Gender: Just Add Women and Stir

This post is part of a series from Loyola public historians attending NCPH 2014.

We’ve all seen it.  When museums, historic sites, and textbooks realize they need to address gender, the go-to response is to “just add women and stir.”  Sprinkle in a few “great women” to go with the great men or specifically talk about the women who lived in a historic house…usually only when you enter the kitchen.  The traditional male dominated history isn’t challenged in any way.  It’s still the same story, the same narrative, the same interpretation of the site, but now women have  been “included.”

The first panel I attended yesterday morning at NCPH 2014, “Gender: Just Add Women and Stir,” sought to challenge this standard trope.  The facilitators, a number of whom were from the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage in Philadelphia, had taken a study trip in 2013 to historic sites in New England to observe how gender and sexuality were interpreted—or not interpreted—at these sites.

Rather than a traditional panel where the audience is talked at, we immediately began an activity.  The panelists had placed scenes from historic house museums around the room and asked the audience to interpret each room in terms of gender and sexuality.  At first many participants seemed hesitant to imposing any sort of interpretation on these sites.  How were we supposed to interpret gender and sexuality based solely on images without any context?

As someone who attempts to be aware of assumptions and stereotypes based on gender and sexuality, this felt like an exercise in reifying useless categories and stereotypes.  What makes a room, or aspects of it, “masculine” or “feminine?”  Are we talking about 19th century views of masculinity and femininity or 21st century views?  Since societal views about these things aren’t static, but have in fact changed tremendously, there is considerable difference.

As far as interpreting sexuality goes, well there’s all sorts of trouble there.  The living room at the Gropius House in Lincoln, Massachusetts, for instance totally said gay stereotype to me.  Not gay, mind you, but gay stereotype.  I have no idea who used or designed this living room, and I can’t make any sort of judgements about their gender, let alone their sexuality based simply on an image of the room.

The image used in the session was a different angle, but you get the idea.
The image used in the session was a different angle, but you get the idea.  Photo courtesy of www.historicnewengland.org

What was great about this activity, however, was that quickly people began asking questions, rather than imposing interpretation.  Who is using this space?  Who designed the space?  Are they the same person?  Who cleans the space?  What kind of activity is going on here?  What assumptions about class can we make by looking at this space?

The questions  quickly showcased the most important point I came away with from this panel: intersectionality.  This concept isn’t new to anyone studying historically marginalized and underrepresented groups, but it is important to emphasize.  Basically, the idea of intersectionality says that our various identities in general, and oppressive institutions in particular, are interconnected and cannot be examined separately.  The experiences of all women aren’t the same.  Our experiences are colored not only  by our gender, but also by our race, our class, our sexuality, etc.

While we as scholars know this and can acknowledge this fact, our historic sites just aren’t always doing this.  How can we encourage sites not only to “add women” but to explore their experiences in a nuanced way that challenges traditional historical narratives?  Simply adding women but leaving male dominated narratives in tact isn’t enough anymore.

The issue of sexuality becomes even more difficult.  Often sites will say there simply isn’t documentation to support an analysis of a historical figures sexuality.  If there’s no documentation confirming that a figure wasn’t heterosexual, then it can’t be addressed.  But this is an excuse.  To me, this is especially frustrating because you’ll never see anyone saying we can’t assume someone was straight simply because there is no documentation to confirm that fact.  Heterosexuality is the default, and anything else needs to be proven.  I’m not asking that, for instance, the Frances Willard House start telling everyone that the WCTU leader was a lesbian.  But I am asking that they address the fact that she never married, had long-term female companions, and found her most meaningful relationships with women.  In the late 19th and early 20th century this didn’t mean you self-identified as a lesbian—that word didn’t even exist—but today it might mean that you would.  This needs to be discussed outright, not only in whispers.

I left the session realizing that some institutions might say they don’t address gender or sexuality within their interpretation.  But this isn’t true.  All institutions and historic sites address gender and sexuality (and race, class, etc) whether they actively talk about it or not.  Unless the interpretation at your institution actively discusses gender and sexuality, then you are silently upholding the heteronormative male narratives of traditional history.  Historical scholarship has moved well past this.  Historic sites need to do the same.

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One thought on “Gender: Just Add Women and Stir

  1. “Unless the interpretation at your institution actively discusses gender and sexuality, then you are silently upholding the heteronormative male narratives of traditional history.” Laura, this is a wonderful quote. As you say, gender and sexuality are not synonymous with females being present at an historical moment. Gender is part of everything, and, particularly, I would like to see museum exhibits discuss these topics in conjunction with their masculine subjects. Great post!

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