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

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