Gender, Ethnicity and Identity

Gender, Ethnicity and Identity
(1) Starting-point of feminism is to take ‘women’ as significant object of analysis, to
consider gender devisions to be as important as class divisions in social structure.
Acknowledging significant differences, nevertheless women seen to have something
in common as women (similar pressures, restrictions, discrimination, even if some are
more successful than others in overcoming this). Detailed study reveals systematic
inequalities in economy, society, home and family, culture etc. Society characterised
as ‘patriarchal’. Perspective usually closely related to political action at different
There are three possible ways of defining women’s history, which in the early stages of the
use of the term tended to overlap, but which now need separating: history by women, history
about women, history written from a feminist point of view.
S. Humphreys, ‘What is women’s history?’, History Today June 1985
(2) Various consequences for history: ‘women’ now become object of study (increase
in books on ‘women in Athenian society’ and the like since early 1970s), though
obvious problem with sources — tendency to have to focus on lives of upper-class
women, and/or male attitudes to women rather than women themselves. But
feminism also provokes critique of previous historiographical perspective: not just a
question of adding neglected women to the conventional picture, but of seeing how far
traditional view of history is specifically male view. Focus on question of orders of
significance; what kinds of topics are considered most important (war, politics).
Further, critique of structure of historical establishment: marginalisation of female
scholars and their work. Sense of role of history and the past, not to mention
educational system as a whole, in maintaining patriarchy; primary misogyny of Athens
and Aristotle?
Historians’ neglect of women has been a function of their ideas about historical significance.
Their categories and periodization have been masculine by definition, for they have defined
significance primarily by power, influence and visible activity in the world of political and
economic affairs. Traditionally, wars and politics have always been a part of “history”, while
those institutions which have affected individuals most immediately — social relationships,
marriage, the family — have been outside the scope of historical inquiry. Because most
women have lived outside the spheres of reward and recognition, they have not had a history
as historians have defined the term.
A.D. Gordon, M. J. Buhle & N.S. Dye, ‘The problem of women’s history’, in A. A. Carroll,
ed., Liberating Women’s History (1976)
To make a claim about the importance of women in history is necessarily to come up against
the definitions of history and its agents already established as “true” or at least as accurate
reflections of what happened (or what mattered) in the past. And it is to contend with
standards secured by comparisons that are never stated, by points of view that are never
expressed as such. Women’s history, implying as it does a modification of “history”,
scrutinises the way in which the meaning of that general term has been established. It
questions the relative priority given to “his-story” as opposed to “her-story”, exposing the
hierarchy implicit in many historical accounts. And, more fundamentally, it challenges both
the sufficiency of any history’s claim to tell a whole story and the completeness and selfpresence of history’s subject — universal Man.
J.W. Scott, ‘Women’s history’, in Burke, ed., New Perspectives on Historical Writing (1991)
(3) More recently, move away from concern with male and female to concern with
gender: masculine and feminine, not seen to be biologically determined but rather
cultural constructs, fluid and negotiable. Explore ideologies of societies, interplay of
different ideas and expectations. For example, idea of ‘autocthony’ in Athens, or
gender transgression by emperors like Nero. Some feminists have objected to this
move, partly on the grounds that it makes effective political action more difficult;
impossible to talk of ‘real women’ being oppressed by a real system of patriarchy?
(4) Similar move from study of race to study of ethnicity, from model of biological
determinism to one of fluid, negotiable attributes, partly a matter of self-presentation
and self-identity. Important critique of racist assumptions of many C18-19 ancient
historians, concerning both Greeks and other contemporary civilisations (Bernal’s
Black Athena theory). As with feminism, focuses attention not only on what has been
written about the past but also on way we study it and write about it today.
Sometimes seen as ‘politicisation’ of the past, but that implies that traditional versions
are somehow not at all political or biased. Strong sense of continuing importance of
stories about the past in construction of our own identities.
The problem with the nineteenth-century treatment of Greek ethnic groups was that its racial
model entailed a view of biologically determined, static and monolithic categories whose
boundaries were impermeable — indeed, elements of this doctrine still prevail in some
current works on Greek history which apply the term ‘race’ to the Dorians or Ionians . . . The
ethnic group is a social construction rather than an objective and inherently determined
category. Genetic, linguistic, religious or common cultural factors cannot act as an objective
and universal definition of an ethnic group. They are instead indicia, or the operational sets
of distinguishing attributes which tend to be associated with ethnic groups once the socially
determined criteria have been created and set in place.
Jonathan M. Hall, ‘Approaches to ethnicity in the Early Iron Age of Greece’, in N. Spencer
(ed.), Time, Tradition and Society in Greek Archaeology (1995), pp. 8-9.
Many Ancient Greeks shared a feeling very like what would now be called nationalism: they
despised other peoples and some, like Aristotle, even put this on a theoretical plane by
claiming a Hellenic superiority based on the geographical situation of Greece. It was a
feeling qualified by the very real respect many Greek writers had for foreign culture,
particularly those of Egypt, Phoenicia and Mesopotamia. But, in any event, this Ancient
Greek ‘nationalism’ was negligible compared to the tidal wave of ethnicity and racialism,
linked to cults of Christian Europe and the North, that engulfed Northern Europe with the
Romantic movement at the end of the 18th century. The paradigm of ‘races’ that were
intrinsically unequal in physical and mental endowment was applied to all human studies, but
especially to history. It was now considered undesirable, if not disastrous, for races to mix.
To be creative, a civilization needed to be ‘racially pure’. Thus it became increasingly
intolerable that Greece — which was seen by the Romantics not merely as the epitome of
Europe but also as its pure childhood — could be the result of the mixture of native
Europeans and colonizing Africans and Semites.
Martin Bernal, Black Athena: the Afroasiatic roots of classical civilization, Volume I: the
fabrication of ancient Greece, 1785-1985 (1987) pp. 28-9.