Placing Gender Norms in a Historical Context

George Chauncey
May 28, 2019

One of the fundamental points I try to make in my course, in my writing and my teaching about the history of sexuality is that sexuality changes. It has a history, it is a part of culture, and every aspect of it changes. And while it’s related to gender it doesn’t mean gender identity.

We see a tremendous amount of gender fluidity in the history of queer culture and at particular moments there was a tremendous amount in the culture at large. World War II is one of the most striking examples, when suddenly hundreds of thousands of women went into defense jobs, heavy industrial jobs that only five years earlier would have been unattainable for them. The male-dominated company management and unions had both said women could never hold those jobs because “it’s men’s work.” But once men were off fighting the war, somebody had to do this work, so suddenly you had many more women in trousers and with short hair, walking the streets on the way to work and living with other women, making higher wages than they’d ever had before, and being able to support themselves without men. Lesbians found new freedom in this context.

In my lecture course I show a clip from a recruiting film for women to work in aircraft manufacturing plants which tries to argue that working with a lathe is like running an electric washing machine, and using an industrial press is like using a juice extractor, so that having women run these machines did not challenge gender conventions, even though it clearly did. I show the students ads from magazines aimed at women workers that say you can do these jobs and, "you can use this makeup and still have your beautiful skin." We can see gender norms opening up, shutting down, and being radically contested.