Incorporating Gender, Identity and Subjectivity into Essays

In Michaelmas 2021, the five CGIS undergraduate representatives (Hannah Stovin, Elliot Rose, Becky Davies, Hannah Blackmore and Ruchita Raghunath) led a workshop to share ideas on how to include considerations of gender, sexuality, identity, and sexuality in undergraduate essays. Here Hannah Stovin and Becky Davies summarise the undergraduate reps' top tips! 

Firstly, we had a discussion about the definitions of Gender, Identity and Subjectivity. It’s easy to say to try to include these huge topics but what exactly are they? These lofty terms can be intimidating but broken down to their simplest they become far less threatening.

  • Gender- Discussion of how gender as a lens of analysis has impacted historical events and experiences. How has it been configured differently in different places? What has this meant for discussion of power? Where does gender come from and what does it say about the larger social/cultural/political climate. This covers such things as women's history and the history of masculinity as well as more abstract considerations such as queer theory.
  • Identity- the memories, experiences, relationships and values that craft someone's sense of self. This covers such things as queer history, disability studies and regional identities among others.
  • Subjectivity – covers lived experience. It is a recognition that individuals possess conscious experiences such as feelings, beliefs and desires. It also covers discussion of agency, looking at how and in what ways individuals have the means to act and wield power. This crops up in such areas of research as the history of emotions, the history of the body but also considerations of things like the historians themselves and their subjectivities.

Now we have the groundwork the next question we raised is why? Why should we include a consideration of these topics? Many undergraduate modules offer a singular week on gender but these topics should be treated as critical categories of analysis that infuse the whole course- just like politics, economics or social factors currently are. If we get away from this unhelpful and crude separation and include considerations of gender, identity and subjectivity into other essays then we can begin to craft far more complex and nuanced arguments. This will make your answers more sophisticated and interesting to read as well more representative of the periods experience.

Now we’ve covered what and why the next step is how. Our first solution is just to ask! Tutors can seem incredibly scary at first but they really just want to teach what you will be interested in. If you make it clear to them that lived, diverse experiences are what interest you then more often than not they will try and steer the course in that direction- as many of us can attest! This can be especially helpful when you start having modules outside of college and your head tutor has to organize a tutor for you- hopefully getting you one of the very cool gender specialists Oxford has to offer!

Regarding essay’s themselves the first place you’ll start is with the tutors reading list but this may be unhelpful if the tutor has only given you a handful of books and none of them seem especially useful. To get around this you can, again, ask your tutor for extra reading suggestions but there are also other places you can go. College librarians also have enviable knowledge of books and modules so can be another port of call but faculty reading lists are also a great place to start. Each course has a wider faculty produced bibliography and are often lengthy with every possible topic covered- helpful if your tutor has skimped on certain ones! If you’re doing prelims then the Final Honours version of your course can also be consulted here for an even more in-depth look.

Linking to this, modules you’re not taking can overlap with your course and these reading lists can be another place to look. The Final Honour School gender theme papers- Bodies of Feeling and Masculinity and its Discontents- cover a vast chronology and geography and offer some of the most current and interesting work being done in these areas. Approaches to History and Disciplines of History can also be helpful- if you study these later it’ll also be like handy pre-reading!

Building on this discussion of secondary reading, it is really useful to get a handle on some of the key theory texts in this area. Foucault, Laqueur, Butler and Scott (amongst others) have written theories about the relationship between gender, sex and society in history. An awareness of what these theories are can be useful when doing some secondary reading that focuses on gender as historians may frame their arguments and analysis with these theories in mind. Knowing what they’re talking about can help these arguments make a lot more sense. You may also find them useful for your own analysis.  There are many videos, crash courses and summaries out there on them – don’t be afraid to check them out!

We’ve also collated some introductory texts we ourselves have found useful, which will be listed at the bottom of this article.

Another way to incorporate gender, identity and subjectivity in your work is through looking at primary sources. This may seem a bit scary and can be a lot of work but even if you don’t include any in your essays it could be fun to have a look at them and try to start formulating your own responses. Online archives like the ones listed at the bottom of this article can be a great start but also those referenced in secondary texts or in lecture handouts can be a way in also! Using something like this would really make your essay original- aswell as act as great practice for the infamous thesis!

Seminars are another fun way to discover new topics of interest, and there are lots around at Oxford, be it through CGIS, your college history society, the university History Society or other Oxford Research Centre’s. Linked below is an excellent website with details of every talk going on in Oxford and how to attend. We’d definitely recommend giving it a browse as Oxford has so much to offer.

A final way and the simplest way you can incorporate more Gender, Identity and Subjectivity into your work is through module choice. Final Honors school has a lot more fun and dynamic options so hold in tight if the basic first year modules aren’t what you really want to study, it’ll come!  Linked below is a website which lists all the modules the faculty offer that include a consideration of these ideas and we’d definitely recommend you check it out when you’re choosing your next paper. Some of our personal favorites we’ve taken include:

  • Becoming a Citizen C. 1860-1902 Special Subject
  • The New Woman in Britain and Ireland, c.1880-1920 Optional Subject
  • Women, Gender and the Nation: Britain 1789-1825 Optional Subject
  • Witch-craft and Witch-hunting in Early Modern Europe Optional Subject
  • Culture, Politics and Identity in Cold War Europe, 1945-68 Further Subject
  • Britain at the Movies: Film and National Identity since 1914 Further Subject
  • Women, Gender and Print Culture in Reformation England, c.1530-1640 Further Subject

This was just a quick introduction to the wonderful world of gender, identity and subjectivity in history but we hope this was helpful! Best of luck exploring and having fun with these ideas!

Recommended Introductory Texts

  • Cocks, H. G. (2006). Modernity and the Self in the History of Sexuality. The Historical Journal, 49(4), 1211-1227.
  • Alamilla Boyd, N (2006) ‘Bodies in Motion: Lesbian and Transsexual Histories’ in Stryker, S. and Whittle, S (eds.) The Transgender Studies Reader, London: Routledge.
  • Boydston, J. (2008). Gender as a Question of Historical Analysis. Gender & History, 20(3), 558-583.
  • Butler, J. (1999). Gender trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity (10th anniversary ed.). London: Routledge.
  • Carby, H. V. (1992) ‘White Woman Listen! Black Feminism and the Boundaries of Sisterhood’ in The Empire strikes back: Race and racism in 70s Britain. London: Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies.
  • Chakravorty, S.G, (1988). ‘Can the sub altern speak?’ in Nelson, C., & Grossberg, L. (eds.). Marxism and the interpretation of culture. Basingstoke: Macmillan Education.
  • Clark, A. (2005). Twilight Moments. Journal of the History of Sexuality, 14(1/2), 139-160.
  • Connell, R. W, & Messerschmidt, James W. (2005). Hegemonic Masculinity: Rethinking the Concept. Gender & Society, 19(6), 829-859.
  • Lewis, B. (2013). British queer history: New approaches and perspectives. Manchester: Manchester University Press – many articles by some great writers (see Doan and Houlbrook for interesting discussion of queer theory!)
  • Scott, Joan W. (1986). Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis. The American Historical Review, 91(5), 1053-1075.
  • Srinivasan, A. (2021). The Right to Sex: Feminism in the Twenty-First Century. London: Bloomsbury
  • Summerfield, P. (2018). Subjectivity, the self and historical practice. In S. Handley, R. Mcwilliam & L. Noakes (Authors), New Directions in Social and Cultural History (pp. 21–44). London: Bloomsbury Academic.
  • Turner, D. M, & Withey, A. (2014). Technologies of the Body: Polite Consumption and the Correction of Deformity in Eighteenth-Century England. History (London), 99(338), 775-796.

Online Archives

These are just a start but Databases A-Z which can be found on SOLO has plenty more diverse and interesting options!

Talks in Oxford

Module Choice Help