The History of Gender

Last week I wrote something over at BlogHer about a New York Times feature on Afghani women who dress their daughters as boys in order to avoid the scandal of having no sons as well as to provide their families with the needed labor that only boys and men can do.

Whatever this means in Afghanistan in 2010, it got me thinking about the western world circa 1900 where the novel I’m currently revising is set.  Gender masquerade is a huge part of the plot and character development.  As I walk around 2010 Chicago with my head in my book I often marvel at how transgendered we all are these days, by comparison to those days.  There are plenty of people who require a double–or even triple–take to determine their gender.  But we know how–or imagine we know how–to read gender much more fluently than our ancestors did.

Sometimes, when talking about my novel with someone, she’ll ask, “but how could -insert character here- really get away with passing as a man for so long?  Wouldn’t X,Y or Z give ‘her’ away?”

But the fact is that in western culture 100 years ago, the trappings of gender were so rigidly binary that it would never have even occurred to most people to question what at first glance, appeared to be a man or a woman based on the simplest cues of clothing.  Men wore certain clothes.  Women wore certain clothes.  Never the twain did cross.

So the story about Afghanistan got me thinking about it again.  There’s a culture where the gender codes are so rigidly binary that a small person in a head scarf is a girl and a small person with short hair and trousers is a boy.  Period.  Thus are girls able to pass as boys in all kinds of ways that give the lie to the notion that led to the rigid gender binary in the first place–that there is something so fundamentally different about the genders that never the twain may cross.  And yet here are the girls in disguise kicking butt on the cricket team with their boy team mates.  Ha!

Meanwhile, the thing I do find myself very, very cognizant of in my historical fiction is the way that clothing was class-coded.  Maybe only women wore dresses and only men wore trousers, but fabrics, decoration, color and style would have signified in no uncertain terms what the clothing cost and therefor where the person wearing it fit into the class regime much more clearly than the clothing in our time does.  I can get designer couture on ebay or the Junior League thrift shop, but my characters’ clothing was either tailor-made by expensive seamstresses or it was ready-to-wear or it was made at home and those three things were very, very different and there was no access-up for those at the lower end.  A corset was not just a corset. A hat was not just a hat.

Of course, there is and was more to class-mobility than clothes.  The codes of class would have been variously legible to people at different places in different ways and that is one of the most challenging–and rich–areas of the stories I’m telling.  Perhaps a girl need only don a pair of trousers to pass for a boy, but moving from being a ranch hand in Arizona to being a college student in Boston was a far, far, greater challenge.


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