Gendered archaeology

I’ve been on hiatus for a bit while I finished my last year of formal coursework going toward my doctorate. I’m currently working on issues of gender recursivity and flexibility on the American frontier. Gender is tricky business for archaeologists. We tend to think in terms of binary oppositions (man v. woman) and when we have human remains to deal with, we tend to give primacy to biological determinations of sex for how we interpret gender. That is to say, we consider expressions of masculinity or femininity in terms of sexual dimorphism rather than as a continuum of behaviors that are wholly by choice rather than essential and stemming from our biological natures. The problem with this seems obvious. People are not their biology. Gender and its expression is a cultural construct. Some would argue, and have argued, that even what we consider to be biological sex is a cultural construct. They ask, why are there two sexes? Is sex determined by the physical characteristics of genitalia? Is it determined by hormones? By DNA? At what point did the human race begin describing sexual difference in terms of male and female? We certainly developed these understandings before our science revealed the mysteries of chromosomes and DNA. What does it mean to be male or female? How do those terms and their perceived roles come to be shaped? How do the labels “male” and “female” shape who we are to become as we each go through life?

These are questions I’ve been asking. I wrote a paper and I will adapt it for this blog and will hopefully publish it as an article. In the meantime, please visit Tucson’s Gay Museum for some interesting photographs of same-sex relationships from the 19th century.

Dr. Peter Boag of Washington State University wrote a wonderful book dealing with cross-dressing and other areas of gender flexibility in the American West. I highly recommend it.


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