Gender roles within a society, the characteristics that we define as masculine and feminine, are not universal or based on the biological differences between the sexes. Laquer argues that “the body is like an actor on stage; ready to take on the roles assigned it by culture”1 Gender roles are not biologically assigned at birth by the sex of a child but instead are a learned, internalised reaction to its cultural environment.
This is not to say that the way people view biological sex has no implications for the nature of gender roles, conversely it is the interaction between biological notions of sex and the roles which a society assigns to gender which constitute a perceived idea of what is masculine and feminine. In the sixteenth and early seventeenth century the biological construction of sex differed dramatically from what is now accepted. Medical science greatly relied on the works of classical antiquity which stated that health and temperament were caused by the balance of humours in the body.
Prevailing belief was that there was only one sex and children were born male or female due to their balance of humours. Men were seen to have a predominance of hot, dry humours whilst women were cold and wet. Men and women were seen as essentially the same, the female reproductive organs being perceived as an inverted version of the male which, due to their cold temperament, remained inside the body whilst the males descended. “Men and women, according to this line of thinking, were not different; rather the female body was an inferior or imperfect version of the male.
The balance of humours was also said to cause men and women’s differing natures. “Women’s wetter, colder bodies made them more melancholy, and men’s hotter, drier ones made them more prone to anger. “3 Men were perceived as strong, stoic and rational, able to control their emotions, whilst women were seen as emotional, irrational and weak. Thus the one-sex model could be used to support and uphold the subordination of women in society. However as the balance of humours was seen to be changeable it was vitally important that gender roles were culturally enforced.
A woman who acted in a masculine fashion had an excess of heat in her body and the more that she embraced the masculine gender role the more this imbalance would increase. The possible consequences of this were extreme, eventually the female reproductive organs could descend and she could become biologically male. Equally men who showed female characteristics could experience a reverse of this process. “In the absence of a purportedly stable system of two sexes, strict sumptuary laws of the body attempted too stabilise gender- women as women and men as men- and punishments for transgressions were quite severe.
This was, therefore, a period in which a strong emphasis was placed on educating children to fulfil their gender roles. Boys were taught how to fulfil their roles within the household and the public domain; “reason, [and] physical strength had to be nurtured in boys and young men. “5 For men the concept of honour was very important, especially as much business was performed by credit, and so personal responsibility and reliability was also taught to boys from a young age.
In the levels of society where such education was attainable Latin, Greek, mathematics and sciences were taught to boys whilst the education of girls was generally, although not always, confined to areas like embroidery, French, music and household management. Lower on the social scale, men were still taught according to their superior strengths and abilities, often learning a trade through an apprenticeship. In contrast women frequently went into service where they could learn the domestic duties necessary to run a household.
Sexual behaviour was also thought to be controlled by the humours. Women, with their cool bodies were seen to desire men’s heat, gained through sexual intercourse. Consequently women were viewed as sexually promiscuous and weak. They were taught that they had to control their sexual urges and that a virtuous woman was one who did not indulge in illicit sexual pleasure. Men were thought to lose their balancing heat during the sexual act and, consequently their superior mental powers, reason and strength could be lost through too frequent sexual pleasure.
Because of this men were taught that they must control their sexual and emotional feelings towards women as an excess of love or sex might cause them to act irrationally. The one-sex model affected sexual relations in another way as well. Women as well as men were thought to produce seed at the point of orgasm and it was the mingling of the two seeds which allowed conception to occur, consequently female pleasure during sex was seen as important. Early Modern society was deeply patriarchal and men were taught that maintaining their ‘manhood’ or masculinity meant maintaining their authority over women.
Along with biological ideas Biblical precedent had for centuries taught that female subordination to men was necessary and right. Women were seen as inferior to men as the first woman, Eve, was created from Adam’s rib to be “a help meet for him. “6 Also the temptation and fall of Eve was seen as proof of the moral weakness of women. The subordination of women continued in the New Testament where they are described as “the weaker vessel,” 7 for these reasons it was viewed as imperative that women, unable to control their immoral natures, submitted to the control of their father or husband.
A man who could not control his wife broke the gender role required of him and so was ridiculed as weak and effeminate. Male control over female sexuality was also important. If a married woman had an affair her husband was mocked and called a cuckold for failing to control her. Female sexuality was regulated so strongly because men sought control over female reproductive power. “Women were the disorderly sex and their sexuality was to be controlled so that they bore children only within marriage, and then only to their lawful husband.
Female adultery, which could result in a man raising a child whom he did not father, was severely punished. Men had far more licence to sexual freedom and men’s adultery was generally ignored or punished less harshly. Despite the general subordination of women they did gain some power and influence through their economic role in the family. “Women were expected to work for a living [and their earnings were] imperative if families were to survive in any comfort”9 Before the eighteenth century women were seen as an important force in the working world.
Women in the nobility and gentry were often responsible for managing their husband’s large estates whilst they were away at court. Within the ‘middling sort’ many women were also involved in important labour; running a shop, manufacturing products or managing staff. Amongst the poor the income brought by a woman into the household could be vitally important and women partook in manual labour in the fields or manufactured goods to sell within the household. Although according to the Common Law the money earned by women automatically belonged to their husbands in practice this did not always happen, allowing women some freedom.
Women’s labour was valued within the household however her husband was still expected to be the main provider. “it was this impression of ability and sufficiency which house holding men were anxious to maintain since it… conferred a degree of authority”10 Despite this women were still not deemed as equals in the world of work, many jobs and professions were unavailable to them and they were paid less than men. As the eighteenth century began ideas about the nature of biological differences between man and women began to change.
Dissection of human bodies, forbidden for centuries, became widespread at medical schools in the late sixteenth century. However, the findings of these dissections continued to conform to the ideas of Galen, portraying the female organ as an inversion of the male. It has been argued, therefore, that it was not the advance of medical science but a crisis in the strength and nature of patriarchy which necessitated changing perceptions. There came “a moment when men felt that the need for social and gender order was insistent. 11 The increasing democratization of religion precipitated by the Reformation meant that women now had access to the Bible and could interpret and argue points of religion. The industrial revolution has also been cited as a contributing factor in the destabilising of patriarchy at this time.
The justification for men’s dominance had weakened and consequently men needed to reinforce patriarchy within society at this point. “The issue facing men seems to have been: could they secure patriarchy more surely by drawing sharper lines between the sexes. 12 The modifications in ideas about gender stemmed from the change in ideas about biological sex. The one-sex model was abandoned in favour of the two-sex model. This new model stated that men and women were fundamentally biologically different in ways that were defined at birth. Their reproductive organs were unrelated and the female reproductive organs were blamed for women’s perceived failings. Women were seen to be controlled by their ovaries, causing them to be irrational and emotional.
Links between the frailty of the female body and the frailty of her mind were also used to reassert male dominance: “Nature appears to have formed the [mental] faculties of your sex, for the most part, with less vigour than those of ours, observing the same distinction here as in the more delicate frame of your bodies. “13 This new model “enabled men to construct women as fundamentally different from themselves, something they had never been able to achieve with the graduated humoural model of the body. 14 Male and female gender roles were now construed as ‘natural’ and based in scientific fact.
This also changed notions of female sexuality. Instead of being perceived as sexually promiscuous, women were now thought not to desire sex in the same way as men and “assigned the qualities of virtue and chastity which were now thought to be innate. “15 Whilst, in earlier times a virtuous and chaste woman was taught to control her true sexual nature women were now thought to be innately sexually modest. Therefore it can be argued that the ideal behaviour of women in relation to sex changed little.
Fletcher argues that this change was a more positive construction of the female sex: “Women were desexualised by the elaboration of a newly perceived gender construction but, at the same time their moral, intellectual and spiritual qualities received much more open and evident validation and acknowledgement. “16 More was understood about the nature of reproduction and this altered the sexual values of society. The idea that both men and women had seed was gradually replaced as more knowledge was gained about ovulation.
Consequently, as women ovulated whether or not they were sexually aroused, “The implication was that women’s sexual pleasure was no longer essential to conception. “17 Instead women were thought simply to have to endure sex in order to procreate and women who enjoyed the sexual act were construed as morally deficit. These changes also had implications for women’s roles in the workplace. As the period progressed women were increasingly marginalised within the workplace and instead the idea of ‘separate spheres’ was promoted. Women’s lives were confined to the household.
Important tasks household management tasks were given to male stewards. From the nobility to the lower middling sort, it was seen as vulgar and undesirable for a woman to be seen doing ‘men’s work. ‘ Consequently women’s roles were restricted to domestic tasks and they lost some of the agency gained through work. This also had the effect of separating the moral and social values of the poor from the relatively wealthy. Poor families could not afford to lose one half of the labour force and so poor women continued to work.
“Plebeian women no longer shared the same notions of female honour as their social superiors. This meant that the gap between the different levels of society grew more distinct, contributing to the development of the class system. The change in perceptions of biology does therefore seem to have an effect on notions of gender. The advent of the two-sex model reinforced patriarchy and the male gender role, giving scientific reasons for male domination. It also seems to have affected the way in which women were perceived and behaved. Whilst exalting their moral qualities it negated their sexual feelings and increasingly left them confined to the domestic sphere.
However it is unclear how far these changes actually affected the lives of ordinary people. “Most … historians would now agree that the period of the industrial revolution was marked more by continuity than change”18 Whilst the reasons for women’s subordination were given a new context they were still expected to act in a subordinate and sexually modest way. Equally the male gender role of strength, reason and control over women was reinforced although the new idea of female innocence and morality meant that manners became more important.
In reality it seems that whilst the justification for gender differences changed the actual behaviour displayed remained fairly constant. “The evidence over the centuries seems to suggest that there is an essential continuity about human emotion but how it is expressed varies from one historical context to another. “19 Therefore, whilst the theory of sexual and gender role encountered a decisive change between 1500 and 1800, the main effect was to reinforce existing gender roles, not change them dramatically.