern of highly skewed sex ratios is the result of gender differences in life expectancy, which are discussed in the next section.

Life expectancy and death rates

It is well known that women live longer than men. Exactly how much longer? And does this advantage continue as people age? In 2000, the average life expectancy for women worldwide was sixty-eight years, while for men it was sixty-four years. Nevertheless, the difference between women and men in life expectancy varies throughout the world. In developing countries women live, on average, three years longer than men. The difference is only two years in sub-Saharan Africa. In contrast, women live an average of seven years longer than men in developed countries. The difference in life expectancy tends to decrease at older ages. At age sixty, the difference ranges from one to four years (see Table 1).

In most countries, there are additional differences in life expectancy based on race, class, and other social-status differences. In the United States, for example, overall life expectancy at birth is 79.2 years for females and 73.6 years for males. However, there are important race differences: life expectancy for white women is 79.8 years; for black women, 74.7 years; for white men, 74.3 years; and for black men, 67.3 years. Therefore, it is white women who have the largest advantage in life expectancy, while black men lag 12.5 years behind. However, the difference between white women and black men decreases to five years by age sixty-five, when white women are expected to live 19.1 more years and black men 14.2 more years.

Although both black and white women have longer life expectancies than their male counterparts, the differences decrease at later ages, especially among blacks. While black women are expected to live 7.4 years longer than black men at birth, by age sixty-five the advantage in life expectancy is only 3.2 years. Similarly, white women's advantage decreases from 5.5 years at birth to 3.2 years at age sixty-five. It is also interesting to compare the similarities (and differences) between black women and white men. Although life expectancy is similar for these two groups, there are differences in death rates. Black females have higher death rates than white males at ages under five years old, with the difference being especially great under one year old. Black females also suffer higher death rates from thirty-five to sixty-four years old. However, at age sixty-five and older, the death rate for white males surpasses that for black females. Indeed, at age eighty-five and older, black females have lower death rates than white females and black males have lower death rates than white males.

The importance of the gender difference in life expectancy is obvious: if women live longer than men then there will be more older women than older men. This has several implications for individual women as well as for society. For individual women, it is likely to mean outliving one's spouse, living alone, and poorer economic conditions, as fewer resources are used to cover more years.

These gender differences in life expectancy lead to inquiries about what older men and women are dying from. In the United States, for those forty-five years old and older, the top two causes of death for both women and men are heart disease and cancer, though the death rates from these diseases are higher for men. At the younger ages (forty-five to sixty-four years old), men have higher death rates for nine of the ten leading causes of death, the exception being cerebrovascular diseases (stroke). It is interesting to note that the death rate for causes with large social-behavioral components, such as accidents, liver disease, HIV infection, and suicide, are two to six times greater for men than women in this age group. For those age sixty-five and older, the leading causes of death are similar for women and men, though men have higher death rates from heart disease, cancer, and pulmonary diseases and women have higher rates from cerebrovascular diseases and Alzheimer's disease.

In addition, although women generally experience lower death rates than men, they suffer from higher rates of several chronic conditions, including arthritis, high blood pressure, cataracts, chronic sinusitis, hay fever, varicose veins, chronic bronchitis, asthma, hemorrhoids, frequent indigestion, and migraines. Men, on the other hand, are more likely to experience hearing impairments, heart conditions, orthopedic impairments, diabetes, visual impairments, tinnitus, and dermatitis.

Why do these differences exist? Surely, part of the reason lies in biology. Males have higher death rates than females at all ages, even before they are born (miscarriages disproportionately occur with male fetuses). These biological differences are likely to be exacerbated by social factors. Men are more likely to engage in risk-taking behaviors, such as driving faster, which lead to higher death rates from accidents. Men are also more likely to smoke and drink alcohol, increasing their risk of lung cancer and liver disease, among other diseases. Finally, men tend to neglect their health more than women, as witnessed by fewer visits to the doctor. The smaller differences that exist in developing countries are likely to be due to harsher living conditions for all.

Economic status and retirement

Men enjoy an economic advantage over women, and older men are no exception. Older men have completed more years of school, are more likely to be in the labor force, and are less likely to be living in poverty than older women. Table 2 shows economic activity rates for older women and men. The economic activity rate is the percentage of people who are engaged in paid activities or are available to work in such activities. In every region, older men are more likely to be economically active than older women. However, in Europe, Canada, the United States, and central Asia, participation rates are low for both men and women. In contrast, sub-Saharan Africa has the highest activity rates for both women and men. Finally, large gender differences in activity among older individuals exist in western Asia, northern Africa, and Central America.

In the United States, labor-force participation rates peak at 93.2 percent for men twenty-five to thirty-four years old while women's participation rates peak at 77.1 percent for thirty-five to forty-four year olds. Between ages fifty-five and sixty-five, men's labor force participation rates drop to 68.1 percent and women's rates fall to 51.2 percent. Finally, those sixty-five years old and older have low rates of participation. Still, men are almost twice as likely to be in the labor force at this age (16.5 percent versus 8.6 percent).

Of those with an income, men have higher incomes than women. When median income peaks (at forty-five to fifty-four years old), women are making 55 percent of what men make. Both men's and women's median income decreases at older ages, though women's decreases faster initially. The big drop in men's median income occurs after age sixty-four. In 1998, men age sixty-five and older earned a median income of $18,166, while the median income for women age sixty-five and older was only $10,504. Related to their lower income, 13 percent of women age sixty-five and older live below the poverty level, compared to 7 percent of their male counterparts.

Among those who are employed, women and men tend to retire at similar ages, with the median age being around sixty-three for both women and men. Often, retirement is hastened by the retirement of one's spouse, though this reason is cited more often by women. An exception is when wives are not employed during the child-rearing years. These wives often retire later than their husbands, perhaps making up for time spent out of the labor force. Husbands also retire faster when they have Social Security income or a pension. On the other hand, wives retire faster when their husbands' income is high. Women's economic well-being does tend to be more influenced by their husbands than vice versa. For example, widowhood is more likely to increase poverty for women than for men. In fact, a man's economic well-being may actually improve when his wife dies.

Marital status, living arrangements, and social support

In every region, at least one-third of older women are widowed (see Table 3). Rates of widowhood are especially high in northern Africa and central Asia, where almost three-fifths of older women are widowed. In contrast, widowhood is much less common among men around the world. For example, only 7 percent of men in sub-Saharan Africa outlive their wives. In Africa, older women are over six times more likely to be widowed than older men.

Gender differences in marital status tend to increase with age. In the United States, at ages forty-five to fifty-four years old, the majority of both men and women are married (see Table 4), and only 7 percent of women and 9 percent of men in this age group have never been married. Widowhood is rare for men (1 percent) and very uncommon for women (4 percent). On the contrary, this age range represents the age at which the highest percent of women and men are divorced, with 18 percent of women and 14 percent of men being divorced. The picture changes considerably for those seventy-five years old and over. While the majority of men are still married at this age, only 30 percent of women in this age group are married. Instead, fully 60 percent of women seventy-five and older are widowed. In fact, the percentage of women widowed at ages seventy-five and older is 2.5 times greater than the percentage of men widowed.

Because women tend to be the survivors of marriage, they are also more likely to live alone or with someone else. This can be seen by looking at household headship. In every region of the world, women age sixty and older are more likely than older men to be household heads. In fact, almost one-half of older women in Europe are household heads. In the United States, women sixty-five years old and over are as likely to live alone as with a spouse, with 41 percent in each type of living arrangement. In contrast, only 17 percent of men sixty-five and older live alone, while 73 percent live with a spouse. In addition, only 10 percent of these men live with someone other than a spouse, compared to 18 percent of women this age.

Marital status can affect receipt of social support from children. Men who are divorced suffer disruptions in their relationships with their children, especially with their daughters. This may have consequences for caretaking, since disabled parents are more likely to receive care from their daughters. Widowhood may also have negative consequences for men's support networks. Men who are widowed receive less support from their children than those who are still married. In addition, women who are widowed more often develop friendships than men who are widowed, and women are more likely to receive support from friends. Even among older persons who are unmarried and childless, women receive more support than men. Generally, children report better relationships with their mothers than with their fathers. This may be due to the fact that women are more active in maintaining intergenerational relationships. Therefore, although older women are more likely than older men to find themselves widowed and living alone, they seem better equipped to manage their lives on their own, with some help from family and friends.

Gender roles

Do gender roles relax or persist at older ages? This is an often debated question. It has been argued that men become more feminine and women more masculine as they age, and the idea that men become more sensitive and family-oriented while women become more assertive and confident is a popular one. Many older men tend to look back on their lives and think of such things as time missed with children when they were younger. On the other hand, older women's images of themselves tend to be higher, in terms of self-esteem and confidence, than those of younger women. These women feel that they can be more forceful in doing what they want.

An alternative explanation to reversed roles is the idea that roles may not change that much, but rather that roles may be more easily expressed at older ages. In other words, those who engage in more traditional roles at younger ages will continue to express traditional gender roles, while those who have more egalitarian views at younger ages will find it easier to express these views at older ages. Therefore, older ages provide more flexibility in enacting people's true gender roles. It seems that there is less pressure to behave in ways that conform to gender stereo-types at older ages.

Future gender differences

After decades of widening, the gap between men and women in life expectancy showed some signs of narrowing at the end of the twentieth century. In 2000, the gap in the United States was about two years less than it was in 1970. As a result, a less skewed sex ratio at older ages may emerge, though it will certainly remain weighted toward females for a long time to come.

As for economic roles, it is widely known that women's labor force participation increased dramatically over the last decades of the twentieth century. Female labor force participation rates in the United States increased from 43 percent in 1970 to 60 percent in 1998. The increase was especially dramatic among women forty-five to sixty-four years old, the ages right before retirement. Participation rates for this age group went from around one-half to three-quarters between 1970 and 1998. However, there have also been important changes in men's labor force participation. Over the last few decades of the twentieth century, men's labor force participation rates declined, with larger declines at older ages. Between 1970 and 1998, participation rates for men fifty-five to sixty-four years old decreased from 83 percent to 68 percent, while rates for men sixty-five and older decreased from 27 percent to 17 percent. These changes suggest that more recent and future cohorts of women will be better off economically as they enter old age. Fewer women will be financially dependent on their husbands or other family members. At the same time, more and more men may need, or at least benefit from, their wives working.

Changing family roles may also be important for different cohorts of aging men and women. Although a relatively small number of those sixty-five and older are divorced, the percentage increase between 1980 and 2000 in the United States was fairly large (from 3.4 percent to 7.1 percent for women and from 3.6 percent to 6.1 percent for men). This will likely have important implicationsespecially for older men, since fathers who are not married to their children's mother tend to receive less support from their children. In addition, it will be interesting to see if changing roles at home among younger couples translate into more egalitarian arrangements among older couples in future cohorts.

Gayle Kaufman

See also Feminist Theory; Genetics; Inequality; Marital Relationships; Population Aging; Retirement.


Aquilino, W. S. "Later Life Parental Divorce and Widowhood: Impact on Young Adults' Assessment of Parent-Child Relations." Journal of Marriage and the Family 56 (1994): 908922.

Barer, B. M. "Men and Women Aging Differently." International Journal of Aging and Human Development 38 (1994): 2940.

Belsky, J. "The Research Findings on Gender Issues in Aging Men and Women." In Gender Issues Across the Life Cycle. Edited by B. R. Wainrib. New York: Springer Publishing Company, 1992. Pages 163171.

Brubaker, T. H., and Brubaker, E. "Family Care of the Elderly in the United States: An Issue of Gender Differences?" In Family Care of the Elderly: Social and Cultural Changes. Edited by J. I. Kosberg. Newbury Park, Calif.: Sage, 1992. Pages 210231.

Burkhauser, R. V.; Butler, J. S.; and Holden, K. C. "How the Death of a Spouse Affects Economic Well-Being After Retirement." Social Science Quarterly 72 (1991): 504519.

Cooney, T. M., and Uhlenberg, P. "The Role of Divorce in Men's Relations with Their Adult Children After Mid-Life." Journal of Marriage and the Family 52 (1990): 677688.

Dervarics, C. "The Coming Age of Older Women." Population Today 27 (1999): 12.

Gendell, M., and Siegel, J. S. "Trends in Retirement Age by Sex 19502005." Monthly Labor Review 115 (1992): 2229.

Hardy, M. A., and Hazelrigg, L. E. "The Gender of Poverty in an Aging Population." Research on Aging 15 (1993): 243278.

Henretta, J. C.; O'Rand, A. M.; and Chan, C. G. "Gender Differences in Employment After Spouse's Retirement." Research on Aging 15 (1993): 148169.

Kohen, J. A. "Old but Not Alone: Informal Social Supports Among the Elderly by Marital Status and Sex." The Gerontologist 23 (1983): 5763.

Marks, N. F. "Midlife Marital Status Differences in Social Support Relationships with Adult Children and Psychological Well-Being." Journal of Family Issues 16 (1995): 528.


See Cohort change; Age-period-cohort model

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Gender." Encyclopedia of Aging. . 15 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Gender." Encyclopedia of Aging. . (December 15, 2017).

"Gender." Encyclopedia of Aging. . Retrieved December 15, 2017 from








In The Second Sex (first published in 1949), the French feminist Simone de Beauvoir led the way in distinguishing biological anatomy and chemistry from socialized gendered expectations: One is not born but rather becomes a woman (de Beauvoir 1953, p. 249). For de Beauvoir, being a female did not constitute being a woman. Rather, ones biological makeup is subscribed with a social-cultural shaping of ones gendered characteristics; for women this is the development of appropriate feminine behaviors. Though the term is highly contested and laden with political implications, at its most basic level gender is used to describe socially constructed characteristics of masculinity and femininity, whereas sex is used to describe ones biological makeup (chromosomes, hormones, and reproductive/sexual anatomy).


The distinction between sex and gender was an essential element for many issues addressed during the second-wave feminist movement (1960-1995). Though immensely diverse, many feminist schools of thought did agree that characteristics associated with femininity in the United States created norms and roles that oppressed women by limiting their access to public space and economic opportunities. Discussions of gender during the second-wave feminist movement often attempted to overturn what the scholar Harold Garfinkel described as the natural attitude towards gender (1967, p. 122)the common belief that the gender dichotomy is a natural distinction between the two sexes. This assumption, according to activists, perpetuated inequality for women. In understanding the creation of the natural attitude, many feminists turned to the structure of the family and womens connection to childbearing. Womans biological ability to give birth, combined with industrial changes, had led to social expectations of woman as nurturer, domestic caretaker, and other roles traditionally associated with the private sphere. Dichotomously, mans inability to give birth and his larger physical makeup had led to social expectations to fulfill the role of protector, provider, and roles traditionally associated with the public sphere.

For feminists, these gendered characteristics, complicated by an array of other factors, had perpetuated a division of labor that empowered men and disempowered women. Mens more active and dominant roles created an unequal relationship between the sexes that gave rise to an oppressive ideology both within the home and, more broadly, within institutionalized sexism. Overall, the most prominent goal of the second-wave feminist movement was to bring about a sense of gender equality. Concerns such as motherhood, beauty regimes, and domestic upkeep were seen as essential components of a public discussion about expectations of femininity that focused on issues of equal access to the workplace, equal pay for equal work, and an overall attempt to allow women to have control over their lives and their bodies. Theories on how to deal with this hierarchal division of labor were vastly varied. For example, Marxist feminists saw the capitalistic economic structure as inherently patriarchal. Thus, attempts at more equal power relations between men and women were reliant upon a restructuring of the economic system. Conversely, more conservative feminists, who constituted the liberal feminist school of thought, looked more closely at ways to reform the current system to allow for more women within the public sphere. These various feminist schools reflect the differences in conceptualization and approach to the concept of gender. Some feminists worked relentlessly to prove that both men and women could be rational, active members of public space, challenging the preconceived notion that masculine gendered characteristics are inherent to men. Others fought to revalorize qualities of femininity, attempting to recognize the power of womens roles as well as the usefulness of feminine approaches in public space. What united many of the perspectives was a desire to engage in a larger public discussion about issues of masculinity and femininity and how they influence the daily lives of women and men.


Since the beginning of the second-wave movement, the meaning of the term gender has been disputed. Despite some public understanding of the second waves fight for gender equality for women, the movement was fractured, with discontentment from many sides. For example, although Betty Friedans The Feminine Mystique (1963) was commended for its attack on womens limited role as domestic caretaker, her analysis was criticized for its elitism. Although Friedan called attention to the oppression rooted in gendered expectations and roles, her white, heterosexual, middle-class perspectives were specific to a single group of women. Such criticisms called into question the stability of the category woman. Do all women share a similar experience? Questions of race, class, and sexual orientation brought forth recognition that gender expectations and gender identity were not the same for all women, nor were they the same for all men.

Though cross-cultural comparisons were used to draw attention to the socialization of gender roles and expectations, many second-wave feminists still failed to recognize the cultural differences within their own communities. As gender expectations and what it means to be a woman were debated, critics began to question the assumption that all women shared the same experiences. In her 1981 book Aint I a Woman, the literary scholar bell hooks discussed the racism that circulated and continues to circulate in feminist literature. She identified the struggle for black women to find a space of visibility within a movement embedded in racism. Her analysis, and those of other critics, draws attention to both the racial and economic advantage embedded in the positions of many noted feminists of the second wave. Theorizing about women when in actuality only discussing the experiences of white women exemplified this privileged perspective. Core issues such as beauty and domestic expectations were far removed from racially oppressed women whose economic and social positions typically demanded out-of-home labor. As hooks pointed out, the racism within the womens movement coupled with the sexism in the civil rights movement left little to no space for a public debate about the experiences and oppression of black women.

Compounding the criticisms of racial and economic privilege were the objections voiced by members of the lesbian feminist school of thought, who pointed out the homophobia inherent in the womens movement. The notion of a shared sisterhood of all women provoked anger from those women who felt their experiences differed and their perspectives were silenced. Often, core discussions of gender focused on social expectations of men and women as they function in heterosexual relationships. Lesbian feminists pointed out the institutionalization of heterosexuality and the unwillingness of many heterosexual feminists to challenge this unequal power dynamic.

Overall, there was a sense from critics that discussions of power within the second-wave feminist movement were oversimplified. Many feminists failed to recognize that they could be both oppressed and oppressor, thus ignoring the intersections of race, class, and sexual orientation in a society that privileges white, male, middle- or upper-class status, and heterosexuality.


As gender became a more common topic of discussion in both academic institutions and activist forums, its unstable and complex nature was a frequent part of debate. Attempting to move past the charges of elitism and oversimplification, scholars such as Joan Scott defended the usefulness of gender as an analytic category. Scott maintained that gender is not constant, but rather constantly shifting and changing as it operates in multiple fields (1986). She argued that discussions and studies utilizing gender as an analytic category must be carefully understood based on context and history. Her analysis defended its usefulness while simultaneously complicating the power dynamics that intersect with gender construction.

Similarly, the gender scholar Judith Butler significantly contributed to the complication of a theoretical understanding of gender. Her Gender Trouble (1990) is foundational in pointing out the intricate connection between gender and sexuality. Butler drew attention to the policing of heterosexuality through gender norms, arguing that a core component of the current gender system, which calls women to be highly feminine and men to be highly masculine, is as much about upholding heterosexuality as it is about policing public space. Additionally, Butler is noted for her theory of gender performativity, which holds that gender is maintained through performative acts that naturalize and create an appearance of an internal essence. Her position can be understood as an extreme social constructionist stand that sees both sexuality and gender as constitutive of our practices, policies, language, and overall daily norms.

Both Scott and Butler echo the reflective position taken by many gender scholars in the last decades of the twentieth century. The desire to complicate gender and illuminate its instability is found in works that addressed the realization that gender cannot be equated with woman. Masculinity studies became much more common, and indeed expected when addressing issues of gender, and gender literature and courses more frequently recognized the gendered nature of every individual. Most gender literature focused on femininity and oppression; however, a look towards masculinity revealed the limiting role placed upon many men who are primarily defined by success in the public realm. Expectations of aggression, detachment, and control are problematic for both men and women. The antisexist male activist Jackson Katz has since 1993 created high school and college-based educational programs, which include videos and lectures that focus on the construction of masculinity in the United States and the violence inherent in many male-gendered norms. The aim is to liberate not only women but also men from limited roles and expectations; recognizing that all individuals are gendered allows for a more complete understanding of how the patriarchal system is maintained. Privy to earlier criticisms, scholars studying masculinity are acutely aware of the vast differences in norms and expectations across racial and class divides.

Many gender scholars have called for an understanding of gender that moves beyond basic binary discussions of masculinity and femininity to a greater understanding of transgendered issues and the fluidity of gendered identities. The twenty-first century has brought more frequent discussions and practices that illustrate at least a partial public understanding of gender bending. Public populations are often not familiar with the work of Butler who calls for disruptions of gender expectations. However, cross dressing, transexuality, and overall gendered norm violations are infiltrated in media and other mainstream elements of United States culture. Thus, the public is both exposed and often partially aware of transgendered or gender bending practices. Overall, gender has come to be understood as unstable, allowing for resistance, reinforcement, or recreation of gender identity and expectations in a multitude of ways.

For women who identify with the third wave of feminism, this unstable and complex view of gender is central. Though there still is dispute over whether or not a new wave has indeed emerged, many young women active in gender discussions claim a third wave of feminism whose focus is on creating a solidarity that recognizes difference. In its discussion of difference, coalitions, and popular culture, this third wave, thought to have begun in the mid-1990s, both veered away from and built upon the second-wave movement. Although third wavers are as diverse in their positions as the feminists who preceded them, there is a general sense that the movement needs to be privy to difference and to build coalitions with other activist movements, because many gendered issues entail struggle against racism, homophobia, class privilege, and imperialism simultaneously. Additionally, although earlier movements criticized popular culture and many of the feminine-gendered expectations, some third wavers distinguish their understanding of gender by claiming power in their sexuality and femininity, seeking ways to co-opt patriarchal ideologies for their own empowerment. This is exemplified in debates over wearing high heels and makeup and embracing ones feminine sexuality. Some third wavers argue that the pop star Madonna does not represent female oppression, but rather sexual agency. This position strays from the second waves desire to free women (typically and critically, mostly white women) from such beauty expectations.


Twenty-first-century feminism is as diversified as ever, but earlier charges of elitism, both national and international, have produced feminist schools of thought that seek to better understand gendered issues on a global scale. Many postcolonial feminist scholars seek ways to create a feminist solidarity that addresses global concerns while recognizing racial, economic, regional, national, and religious differences. A leader in academic discussions about transnational gender issues is feminist postcolonial theorist Chandra Talpade Mohanty. In Feminism without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity (2003) she provides a summary of her feminist position, which argues for economic stability worldwide for all individuals. Her vision is antiracist and anticapitalist and seeks to create democratic participation through a more complex and reflective solidarity.

Also illustrating a global commitment to gender equity are the many transnational feminist networks such as the Womens Environment and Development Organization, which advocates for womens equality in global policy. It seeks to empower women as decision makers to achieve economic, social, and gender justice, a healthy, peaceful planet, and human rights for all (2004). This desire to address issues of gender globally comes with a great deal of cultural reflexivity and international collaboration. Global scholars and transnational feminist networks seek to acknowledge and manage issues of difference that arise in multicultural coalitions. Despite these challenges, twenty-first-century gender scholars and activists find it increasingly difficult to ignore globalization and the fact that worldwide gender inequity involves a multiplicity of economic, environmental, ethnic, and many other postcolonial factors.

Although gender research has followed numerous threads, the intellectual compass seems to be pointing toward a focus on global issues. This recent direction is frequently freighted with a complicated theory of power and difference that requires a highly reflective researcher who can represent such issues without colonizing the voices of those they study. Despite shifts in the focus of gender research, the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have proven the importance and longevity of gender as an essential topic of political and social discussion.

SEE ALSO Feminism; Gender, Alternatives to Binary; Gender Gap; Gender Studies; Glass Ceiling; Inequality, Gender; Patriarchy; Sexuality; Transgender


Beauvoir, Simone de. [1949] 1953. The Second Sex. Trans. H. M. Parshley. New York: Knopf.

Butler, Judith. 1990. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge.

Connell, Robert W. 2002. Gender. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers.

Friedan, Betty. 1963. The Feminine Mystique. New York: Dell.

Garfinkel, Harold. 1967. Studies in Ethnomethodology. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

hooks, bell. 1981. Aint I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism. Boston: South End Press.

Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. 2003. Feminism without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Scott, Joan W. 1986. Gender: A Useful Category for Historical Analysis. American Historical Review 91 (December): 10531075.

Tong, Rosemarie. 1998. Feminist Thought. 2nd ed. Boulder, CO:

Westview Press. Whelehan, Imelda. 1995. Modern Feminist Thought: From the Second Wave to Post-Feminism. New York: New York University Press.

Womens Environment and Development Organization. 2004. About Us.

Wood, Julia T. 2005. Gendered Lives: Communication, Gender, and Culture. 6th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Erin Foley-Reynolds

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Gender." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . 15 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Gender." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . (December 15, 2017).

"Gender." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved December 15, 2017 from



GENDER. Until the 1980s, "gender" was a word used primarily in the realm of linguistics. The women's movement changed that, as it changed so much else. Advocates of women's rights in the present looked at what they had been taught about the past and realized that it described only the male experience, though often portraying this as universal. This realization, combined with increasing numbers of women going into the field of history, led to investigation of the lives of women in the past. Women were first fitted into existing conceptual categoriesnations, historical periods, social classes, religious allegiancesbut focusing on women often disrupted these classifications, forcing a rethinking of the way history was organized and structured.

This disruption of well-known categories and paradigms ultimately included the topic that had long been considered the proper focus of all historyman. Viewing the male experience as universal had not only hidden women's history, it had also prevented the analysis of men's experiences as those of men. Historians familiar with studying women increasingly began to discuss the ways in which systems of sexual differentiation affected both women and men, and by the early 1980s they began to use the word "gender" to describe these systems. They differentiated primarily between "sex," by which they meant physical, morphological, and anatomical differences (what are often called "biological differences") and "gender," by which they meant a culturally constructed, historically changing, and often unstable system of differences. Historians interested in this new perspective asserted that gender was an appropriate category of analysis when looking at all historical developments, not simply those involving women or the family. Every political, intellectual, religious, economic, social, and even military change had an impact on the actions and roles of men and women, and, conversely, a culture's gender structures influenced every other structure or development.

Historians of the early modern period figured prominently in the development of both women's and gender history and continue to be important voices in their subsequent growth and that of related areas of study such as the history of sexuality. Though summarizing their conclusions in a brief article goes against the central premise of the fieldthat gender issues should be a part of every historical analysisthree main areas can serve as examples of the way in which thinking about gender challenges understandings of the early modern era: gender and periodization, gender and political power, gender and the social order.


One of the most important insights in women's and then gender history began with a simple questionDid women have a Renaissance?first posed by the historian Joan Kelly in 1977. Her answer, "No, at least not during the Renaissance," led to intensive historical and literary research as people attempted to confirm, refute, modify, or nuance her answer. This question also contributed to the broader questioning of the whole notion of historical periodization. If a particular development had little, or indeed a negative, effect on women, could it still be called a "golden age," a "Renaissance," or an "Enlightenment"? Can the seventeenth century, during which hundreds or perhaps thousands of women were burned as witches on the European continent, still be described as a period of "the spread of rational thought"?

Kelly's questioning of the term "Renaissance" has been joined more recently by a questioning of the term "early modern." Both historians and literary scholars note that there are problems with this term, as it assumes that there is something that can unambiguously be called "modernity," which is usually set against "traditional" and linked with contemporary Western society. The break between "medieval" and "early modern" is generally set at 1500, roughly the time of the voyages of Columbus and of the Protestant Reformation, but recently many historians argue that there are more continuities across this line than changes. Some have moved the decisive break earlierto the Black Death in 1347 or even to the twelfth centuryor have rejected the notion of periodization altogether. Gender historians, most prominently Judith Bennett, have been among those questioning the validity of the medieval/modern divide, challenging, in Bennett's words, "the assumption of a dramatic change in women's lives between 1300 and 1700" and asserting that historians must pay more attention to continuities along with changes.


During the fifteenth through the seventeenth centuries male and female writers in many countries of Europe wrote both learned and popular works debating the nature of women. Beginning in the sixteenth century, this debate also became one about female rulers, sparked primarily by dynastic accidents in many countries that led to women serving as advisers to child kings or ruling in their own right. The questions vigorously and at times viciously disputed directly concerned the social construction of gender: could a woman's being born into a royal family and educated to rule allow her to overcome the limitations of her sex? Should it? Or stated another way: which was (or should be) the stronger determinant of character and social role, gender or rank?

The most extreme opponents of female rule were Protestants who went into exile on the Continent during the reign of Mary Tudor (ruled 15531558), most prominently John Knox, who argued that female rule was unnatural, unlawful, and contrary to Scripture. Being female was a condition that could never be overcome, and subjects of female rulers needed no other justification for rebelling than their monarch's sex. Their writings were answered by defenses of female rule which argued that a woman's sex did not automatically exclude her from rule, just as a boy king's age or a handicapped king's infirmity did not exclude him. Some theorists asserted that even a married queen could rule legitimately, for she could be subject to her husband in her private life, yet monarch to him and all other men in her public life. As Constance Jordan has pointed out, defenders of female rule were thus clearly separating sex from gender and even approaching an idea of androgyny as a desirable state for the public persona of female monarchs.

Jean Bodin (15301596), the French jurist and political theorist, stressed what would become in the seventeenth century the most frequently cited reason to oppose female rule: that the state was like a household, and just as in a household the husband/father has authority and power over all others, so in the state a male monarch should always rule. Male monarchs used husbandly and paternal imagery to justify their assertion of power over their subjects, though criticism of monarchs was also couched in paternal language; pamphlets directed against the crown during the revolt known as the Fronde in seventeenth-century France, for example, justified their opposition by asserting that the king was not properly fulfilling his fatherly duties.

This link between royal and paternal authority could also work in the opposite direction to enhance the power of male heads of household. Just as subjects were deemed to have no or only a very limited right of rebellion against their ruler, so women and children were not to dispute the authority of the husband/father, because both kings and fathers were held to have received their authority from God; the household was not viewed as private, but as the smallest political unit and so part of the public realm.

Many analysts see the Protestant Reformation and, in England, Puritanism as further strengthening this paternal authority by granting male heads of household a much larger religious and supervisory role than they had under Catholicism. The fact that Protestant clergy were themselves generally married heads of household also meant that ideas about clerical authority reinforced notions of paternal and husbandly authority; priests were now husbands, and husbands priests. After the Reformation, the male citizens of many cities and villages increasingly added an oath to uphold the city's religion to the oaths they took to defend it and support it economically. For men, faith became a ritualized civic matter, while for women it was not. Thus both the public political community and the public religious communitywhich were often regarded as the same in early modern Europewere for men only, a situation reinforced in the highly gendered language of the reformers, who extolled "brotherly love" and the religious virtues of the "common man."

Religious divisions were not the only development that enhanced the authority of many men. Rulers intent on increasing and centralizing their own authority supported legal and institutional changes that enhanced the power of men over the women and children in their own families. In France, for example, a series of laws were enacted between 1556 and 1789 that increased both paternal and state control of marriage. Young people who defied their parents were sometimes imprisoned by what were termed lettres de cachet, documents that families obtained from royal officials authorizing the imprisonment without trial of a family member who was seen as a source of dishonor. Men occasionally used lettres de cachet as a means of solving marital disputes, convincing authorities that family honor demanded the imprisonment of their wives, while in Italy and Spain a "disobedient" wife could be sent to a convent or house of refuge for repentant prostitutes. Courts generally held that a husband had the right to beat his wife in order to correct her behavior as long as this was not extreme, with a common standard being that he not draw blood, or that the diameter of the stick he used not exceed that of his thumb.

Access to political power for men as well as women was shaped by ideas about gender in early modern Europe. The dominant notion of the "true" man was that of the married head of household, so that men whose class and age would have normally conferred political power but who remained unmarried did not participate to the same level as their married brothers; in Protestant areas, this link between marriage and authority even included the clergy.

Notions of masculinity were important symbols in early modern political discussions. Both male and female rulers emphasized qualities regarded as masculinephysical bravery, stamina, wisdom, dutywhenever they chose to appear or speak in public. A concern with masculinity pervades the political writings of Machiavelli, who used "effeminate" to describe the worst kind of ruler. (Effeminate in the early modern period carried slightly different connotations than it does today, however, for strong heterosexual passion was not a sign of manliness, but could make one "effeminate," that is, dominated by as well as similar to a woman.) The English Civil War (16421649) presented two conflicting notions of masculinity: Royalist cavaliers in their long hair and fancy silk knee-breeches, and Puritan parliamentarians with their short hair and somber clothing. Parliamentary criticism of the court was often expressed in gendered and sexualized terminology, with frequent veiled or open references to aristocratic weakness and inability to control the passions.


The maintenance of proper power relationships between men and women served as a basis for and a symbol of the functioning of society as a whole. Women or men who stepped outside their prescribed roles in other than extraordinary circumstances, and particularly those who made a point of emphasizing that they were doing this, were seen as threatening not only relations between the sexes, but the operation of the entire social order. They were "disorderly," a word that had much stronger negative connotations in the early modern period than it does today, as well as two somewhat distinct meaningsoutside of the social structure and unruly or unreasonable.

Women were outside the social order because they were not as clearly demarcated into social groups as men. Unless they were members of a religious order or guild, women had no corporate identity at a time when society was conceived of as a hierarchy of groups rather than a collection of individuals. One can see women's separation from such groups in the way that parades and processions were arranged in early modern Europe; if women were included, they came at the end as an undifferentiated group, following men who marched together on the basis of political position or occupation. Women were also more "disorderly" than men because they were unreasonable, ruled by their physical bodies rather than their rational capacities, their lower parts rather than their upper parts. This was one of the reasons they were more often suspected of witchcraft; it was also why they were thought to have nondiabolical magical powers in the realms of love and sexual attraction.

Disorder in the proper gender hierarchy was linked with other types of social upheaval and viewed as the most threatening way in which the world could be turned upside down. Carnival plays, woodcuts, and stories frequently portrayed domineering wives in pants and henpecked husbands washing diapers alongside professors in dunce caps and peasants riding princes. Men and women involved in relationships in which the women were thought to have poweran older woman who married a younger man, or a woman who scolded her husbandwere often subjected to public ridicule, with bands of neighbors shouting insults and banging sticks and pans in their disapproval. Adult male journeymen refused to work for widows although this decreased their opportunities for employment. Fathers disinherited disobedient daughters more often than sons. The derivative nature of an adult woman's authoritythe fact that it came from her status as wife or widow of the male household headwas emphasized by referring to her as "wife" rather than "mother" even in legal documents describing her relations with her children. Of all the ways in which society was hierarchically arrangedclass, age, rank, race, occupationgender was regarded as the most "natural" and therefore the most important to defend.

See also Family ; Marriage ; Patriarchy and Patriarchalism ; Sexual Difference, Theories of ; Sexuality and Sexual Behavior ; Women .


Amussen, Susan Dwyer. An Ordered Society: Gender and Class in Early Modern England. London, 1988.

Bennett, Judith. "Medieval Women, Modern Women: Across the Great Divide." In Culture and History 13501600: Essays on English Communities, Identities and Writing, edited by David Aers, pp. 147175. London, 1992.

Breitenberg, Mark. Anxious Masculinity in Early Modern England. Cambridge, U.K., 1996.

Hanley, Sarah. "The Monarchic State in Early Modern France: Marital Regime, Government and Male Right." In Politics, Ideology, and the Law in Early Modern Europe: Essays in Honor of J. H. M. Salmon, edited by Adrianna Bakos, pp. 2752. Rochester, 1994.

Hardwick, Julie. The Practice of Patriarchy: Gender and the Politics of Household Authority in Early Modern France. University Park, Pa., 1998.

Jordan, Constance. Renaissance Feminism: Literary Texts and Political Models. Ithaca, N.Y., 1990.

Kelly, Joan. "Did Women Have a Renaissance?" In Becoming Visible: Women in European History, edited by Renate Bridenthal and Claudia Koonz, pp. 138164. Boston, 1977.

Pateman, Carole. The Sexual Contract. Stanford, 1988.

Perry, Mary Elizabeth. Gender and Disorder in Early Modern Seville. Princeton, 1990.

Pitkin, Hannah Fenichel. Fortune is a Woman: Gender and Politics in the Thought of Niccolò Machiavelli. Berkeley, 1984.

Wiesner-Hanks, Merry E. Gender in History. London, 2001.

Merry Wiesner-Hanks

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Gender." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. . 15 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Gender." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. . (December 15, 2017).

"Gender." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. . Retrieved December 15, 2017 from


Gender. This entry consists of two articles, each of which deals with the issue of gender and the military from a different perspective. The first, Male Identity and the Military, examines the concept of men as warriors and protectors. The second, Female Identity and the Military, emphasizes the relationship that women have had to war and the military. For more detailed related discussions, see Combat Effectiveness, Gays and Lesbians in the Military, Gender and War, Military Ideals, Sex and the Military, Sexual Harassment, Women in the Military.Male Identity and the MilitaryFemale Identity and the Military
Gender: Male Identity and the Military Male identity in the United States, except in certain pacifist groups, has generally been closely tied to the socially defined role of warrior and protector. Throughout American military history, the manipulation and exploitation of this gender identity has been among the most important means of persuading men to join the service or informally coercing them to participate. This process has served three major purposes: first, it draws huge numbers of men into uniform without having to resort to widespread physical coercion by the state; second, it serves a military useful role by defining behavioral standards that make for effective combatants and contribute to post‐service reintegration; and third, the gender roles fostered by the military bolster and legitimize gender roles in society as a whole. The agents of this manipulation have been as diverse and pervasive as their message, including politicians, military leaders, commercial interests, and religious and educational institutions.

The creation of male gender identity has been tied explicitly to a warrior role and military service for the local community and the state. That this was a product of the natural order went virtually unchallenged throughout the colonial and early national periods, and military service for men was explicitly tied to rights and obligations of citizenship. By the end of the nineteenth century, however, with the rise of industrialization and urbanization, the closing of the frontier, slowly expanding roles for women, and the influence of social Darwinism, this assumption came into question. To reaffirm it, some Americans like Theodore Roosevelt openly embraced war with Spain in 1898 in part to restore the individual and collective masculine virtues apparently eroded by modern, materialistic, urban society.

The twentieth century has witnessed a dynamic of ever stronger attacks on traditional, polarized gender identities, and increasingly extreme retrenchments of the male warrior identity. As women's roles in the workplace and the military expanded with national mobilization in two world wars, they directly challenged the underlying assumptions of male‐warrior exclusivity. If women were allowed to step into uniform, as temporary auxiliaries in 1917, in segregated branches of the armed forces in 1943, and integrated into the force beginning in 1978, their specialties and geographic assignments were still carefully circumscribed away from combat in efforts to protect the male‐warrior status.

As the reserved male domains shrank, definitions and defense of those domains became more polarized. When the military as a whole was an exclusively male sphere, there was no need to draw gendered distinctions within it, but as women entered the military, gendered distinctions sharpened between the warriors and supporting personnel. This also marked the rise of concern over sexual orientation, which threatened further to subvert the traditional male identity. In training and indoctrination of male recruits, gendered behavior emphasized boundaries and fostered extreme behavioral standards. The hypermasculine ideals espoused and often embodied by drill instructors and unit leaders fostered effective battlefield performance, especially among various airborne, amphibious, and aviation elite forces. But while such indoctrination served short‐term institutional needs and provided individual affirmation of male gender values, it also promoted behavior increasingly incompatible with gender relations in society as a whole. This has been seen in dramatic fashion in the last twenty years with the integration of the services and the incremental lifting of many restrictions on women serving in combat.

The integration of women in the military has exposed the false premise of the traditional male gender identity, which insists that the role of warrior and protector must be an exclusive province of men. The myths that have long underpinned this identity are deeply interwoven into the fabric of American society, and efforts to redefine gender roles have encountered widespread resistance from many sources. If men are no longer to hold exclusive control of sanctioned organized aggression and violence, then the basis for individual and collective roles and behavioral standards will require fundamental change, such change is unlikely to come about without intense and protracted conflict.


Morris Janowitz and and Roger Little , Sociology and the Military Establishment, 1959; 3rd ed. 1974.
Jean Bethke Elshtain , Women and War, 1987.
Judith Hicks Stiehm , Arms and the Enlisted Woman, 1989.
Elisabetta Addis, Valeria E. Russo, and Lorenza Sebesta, eds., Women Soldiers: Images and Reality, 1994.
Linda Bird Francke , Ground Zero: The Gender War in the Military, 1997.
Melissa S. Herbert , Camouflage Isn't Only for Combat: Gender, Sexuality, and Women in the Military, 1998.

Craig M. Cameron

Gender: Female Identity and The Military Gender—male and female identity—has both “always” and “never” been relevant to the American military. All societies make distinctions between women and men. Across societies, though, there is enormous variation between what men do and what women do except with regard to two activities. Everywhere, weapons belong mainly to men and care of the very young mainly to women. Warfare and child care have traditionally been reserved roles. However, there is an asymmetry in this specialization. Women's special role has a biological underpinning. Men cannot give birth to or physically nurse children. Women therefore do not have to defend or protect their special reserved activity. In contrast, women can fight, can wage war, and in fact their help in doing this is periodically sought. They then do have the capacity to do men's special work. This has meant that in this area men have a continuing need to defend, to separate, or to distinguish what they do from what women do. They have to prohibit—to bar—women, since “nature” does not.

The special task of the military is to fight. Fighters require a lot of support, which in the early years of the American military was provided by civilians, civilians who often included women who did laundry, sewing, cooking, and other tasks for the soldiers. Thus, some women have always been involved with the military. Some have unofficially fought in the military (in the early years disguised as men), others have officially helped support the military. Indeed, when the military did not have enough men to perform the required support tasks, it either employed civilians or recruited women who accepted these tasks, such as the temporary auxiliaries who served in uniform as military telephone operators or clerks in World War I.

Even before World War I, nurses were the military women's vanguard, the first group to crack the military's gender barrier. At the same time, they unequivocally maintained their female identity. It was only in the Civil War, in the North, that women began to work as nurses regularly in military hospitals. First brought into the military because of need, they served as auxiliaries with different rules, benefits, and compensation from men. For their performance, they were later rewarded with more “regular” status. But they were also kept in sex‐segregated units until long after World War II. This was a pattern replicated for other women as they entered the U.S. military.

In the second half of the twentieth century, guerrilla warfare and the threat of nuclear war made it clear that women could not be protected simply by keeping them out of uniform. Furthermore, once the draft ended in 1972, the military again needed women to help fill its ranks. This need coincided with a push by feminists for an end to all discrimination, all prohibitions, based on sex. Although men's reserved role shrank and its boundaries became somewhat ambiguous, in principle, the warrior role remained men's.

Equity arguments against exclusion continued in court and in public, but although many continued to argue against allowing women in combat roles, their argument was diminished by the fact that modern war claims as many or more civilian casualties as military casualties. Women could not be kept safe. The physical strength argument was diminished by the achievements of women athletes and by the reduced role of physical strength in technological combat such as is common in the air force and the navy. Indeed, the combat restriction was removed under President Bill Clinton for aviation and naval ships, a result in part of the navy's embarrassment over the sexual harassment of women at its aviators’ Tailhook Convention. The change was also supported by the public acclaim for the professional behavior of Maj. Rhonda Cornum as a prisoner of war during the Persian Gulf War, and the public's acceptance of American women casualties in that war.

Still, women at the end of the twentieth century remained excluded from ground combat. Much of the argument for maintaining this area of combat exclusion ultimately focused on combat effectiveness arguments related to group cohesion and individual performance—contentions that emphasized the need for male bonding and men's alleged inability to perform professionally in women's presence (arguments that were once applied to African Americans and that continue to be applied to homosexuals).

Some have argued that citizenship is linked to military service, and for men this has been true. But the United States was also founded in part on the argument that citizenship is linked to paying taxes (that taxation requires representation). Thus, it could be argued that women's early limited citizenship was associated not with their failure to perform military service but with their sparse property rights and consequent lack of status as taxpayers. Since the U.S. military is so clearly accountable to elected civilians, the resistance to women's full participation in the military probably lies not with the desire to restrict women's citizenship, but with the desire to maintain the role of the warrior as one still reserved for men.


Cynthia H. Enloe , Does Khaki Become You?: The Militarization of Women's Lives, 1983.
Eva Isaksson, ed., Women and the Military System: Proceedings of a Symposium Arranged by the International Peace Bureau and Peace Union of Finland, 1988.
Susan Jeffords , The Remasculization of America: Gender and the Vietnam War, 1989.
Judith Stiehm , Arms and the Enlisted Woman, 1989.
Rhonda Cornum and and Peter Copeland , She Went to War: The Rhonda Cornum Story, 1992.
Jeanne Holm , Women in the Military: An Unfinished Revolution, 1992.
Miriam Cook and Angela Woollacott, eds., Gendering War Talk, 1993.
Judith Stiehm, ed., It's Our Military, Too!: Woman and the U.S. Military, 1996.

Judith Hicks Stiehm

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Gender." The Oxford Companion to American Military History. . 15 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Gender." The Oxford Companion to American Military History. . (December 15, 2017).

"Gender." The Oxford Companion to American Military History. . Retrieved December 15, 2017 from


gender Apart from its narrow application in languages that assign masculine/feminine/neuter status to linguistic terms, gender is a category used to differentiate women and men, boys and girls, male and female, masculinity and femininity. Increased attention to gender as a category of analysis, particularly in the social and behavioural sciences, has coincided with the rise of academic feminism. The category itself has undergone many revisions over time, but is typically employed to distinguish sex from gender in the following way: there are clear biological differences (sex differences) between men and women, and those biological differences serve as the basis for the social construction of different roles for men and women (gender differences), though these may vary from one culture to the next. Although biological difference does not necessitate the roles assigned to men and women, it enables differential social relations which are then often (mis)understood to be ‘naturally’ determined by biology. Recently, this formulation of the relation between sex and gender has been challenged as endorsing ‘gender essentialism’ (see below).

Gender as sex

That men and women have different natures is an ancient idea, but in the nineteenth century it gained the epistemological authority of medicine and science as the idea became an object of formal investigation. Victorian science placed particular emphasis on what it identified as the weaker constitution of women, and fluctuated between assigning to them either through-going sexual passivity (attributed to bourgeois women) or rampant promiscuity (attributed to lower-class women and women of colour). However it was characterized in medical or biological terms, and women's nature was said to be decidedly inferior to that of men. The emergence of the science of psychology seemed to confirm women's inferiority by locating female pathology in a psychosomatic nexus. Freud is an exemplar of the view that female ‘hysteria’, characterized by a complex interweaving of physical and mental disorders, results from somatizing unfulfilled sexual fantasies. While Freud was certainly ready to admit that both men and women suffer from mental disorders, his overall approach was that the ‘anatomical differences between the sexes’ determine gender-typed psychopathologies. The rigid adherence to the biological model enforced the belief that homosexuality was pathological, as well. Sexual desire for the ‘opposite’ sex was thought to be a sine qua non of normal gender identification. The ‘mannish woman’ or the ‘effeminate man’ could only be understood as forms of deviance.

In the early twentieth century, Margaret Mead was among the first explicitly to forge a distinction between sex understood as a biological category, and sex or gender roles understood as a social category. Mead's ethnographic study, Sex and Temperament in Three Societies (1935), argued that, ‘many, if not all, of the personality traits which we have called masculine or feminine are as lightly linked to sex as are the clothing, the manners, and the form of head-dress that a society at a given period assigns to either sex.’ This prying apart of sex and gender forms the basis for feminist efforts to displace biologically based assumptions about women's inferiority and/or the ‘naturalness’ of the maternal role. For feminism, gender becomes a critical category by means of which women's degraded status can be understood and transcended.

Feminism and gender

Early (1970s) feminist sociology and anthropology sought to identify how those with female bodies are solicited into particular gender roles that are then seen as stereotypical. An explosion of research proposed both that (i) gender stereotyping occurs at all levels of social and cultural organization; and that (ii) the analytical tools by means of which different disciplines organize knowledge are themselves permeated by gender bias. Sherry Ortner (1972), for example, argued that because women's reproductive functions are associated with nature, and because nature is subordinated to culture (which is associated with men), it follows that women are assigned a status subordinate to that of men. Carol Gilligan (1982) argued that cognitive–developmental categories employed by the dominant research on moral development assumed the superiority of categorical over relational thinking. Since men are more likely to reason categorically, and women rationally, it follows that women's moral reasoning will be deemed deficient in relation to that of men. This would explain why moral authority is granted to men in both the public and the private spheres, as both the Judge and the Father. Gilligan attempted to develop an analytical framework that re-evaluated the development of women's moral reasoning in light of the particular contexts of women's experience. Thus, she juxtaposed women's ‘ethic of care’ to men's ‘ethic of justice’, and argued that the former is just as structurally complex as the latter.

Feminists made analogous claims concerning the gendered nature of the subject matters and the methodologies of other fields. Evelyn Fox Keller (1978) argued that the very terms of scientific investigation — objectivity, disinterestedness, rationality — are themselves highly invested in a masculinist regime of domination and control over nature (including women). According to Keller, the relatively small number of women scientists reinforces the genderization of science by excluding women's ways of knowing from its arena. Feminist literary theorists scrutinized the literary canon for its exclusion of women writers, and for its masculine preoccupations (the pursuit of power, women, and whales). By analyzing representations of women in literature, and by unveiling the work of women writers, feminist scholarship revealed both the gendered nature of literature and our gendered ways of reading it. These approaches to the study of gender, sometimes called ‘gender standpoint theory’, assume that women's ‘identity’ can be defined and demarcated, and that the world is constituted in unique ways by women's ‘subjectivity’.

Gender essentialism and beyond

Apart from a general conservative backlash against the disruption to business as usual, feminist critics themselves offered counterexamples to the presuppositions that seem to underlie gender standpoint theory, that is, that women are universally subordinated to men, that men and women are always differentially associated with culture and nature respectively, that nature and culture are universally distinct categories, that male and female are universally distinct categories, and finally, that the category of woman is a stable category in and of itself. Cross-cultural evidence, for example, has been marshalled to show that there are widespread differences in the ways that reproductive labour is apportioned between men and women. Other critics have demonstrated that race, class, sexuality, and ethnicity must be interposed with gender in order to account for the cultural and historical variability of social relations and subjectivities. Given the effects of racism on the distribution of material and symbolic resources, the category of woman cannot be applied univocally to white women and to women of colour. Similarly, ‘queer theory’ has challenged the assumption that gender provides a singular axis of sexual orientation. Along these lines, Monique Wittig (1991) argues that, understood in relation to the categories of sexual difference, lesbians are not women. How many genders might there then be?

Thus, revisionist accounts of gender attempt to displace ‘gender essentialism’, the view that women's experience and embodiment can be distilled into a unified form of subjectivity. Some theorists replace gender essentialism with the idea that subjectivity is not fixed by intersecting social categories (gender, race, etc.) but is ‘positional’, ‘provisional’, and ‘performative’. According to this view, the initial feminist impulse to distinguish sex and gender must be resisted because, though it attempts to break the ideological tie between the ‘natural’ and the ‘social’, it in fact reproduces the categories of man and woman at the level of the sexed body. Judith Butler (1990) argues that sex construed as a biological category is as heavily socially constructed as gender, and that biological sex itself is a gendered category. According to Butler, while feminist analysis successfully identified the social practices that produce gender as a category of identification, they have failed to see that sex itself is produced as a category that precedes gender. Butler's postmodern conception of gender draws on the assumption that nothing exists prior to systems of representation, thus it is wrong to think that gender identity is inscribed on a pre-existing sexed body. According to this view, the meanings attached to the female body as an object of scientific scrutiny are determined not just by the practices of science, but in conjunction with other cultural and economic formations, for example, global capitalism, the mass media, institutional racism, or homophobia. Gender, as such, is best seen as a heuristic category, a means of investigating the variability and contingency of our understanding of sexual diference.

Meredith W. Michaels


Fausto-Sterling, A. (1985). Myths of gender: biological theories about men and women. Basic Books, New York.
Rosaldo, M. Z. (1980). The use and abuse of anthropology: reflections on feminism and cross-cultural understanding. Signs: A Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 5(3).

See also feminism; sex determination; sexual orientation; sexuality.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"gender." The Oxford Companion to the Body. . 15 Dec. 2017 <>.

"gender." The Oxford Companion to the Body. . (December 15, 2017).

"gender." The Oxford Companion to the Body. . Retrieved December 15, 2017 from




Two Worlds. The historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich has compared womens and mens roles in early British American society to a checked fabric of contrasting threads that could make a whole clothor a whole societyonly when woven together. Men and women lived portions of their lives in separate, complementary spheres, but their daily experiences overlapped at many significant points. Within the colonial household women were expected to occupy a position of subordination to the authority of their husbands, who were conceived to be the heads of house and family in a system known as patriarchy. The realities of day-to-day living may have resulted in more-mutual cooperation than the ideal suggests. While men dominated the political and legal life of the world outside the household, women were not excluded from larger social life. Only men could vote and hold office, while women were seen as perpetual dependents and therefore excluded from the political life of the community. Distinctive patterns of gender relations emerged in different areas, however, according to the ethnic background of the colonists and the circumstances of colonization. In New England, which was settled by family units, a rough imbalance in the numbers of women and men permitted many European patterns of gender relations to be imported with minor adaptations. New Netherland and the Chesapeake area, by contrast, were settled initially by single males. The imbalance between men and women resulted in much more adaptation. In New France a similar situation coupled with the trading nature of the colony resulted in significant intermarriage with the Native American population. Gender relations in the Spanish borderlands were marked by the presence of mixed-race marriages within a rigid social hierarchy.

Sexual Hierarchy. Throughout the European colonies of North America women occupied a subordinate place both legally and culturally. A woman in English colonial society operated as a feme covert: she could act as her childs guardian or as manager of the familys property, but she could receive pay for her labor only in the name of her husband. Single women might own property by inheritance or purchase, but marriage laws usually required them to transfer their property to their husband as the head of the household formed by their marriage. Dutch and French colonial law and custom likewise relegated

women to a subordinate social position, though in practice this hierarchy often broke down. In the Spanish borderlands the sexual hierarchy was both strongly asserted by men and resisted by women. The Virgin of Guadalupe came to symbolize for Spanish American women the ideals of charity, good mothering, and devoted wifeliness. La Malinche, a Native American woman who had been Hernán Cortéss translator and mistress, came to symbolize the betrayal of these ideals in Spanish borderland tradition.

Work. The patterns of work for women and men changed over time throughout the European colonies in America. Most free women in the English colonies lived and worked on farms, where they usually divided with men the responsibility of managing the household and making a livelihood. Both might participate in the plowing and planting of a field, the harvesting and processing of the crops, or the care of livestock and poultry. Pioneer couples in New France shared tasks of clearing land and establishing a household. English men, however, tended to avoid domestic tasks such as food preparation and the tending of young children, sticking instead to the tasks of tilling land, mending fences, and maintaining buildings. As the farm became established, Anglo-American husbands and wives tended to divide other tasks more clearly. Men might herd and shear sheep, for example, while the women carded, spun, and wove or knitted the wool into fabric. Life in Franco-American households, by contrast, never became so sharply separated. Farming and the production of goods were tasks shared by the entire household.

Opportunities. In British colonial towns and cities trade and commerce were dominated by men as well, but women carried on significant commercial activities. Sometimes a woman ran a family shop during her husbands absence or owned outright a tavern or retail shop. A Dutch colonial woman likewise assumed the management of a husbands business during his absence and often operated it successfully upon his death. In New France a mans career in the military or government might provide his wife or daughter an opportunity to begin a lucrative business of her own. New France boasted women among the leading ranks of entrepreneurs: Agathe de Saint Père established Montreals textile industry; Mesdames de la Tour and Joybert shipped furs from Acadia; and Louise de Ramezay ran a large Montreal lumber operation. A wife on a Spanish American hacienda often served as her husbands accountant, ran the estate in his absence, and frequently assumed the entire operation at her husbands death. Anglo-American midwiveswomen who assisted mothers in childbirthprovided a more humble but indispensable paid service in colonial health care. Their duties regularly carried them outside their own homes and families to tend to the needs of others, and their knowledge of health matters often extended beyond their skills in midwifery to treatments and herbal remedies for many ills. African women who were brought to the colonies as slaves were often put to work in tobacco or rice fields alongside men and expected to accomplish nearly as much daily work. In domestic work and trades, however, African mens and womens tasks were distinguished. Only men could become artisans, while women were put to domestic tasks such as cooking, nursing, and spinning.

Community of Women. In British American society females formed nurturing communities among themselves apart from the community of males. Older women in New England watched over the behavior and well-being of younger women, giving them advice, counsel, and protection in their dealings with husbands, children, and other members of the community. Religious groups such as Quakers and Baptists gave women formal authority over the conduct and welfare of young girls. Quaker women even held special meetings to deal with offenses such as unsupervised weddings, marriages to non-Quakers, and sexual relations before marriage. Offenders who refused to repent in these meetings could be cast out: forbidden to attend any further meetings or to associate with other Quakers. Women often came together at the birth of a child as well. While midwives took charge of delivering the baby, female neighbors and relatives would gather to assist, offer support, socialize, and celebrate or commiserate together as circumstances required. Less is currently known about the kinds of communities formed by women in non-English colonies, but the Roman Catholic Church did provide for two types of female community not found in Protestant colonies: convents and hospitals. Women could enter convents and devote their lives to serving the church. Daughters of rich colonists often brought with them their dowriesthe portion of family wealth set aside to support them in their marriages. With this money they often established comfortable lives for themselves as nuns. They also provided important services in social welfare through hospitals that cared for the sick and indigent. French nuns ran such hospitals at Louisbourg, Quebec, Trois-Rivières, Montreal, and New Orleans. Spanish colonial laywomen as well as nuns centered much of their lives around the church or mission, participating together not only in religious processions or celebrations but also in mundane tasks such as cleaning sanctuaries and priests robes and maintaining buildings.


Carol Berkin, First Generations: Women in Colonial America (New York: Hill & Wang, 1996);

Clio Collective, Quebec Women: A History (Toronto, Canada: Womens Press, 1987);

Ramón A. Gutiérrez, When Jesus Came, the Corn Mothers Went Away: Marriage, Sexuality, and Power in New Mexico, 1500-1846 (Stanford, Cal.: Stanford University Press, 1991).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Gender." American Eras. . 15 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Gender." American Eras. . (December 15, 2017).

"Gender." American Eras. . Retrieved December 15, 2017 from


gender According to Ann Oakley, who introduced the term to sociology, ‘“Sex” refers to the biological division into male and female; “gender” to the parallel and socially unequal division into femininity and masculinity’ (see Sex, Gender and Society, 1972
). Gender draws attention, therefore, to the socially constructed aspects of differences between women and men. But the term gender has since become extended to refer not only to individual identity and personality but also, at the symbolic level, to cultural ideals and stereotypes of masculinity and femininity and, at the structural level, to the sexual division of labour in institutions and organizations.

In the 1970s, sociological and psychological interest was focused upon demonstrating that gender exists; that is to say, upon showing that the differences and divisions between men and women cannot be accounted for by biological difference, and that the culturally dominant ideas about masculinity and femininity are stereotypes which correspond only crudely to reality. It was shown that there are huge cross-cultural variations in ideas about gender and in the roles of men and women. There were studies of the ways in which baby boys and girls are turned into adult men and women by the processes of socialization in child-rearing, education, youth culture, employment practices, and family ideology. At the structural level, there were studies of the unequal division of labour in the household, even between women and men who both have full-time jobs outside, and of discrimination in employment, where sex (rather than individual skills and qualifications) plays a large part in determining types of job and chances of promotion. More recently, interest has turned to the changing formations of gender at the cultural level. Much of this work has been interdisciplinary, drawing upon anthropology, history, art, literature, film, and cultural studies to explore issues such as the interconnections between ideas of racial purity, White women's sexual purity, and Black masculinity in the United States; or the myth of motherhood as natural and universal. Much of this literature is reviewed in Sara Delamont's The Sociology of Women (1980).

There have been two major kinds of criticism of the concept of gender. The first is that it is based upon a false dichotomy between the biological and the social. This relates to a general criticism that sociology has tended to see the social as disembodied, with the infant as a tabula rasa upon which socialization may write at will, to produce social consciousness and action (as in the work of Émile Durkheim). Following the more recent writings of Michel Foucault, sociologists are now less inclined to take the body for granted, and to see it rather as an object of social analysis, recognizing that the social meaning of the body has changed through history. But in a sense this too can be another means by which biology is discounted and biological science dismissed as merely a social discourse. One criticism of the sex versus gender distinction has been Foucauldian, denying that there is a biological difference—sex—that is in any sense outside of the social. On the other hand, there is the criticism that would reassert biological difference as being extra-social, and argue against a view of gender that discounts the true significance of the body. The sex/gender distinction, it is said, is linked to a particular form of feminist politics that seeks the eradication of gender and a move towards androgyny; it leaves little space, for instance, for other feminist concerns with the biological politics of menstruation, contraception, reproductive technology, abortion, or the management of childbirth.

The second kind of criticism relates to the way in which the concept of gender focuses on differences between women and men at the expense of power and domination. Some writers would prefer to use the term patriarchy as the main organizing concept, in order to keep the question of power to the fore, both analytically and politically. There are many problems with this term, but the important one to note here is that it conflates sex and gender by treating a biological category as a social one: women and men are treated as pre-constituted groups in the description of patriarchy, and the biology of procreation is often used in the explanation of it.

On a lighter note, ‘gender’ has been criticized as a prudish way of avoiding the word ‘sex’. This is clearly not the case when it is used correctly in sociology, but it is true that it has entered everyday speech in this sense, when people talk (for example) about ‘the opposite gender’. Some sociologists, too, are guilty of this when they refer to ‘gender roles’ or ‘gender discrimination’.

The term gender can be used fruitfully with some awareness of these problems. If it is recognized that there is a need to consider biological difference and structures of power in relation to the elaborate social construction of difference, then the concept of gender has the great advantages that it encourages a study of masculinity as well as femininity, the relations between the sexes as well as the social position of women, and a recognition of historical and cultural variety and change rather than a universalizing analysis. See also DOMESTIC DIVISION OF LABOUR; FAMILY, SOCIOLOGY OF; GENDER SEGREGATION (IN EMPLOYMENT).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"gender." A Dictionary of Sociology. . 15 Dec. 2017 <>.

"gender." A Dictionary of Sociology. . (December 15, 2017).

"gender." A Dictionary of Sociology. . Retrieved December 15, 2017 from




Working Together. Survival in the colonies required strenuous labor from both men and women. Often working side by side, they performed tasks conforming to the gender roles of preindustrial society. Typically, womens work was grounded in the family and mens work in the more public market economy. Yet womens work was not confined to the four walls of the home.


Traditional English common law made clear distinctions between single or widowed women and married women. Single and widowed women, or feme sole, had legal property rights similar to men. They could own property, retain wages, write wills, and file legal suits. Upon her wedding day a married woman, or feme covert, lost her separate legal identity and became one with her husband. Feme covert status restricted married womens legal rights. That status meant that women could not sue, be sued, own property, or give away property. Their property immediately belonged to their husbands. In some cases women could ask the courts for the status of feme sole if their husbands agreed. Women would make this request if they wanted to open a shop and be a trader. Such women could sell merchandise and collect debts without their husbands daily involvement. A feme sole claimed the right to control her property and collect debts, but she removed herself from her husbands legal protection. In other words she exposed herself to legal suits by other people.

Source: Alice Kessler-Harris, Women Have Always Worked: A Historical Overview (Old Westbury, N.Y.: Feminist Press, 1981).

Family Economy. Womens responsibility for family

housework included baking, childcare, cleaning, nursing, sewing, and washing. The homes environs included the outdoors, where wives gardened, milked cows, and raised poultry and swine. Outdoor tasks included chipping ice from the well, chopping wood, and hauling water. Skills in butter churning, candle making, cheese making, knitting, and spinning provided her family with both necessities for daily use as well as commodities for exchange. In a barter economy women traded these manufactured goods for supplies that they could not produce. While men typically cleared the fields and cultivated their crops, women assisted during the harvest season. A critical role that some women pursued was that of nurse. They could treat burns, fevers, frostbite, and rashes as well as the daily ailments that families suffered. The more skilled practitioners could make ointments, salves, and syrups for the comfort of family and friends. Women learned the art and skills of housework and nursing from other women: mothers taught daughters; aunts taught nieces; and older women taught younger neighbors. The placement of young women in the homes of elder women increased the productivity of individual families and provided the training ground for continuous family economies.

Market Economy. Little written evidence of womens contribution to the market economy exists because their transactions were informal or made under the names of their husbands. Sporadic references in diaries, correspondence, and account records reveal routine and often crucial activity of women in the market economy. In 1709 the Reverend Gideon Johnston wrote, Were it not for the Assistance my wife gives me by drawing of Pictures... I shoud not have been able to live. The cash she earned for her portraits was essential to her familys survival. Just as Henrietta Johnston sold her artwork, other women sold the candles, soap, clothes, yarn, and cheese they produced, along with the milk, eggs, and vegetables they gathered. Women managed shops, sold millinery goods, and supervised inns and taverns. In an urban setting women could earn wages. In a Philadelphia hospital in 1762, women worked as nurses, clothes washers, chimney sweeps, potato diggers, cooks, maids, whitewashers, soap makers, and bakers. Women earned roughly half the wages of men, and if they were married, then those wages belonged legally to their husbands. Husbands could rely on their wives to replace them if they needed to be away for a short time. Women who served as deputy husbands admirably filled the place of their husbands but invariably returned to their primary position in the home. Women who outlived their husbands could continue the family business as blacksmith, silversmith, newspaper editor, butcher, cabinet maker, shoemaker, tanner, cooper, or planter. An important role unique to women was that of midwife. Whether earning wages or bartering with neighbors for goods and services for the delivery of babies, midwives blended womens roles by sustaining the family well-being and by augmenting the family economy.


Carol Groneman and Mary Beth Norton, eds., To Toil the Livelong Day: Americas Women at Work, 1780-1980 (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1987);

Alice Kessler-Harris, Women Have Always Worked: A Historical Overview (Old Westbury, N.Y.: Feminist Press, 1981);

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England, 1650-1750 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983);

Nancy Woloch, Women and the American Experience, second edition (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1994).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Gender." American Eras. . 15 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Gender." American Eras. . (December 15, 2017).

"Gender." American Eras. . Retrieved December 15, 2017 from


GENDER. A grammatical distinction, in which such PARTS OF SPEECH as nouns, adjectives, and determiners are marked as MASCULINE and FEMININE (as in French and Spanish), or masculine, feminine, and NEUTER (as in German, Latin, and Greek). In such languages, these parts of speech when being used together must agree in gender: the feminine endings in the LATIN phrases illae feminae bonae (nominative: those good women), masculine endings in illi viri boni (nominative: those good men) and neuter endings in illa oppida bona (nominative: those good towns). Distinctions in grammatical gender match some but not all natural gender distinctions and extend them to many items which have no natural gender: French une pierre, a stone (feminine). There can sometimes be considerable discrepancies between grammatical and natural gender: German das Mädchen (the girl) and das Kind (the child) are both neuter.

In English, grammatical distinctions of gender are mainly confined to the third-person singular PRONOUNS, personal, reflexive, and possessive (she/her/hers/herself versus he/him/his/himself). The terms non-personal, and neuter are used for it/its/itself. A contrast of personal and non-personal is also found with the relative pronouns who/whom versus which. She/her is widely used to refer to a ship or other means of transport (She runs well before the wind), to a country (England will never forget those who gave up their lives for her), and sometimes to machines (She sounds rough; maybe the engine needs tuning). A baby or young child (especially when the sex is not known) is sometimes referred to as it: ‘You don't have to hit a child to abuse it’ (charity advertisement). Plural they/them is genderless, being used for people and things. Its use with singular reference for people (Ask anybody and they'll tell you), a historically well-established usage which operates against the strict rules of concord, is common, especially in spoken language, but arouses controversy and is considered a solecism by purists.

Some natural-gender distinctions between pairs of nouns show a derivational relationship (bride/bridegroom, hero/heroine), but most have no morphological connection (father/mother, uncle/aunt, mare/stallion). Some feminine endings are criticized as pejorative and sexist, especially by feminists: authoress, poetess, usherette, stewardess appear to be more disliked than actress, waitress. In recent years, conscious attempts have been made to use the unmarked or masculine term for both sexes: with little difficulty in such statements as Emily Dickinson is a great poet, more controversially in She's a waiter/steward. Such awkward usages are often avoided by neutral or unisex terms like flight attendant. Where terms exist that include -man (as in chairman), non-sexist alternatives like chairperson, chair are controversial and unstable, especially in the UK, although they are making some headway in the US. See GENDER BIAS, NOUN, SEXISM.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"GENDER." Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language. . 15 Dec. 2017 <>.

"GENDER." Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language. . (December 15, 2017).

"GENDER." Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language. . Retrieved December 15, 2017 from


gender [Lat. genus=kind], in grammar, subclassification of nouns or nounlike words in which the members of the subclass have characteristic features of agreement with other words. The term gender is not usually considered to include the classification of number. In French, for example, there are two genders, feminine and masculine, marked by the form of the articles la and le [both: the]. Most French nouns referring to males are masculine (le garcon [the boy]), and most referring to females are feminine (la fille [the girl]), thus conforming to natural gender. Other words are placed in either gender, e.g., le jardin [the garden] and la table [the table], being instances of grammatical gender. In German, Russian, and Latin there are three genders, called masculine, feminine, and neuter. Scandinavian and Dutch languages have in addition to these three a "common" gender, which combines, and often distinguishes between, masculine and feminine. A genderlike distinction between animate and inanimate is widespread, e.g., in Algonquian languages of North America and the Andamanese of the Bay of Bengal. Some Bantu languages have 20 genderlike noun classes. English nouns may be divided into gender classes according to the personal pronouns they take. Nouns referring to males take he and nouns referring to females take she. Most English nouns referring to objects that cannot be classified by sex take the pronoun it, although exceptions exist; ships, for example, are sometimes referred to as she. The grammatical device of concord, or agreement, is bound up with gender distinctions. By it one word bears a formal signal to show its relationship to the word it accompanies or modifies; thus, in la viande, the form of la shows that it is related to a word of the feminine gender class, and it may be said to agree with, or be in concord with, viande. While in most Indo-European languages gender involves nouns, adjectives, and pronouns, in Semitic langauges and some Slavic languages even verbal forms must agree with the gender of their subjects. Although gender is present in many languages, it is far from universal. In English a few words retain gender inflection (e.g., actress, executrix), but since the 12th to 15th cent. English has dropped most of the gender distinctions characteristic of its ancestor languages.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"gender." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . 15 Dec. 2017 <>.

"gender." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . (December 15, 2017).

"gender." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved December 15, 2017 from


gen·der / ˈjendər/ • n. 1. Gram. (in languages such as Latin, Greek, Russian, and German) each of the classes (typically masculine, feminine, common, neuter) of nouns and pronouns distinguished by the different inflections that they have and require in words syntactically associated with them. Grammatical gender is only very loosely associated with natural distinctions of sex. ∎  the property (in nouns and related words) of belonging to such a class: adjectives usually agree with the noun in gender and number. 2. the state of being male or female (typically used with reference to social and cultural differences rather than biological ones): traditional concepts of gender | [as adj.] gender roles. ∎  the members of one or other sex: differences between the genders are encouraged from an early age. ORIGIN: late Middle English: from Old French gendre (modern genre), based on Latin genus ‘birth, family, nation.’ The earliest meanings were ‘kind, sort, genus’ and ‘type or class of noun, etc.’ (which was also a sense of Latin genus).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"gender." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . 15 Dec. 2017 <>.

"gender." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . (December 15, 2017).

"gender." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Retrieved December 15, 2017 from


gender In linguistics, any of several categories into which nouns and pronouns can be divided for grammatical purposes. In some languages, adjectives or verbs may take different forms to agree with the different genders. A three-gender system, with categories labelled masculine, feminine and neuter, exists in such languages as German, Latin and Russian, while a two-gender system, with masculine and feminine, operates in such languages as French and Welsh.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"gender." World Encyclopedia. . 15 Dec. 2017 <>.

"gender." World Encyclopedia. . (December 15, 2017).

"gender." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved December 15, 2017 from


gender †kind, sort; (gram.) any of the three ‘kinds’, masculine, feminine, and neuter, of nouns, adjectives, and pronouns. XIV. — OF. gendre (mod. genre) — Rom. *genero, f. L. gener- GENUS.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"gender." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. . 15 Dec. 2017 <>.

"gender." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. . (December 15, 2017).

"gender." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. . Retrieved December 15, 2017 from



This entry consists of the following articles:

Gender: Gender and the Economy
Gender: Gender and Education
Gender: Gender and Law
Gender: Gender and Politics
Gender: Study of

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Gender." Encyclopedia of the Modern Middle East and North Africa. . 15 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Gender." Encyclopedia of the Modern Middle East and North Africa. . (December 15, 2017).

"Gender." Encyclopedia of the Modern Middle East and North Africa. . Retrieved December 15, 2017 from



This entry includes two subentries:

Gender in the Middle East

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Gender." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . 15 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Gender." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . (December 15, 2017).

"Gender." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . Retrieved December 15, 2017 from


genderbedder, cheddar, Edda, Enzedder, header, Kedah, shedder, shredder, spreader, tedder, threader, treader, Vedda •elder, Griselda, welder, Zelda •addenda, agenda, amender, ascender, attender, bender, blender, Brenda, contender, corrigenda, descender, engender, extender, fazenda, fender, gender, Glenda, Gwenda, hacienda, Länder, lender, mender, offender, pudenda, recommender, referenda, render, sender, slender, spender, splendour (US splendor), surrender, suspender, tender, Venda, weekender, Wenda •parascender • bartender •homesteader • newsvendor •spot-welder •abrader, Ada, blockader, crusader, dissuader, evader, fader, grader, Grenada, invader, masquerader, Nader, parader, persuader, raider, Rigveda, Seder, serenader, trader, upgrader, Veda, wader •attainder, remainder •rollerblader •Aïda, bleeder, Breda, breeder, cedar, conceder, corrida, Derrida, Elfreda, Etheldreda, feeder, follow-my-leader, interceder, interpleader, kneader, leader, Leda, Lieder, misleader, pleader, reader, seceder, seeder, speeder, stampeder, succeeder, weeder •fielder, midfielder, wielder, yielder •outfielder • bandleader • ringleader •cheerleader • copyreader •mind-reader • sight-reader •stockbreeder • proofreader •newsreader

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"gender." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . 15 Dec. 2017 <>.

"gender." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . (December 15, 2017).

"gender." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . Retrieved December 15, 2017 from