Gender roles in Society
Each society has binary oppositions as in masculine and feminine roles and the established values have little to do with nature and everything to do with culture. Moreover, the ideals and distinctions of masculine and feminine activities and behaviors are reinforced and redefined through powerful social norms of any particular period. In Medieval and early Modern Europe societies, gender roles were clearly defined by the strong prevailing social structure of the period and were constantly changing because of historical circumstances. For example, in the Greek ancient city of Sparta, masculinity as an ideal was strictly associated with the characteristics of being physically powerful, loyal warriors while femininity was related to marriage and procreation. In the High Middle Ages, France’s social structure deemed that a noble masculine role could include becoming either a member of the church or a knight whereas a noble female’s role primarily focused on learning a different set of domestic skills.
By the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries, social norms began to associate masculinity with professional skills and education while women were limited in these domains based upon their gender. With this framework in mind, this essay will examine and analyze gender roles beginning with Medieval Sparta through the early Modern Europe period and how masculine and feminine roles were continually being redefined because of historical circumstances.
Masculinity as an ideal in the Greek ancient city of Sparta was exclusively based upon boys growing up to be strong, obedient, and loyal warriors because Sparta was a warrior society. In the film documentary entitled The Spartans, Narrator Bettany Hughes explains how the boys of Sparta reached these lofty goals. She states that when boys reached the age of seven, they began agoge—a term meaning a type of military training—that the city-state controlled. The agoge taught boys survival and fieldcraft skills as a means to protect the city-state from invasions. Moreover, once a male turned twelve, the men in charge of the training regiment enforced the practice of pederasty (homosexual) because the most important masculine trait for men to possess was the ability to show steadfast loyalty to one’s military unit.
This type of male custom had to be performed because the city-state believed this was the only way to ensure warriors formed a complete and unbreakable bond with each other and united the city-state. At the age of twenty, Hughes states that males received their rite of passage to warrior status and he now has acquired the privilege of going to the common mess and sharing a syssitia, a common meal, with the other seasoned warriors. While masculinity was associated with physical strength and loyalty, the ideals of femininity in Spartan society focused on taking care of the household duties while also spending countless hours perfecting their bodies and oratory skills through vigorous drills and training.
Accordingly, Hushes asserts that Spartan women boasted about how they were as physically fit as their male counterparts and flaunted their oratory skills when out in the public area. Additionally, Hughes states that after marriage a woman’s gender role consisted of giving birth to as many healthy males as possible—the next generation of strong, fit warriors. However, married woman did not have permission to live with her husband until his active military service ended at age of thirty. Moreover, Hughes claims that a woman’s role in Sparta was not restricted to only procreation. Femininity was associated with economic power because women controlled all of the household finances while their husbands were away preparing for war. The gender roles in ancient city of Sparta were strictly defined because being a male meant that he must learn male dominant traits in order to become a stout warrior whereas femininity solely focused on the need for procreation.
During the High Middle Ages, although France was considered a warrior society, the path to adulthood for noble boys was dissimilar to that of Spartan boys. In Constance Bouchard text entitled Strong of Body, Brave and Noble, she explains that once a boy reached between the ages of six to eight, he too spent the rest of his childhood not at home while learning masculine traits (148). However, different from Spartan society where the city-state enforced only one option, a boy’s parents had two masculine positions to choose from. One choice was to have their son become a member of the clergy.
If his parents selected an ecclesiastical life, the boy would begin his religious training around the same time as a modern boy would start elementary school (Bouchard 148). Parents also had to decide whether they wanted their son to grow up to become a monk or be a member of the secular clergy. For the first option, the parents would send him to a monastery and “boys given to monasteries were called “oblates,” from the Latin word meaning that ‘which is offered.” Thus the oblation itself was expected to a positive effect on the parents’ hoped-for-salvation” (148- 149). Alternatively, if parents decided on the aboy being a member of the secular clergy, then they would send him to a house of canons (Bouchard 148- 149).
Once the boy reached his teen years, he was then given a chance to make his own final decision regarding his lifelong commitment to the church, but rarely did a boy growing up in a church setting choose to leave for a secular life (Bouchard 148). The other masculine noble role in France was to become milite—a term meaning knight (Bouchard 11). A boy’s training would normally rake place at his father’s lord’s castle and a count might assemble the sons from several castellans of his reign for training in hope of assuring lifelong loyalty from the boys (Bouchard 77).
Military traits of medieval France, comparable to Spartan customs, consisted of continually improving a male’s battle skills during tournaments to ensure readiness because the warrior skills boys acquired would later be used in wartime when they reached manhood (Bouchard 78). Moreover, Bouchard states that obtaining war fighting skills was a key component of masculinity: “in the twelfth century, all nobles would have agreed that their warrior training and skill in arms were important to their status. They gloried in their courage, loyalty, and raw strength” (109). By the end of the twelfth century, incorporating the art chivalry expanded the definition of noble masculinity in France. Unlike Spartan men who were only judged on the bravery and strength, chivalry or “courtesy” was also expected from a courtly knight.
The chivalry virtues included: being a humble Christian, showing politeness toward women, having gentle and refined speech, and possessing skills in dancing, singing and hunting (Bouchard 110). Bouchard explains the ideals of chivalry as: “Whatever its other attributes, late twelfth-and thirteenth-century chivalry was a conglomerate of ideas and ideals that glorified and ennobled welfare” (109). Being a noble male in France in the High Middle Ages required obtaining warrior the same warrior attributes of that of Spartan as well as the art of chivalry in order to adhere to noble social norms of the era. Noble feminine ideals in medieval France were similar to Spartan society regarding procreation, but noble feminine identity also included learning and executing a new set of domestic skills. Consequently, noble girls had to be educated in castle management from the very moment they were old enough to follow their mothers to the kitchen, to the treasury, and to the grain store bins because when a noble girl did marry, which was at an age a lot younger than her male counterpart, she might suddenly become the lady of the castle (Bouchard 98). Additionally, Bouchard’s text assets: “The most specifically feminine skill was needlework.
The distaff, used to spin wool into thread, had long a symbol for women, and the fine ladies in the romances routinely spent their time on sewing and embroidery” (75). Furthermore, if noble girl received a courtly education, her feminine traits would also include the ability to sing and possibly even play a musical instrument. Nevertheless, Bouchard stresses, “household management skills were doubtless the most important part of a noble girl’s training” (75). Clearly, in medieval France the hegemonic role of noble women as the loving and devoted homemakers was the norm.
By the sixteenth century, a male’s role no longer focused on obtaining warrior attributes; instead, masculinity was equated with utilizing his intelligence while femininity still focused on fertility and motherhood. During the early modern witch-hunts, many Germans feared that the practice of witchcraft was destroying the social fabric of any given community. Lyndal Roper’s text entitled Witch Craze, provides evidence that male interrogators relied on their rhetorical skills as a means to restore social order. For example, a male interrogator had to have extensive knowledge of the types of probing questions to ask the accused witch and when to stop the questioning process to ensure a guilty plea was forth coming from the accused witch. Roper writes: “In many of the interrogations it is apparent that the techniques of questioning and of torture were designed to bring the accused witch to a crisis, when she would finally admit at least to an element of guilt” (48).
Therefore, the interrogation process did not rely on the Spartan masculine ideal of ‘might makes right,’ but rather required a man’s ability to use his intellect and rhetorical skills in order to save the village from the witch harms. Femininity, on the other hand, was equated with fertility and motherhood. As a result, women were not allowed to learn professional skills, such as being a guild, an interrogator, a doctor or any other profession. Moreover, the role of a woman from a Protestant viewpoint of the era furthers this point: “A woman’s destiny was to become a wife and bare children, enduring the subjection to her husband which God had ordained. In giving birth, she was pleasing God, whose divine plan it was that women should have children” (Roper138). Consequently, according to Roper: “Such as vision of female destiny did not leave much room for women who, for whatever reason, did not marry or have children” (138).
When natural philosophy made headway in eighteenth century, the belief in the occult began to wane, and the masculine role of the middle and upper classes moved more resolutely into the intellectual sphere. In The Mind has No Sex Londa Schiebinger states, “noblemen in England and France perceived that education was necessary to prepare young gentlemen to wield power in the state”(13). Therefore, masculinity was associated with knowledge because membership into academics was men only. Moreover, obtaining a formal education was a means of social mobility. The study of science was also part of the masculine culture because according to Schiebinger’s text: “The revolution in European life and manners brought to triumph of the notion of sexual complementarily, a theory which taught that men and women are not physical and moral equals but complementarily opposites” (216-217).
As a result of this theory accepted by male European society, the study of science became a male only domain. Schiebinger expends on this masculine ideal: “By embedding the theory of sexual difference on the theory of separate spheres, complementarians cemented the association of masculinity with science. In the eighteenth century, these were also prescribed characteristics of man” (237). Women, on the other hand, were not permitted in the professional and educational spheres based upon their gender, and the majority of the male society expected them to adhere to their proper station as mothers and nurtures. Schiebinger explains why women were barred from receiving a formal education, “insofar as academics were rooted in universities, the exclusion of women is easily explained: women were unlikely candidates for admission to institutions deriving their membership largely from universities, which since their founding had generally proscribed women” (20). Additionally, according to Schiebinger’s text many of the era believed that if women were allowed to participate in the study of science, they would then be neglecting their prescribed role of being mothers and nurtures.
Schiebinger’s text states that Louis de Lesclache held this type of opinion, and he concluded that, “women should not be taught natural philosophy, but rather moral philosophy, with lessons in prudence, temperance and justice; they should search only for that knowledge which ‘establishes order in the homes, serves their children, and increases their fear and love in God”’ (218). Clearly, de Lesclache believed that a women’s role in European society of this period was that she was to appear weak, chaste while solely focusing on her “womanly” duties of being a loving and caring housewife. Furthermore, if women did study science covertly, their findings were not allowed to be published because women’s writings were excluded.
The reason behind the matter was that they did not fit because they were not members of the academies, not part of the canon, and not respected as standard works. Moreover, because they were not allowed to attend universities, women could not read or write in Latin which was the official language for written observations. The end result is that women were limited in the intellectual sphere because they were just that—women. The history of Medieval Sparta through the early Modern Europe period demonstrate the key binary oppositions of each society that served each one have never been perpetual. Moreover, each society had distinct sets of standards for the roles of feminine and masculine traits and had gender- specific expectations that men and women had to adhere to in order to fit into societal norms.
On the other hand, while male gender roles were constantly being redefined because of historical circumstances, a women’s role continued to focus on the same attributes of procreation and domestic obligations. Consequently, gender roles in Medieval and early Modern Europe societies favored men, to a certain extent, because masculine roles had more opportunity for change and advancement whereas a woman’s identity in society remained the status quo.