Follow changing perceptions of gender in “Gender: Identity and Social Change”

By Mitch Farish | January 21, 2022

Women marching, laughing and smiling, carrying banners that read "We're nice."

The Library’s new online resource “Gender: Identity and Social Change” examines the history of gender in the English-speaking world, beginning with coercive enforcement of gender roles in the nineteenth century and moving through twentieth century activism toward a more inclusive reality. The experiences of people, both famous and unsung, reveal how views of gender have impacted women’s suffrage, feminist movements, employment and the workplace, personal conduct and manners, and education and legislation.

Material in “Gender: Identity and Social Change” has been compiled from extensive international archival collections in Great Britain, the United States, Canada, and Australia, showing the significant changes in perceptions of gender over time. Primary sources include records of women’s and men’s organizations and interest groups, advice literature and etiquette books, personal diaries and correspondence, pamphlets, speeches, newsletters, and newspaper clippings. The resource also makes available a rich selection of visual material, including photographs, illustrations, posters, scrapbooks, and objects that shed light on both key historical figures and ordinary people.

Primary documents in the collection cover the following topics and more:

  • Women’s Suffrage — The fight for voting rights, including campaigns, activities, organizations, and pioneers of gender equality.
  • Employment and Labor — Changing expectations in the workplace. The contrast between paid and unpaid labor, and the divide between public and private work environments.
  • Feminism — Feminist activism, which went from challenging gender inequality in the nineteenth century to demanding equality in employment and education in the 1960s.
  • Legislation and Legal Cases — The fight for equality in the courts. Bills and acts that shed light on the legal history of women’s suffrage.
  • Government and Politics — Changes to traditional gender roles traced through activism for positive change. Includes correspondence, reports, and first-hand accounts.
  • Leisure and Entertainment — Periodicals, books, and records of how leisure activities that were considered appropriate for a specific gender have shifted over time.
  • Education and Training — Male and female perspectives on both formal and informal education and how opportunities were defined by gender.
  • Conduct and Politeness — Nineteenth century advice literature and etiquette books defining proper conduct for different genders, such as “How to stand correctly,” “How to Serve a Dainty Tea,” and “Advice to young men on their duties and conduct in life.”
  • Sex and Sexuality — Gender, physical relations, sexual orientation, and self-expression. The response of different segments of society to sex, sexuality, and topics which were considered taboo.
  • The Body — Gendered perceptions of the body that analyze and challenge traditional gender roles: how we dress our bodies, abortion, and more.

Other materials in the resource include essays, biographies, and video interviews of leading academics, adding background and context to the primary sources, and a chronology that traces events on a timeline. Find out about the jailing of John Stuart Mill in 1823 for distributing pamphlets on birth control, about Oberlin College in Ohio becoming the first college in the United States to admit men and women together in 1833, or that a union run completely by female textile workers petitioned the Massachusetts General Court in 1845 demanding a 10-hour workday.