Gender and History (#3)

Wu Zetian was imperial China’s sole female ruler. Her rise to power did not appeal to Confucian sensibilities. Hence, evidence of her reign was destroyed son after her death. Her reign continues to be maligned even today. Conservative Hindus oppose the existence of the LGBTQIA+ community on the grounds that believe queerness is an ‘American Import’. Exploration of India’s pre-colonial history proves otherwise. While queerness did not find mainstream acceptance in India, traditions of the same did exist. Women in Mughal India were subject to many restrictions but pulled the strings of power from harems.

The role of gender has often been ignored in context of historical perspectives. Even when discussed, research has been limited to the status of women in societies of the past. Gendered history however is a much broader field of study. Women’s history is only a component of this sub-discipline. Gendered history also explores the past of the queer community. Emphasis is also placed on historical notions of masculinity and femininity. Further, this perspective does not restrict itself to merely examining the position of different genders. It also seeks to delve into understanding the relationship between gender and religion, gender and privilege as well as gender and its socio-economic concerns.

Studying history through a lens of gender is crucial. Historically, several factors influence power relations in societies. Gender is an important cause. This argument is best articulated with the case of Henry VIII. His wife’s ‘inability’ to produce a male heir changed the history of England. Henry VIII broke away from the Catholic Church and chose instead to appoint himself as the head of the English Church. This was done so he could divorce Catherine of Aragon and marry Ann Boleyn. Henry needed a son to stabilise the Tudor dynasty and his obsession with ‘an heir and a spare’ resulted in six marriages. A Portrait of Henry VIII similarly gives us an insight into portrayals of masculinity. A portrait of him hangs at the National Portrait Gallery, England. While it is impressive and detailed, closer examination reveals meanings and symbolisms. The sketch is imposing and the man who poses in it is tall and broad. His shoulders and legs appear to be triangular and taper to his codpiece. This was propaganda. The imagery implies that Henry VIII was masculine and fertile. Gendered perspectives have thus better understand Henry’s reign and his ideology.

Gender however cannot be studied in isolation. It needs to be examined in relation to other social institutions as well as identities including caste, class, race and sexuality. Its study is vital for it helps us broaden our approach to the past. Gendered history is an important tool that allows us to better understand and analyse the past.

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