Pre-Roman Britain didn’t leave a written record. The people who did the first archaeological and anthropological studies were the Victorians. They would identify the gender of human remains based on the items around them. Regardless of the composure and size of the skeleton, they would identify people buried with sewing boxes as women, and those buried with weapons as men, because that is how they contextualized those roles. They paid no attention to sexual dimorphism or the shape of the skeletons. Modern scholars, however, conclude that gender roles at the very least were not rigidly policed in pre-Roman Britain.
Then come our friends the Romans. It is hard to overstate how openly misogynistic this culture was. Gender roles were strictly enforced, with women being entirely excluded from political and intellectual life. And it was the Roman model of governance and society, coupled with Christian religion, that came to dominate Western Europe. Our modern memory of these attitudes were heavily influenced by the Victorians, who saw Rome as an idealized prototype for their own Empire. They sought to amplify ideas like later Stoic philosophy as legitimization for their own rigidly binary ideas about male and female roles in society.
In the Middle Ages, the strict divide between gender was policed inconsistently. For early Christian writers, masculinity was associated with logic, reason, and the Divine. So people born as women and attempting to live as men were tolerated, and in some cases even venerated. One of the many Saints eventually canonized as St. Mary was born as Mariam and known during his life as Marinos. He was known for his intense asceticism, yet was accused of fathering a child. After his death church elders explained his bodily transformation into a woman as a miracle.
But what about Jeanne d’Arc? Wasn’t she persecuted? Even putting the significant political factors of the Hundred Years War aside, Jeanne was a threat. She retained her identity as a woman and successfully engaged in warfare, exclusively a masculine pursuit. Her presence was an open challenge to the notion of a social system strictly defined by gender.
What about people born as men living as women? Put simply, they were killed when discovered. A story comes to mind of someone born a man who sources say had suffered some unspecified disease of the genitals as a child. They were living in a Convent as a woman, and when the locals discovered this, they were lynched. This was the pattern all over Medieval Europe; masculinity was considered something that was pure and needed to be rigorously defended. Whenever someone that society at large considered to be male attempted to adopt what were seen as feminine traits, they were suppressed, often violently. In addition, sensationalized accusations of lascivious men abusing the gender segregations of society to take advantage of women are as old as misogyny itself.
Discussing Elizabethan England, the Puritans, and especially Shakespeare is really difficult for me to do because I don’t want to write a whole post about it. But suffice to say, the Theater was considered both a public and a vulgar profession, and that only men ought to be participating in it. Crossdressing men were both a natural consequence of the biases of society, and the ultimate sign that the theater was an immoral and corrupt institution.
The Victorians, obsessed with their strict taxonomies and categorizations, amplified these inherited Roman and Christian notions about gender and sexuality a thousand fold. Like every expansionist Empire in history, they called back to a time where Men were Men, and Women were Women.
Take a look at how their literature valorized individual actions in Medieval combat. Contemporary cinema gets its notions of what a battlefield during the Middle Ages was like from the Victorians; that is, spectacularly wrong. We tend to associate individual acts of heroism, particularly by burly, indimidating looking men, with combat in the era. Well, quite the contrary. From ~700BC through the 19th century, individual actions were meaningless in combat in the face of collective discipline. The formation of men who was the most cohesive would always win. Our notion of a man-mountain wading through the battlefield with a broadsword as a decisive factor is as much of a myth as Zeus. But it was an exceedingly helpful myth when inspiring passion in young men and convincing them to join the British Army.
So I’m going to contend that the notions of Imperialist Expansionism and the concepts of binary, strictly segregated genders are actually critically related. This week, our President who has greatly fetishized military power, has elected to put Transgender rights in that military in his crosshairs. Meanwhile, yet another WWII film plays in theaters, causing conservatives to bemoan the fact that the modern generation has somehow gone “soft” because its political leaders haven’t failed on the same magnitude as the leaders in the early 20th century did. Perhaps they should consider the notion that the “greatest generation” should have never been put into the position that they were instead of pining for a scenario where tens of millions more people are thrown into the meat grinder to appease their notions of what “real men and real women” are like?
We’ve seen this all before: leadership committed to going to war (this time with Iran) under the flimsiest possible justifications, are championing the defense of binary, misogynistic, and transphobic gender roles as a propaganda tool.