Historicity and ‘Origins’

In 1984 the British government’s program of coal-pit closures provoked a national strike by mine workers, one of the bitterest industrial confrontations in recent times. As the struggle got under way with miners’ leaders and National Goal Board shaping up in best macho style, the media ran stories about how the miners’ wives were opposed to the strike. Since industrial disputes in mining are very much a community affair, these claims provoked a good deal of anger. Some miners’ wives organized a demonstration to show their support for the strike, and to the surprise of the mineworkers’ union as well as the government a solidarity movement among women developed quite rapidly on a national scale.

One of the initiating groups, from the town of Barnsley, brought out a booklet about their experience called Women Against Pit Closures. Its main theme is how the women of the district are part of the class solidarity of the miners. But the booklet also criticizes the union for excluding or ignoring women. It conveys a strong sense that now the women have taken public action, gained a political voice and among other things have been harassed by police and some arrested, things can never be the same in the mining towns again: relations between the women and the men have changed decisively.

This sense that things ‘can never be the same again’, that new possibilities have opened and old patterns closed off, is exactly what the Abtono|3L_of_g£njd£r^ The concept of

historicity is stronger than the concept of ‘social change’, which may be mechanical and external, something that happens to people, like a comet, a fire or a plague. The idea of historicity is

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about change produced by human practice, about people being inside the process.

The idea that gender relations have a history is more than a century old. As noted in chapter 2 it was a basic element in the creation of a social science of gender. Its early formulations, in best nineteenth-century style, revolved around the problem of ‘origins’. This is at best a half-way house to the concept of historicity. The concept of‘origins’ implies that something is already formed, though not fully developed, in its earliest appearance, and that what follows is the unfolding of a nature already settled.

Of the origin theories that dot the landscape, by far the most influential hasHbeen Friedrich Eng^te’s Origin of the Family. Private Property and the State, which Appeared ifTT884. Engels’s view of primitive social structure was, in its day, a reasonable piece of armchair research. It was based mainly on Greek and Roman literary sources enlivened by a little early ethnography. But it was not state-of-the-art prehistory even then. The Assyrian civilization had been revealed a generation before; the Egyptian hieroglyphs had been deciphered in the 1820s; and while Engels wrote, major excavations were showing the outlines of a yet more ancient civilization in Sumer. In the decades that followed, Engels’s limited sources were overwhelmed by an explosion of archaeological information. In the Mediterranean region, which his main sources dealt with, archaeology brought to light the Minoan, Mycenaean, Hittite and Etruscan cultures, to mention only the most spectacular. By the 1920s prehistory had become a sophisticated science with well-developed field methods. Technically detailed regional syntheses like Gordon Childe’s Dawn of European Civilization were appearing; and speculative library essays like Engels’ Origin were simply obsolete.

One reason it has remained the focus of argument is that the prehistorians have not done their job. There is no literature that debates and synthesizes the field evidence, now vast, that bears on the early history of gender relations. The secondary literature on prehistory, with very fe^ exceptions, takes the sexnaTcTivision of labour and the subordination of women fox-ja^a^ted.

Here, for instance, are two famous prehistorians discussing the yearly family:

I Since hunting put a premium on masculine qualities, this activity f4* became a special province of males, and a sexual division of labour

was instituted under which women continued to gather plant, insect and comparable foods while men developed the skills required for tracking down and killing game. This heightened the need for a partnership of the sexes.

No evidence is offered for this; the sexual division of labour from later societies is simply read back. ItTs difficult to think of any other topic on which such a^colossal anachronism would get past a professional historian’s self-censorship. This example is from two decades ago, but little has changed in the archaeological literature sinceJfWith modern historiography sunk in patriarchal ideology, even £m obsolete essay that asks some of the right questions looks gooff)

Ofcourse Engels is more thai^the author of an obsolete essay. With the founding fathers’ texts canonical (or nearly so) for orthodox Marxists, his Origin has inevitably become the focus of argument over Marxist explanations of women’s oppression now. Opponents of Marxism have found it easy to carry on the combat by inventing an alternative prehistory. As Homeric warriors battled for possession of a hero’s corpse wherever the hero fell, struggle has raged over the true origin of patriarchy without much thought about the choice of battlefield. The most bizarre results were a completely speculative debate aboutlyhether there was a primitive matriarchy, a prehistoric world ruled by women, and if so how it was overthrown by men; and a completely speculative theory of evolution that found the origins of patriarchy in palaeolithic hunting, the ‘master pattern’ "bfThe human species according to Lionel Tiger. ~~

Christine Delphy, whose splendid demolition of Origin myths deserves to be better known, observes the drift of this debate away from the insight that began it. ‘In fact, under cover of putting an historical question, an ahistorical one has actually been posed: “What are the natural reasons which caused male supremacy?’” Since there are no natural reasons for a social relationship, this debate cannot ever be resolved. It is basically symbolic, a way of making declarations about the present; one of those really satisfying arguments that exclude all evidence that might tend to settle them.

The ultimate weakness of the Origin debate is that to have any force, either strategically or symbolically, it must assume that

nothing much changes after the Origin. Like the Elephant’s Child in the Just So Stories having its nose stretched, once you get it you are stuck with it. In all essentials, the argument assumes, ‘male bonding’ is the same now as it was among the mammoth-hunters, patriarchy as it was when Moses came down from the mountain.

Alongside the mythography of the Origin there is a hybrid literature that presents itself as a scientific search lor origins; the participants include Kathleen Gough, Kayna Reiter and Maurice Godelier. Its basis is an attempt to synthesize data from archaeology with contemporary studies of the behaviour of apes and monkeys and the ethnography of small-scale societies, preferably hunter – gatherers. The latter two are supposed to cast light by analogy on what things were like in early human evolution. Clare Burton’s critique of this literature is apt. The analogical evidence fails to establish anything significant about the remote past, and the origins argument establishes absolutely nothing about the present. Reiter’s paper ‘The Search for Origins’, perhaps the most interesting in this literature, shows the stress by falling apart into two quite incompatible arguments. One is a sketch of major transitions in the world history of gender relations – a novel and important exercise. But this is framed by the quite spurious claim that knowing the origins of gender hierarchy gives the strategic clue to how it may be abolished now.

The origin literature’s assumption of the homogeneity of history, to put iFTormaljy. is important as a mechanism of ideology. As a basis of theory it is less compelling. It either denies historical change, or allows just one model of change, the natural unfolding of a fixed logic. This is incompatible with the view that social structures are constituted by practice. It is inconsistent with any conception of internal contradictions in gender relations, since they must give rise to historical discontinuities. It is also inconsist­ent with the subdivision of structures proposed in chapter 5, since a consequence of recognizing different logics of relationship is recognizing contradictions that emerge between them. If the arguments and evidence assembled in chapters 3, 5 and 6 have any weight, the notions of a homogeneous history and a formative origin are ruled out absolutely.

We must also reject the conventional ‘history of sex’ and the more recent history of ‘sex roles’, both of which are based on a similar premiss of homogeneity. Such familiar texts as Rattray Taylor’s Sex in History conceive their subject-matter as the varying expressions of an underlying essence. The history is the story of how these expressions modulate under different circumstances: changing religious ideas, heavier or lighter censorship and so forth. But sexuality itself is not understood as formed in history, indeed as changing at all. Vern Bullough, a historian of homosexuality in this vein, puts it succinctly: ‘In sum, homosexuality has always been with us; it has been a constant in history’. As R. A. Padgug argues in an essay on conceptualizing sexuality in history, the idea of an unchanging essence misses the connection of sexuality with practice, the historical formation of the categories and relations that I have called the structure of cathexis.

The same is true of the history of ‘sex roles’ that emerged in the late 1970s. Patricia Branca’s Women in Europe Since 1750, Peter Stearns’s Be a Man! and Elizabeth and Joseph Pleck’s The American Man may serve as respectable examples. The ‘role’ framework declares a concern with social definitions. Stearns’s book, for example, opens with an essay on ‘manhood as a social construct’. But as the analysis in chapter 3 showed, ‘sex role’ theory is only notionally social. It actually rests on a ргЄ-social sex dichotomy, which supplies the missing structure to the analyses of attitudes and interactions. Exactly the same is true of sex-role history. These texts rest on the fixed dichotomy of sex – women’s history plus men’s history – and concern themselves mainly with mapping changes in attitudes and expectations about the dichotomy.

A much more profound grasp of the historicity of gender is shown in the new gay history that has superseded work like Bullough’s. Homosexuality is a historically specific thing, and the fact that it is socially organized becomes clear once we distinguish between homosexual behaviour and a homosexual identity. While homosexual behaviour of some kind may be universal, this does not automatically entail the existence of self-identified or publicly labelled ‘homosexuals’. In fact, the latter are unusual enough to require a historical explanation. Jeffrey Weeks argues in Coming Out that in Western Eufope, male homosexuality did not gain its characteristically modern meaning and social organization until the late nineteenth century. That period witnessed the advent of new medical categorizations, homosexuality being defined as a pathology by the German psychiatrist Westphal in 1870. There were also new legal proscriptions. All male homosexual behaviour was subject to legal sanctions in Britain by the end of the century.

Such medical and legal discourses underlined a new conception of the homosexual as a specific type of person. Alan Bray in Homosexuality in Renaissance England shows that while homosexual encounters certainly occurred in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, the participants did not have a clear social definition. They were therefore not persecuted systematically, though treated with extreme brutality on occasion. Homosexual behaviour was seen as a potential in the lustful nature of all men, or indeed a potential for disorder in the cosmos. When men with same-sex preferences began to be defined as a group, in the milieu associated with the ‘Molly houses’ of London in the early eighteenth century, they were characterized by a high degree of effeminacy and what is now known as transvestism.

Thus the emergence of both the medical discourse on homosexu­ality, and the corresponding self-conception of homosexuals, need to be related to particular social conceptions of femininity and masculinity and to the social reorganization of gender. Just as ‘the housewife’, ‘the prostitute’ and ‘the child’ are historically specific social types that must be understood in the context of gender relations of the time, so ‘the homosexual’ represents the modern definition of a new type of adult male. It was a man who was classified as an invert, and who, frequently at least, understood himself to possess a ‘woman’s soul in a man’s body’.

These developments in gay history move decisively beyond the concept of modulations to a radical view of sexuality and gender identity as constructed within the history of a changing social structure, by processes of social struggle.

There are some connections with the work of Jacques Donzelot and Michel Foucault. Foucault’s History of Sexuality argues forcefully that an emphasis on sexuality as a motivating force in life is not only distinctively modern but is part of a process of social control. He is very clear about the social construction of sexual ideology and gender identities. As he observes in an essay on the transsexual Herculine Barbin, the demand that everyone should have a clear – cut and fixed identity as a member of one sex is historically recent.

But the focus of this work on the apparatuses of power – the professions and the state – and the forms of knowledge they generate, gives no grip on the grass-roots reality that was the object of the strategies of control. This theoretical problem has become a strategic dilemma in gay liberation. When identity as a homosexual is seen as an effect of ‘regulation’, of the discourses and strategies used by the powerful to fix, study and label the dissident, the logical response is to deregulate or deconstruct. But deconstructing homosexual identity means dismantling the political power that has been gained by a mobilization stressing that identity, proclaiming gay pride. So the theoretical advances generated by gay liberation seem to require the end of gay liberation.

The roots of this paradox are in a lopsided conception of social process endemic in theories of discourse and regulation. The practical side of the problem will be discussed in chapter 10 below. At the level of theory it can be corrected from feminist history. The approach pioneered by Sheila Rowbotham in Hidden from History and Women, Resistance and Revolution holds the focus on social relations, especially structures of power. But it gives a central place to the practice of the oppressed. The uses of power meet strategies of resistance, with varying results. Such an approach acknowledges the reality of power without presenting woman as eternal victim; and insists on the agency of the oppressed without denying the reality of oppression.

Thus the historicity of gender defined at the beginning of this section is not a completely abstract concept. Change is produced by human agency; conversely all practice occurs in specific settings and has a particular place in the sequence of events. The idea of historicity implies a concrete history, some of whose features are now clear. Its subject matter is a structure of social relations and the form of life constituted in them, including sexual and political life. This history is not homogeneous. As Juliet Mitchell emphas­ized, the different structures of relationship may develop in different rhythms and come into contradiction. Real social struggles do not have predictable or standard outcomes, and sometimes change the conditions that gave rise to them. There is a long-term historical dynamic of practice and structural transformation.

The study of the historical dynamic of gender relations is still in its early *с1ау§7 but it is clear that its shape is nothing like the smooth unfolding of a’ predetermined logic. Gender history is lumpy. There are moments of transition, when the conditions of practice alter fast; there are periods of more or less steady shift in a given direction; and there are periods when a particular balance of forces is stabilized.

The concrete focus of this history (as distinct from the abstract definition of its subject-matter and scope) is the composition of the gender order of a given time and place, and the collective projects that compose it. To make sense of these projects requires a history of the formation of groups and categories, and of the types of personalities, motives and capacities drawn upon in sexual politics.

In those terms, the following section is not even the sketch of a history. But it is important at least to move the argument as far as posing concrete historical problems. What follows is an attempt to state some of the questions that need answering about the dynamics of gender on the scale of world history.