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READ: Changing Gender Roles

The article below uses “Three Close Reads”. If you want to learn more about this strategy, click here.

First read: preview and skimming for gist

Before you read the article, you should skim it first. The skim should be very quick and give you the gist (general idea) of what the article is about. You should be looking at the title, author, headings, pictures, and opening sentences of paragraphs for the gist.

Second read: key ideas and understanding content

Now that you’ve skimmed the article, you should preview the questions you will be answering. These questions will help you get a better understanding of the concepts and arguments that are presented in the article. Keep in mind that when you read the article, it is a good idea to write down any vocab you see in the article that is unfamiliar to you.
By the end of the second close read, you should be able to answer the following questions:
  1. What were “Victorian” ideals of gender roles, according to the article? How did they spread around the world?
  2. This period saw the rise of the “new women” in Europe and America. Who were “new women”?
  3. What kinds of impacts did European imperialism have on women in Asia in this period, according to the author?
  4. How did women in Nigeria attempt to use their traditional roles as mothers to protest British taxes and colonialism?
  5. How did the rise of Marxism (socialism) create potential for change in gender roles?
  6. According to the author, did nationalism create new opportunities for gender equality, or not? Explain your answer.

Third read: evaluating and corroborating

Finally, here are some questions that will help you focus on why this article matters and how it connects to other content you’ve studied.
At the end of the third read, you should be able to respond to these questions:
  1. This article begins with the spread of European-inspired “Victorian” gender roles. How were these ideas expressed in new nation-states being created around the world? What does this tell us about empire as a community?
  2. This article also looks at the spread of ideas like nationalism and socialism as forces that could challenge Victorian gender roles, but only to a certain degree. What does this tell us about the role of networks in spreading new ideas about gender, and their limitations?
Now that you know what to look for, it’s time to read! Remember to return to these questions once you’ve finished reading.

Changing Gender Roles

By Bridgette Byrd O’Connor
Gender roles have often been defined by a separation of men into public spheres, such as business and leadership, and women into private spheres, such as homemaking and motherhood. But the new ideas in the long nineteenth century—like nationalism, communism and industrialization—challenged these roles.


In the long nineteenth century, ideas about gender1 started to change. Men and women have had gendered roles in almost all societies throughout history; although these roles varied a great deal depending on the geographic location. But in the long nineteenth century, the expansion of European colonialism spread European norms about men's and women's roles to other parts of the world. Sometimes it spread through cultural networks of exchange and sometimes by force and coercion. In many societies, men's roles were in the public sphere, meaning things like government and business. Women, by contrast, participated in the private sphere of the home. But there were lots of exceptions to this! Most people's lives and stories don't fit neatly into these boxes of public and private spheres. Life is more complicated than that, and not everyone performs the role society assigns them. Gender roles are different in different places, cultures, societies and social classes.
Many European societies subscribed to "Victorian" ideals of gender roles, named for the long reign of the British Queen Victoria. Women were to stay in the home, and if they went out, they usually only went to spaces separate from men. While Queen Victoria didn't exactly fit into this traditional gender role—she did rule all of Britain and its empire—she still conveyed these ideals to her subjects. Because of the global reach of the British Empire, these ideas spread all over the world, often through force.
“The New Woman”– this satirical photo represents changing gender roles in the nineteenth century. The “New Woman” dressed in man’s clothing is observing her husband doing the washing, 1901. By Underwood & Underwood and courtesy of the United States Library of Congress, public domain.
But in the long nineteenth century, people all over the world found new ways to resist these oppressive gender roles. New ideas like socialism, nationalism and women's rights helped transform traditional attitudes and expectations. As a result, gender roles began to shift and change. The labor-intensive Industrial Revolution brought many women out of the home to work in factories. Colonized people began to resist European control. These and other changes also helped create social reforms and new ideas about childhood, voting rights, education and labor. In Europe and America, the term "New Woman" was applied—and not always as a compliment—to women who sought greater access to higher education and more freedoms. Many women of different classes united to fight for greater rights in the workplace, marriage and, of course, the voting booth, where they wanted their voices to be heard in government.
In the colonized world, changing gender roles emerged alongside nationalism and struggles for independence. People there resisted colonialism and formed transnational networks to fight for women's rights. Ideas about how to define gender, femininity and even masculinity were transforming everywhere.

Changing gender roles in Asia

In Asia, particularly East and Southeast Asia, Confucianism had the greatest impact on defining gender roles, and it defined women as subordinate to men. This applied to women in prominent roles at court as well as women in middle- to lower-class households. Social traditions deemed that women should be respectful of the men in their lives: rulers, fathers, husbands, brothers and sons. Confucian ideology wasn't just confined to East Asia and China— its influence reached other areas through trade and migration.
For the most part, East Asian women were confined to living and working in the private sphere around the home. However, some women broke free from these constraints. There were a handful of powerful women in Chinese government, such as Empress Dowager Cixi, who dominated governmental policy during the Qing Dynasty. Other women exercised power alongside male relatives. Some women also had to work outside of the home to support their families. Wet-rice farming was a labor-intensive process that required both men and women to participate in the planting, tending and harvesting of the crop. Along with agricultural duties, many women also worked in the textile industry, although this was usually done in the home prior to industrialization. When men were called off to war, women took their places in the fields and in the markets. As these examples show, Confucian ideals were often very different from the daily life of many women, especially those of the middle to lower classes. These traditional Chinese roles began to change as European imperialists pushed their way into China.
European desires to open up China's markets unleashed more changes for China in both political and intellectual life. This mainly affected the upper classes. However, those changes would be felt by many people living in both China and Southeast Asia, as European imperialism spread. There is a Chinese saying that goes, "Chinese learning for essence, Western learning for application." It expresses the Chinese view of the European intrusion as necessary for military and economic reasons, but also a commitment to keep their traditional Confucian ideals.
Portrait of Surabaya, an Indo-Chinese woman in 1910. By the Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies and Leiden University Library, public domain.
Other aspects of European life can be seen throughout China during the long nineteenth century, including in how aristocratic women presented themselves. The portrait above of Surabaya shows her dressed in European-style clothing and posing in the style of European portraiture of the period. And while that's a lovely fashion statement, European imperialism in other parts of Asia was not as popular or kind. Many women in Southeast Asia living under imperialist control were hired as inexpensive labor for European plantations and factories. Conditions in these areas were similar to other plantation systems in that the work was hard, the conditions were horrific, and the pay was very low. And while this work outside of the home was not a new prospect for those in the lower classes, the conditions and discriminatory practices of the European imperialists did push women and men to seek out reforms and independence.

Nationalism, socialism, and resistance

In many areas of Africa and Latin America, traditional gender roles changed as a result of resistance to colonialism. Gender roles in Africa varied depending on the location. But generally, men and women performed different types of jobs. In many regions of the continent, women farmed while men tended to animals and did metalworking. In West Africa, both men and women were traders and merchants, although men usually held more of these positions than women.
Igbo women in the early twentieth century, unknown author. Image courtesy of Margery Perham, Native Administration in Nigeria, London, 1937, UNESCO. Public domain.
With the expansion of imperial control throughout the nineteenth century, Western nations attempted to force their ideas about gender roles on their colonized subjects. But imperialist governments often underestimated the cultural power and importance that women had in local society. Indigenous women attempted to use their traditional roles to exert influence over European imperial governments. For example, Igbo-Ibibio women in Nigeria were angered when the British officials attempted to tax women's property. Historian Temma Kaplan describes how thousands of women marched to the capital to confront the British representatives:
"The women stole the hats [of the British men ], then they rubbed their naked bottoms over the faces and bodies of the chiefs and their court officers, who had dispatched the census takers. The demonstrators moved on to the towns and attacked British merchants whom they held responsible for the declining price of palm products and the high costs of imported goods. When the Yoruba troops, members of an alien ethnic group, were ordered to attack the women, the women turned their backs and mooned2 the soldiers—challenging them to 'shoot your mothers.' The soldiers shot down 18 women in a massacre that alerted the British to anti-imperialist sentiments, which would increasingly intensify" (Kaplan 178).
In Africa, Asia and Latin America, women began to take on political roles in the organization of labor unions and political groups that fought for independence from Western powers. Men's roles also changed, because no matter your gender, the white ruling class treated all indigenous people as inferior. In Latin America, the arrival of European powers meant that Western beliefs and gender roles were pushed on the indigenous population. Any power that indigenous women had was lost as the Catholic church introduced patriarchal values. However, as independence movements erupted across Latin America, women and men challenged these values.
Many of these independence movements used the theories of Karl Marx and his views about workers' rights. For example, Marxism in theory imagined equality for all people regardless of class or gender. There were assigned roles for men and women, but theoretically both men and women could attain leadership roles and advance as workers and in the party. For many revolutionary women and men, there was a struggle between the more traditional views of gender separating the public (male) and private (female) spheres. Independence, therefore, was viewed as being achieved through a class struggle and the overthrow of imperial powers. As a result of more women entering the labor force and with workers uniting to fight for independence, industrialization and independence movements helped change gender norms.
Nationalism also played a role in these efforts. New ideas about the solidarity of the nation and the creation of shared stories or myths helped to unify people living as members of one nation. While differences in gender or ethnicity weren't supposed to be highlighted, both men and women's roles in the nation were still well defined. Women were praised as patriots for being homemakers and mothers, while men went out to participate in the actual governing of the nation.


The imagery used in the formation of a new nation was also steeped in gender. Some of the new nations that emerged in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were characterized as feminine while those defending or fighting to secure the nation, usually through military force, were masculine. For example, images of "Lady Liberty" and "Republican Motherhood" were used in both in the American and French revolutions. Liberty, symbolized by a woman, led the people into battle. But in terms of appropriate gender roles for women, images of motherhood and protectors of the family from within the home were used most often. In contrast, men were viewed as the revolutionary fighters and were praised for their strength and virility. Men were seen as protectors of the family and nation from outside the home. As new nations emerged in Germany, Italy and Japan, their leaders spoke of a "Fatherland." Women often played a role in national unification. But in these new "masculine" states, men were supposed to embody masculine virtues of strength while women were once again pushed to the margins of public life.
Author bio
Bridgette Byrd O’Connor holds a DPhil in history from the University of Oxford and has taught Big History, World History, and AP U.S. Government and Politics for the past ten years at the high school level. In addition, she has been a freelance writer and editor for the Big History Project and the Crash Course World History and U.S. History curriculums.

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