The inaugural CGIS Research Discussion Group of 2018 met on 24 October. The topic of discussion was ‘Gendered Sensations: The Intersection of Gender and Sensory Histories in the Early Twentieth Century’, and the literature on the table included articles by Janet Wolff, Mark M. Smith, and Alain Corbin. The conversation kicked off with a consideration of what sensory history might actually entail, and why it might be important to consider the senses through a gendered lens. By now, most of us are comfortable with the concept and premise of gender history, but the sensory turn is still the new kid on the block within the historical discipline: how can we access the sensory world of a past we have never experienced, and what might this tell us about the people who did? Questions of experience and somatic presence loom large, alongside historiographies of the emotions and the body.
Some excellent scholarship on the senses in history has emerged over the last three or four decades, with Smith and Corbin leading the charge, yet gender is seldom considered a defining factor of sensory experience. Given that the ‘sensory apparatus’ – eyes, ears, noses, etc. – is shared by all, it follows that sensory experience should be common across genders; we should all hear/see/smell in the same ways. But Smith himself has stressed that it is not the sensory experience itself which should interest the historian – rather, we should seek to understand the framework within which that experience was understood and became meaningful. In my own research, I argue that this framework is shaped significantly by gendered norms and expectations, and this was the idea I pitched to the discussion group – that as we pursue the promise that the senses hold for historians, we should hold the influence of gender firmly in mind.
To my mind, this disparity in gendered experience is particularly conspicuous in the early twentieth century as European cities underwent changes in their material world and in their mentalities, which both contemporaries and subsequent scholars have (nebulously) called ‘modernity’. As Wolff has compellingly argued, the default perspective on the experience on modernity is masculine: the male figure of the flâneur roams the streets of Paris, observing the spectacle of modern life. Wolff claims that there was not – and could not conceivably be – a female equivalent, a flâneuse, as it were. Moreover, I would contend that from a sensory point of view, this model privileges the gaze above all other forms of sensory perception. My thesis is based on the assertion that the rapidly-changing, multi-faceted sensescape of this period was experienced differently by men and women as they struggled to make sense of ‘modernity’.
Through a lively discussion of varied examples spanning the department store to the prison cell, the group explored what a sensory history of femininity might look, smell, and feel like. Topics included the realms of sensory pleasure, kleptomania, and fetishism, and how these might be disentangled from the conventions of masculine psychiatric literature. As a forum to explore my own questions about my research and methodology, I found this discussion particularly fruitful. The group provides a context in which to candidly address corners which felt like dead-ends, and to discover new directions – the comments and questions put forward in the session have given me a fresh enthusiasm for my project and opened up new avenues for my thinking. Thank you to those who attended for sharing your insights and connections, and I look forward to next term!