Adam eve Best

Gender, patriarchy, and stuff like that are hugely relevant to family history. These notions have enormous practical and theoretical significance.

In a practical and ordinary sense, every family inherits characteristics from the social and cultural framework in which it lives. One of these characteristics is the division of labor and family responsibilities along gender lines. In the traditional (and patriarchal) scheme, men made money and performed manual labor while women kept house and raised the children. (Actually, both men and women performed manual labor, but the labor itself was divided into masculine and feminine types.) This arrangement of gender roles was particularly sharp and uniform in times gone by, and it still exists to a degree today.

I venture this commonplace observation not so much for its own value as to open a conversation about an issue that seems inescapable in family history.

When I began researching and writing my family story, I quickly realized how gender roles and patriarchy shaped the lore I had absorbed since childhood. It was easy to see how the stories of the women and girls had been overlooked or suppressed. In my family, most of the stories are about the men—my grandfather as inveterate penny-pincher, my uncles as hilarious pranksters, and so on. The stories are typically action-oriented and focused more on deeds than on their effects. This overwhelmingly masculine perspective was no less evident when my grandmothers were the storytellers.

As I began working through my family history, I realized I had to develop a different mode of storytelling. The history would be hollow and incomplete if I relied only on those old chestnuts, perhaps because the stories themselves were so superficial. Besides, half the family would be silent or missing.

The change came about when I asked my Uncle Jay about a long-ago incident involving my aunt. “Well,” he said, “why don’t you call Phyllis and ask her yourself.” Then he rattled off her phone number. I give my uncle a great deal of credit for making this suggestion—he is easily the most old-fashioned and patriarchal member of the family, and he and my aunt were never on the best of terms.

When I called Phyllis, she quickly answered my question, plus many others I had never thought to ask. We spoke for over an hour that night, and we spoke several more times in the ensuing two years until her death. Most of the stories were about women, and they were of wholly different cloth than the stories I had heard growing up. My aunt talked about relationships, conflict, pride, and striving. My history grew richer and darker as a result.

This change deepened when I began researching my mother’s side of the family. Interviewing my mother and digging into my grandmother’s papers yielded fascinating stories. Like those of my aunt, the stories that came out of my grandmother’s archives chiefly concerned relationships—marriage, parenthood, and friendship in all their variety and complexity. The stories yielded up by those archives were at once dark and triumphant.

Those overlooked and suppressed stories added much richness and vitality to my history. They also led to a lot of terrific source material, because (at least in my family) the women were and are far more diligent about saving letters, photos, and other mementoes. My grandmother saved troves of letters, calendars, notebooks, photographs, and baby books. The photographs are particularly valuable, revealing character through the details of clothing, gesture, expression, and body language.

So gender plays a huge role in shaping family life, and family historians are well-advised to keep the gender effect in mind and to examine the lives of both their male and female ancestors.

We could end with this mild observation about striving for a balanced treatment of our ancestors, but this exploration would hardly be complete if we did. For family historians must look beyond the doings of their own families and consider the idea of family in its widest sense—the aura of social and cultural norms and expectations that shape our understanding of family, clan, and tribe.

In a theoretical sense, this conversation could take any number of surprising turns. Feminism, psychology, law, gender studies, queer studies, child development—virtually every discipline must have a perspective on family history.

I’m not equipped to answer these questions, and anyway, I don’t want this blog post to turn into a book. Instead, I’ll turn these questions over to you.

To genealogists and family historians: what do you make of this discussion? How have gender roles and patriarchy influenced your family’s development? What role do they play in your research and writing?

To the cultural theorists: what does your discipline have to say about the writing of family history?


© 2012, Andy Kubrin. All rights reserved.