HIST 299: Gender and Sexualities in Modern European History

Course Description:

This course is a pro-seminar designed to introduce the methodologies of the discipline of History.  This particular section uses the works of scholars who study the historical constructions of gender and sexualities in modern European history from the period of the Enlightenment through Nazi Germany to the crisis of national identity in post-colonial Europe.  We will utilize the various tools of historians, such as document analysis, critical reviews and particularly historiography as means of evaluating this subject and your comprehension of it.  (Cross-listed with Gender & Sexuality Studies and European Studies)

Typical enrollment:  10

Comments from course instructor, Dr. Judith DeGroat:

Why did you decide to teach this course? How does it relate to your scholarly and/ or teaching interests?

I am an historian of European gender roles in the nineteenth century and this course is a version of the History department’s required course in historiography, so the subject matter and approach to studying come from both my scholarly and teaching interests.  For the latter, I want to help students learn about the ways different historians have approached the study of the past: both in the questions they ask and the means they use to explore answers to those questions – which frequently lead to more, complex and intriguing questions as well as answers.

 My interest in the study of gender and of sexuality began with my efforts to understand how I could find so much evidence of women’s paid labor in Parisian manufacturing in the mid-nineteenth century when most of the printed sources of the period claimed that women did not work outside of the home, or that those who did were prostitutes.  What I found in the archives was evidence of women who were mothers, wives, sisters, hard-working and sometimes politically active.  I had to unpack the cultural and social definition of femininity that held women to be home makers, which bourgeois women could afford to be, in order to assess how that construction shaped, limited and also freed to some extent the lives of working women in that period.  This puzzle was an exciting challenge for me; it taught me to look beyond what was defined as the ‘common sense’ of a particular period in history and to seek out the more complex and more profound foundations of a particular society.  When we examine in the course the ways that, for example, the Gestapo used sexuality to define criminality or acceptable German behavior – Jews labeled hypersexual and thus a greater threat to the ‘purity’ of the ‘Aryan’ race or homosexual men defined not only as effeminate but again dangerous to the race because they would not breed, we begin to uncover crucial aspects of the workings of an authoritarian regime. 

What do you hope students will get out of this course?

I would like students to develop an understanding both of the ways gender and sexual identities have been constructed in particular historical contexts and of the ways historians have learned to study and assess these constructions.  The ability to make close textual assessments and the written presentation of those assessments is crucial to the study of history (as well as many other disciplines) as well as to good citizenship in a democracy.  These skills are an important part of a liberal arts education.

 Describe some part of your pedagogical approach—e.g., how you organize a typical class.

For me modern European  history begins with the Enlightenment, so we read a selection of texts from eighteenth-century France that include Voltaire and other philosophes’ descriptions and assessments of homosexual behavior (some condemnatory, others not) as well as excerpts from pornographic pamphlets written about Marie Antoinette by those opposed to the monarchy. Both types of writing have their challenges – the classical allusions combined with smart-alecky puns of contemporary philosophic discourse and the bawdy, anatomically detailed fantasies concocted by the highly politicized gutter journalists of the day.  There is also some embarrassment at the frank language of both kinds of texts, a feeling that quickly disappears as we work to figure out what was at stake in these debates.  This work is preparatory for the next project, which is to analyze two different historians’ assessment of the role of Marie Antoinette’s sexuality in the French Revolution.  Having begun with the primary sources, we can more easily comprehend the importance of sexuality in debates about the state, about sovereignty, and about subjecthood vs. citizenship.  There is also a sense of accomplishment we gain from tackling something tough and sorting it out.  I find this project a productive way to begin the work of the course.

What do students say about this class?    

"I found that this course, by not being in the Gender Studies department, allowed me to experience discussions regarding gender differently with students who were coming from different backgrounds.  By being the only gender studies minor in the class, I was able to offer my own insight but also listen to other perspectives."

"The professor was always so enjoyable to be around, she was so excited about discussing the readings and topics that it made it a joy to come to class.  She encouraged everyone to participate in discussions and she never made you feel like your opinion didn't matter, which I thought was very encouraging."

"I believe that gender studies minors should definitely consider taking this course as a means of moving out of only American gender studies.  I also feel that this class challenged many history majors to think in a way that is not standard in that department.  Thinking about gender and gender issues can be spread into any corner of academia, it is just the professors who choose whether or not to discuss it."

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