Gender in History: A Personal Perspective

Most of my oral history interviewees are male and the experiences they discuss are therefore also predominantly masculine. Consequently, at conferences I am often asked ‘what about gender?’ What this really means is ‘where are the women?’ or ‘what are you (a woman) doing studying men?’ I have yet to attend a presentation on women’s history where the speaker was asked ‘what about men?’ Gender history, though based on exploring ‘the fundamental idea that what it means to be defined as man or woman has a history,’[1] is all too often synonymous with women’s history. Let’s get one thing straight: considering gender is not the same thing as writing about women. In fact, to focus only on women is just as biased as to focus only on men. In order to write gender into history we need to consider both.[2]

Despite the fact that most of my interviewees are men, in my dissertation I’ve made a conscious effort to address how and why their experiences differ from those of their female contemporaries, relying on extant sources to supplement my own interviews. In terms of employment among post-war Irish migrants, workplaces tended to be gendered spaces. Irishmen worked predominantly in trades and manual labor (traditionally male occupations), while women moved into more traditionally feminine roles including nursing and clerical work. They came together in their social lives, meeting at church events, county associations, and dance halls. However, gendered experiences persisted. Men and women started the night on separate sides of the dance floor and a man generally had to ask a woman to dance. Some men may have wanted to get married or settle down, but felt tongue-tied even trying to approach a girl to ask her to dance. An inability to communicate well appears as a theme in discussions of loneliness and isolation among Irishmen. Others justified the fact that they remained single by saying they didn’t want to be ‘tied down’, in the words of one interviewee. Men were (and are) constrained by the expectation that they do ‘manly’ work and provide for a family and women were (and are) by the expectation that they bear and raise children. The latter has received far more attention in historical scholarship.

But the questions I am asked at conferences are not only about my subject of study; they are about my right to study it. Oral historians are taught to reflect on the nature of the interviewer-interviewee relationship:[3] Did they know each other before the interview? Are they of the same sex? The same race? The same age? The same generation? The same political outlook? How do these factors affect the interview? While these are important questions, they give the impression that there is a right or a wrong type of relationship. They suggest, for example, that a man could never get ‘the best’ interviews with feminist activists or that (in the words of someone who ran a training course I attended) ‘young people’ don’t understand their elderly interviewees. While undoubtedly a man’s experience is different from a woman’s and a teenager’s from an eighty-year-old’s, that is not necessarily a bad thing. Oral history is about listening, about capturing untold stories or hearing familiar ones in new ways. Though my interviewees and I have a common interest (Irish music), I am a different gender, a different generation, and a different ethnicity to most of them. This can lead to enlightening moments: descriptions of how people charged radio batteries in the days before rural electrification or of styles of dress in the 1950s. Because of the differences, they feel the need to explain what life was like and to reflect on why. Where tacit, mutual assumptions exist between interviewer and interviewee, stories may remain unspoken.

Last year Emma Watson launched the UN’s HeForShe campaign. In her speech, she reclaims the term feminism from its negative connotations and defines it as the support for equal rights and opportunities. It is therefore a men’s issue too, because they ‘don’t have the benefits of equality either’. She argues that gender inequality will not end if it is seen as an issue concerning only half the population: everyone needs to participate in the conversation and be part of the change. The same is true for academia: in Ireland, female students outnumber their male counterparts in third-level institutions, but women constitute only 29 percent of senior academic staff.[4] Ending gender inequality is about more than closing the achievement gap; it’s about changing attitudes. As historians, we need to extend the same courtesy to each other and to the past. Women’s history should not only be about, by, and for women; nor should history be only about elite white men. Gender in history – like class or ethnicity – needs the whole population in the picture for it to make sense.

_________________

[1] Sonya Rose, What Is Gender History? (2010)

[2] Joanne Bailey, ‘Questions of Gender’, History Today, vol.64, no.6 (June 2014); Joanne Bailey, ‘Is the Rise of Gender History “Hiding” Women from History once again?’, History in Focus (2005)

[3] For example, see: Valerie Raleigh Yow, Recording Oral History: A Guide for the Humanities and Social Sciences, 2nd ed. (AltaMira Press, Walnut Creek, CA, 2005), pp.157-87.

[4] Higher Education Authority, ‘Gender and Academic Staff’, figures based on Dec. 2013. Women are 29% of senior academic staff in universities and ITs in Ireland.

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One thought on “Gender in History: A Personal Perspective

  1. Brava!!! If one follows the logic of only women can understand women, or men men etc. none of us can study those who are no longer alive. There is no way we can have experienced what life was like for fourth century Irish monks or for the wife who is in charge of the castle while her baron husband is off on a crusade. What is important here, it seems to me, is to do the necessary research, including interviews if that is appropriate, so that the historian can communicate “what it must have been like” for another human being. For the oral historian what is important is knowing something about the subject matter of the interview and to have empathy for the interviewee. In your case knowing about traditional music and something about the migrant experience can help you frame useful questions. Your gender, age, class or ethnicity is really irrelevant.

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