“What pops into your mind when you hear the word gender?” This is how Geertje Mak, professor of Political History of Gender in the Netherlands at the University of Amsterdam, introduces the open lecture organised by Studium Generale, last Tuesday evening. After a few moments of shy hesitation, terms like ‘self-expression’ and ‘identity’ emerge from the audience, paired with the firmly pronounced concepts of ‘label’ and ‘social construct’.

The duality is set: for some of the students, the idea of gender seems primarily connected to selfhood and expression of identity, while for others it appears as a limiting categorisation imposed by society. “Gender has a lot of connotations”, says the lecturer.

Masculine appearance

But when have we started using the word ‘gender’? Mak explains that the perception of gender, beyond the legal question of defining someone as a man or a woman in their passport, took place in the 20th century. Authors such as Robert J. Stoller started to associate gender with identity, ‘the inner self and the inner feelings’, as pointed out by the lecturer. At the same time, thinkers such as Simone de Beauvoir, believed that gender is learned by individuals through society.

To illustrate the complexities of gender throughout the centuries, Mak presents the case of Louise Imbert-Nay, a French woman who defied the gender norms of her time by joining the 1870 Franco-Prussian war as a soldier. Madame Imbert, as she was known, later maintained the ‘masculine’ appearance that she adopted during the war, wearing her hair short and pants, which were illegal for women at the time.

audience gender history lecture – Sara Cardoso
A question from the audience. Image credit: Sara Cardoso

The lecturer explains how the story of Madame Imbert received different interpretations throughout the times, both positive and negative, while particularly inspiring the feminist movement and other women to present themselves in unconventional ways. “But do women need to appear masculine to emancipate themselves?”, asked a student.

“I would never suggest that to be feminist or powerful, you need to present yourself as masculine”, says Mak. However, historically, the ‘norm of power has been masculine’, so it is still common for women in positions of power to adopt a ‘masculine expression’, adds the professor. She then reaffirms that feminism has different branches that celebrate many types of individual freedoms for female expression.

Today’s experience

Outside of the theatre room of the Erasmus Paviljoen, Grace, Yana and Miguel, three friends who are members of the Erasmus Pride association, are almost on their way out. “I think it was a very Western focused lecture”, says Grace, referring to the European literature that was presented. She felt like a connection to ‘today’s experience’ of queer people was necessary when approaching the topic.

Yana agrees, explaining that, although the event was meant as an historical lecture, ‘it would have been good to combine it with a more socio-political approach’ of the theme. The student suggests a final panel with queer people where ‘they could also say what they think about this topic in current times’.

Yana gender history lecture – Sara Cardoso
Yana would have liked to hear a current perspective as well. Image credit: Sara Cardoso

Inclusion on campus

Fernando, a student at the Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication, was also present. ‘As a layman in the academic world on this theme, but being part of the alphabet family’, the student admits that the lecture changed his ‘view in some of the topics and things we read nowadays in the newspaper’. In his perspective, terms such as ‘gender fluidity’ or ‘gender constructs’ are often used in the mainstream media, but rarely put within their historical context. “History is very important to evaluate what we are experiencing now, and what was discussed was new to me, so actually it was very nice to hear things from the 19th century.”

Fernando gender history lecture – Sara Cardoso
For Fernando, the historical context of the lecture helps to understand a topic like gender better. Image credit: Sara Cardoso

Sharing his friends’ perspective, Miguel adds that this kind of activities are important on campus, so that everyone ‘can be more open’. But he thinks inclusion needs to be translated into more concrete steps. “I see the university implementing this now, at least with gender neutral bathrooms, and I think that’s a first good step towards that, but definitely more is needed”, Miguel reinforces.

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