Category: Gender


Studies of the ancient Mediterranean world have been powerfully enhanced by the current awareness of the complexity that the politics of identity both reveals and covers over. In particular, heterogeneity strives with universalism where the forces of empire and colonialism produce multiple and charged cultural contact zones. At the borderlines of oppression, not only resistance but also enormous creativity is encountered in the production of hybridized subjects. How do we read or map gender at such complexly determined and politically ambivalent sites? How, furthermore, do we read or map gender across religious affiliation, breaking through prior barriers of disciplinary practice that have separated scholars of Christianity, Judaism and pagan or “classical” antiquity, without thereby losing all traction on the particularity of religious cult or culture, shifty and overlapping as these mappings may prove to be?

Virginia Burrus, “Mapping as Metamorphosis: Initial Reflections on Gender and Ancient Religious Discourses”, in Mapping Gender in Ancient Religious Discourses, ed. Todd Penner & Caroline Vander Stichele (Leiden & Boston: Brill, 2007), 3-4.

A study called “Egalitarianism, Housework and Sexual Frequency in Marriage,” which appeared in The American Sociological Review last year, surprised many, precisely because it went against the logical assumption that as marriages improve by becoming more equal, the sex in these marriages will improve, too. Instead, it found that when men did certain kinds of chores around the house, couples had less sex. Specifically, if men did all of what the researchers characterized as feminine chores like folding laundry, cooking or vacuuming — the kinds of things many women say they want their husbands to do — then couples had sex 1.5 fewer times per month than those with husbands who did what were considered masculine chores, like taking out the trash or fixing the car. It wasn’t just the frequency that was affected, either — at least for the wives. The more traditional the division of labor, meaning the greater the husband’s share of masculine chores compared with feminine ones, the greater his wife’s reported sexual satisfaction.

Lori Gottlieb, “The Egalitarian-Marriage Conundrum”, The New York Times Magazine (9 February 2014), 28.

…gender played a strong role in the agonistic articulation of nascent religious identity and difference, whether Christian, Jewish or “pagan.” Is religious discourse then mapped in antiquity as a competition among cultural claimants of masculine perfection? Alternatively, is it mapped as an irruption of ambivalently subversive or counterhegemonic genders to which empire paradoxically gives rise? I would answer both of these in the affirmative. Again, we face an ambivalence that is mapped across our texts and theirs.

Virginia Burrus, “Mapping as Metamorphosis: Initial Reflections on Gender and Ancient Religious Discourses”, in Mapping Gender in Ancient Religious Discourses, ed. Todd Penner & Caroline Vander Stichele (Leiden & Boston: Brill, 2007), 9-10.

What matters, in this propagandistic game, is not the actual sexual proclivities of a particular emperor but the extent to which notions of masculinity functioned to articulate the strength of the emperor and state, regardless of which imperial family occupied the palace in Rome.

Jason von Ehrenkrook, “Effeminacy in the Shadow of Empire: The Politics of Transgressive Gender in Josephus’s Bellum Judaicum,”  The Jewish Quarterly Review 101:2 (Spring 2011), 161.

The introduction of football made the holiday more appealing to many men. By adding listening to an athletic contest to a feast, families recognized that popular entertainment on the radio enhanced the celebration. Listening to the game was not simply a new custom added to the family feast; it became a central attraction of the holiday for men. While the domestic occasion of the early nineteenth century represented the feminization of the middle-class home, radio broadcast of the game at Thanksgiving helped masculinize the domestic festival.

Elizabeth Pleck, “The Making of the Domestic Occasion: The History of Thanksgiving in the United States”, Journal of Social History 32, No. 4 (Summer 1999), 784.

What was lost on these devotees of the game was the irony in a family event, punctuated by (mostly) men listening to a game noted for its aggressive body contact, warlike language, male bonding, and the ability of contestants to withstand pain. There had always been gender segregation at the Thanksgiving meal, with men talking to other men, and women conversing with women before and after the meal. As women in the kitchen washed the dishes, and men listened to the game, one could recognize that women (willingly) gave up their leisure, and that men and children benefitted from female sacrifice. Men and women also occupied separate spaces in the home on Thanksgiving, although it was easier for a woman to enter the living room where men were listening to the game than for a man to don an apron and help in the kitchen.

Encamping in the living room, men seemed to find solace in an all-male group, after having participated in an event so female in ambience. One function of football, even enjoyed vicariously, was to reaffirm men’s bonds with other men and their masculinity, to inject some manliness into the sentimentality. Sons, listening to the game with their fathers, were learning the rules of male sociability – and being weaned away from their mothers. Listening to football was an additional masculine element that followed the ritual of carving the turkey, man the gladiator side by side with man the hunter. As such, the football game on Thanksgiving Day provided an added symbolic statement about the difference between the genders.

Elizabeth Pleck, “The Making of the Domestic Occasion: The History of Thanksgiving in the United States”, Journal of Social History 32, No. 4 (Summer 1999), 782-783.

The challenge for intermarried men raising Jewish children is the tenacity of traditional gender roles. For the most part, men continue to be the main breadwinners for their families while women continue to be the information gatherers and social organizers, maintaining greater influence than their husbands over children’s ethnic and religious upbringing. Women’s hands rock the cradle, so to speak. As a result, men’s presence where Jewish identity is nurtured (at home, the community center, the school, the synagogue) is more limited. Gender will persist in influencing the disproportionately low transmission rate of Jewish identity to children of intermarried men compared to intermarried Jewish women so long as “men’s work” outside the home continues to be more valued than “women’s work” inside it.

Keren McGinity, “The Hand that Rocks the Cradle: How the Gender of the Jewish Parent Influences Intermarriage”, AJS Perspectives (Spring 2013), 42-43.

Among the intermarried Jewish women I have interviewed, having children made them decidedly proactive about making Jewish connections, about observance, and about Jewish education. The experience of having children also forced women to come to terms with the inadequacies of their own Jewish upbringing and to look for creative ways to teach their children (and themselves) about Jewish heritage.

Men may also experience an awakening of their Jewish identity when they marry and become parents, regardless of whether they intermarry or in-marry, due to greater communal opportunities. Historically and at present, the organized Jewish community directs much of its programming toward family units rather than to single Jewish men or women. Still it appears that intermarriage influenced a deepening of men’s Jewish identities in relation to their Gentile-born spouses and through becoming fathers.

Keren McGinity, “The Hand that Rocks the Cradle: How the Gender of the Jewish Parent Influences Intermarriage”, AJS Perspectives (Spring 2013), 42.

The idea of gender as a cultural system rather than a biological given has led to the recognition that the modern binary model of gender, rooted in a taxonomy of permanent, anatomically determined opposite sexes, is perhaps inappropriate for the ancient Mediterranean world. This is not to suggest that biological sex played no role in ancient conceptions of gender, but that the presence or absence of certain types of external genitalia constituted only one part of a vast and complex array of gender signifiers. Moreover, it is now widely agreed that gender in antiquity was viewed, at least from the perspective of the surviving male elite literary sources (an important qualification indeed!), through a single-gender, and not surprisingly androcentric, conceptual framework.

Jason von Ehrenkrook, “Effeminacy in the Shadow of Empire: The Politics of Transgressive Gender in Josephus’s Bellum Judaicum,”  The Jewish Quarterly Review 101:2 (Spring 2011), 147.

Rabbinic legal thinking, which provides much of the structural framework of subsequent Jewish cultures, aims first and foremost at instituting a rather pronounced dual gender grid, imposed on the social organization of Jewish society as the rabbis envisioned it. Most of the individual laws of rabbinic halakhah apply to either men or women. Differently put, in rabbinic legal thinking it is almost always important whether the halakhic agent is a man or a woman.

Representations of the body are an important means for grounding gender, and for justifying the distribution of legal privileges and disadvantages. As theorists of gender have come to recognize, representations of the body often serve the aim of naturalizing and therefore legitimizing legal privilege. Hence, so the theory goes, almost everyone may agree now that gender differences are cultural constructs. Gender is variable, and gender differences are scripted differently in different social and cultural contexts. But the fact that gender differences exist to begin with is traditionally considered to be based in biological fact. Nature – or biology – has made bodies different, male and female, and different cultures only inscribe this reality with their specific ways of differentiating between genders. In the rabbinic case, this translates, for instance, into the prohibition of cross-dressing, inherited from biblical law (Deuteronomy 22:5), in order to uphold the clear distinction between the sexes. Or it famously translates into the general positioning of men as always “obligated” by Jewish law, while women are only sometimes obligated and mostly “exempt” (M. Kiddushin 1:7), a legal rhetoric that already early feminists have recognized as a way of privileging the male position in Jewish law.

Charlotte Elisheva Fonrobert, “Regulating the Human Body: Rabbinic Legal Discourse and the Making of Jewish Gender,” in The Cambridge Companion to the Talmud and Rabbinic Literature, eds. Charlotte Elisheva Fonrobert and Martin S. Jaffee (Cambridge & New York City: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 271.