Kornbluh: Beyond Women's History

Mar 24, 2015

March is the month Americans recognize as Women’s History Month. But in this age of leaders like Hillary Clinton, some people wonder if we still need women’s history.

Well, I say no. We need the history of Gender, Sexuality, and Women.

The Program I direct at the University of Vermont began in the 1980s as a Women’s Studies Program. I led the process that produced its new name: the Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies Program.

We made this change because our field is more encompassing than the exclusive study of women.

For starters, Gender is a social system that differentiates between “women” and “men.” The history of gender asks how differences we understand as natural came to be: How, for example, have so many cultures come to consider only men fit for politics? Why have they considered women nicer than men – but also less intelligent?

Gender history takes masculinity as seriously as femininity. This isn't old-fashioned history, with men as Alpha and Omega and women left out of the alphabet. To suppose that men are naturally prone to violence, or power grabs, or selfishness, is just as simplistic as thinking women are naturally suited to vacuuming the living room rug.

The history of gender also gives a past to Gender Identity. It is fairly common today to hear about baby boys who grow up to be women, with or without medical help to change their bodies. We know, too, about people who aren’t comfortable on either side of the line separating male from female. Gender history chronicles the two-gender system itself, a purely human product that has been recreated repeatedly over time.

Then there’s the history of Sexuality: Sexuality is attraction and desire, intimacy and romance. The history of sexuality chronicles the development of opposite-sex and same-sex attraction. It illuminates how people in the past invented the categories of “gay” and “straight” – and made these categories salient in medicine, politics, education, and law.

Finally, we must continue to study Women: Women’s history has opened up new questions and areas of work. But we have hardly plumbed its depths. There is so much more to say about how legal institutions have shaped women’s lives and how we, in turn, have shaped the law. Whole groups of women, such as women with disabilities, Asian-American women, and women who have traveled between the U.S. mainland and the Spanish-speaking Caribbean, have barely arrived on the historical stage. Surely it’s too soon to bring down the curtain.