Social-scientific theories of gender are a Western invention, as far as I know, and definitely a modern one. Other civilizations have had their own ways of dealing with human sexuality and the relations between the sexes. As Indian eroticism and Chinese family codes illustrate, these can be as sophisticated and elaborate as anything the West has created. But they are different kinds of cultural formation.
Nor was this perspective part of European culture from the start. Sex and gender in the writings of medieval and Reformation intellectuals were, by and large, items in a debate about the moral relationships among men, women and God. Such a framework
was not necessarily a constricting one. It could recognize the complexities of passion and treat them with great subtlety. Witness the theme of frustrated love from the romance of Tristan and Isolde, through Dante’s story of Paolo and Francesca, to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Yet the well-spring of these stories was much more often a dilemma of conflicting obligations than a curiosity about motive. Similarly the discussion of sex by theologians and philosophers was intended to lay down what people ought to do, rather than consider why they did something else.
The first major change in this framework followed the corrosion of the belief that God laid down a path for women and men to follow. Among intellectuals of the Enlightenment we find the same topics as before, but now secularized. There is a debate about the moral justification of prevailing gender arrangements and – especially in the newly invented literary form of the novel – drama about the lives of people who bent the rules. The framework of a secular moralism, with Society in the place formerly occupied by God, could admit a fair range of positions, among them early feminism and libertarianism. The shock of the French Revolution pushed this debate suddenly in a radical direction. In both France and England clear statements of the ‘rights of women’ were published in 1791—2, hard on the heels of the ‘rights of man’. The text best known to English-speaking readers, Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women, laid heavy stress on the distortion of women’s moral character by the oppressive conditions under which women lived. The same historical moment saw the bitter satire of conventional sexual morality by the Marquis de Sade in Justine, who went on in the monumental Juliette to explore the libertine sexuality that became possible when divine law was wholly replaced by human will.
For a good while these remained the high-water marks of sexual radicalism. The reaction against the French Revolution was legitimist in sexual as well as class terms. Most nineteenth-century intellectuals were hostile to Wollstonecraft and Sade if they knew of them at all. But the secularization of the moral argument about gender did stick. In the high tide of liberalism it took the form of a doctrine of equal rights, a claim for citizenship. When the first political mobilization of women on a significant scale began, at the Seneca Falls convention in the United States in 1848, it was centred on this doctrine. Within the liberal and utilitarian framework it became increasingly difficult to see any objection to women’s citizenship. When John Stuart Mill wrote in The Subjection of Women, ‘Under whatever conditions, and within whatever limits, men are admitted to the suffrage, there is not a shadow of justification for not admitting women under the same’, the phrasing marked a decisive shift in the terms of argument. The logical presumption was now for equality. By the turn of the century in some colonies of settlement on the fringes of the capitalist world (Wyoming, Utah, New Zealand, Colorado, South Australia, Idaho), white women did have equal voting rights, and the struggle for the suffrage in countries of the industrial centre was well under way.
To speak of a ‘secular moralisin’ is not to deny that religious moralism continued. It is a striking fact that nineteenth-century North American feminism only became a mass movement when tied in with religion, especially in the form of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. It is equally striking how the reaction against feminism and gay liberation in the United States in the late 1970s was closely tied to fundamentalist Protestantism. The history of ideas about gender is far from being a succession of neatly defined stages. However radical a new development, earlier frameworks are carried forward with it.
Yet the Enlightenment did see a basic restructuring of the field of argument and by the end of the nineteenth century a second restructuring was under way. The doctrine of equal rights fuelled a feminist mobilization in Europe and in North America and other colonies of settlement. By the 1920s women in these countries had searched out, attacked and often broken the worst of their formal or legal disabilities, most notably in suffrage, property ownership and access to education. At the same time the concept of equal rights led to a different kind of question. If the subordination of women was not natural or just, how had it come about? How was it sustained? These are no longer questions of ethics but empirical questions — and in the framework of secular moralism, empirical questions about ‘society’. The logical consequence of the doctrine of rights, then, was a social science of gender.
In one sense this had been evident from the start. Wollstonecraft spent much of her time discussing how women’s moral character was formed. She attributed women’s character to their education, in the broad sense, and argued for reforming both. In the same vein early socialists like Robert Owen noted how women’s and men’s characters were distorted by oppressive conditions and deduced a need for educational as well as economic reform. A thread of sex egalitarianism ran through the Utopian socialist movement of the early nineteenth century. It became part of the mainstream socialist tradition through the writings of August Bebel and Friedrich Engels. In Engels this current met the speculative history of kinship being constructed by theorists like Morgan (.Ancient Society) and Bachofen (Mother Right). Engels’s famous Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State rested on ethnography that was soon superseded and as historiography was obsolete when it was written (see chapter 7 below). But it remained important because it crystallized once and for all the idea of relationships between men and women as a social system with a definite historical trajectory. The argument dramatized the differences between gender relations in the remote past, in known history and in the hoped-for future. Engels tied the trajectory of gender to the dynamics of class, but the basic idea did not depend on this link.
What Engels still took for granted, as did all the reformers of that generation, was the naturalness of the categories of ‘women’ and ‘men’, and indeed the conventional attributes of women and men. Radical doctrines of equal rights could easily coexist with highly conventional views about ‘true womanhood’, about the proper work of women and men and about their heterosexual destiny. Women’s suffrage campaigners at the turn of the century routinely argued that the public realm needed the moral uplift, domestic virtues and nurturance that were the natural attributes of women. Along this track it was easy for upper-class feminism to merge into charity or moral surveillance of the poor, in the kindergarten movement and campaigns for infant health and mothercraft centres, eugenics, domestic science teaching and the like.