The Gender of Emotions

The English edition of the review « Clio. Women, Gender, History », issue 47 (2018),  devoted to « The gender of emotions » has just been published. It is available online via Cairn International.
Our introduction is in open access here :

Damien Boquet and Didier Lett, « Emotions and the concept of gender »

French version : here

Emotions and the concept of gender

Damien Boquet and Didier Lett

translated by Siân Reynolds

Emotions are often considered to be a strong marker for gender, playing a central role in the cultural and social demarcations between masculine and feminine. Starting with the ancient theory of temperaments, the hot and dry emotions – anger, rage, audacity and hate – were seen as masculine, while the cold and wet emotions – modesty, sweetness, fear, shyness, compassion, languor – were feminine. In the western world, it was also thought that emotions in general were more feminine, while reason was more masculine. Women, reputed to be irrational and closer to nature, would by the same token display greater sensitivity than men; would be readier to express their feelings (to the point of being overwhelmed by them); and would pass more quickly from one emotion to another, becoming insane or hysterical. Men, the repository of culture and reason, would exert greater self-control, and be better able to master the expression of their feelings, veering less often between them. In the way in which they have been, or are, judged, expected, and sometimes demanded, emotions – whether manly or womanly – have therefore been gendered.

Although influential in western culture over the long term, this reading of the emotions has become excessively polarized by historiography into two radical oppositions, presumed to structure society: man-masculine versus woman-feminine, and emotion versus reason. Yet these antitheses, especially when expressed in the extreme and rigid forms that we have witnessed in recent times, have not always existed: they date essentially from the eighteenth century. Before that, in western society, as is demonstrated in this issue of Clio by Jean-Noël Allard and Pascal Montlahuc’s article on Antiquity, and Emmanuel Bain’s article on biblical exegesis in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, sex difference was only one method, and often a marginal one, of classifying people. We therefore need to shake off a conception that has come to seem “natural” to us. In the consilia, the collections of studies of clinical cases dating from the end of the thirteenth century, when doctors speak of the symptoms and treatment of melancholy, for example, they pay little attention to the gender of the patient, since they were focusing more on the theory of bodily humours, or of the different parts of the body. [1] And the antinomy between reason and emotion is also relatively recent. [2] It depends on certain forceful and persistent presuppositions – the product of an evolutionist view of history, bolstered in the twentieth century by Norbert Elias’s theory of the process of civilization [3]   – as well as on an absolute antagonism (retrospectively attributed to Descartes) between affectivity and reason, to be found also in other social sciences (whether Durkheimian or Weberian sociology, Freudian psychoanalysis, etc.). Yet since Aristotle, and throughout an intellectual tradition running from the teachers of the medieval university to Spinoza and Rousseau, it has been abundantly clear that emotions, transcending all schools of thought, have engaged in a constant dialogue with reason, even if they can be unreasonable. In the way in which emotions were socially perceived, the point was not to suppress them, but to apply them in a measured way, adapted to circumstances, and to make proper use of them, according to the principles of virtue and justice. Anne Carol has shown in her study of the accounts of capital executions in nineteenth-century France, for example, that representatives of the public authorities, often marked by their Christian background, were not opposed to a display of emotion by the condemned person. [4] If the man or woman facing death trembled and wept, these were signs testifying to the due and proper process of the judicial ritual, serving to inspire horror for the crime and rightful fear of the punishment. But there was a risk that the scenario might get out of hand, if the condemned person did not express the expected emotions, or indulged in them to excess – collapsing and begging for mercy, or shouting words of hate. A watershed was reached in about the 1870s, no doubt because the Christian model was in decline in France. Displays of emotion by the offender facing capital punishment became progressively unacceptable. Losing its function of exemplarity and edification through emotion, the ritual itself was slowly becoming less coherent, preparing the way for the ending of public executions in France in 1939, and the eventual abolition of capital punishment there in 1981. [5]

De-naturalizing emotions through gender

In seeking to move away from these a priori ideas about the nature of emotion and its gendered constructions, this issue of Clio sets out to revisit the articulation between emotion and the difference between the sexes by historicizing these concepts; by contextualizing and identifying the relevant actors socially; by taking into account the whole gamut of emotions; by questioning both the masculine and the feminine at the same time; by scrutinizing the documentary context that produces emotions and renders them visible; and lastly by observing what gender does to emotions and what emotions do to gender. In these two fields of study, there is a new willingness to deny their “natural” character, an associated refusal to accept universal categories, and a similar openness to the social sciences.

Despite Lucien Febvre’s much-quoted pioneering article, or Marcel Mauss’s work on “the techniques of the body”, [6]  sociologists, anthropologists and historians have long regarded emotions as lying outside their remit, leaving them to psychologists, or these days to neuro-scientists. [7] Only in the 1990s did studies of emotions begin to be developed in the humanities and social sciences as a whole, but since then they have become widespread (some people have spoken of an “emotional turn” or an “affective turn”), as can be seen by looking at the way the field has been institutionalized in many countries. [8]  In historical studies, the study of emotions has made it possible to revisit something previously seen as the domain of historical anthropology, namely men’s and women’s bodies, in order to demonstrate their central role in social life, to the extent that emotions are seen as revealing an internal state through a bodily manifestation. [9]  Does history, as an academic discipline and a method of posing questions, have a specific role to play in this re-evaluation of the social uses of emotions? As was the case in the early days of gender studies, the history of emotions today is able to benefit from a dialogue with the humanities and social sciences, if only to dislodge the prejudice long current among historians (of both sexes) concerning the irrationality and spontaneity of emotions. But it would be naive to think that historians have a unified approach to this new field of research. Unlike gender, which was from the start conceptualized as a heuristic tool, emotion is above all a territory where the very landscape needs to be invented. While nobody would now deny that emotions have a cultural character, there is a considerable range of approaches concerning the depth and extent of the constructed component. Are emotions intangible facts of human nature, or are they attached to a psychology or biology that governs their existence and to some extent their expression? If the latter, the historian would need, as a preliminary step, to find some basis in a “scientific” theory of emotions (derived from cognitive psychology, psychoanalysis or the neurosciences). In that case, historical analysis would remain dependent on other disciplines. There is another way to approach it, the one we have chosen in this dossier, opting for the historicity of the emotional phenomenon, and therefore not starting from any pre-existing category, but basing the analysis on the affective anthropologies of the particular cultures and social groups under observation. [10]   The very word “emotion”, used to delimit the territory of inquiry, is the product of an empirical consensus, and also of the internationalization of research, as was once the case for the notion of “mentality”, which had the advantage of being easy to translate into the languages in use in the academic community. In the western sphere, but also in many other cultures, it makes sense to question the feelings, the affects, the whole complex of joys and sorrows, disgust and attraction. All the same, there is such diversity of conception and usage that it would be risky to attach the historical exercise to any theory of emotion taken from the present day. Emotions exist, are of value, and operate according to how they exist, have value and operate for the relevant agents in their socio-cultural environment, whether temporal or spatial.

Feminine, masculine: the fluid nature of emotions

What can gender contribute to the historical study of emotions? In the first place, it makes it possible to revisit fields of research and events previously considered to be well known. Thus we can ask how Christian thinkers, over time, have evaluated the two first emotions of Adam and Eve, following on original sin: concupiscence and shame. The “vertical reorientation of affectivity” [11]   to be witnessed in the early Middle Ages seems to be identical for both sexes, with the axis flesh-spirit (vice-virtue) taking precedence over the male-female distinction. So Augustine of Hippo in The City of God (early fifth century), explains that the first man and the first woman both felt the same degree of shame: shame on account of their nakedness and shame from realizing the sin they had committed. [12]  But later representations of this scene show an evolution. The celebrated fresco by Masaccio representing Adam and Eve (The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden), painted in the early fifteenth century in the church of Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence, gives a clearly gendered form of shame to each sex: Adam, without masking his naked body, is hiding his face, while Eve conceals her breasts and private parts with her hands, allowing her face to be seen twisted with the pain of remorse. The man is shown with moral shame, the woman with bodily modesty, in a differentiation of types of shame, thus establishing a de facto hierarchy between the sexes. Does this evolution reveal changes in the history of emotions, or a modification peculiar to the history of gender in the late Middle Ages, an era which seems readier than previous ones to assume sexual difference? [13]   Taking this into account makes us aware of the need to consider the interplay of reconfigurations between gender and emotion over the long term. That is why this issue of Clio questions the norms and representations of stereotypes across a series of different periods, and seeks to identify change and evolution. In Antiquity and most of the Middle Ages, for example, friendship, which was not only a question of alliances but of affection, was a social connection seen as manly and proper to men. Then progressively it becomes more neutral and open to both sexes from about the thirteenth century, notably in Christian literature, before returning to “masculine territory” during the Renaissance, only to explore once more the delights of mixed-sex friendship at the time of the Enlightenment. [14]

The supposed inability of women to control their emotions did not always relegate them to an inferior role, and could sometimes confer on them a specific form of authority, as is proved throughout history by the role played by female mystics, who attain the same status as “men of God”, thanks precisely to their excess of emotion. [15]Such women had/have visions, go into spasms, weep, fast, or seek rapturously to have ever-closer union with God, go into ecstasy, levitate, and experience a loving fusion with God. In their accounts, they describe these extreme experiences with delight, sensuality and enjoyment. The fusion with God gave them ascendancy over men and institutions: one example is Juliana of Cornillon who in mid-thirteenth century successfully established a Feast of the Eucharist which soon spread throughout Christendom. But are we right to attribute a “sexual identity” to this affective feminine spirituality, when it developed within male clerical milieus? The vitae of these women were written down by men who were often their confessors. As for the writings of the mystics themselves, which are few in number, they appear much less emotional and psychosomatic: while the hagiographers insist on the intensity of physical suffering, women mystics say more about their union with the divine lover. [16]  The idea that the body was the privileged site of female piety was no doubt exaggerated by the hagiographical male-authored sources, and corresponds to a slow evolution starting essentially in the thirteenth century, in which the feminine aspect of spirituality gradually became a matter for women. [17]   Consequently, as Barbara H. Rosenwein reminds us in this issue, a propos the confessional narratives in Puritan milieux in the seventeenth century, we need to establish a distinction between forms of female spirituality and the gendered expectations of society, paying attention to the gap between religious experience and the way it has been recounted. This can be observed elsewhere in the articles we have included here, in both Western and Eastern societies, in the poems and correspondence expressing love between a man and a woman. Love is indeed often a domain in which gendered differences are most visible. As Monica Balda-Tillier points out, in medieval Arabic literature, it is only women who declare that they would not wish to survive the death of their beloved, and the expression of their last emotion is codified in rules more strict than those imposed on men. Sylvain Piron shows that in their exchange of letters, Abelard and Heloise offer quite distinct philosophies of love. Abelard presents himself as the victim of the blind forces of love, and seeks in the beloved gentleness, rest and consolation, while Heloise associates her amor to the dilectio based on the virtues embodied by her lover.

Over the course of history, man appears to be a creature of emotions too, which must be accounted a good thing, since it means men can weep or show embarrassment in a virile way. For example, in the late fourth century, St Ambrose, bishop of Milan, made of modesty (verecundia) a major virtue of churchmen, while at the same time urging his clerics to be manly in their way of walking and singing. “The voice, too, should not be languid, nor feeble, nor womanish in its tone […] It should preserve a certain manly quality, rhythm, and vigour.” [18]  Tears may well tend to be more closely associated with women and the female sex, but it is clear from a multiplicity of sources, across the centuries, that men, from Achilles to Obama, have wept just as much as women, and that they have wept in a manly fashion. [19]  Emotions – and the bodily signs revealing them – have played a key role in history in the construction of gendered stereotypes, while at the same time being a privileged instrument in reconfigurations and fluidities between the sexes.

“Emotional communities” and “gender regimes”

Setting out to identify the principal factors of change in the history of the emotions, in the modern, and particularly in the contemporary period, William Reddy has proposed the concepts of the “emotional regime”, “emotional suffering” and the “emotional refuge”, the first term referring to the dominant norms of a given society, the second to the manner in which groups or individuals are obliged to adopt imposed emotional codes, and the third to the release from suffering that allows people to escape from over-rigid norms. [20]  He explains consequently that the France of Louis XIV was subjected to a code of aristocratic honour which imposed strict control over the public expression of emotion. In reaction, during the eighteenth century, a culture of sentiment was progressively developed in places of emotional refuge: salons or private correspondence. Sentimentalism then soon spread through literate circles, bringing with it a new vision of society which the Revolution attempted to apply. Thus the emotional culture of a minority, originally an “emotional refuge” for the educated elite, had in course of a few decades become a new “emotional regime” in post-revolutionary France. [21] 

Although the schema suggested by Reddy allows us to historicize emotions, he proposed a top-down model, in terms both of state domination and of resistance or accommodation to it on the part of the individual, putting forward a reading of society as a whole at the macro-historical level; it seems to us that this is a more operative view for modern societies, where the State is very present. In order to decipher what was going on in societies over the longue durée, we prefer the idea of “emotional communities” suggested by Barbara H. Rosenwein, defined as “groups in which people adhere to the same norms of emotional expression and value – or devalue – the same or related emotions.” [22] 

This concept, which makes it possible to observe men and women on various scales, has been used by several contributors to this issue, since the list of emotional communities and situations could be extended indefinitely: from Church and State to the conjugal couple, by way of monasteries, fellowships, guilds, businesses, clubs, sports, the family, etc. In that sense, “emotional communities” fit very well with the notion of “gender regime” which we have elsewhere defined as “a particular and unique configuration of relations between the sexes in a given historical, documentary and relational context”, [23]   since this concept also allows us to observe in dynamic form, sex distinctions within social relations and in close contact with the sources, thus departing both from an identity approach to gender and from the macro-historical study of societies. This approach will enable us, in this issue of Clio, better to perceive the “multitude and diversity of styles of affective communication existing within a given society”. [24] 

It is therefore essential to consider carefully the differentiated expressions of emotions according to social status: emotions in peasant, worker, bourgeois or aristocratic society, at the same time keeping our distance from the system suggested by Elias, which posited a hierarchy of emotions and a top-down model of their diffusion, with emotions trickling down to the lower reaches of society. In Athens and Rome, as Jean-Noël Allard and Pascal Montlahuc show here, an individual’s social status mattered at least as much as his or her sex, when it came to determining the social legitimacy of expressing a given emotion.

The value of a sociological approach, stressing situations rather than states of mind, identifying the expression of emotion in the process of interaction, allows us to underscore the plasticity and fluidity of the way emotions are distributed between the sexes. The pioneering work of Arlie Russell Hochschild has opened the way towards a “sociology of the emotions” [25]   which is always concerned to demonstrate (and to criticize) the persistence of gender stereotypes in the world of work. Not only are social relations marked by a “competition of sentiments” as between men and women [26] (authority is masculine, mediation feminine), in contemporary commercial societies, where the manipulation of emotion itself is a major economic issue, [27] but women are also assigned a sexed identity in their professional lives, based on their supposedly “innate” qualities. That is why it represents a risk for the historian to embark on a linear grand narrative of the civilizing process, seen in the tradition of Weber and Elias as a movement towards rationalization in western consciousness and society. Rather than this teleological grand narrative, we have preferred the complexities of several time-frames and changes of scale. In the Sudanese press of the 1950s, as Elena Vezzadini explains in this issue, a new emotional regime emerged, aiming to break with the past and create a “modern woman”, who would be capable, like a man, of controlling her emotions. A given emotion to which a feminine value is conventionally attached may, in a specific context, shape virility: men’s grief can display all the stereotypes of women’s grief without any loss of virility, as Didier Lett shows in his analysis of a thirteenth-century miracle narrative portraying the reactions of a man and a woman, in their role as father and mother, on the death of their three-year-old son. Even if certain emotions are expected from one or the other, the expression of parental grief to be found in this kind of source, which gives much space to pathos, ending in this case in an emotional cataclysm, tends to homogenize the reactions of parents, of either sex.

In many contexts, women may become more masculine and men more feminine by the attribution of an emotion not habitually assigned them: a man who does not demonstrate aggressivity during a fight may be seen as feminized, whereas a fearless woman is masculinized, as can be seen in the case of the famous Merovingian queens Fredegunda and Brunhilda, depicted by Gregory of Tours as furies, whereas they were merely displaying princely anger in order to govern. The tears of Francis of Assisi have never been an obstacle to the construction of his authority, on the contrary they helped to cement it in early thirteenth-century society, which was marked by a feminization of religious feelings. [28]   However, these “transgressions » are not given any a priori value. The man who is “unmanned” by emotion may well suffer by being down-graded or even become a pariah to his gender and sex community.

Lastly, men and women, in most cases, share the same emotional communities, but without occupying the same position within them. The study of emotions during “major events” (wars, revolutions, etc.) has confirmed that reconfigurations of gender do not disturb the way both men and women may cling to the same emotional codes and age-old assumptions. Clémentine Vidal-Naquet’s article on the expression of feelings in letters exchanged between spouses during the First World War, and Sophie Wahnich’s discussion of revolutionary emotions, both show that exceptional situations may shake the emotional order of the sexes, without necessarily destroying its foundations. The soldier at the front describes his tears to his beloved, whereas she restrains her own: but the tears he refers to are not of fear in battle but tears of joy or melancholy, arising when he thinks of life outside the war zone, of the child soon to be born, or the absent wife. But even if the emotional order of the sexes is not seriously challenged, extraordinary events may lead to a better knowledge of the others, and an awareness of his/her subjectivity. Similarly, during the early years of the French Revolution, the fatherland (patrie) became an emotional community in which emotions no longer seemed to have a sex. Yet women citizens remained above all wives and mothers who, within the shared love of the homeland, had to praise fathers and husbands, helping to construct the masculine image of the revolutionary hero. Women, even during the most profound historical upheavals, have shown themselves to be the most fervent gatekeepers of gendered emotions: even Théroigne de Méricourt found it hard to imagine that men could be capable of gentleness.

Certain emotions can appear to be shared, while still varying by sex. In traditional societies until well into the twentieth century, both men and women might be equally exposed to shame, but women’s shame is above all attached to the preservation of their sexual innocence, whereas men’s shame relates to the defence of their social prerogatives. Here, it is the social object of the emotion that is sexed or gendered, rather than the emotion itself. [29] And yet the persistent attribution of emotions to one or other sex may lead to the emergence of a gender identity of an emotion: the very term pudeur, (modesty) which appears in France in mid-sixteenth century, [30]  gradually comes to absorb the whole field of social constraints imposed on women, relating to the covering of their bodies, the basis of social honour in Christian culture, as Emmanuel Bain explains. When in 1791, the French National Assembly defined in a decree the notion of “attentat à la pudeur”, this was assumed unquestioningly to refer to “outrages against the modesty of women”. From the moral diversity of honourable forms of shame in ancient and medieval societies, a legal category emerges which is specifically attached to women. The public authorities would from then on assume responsibility for protecting women’s honour: by taking the place of male domination, they turned woman’s gendered body into an object in law. [31] 


There is still only a fairly limited body of literature using the concept of gender to explore the recent history of emotions, and existing research is no doubt rather too exclusively concerned with the construction of stereotypes, thus paying scant attention to the porosity of gender frontiers and the fluidity of exchanges. The history of emotions has, in recent years, provided unity to a subject essential for understanding the organization of societies, but which has hitherto been dispersed across several historiographical fields (the history of the body, of sensibility, of the family, of thought systems, etc.) and often considered of secondary interest. By naming that subject “emotion” or “the emotions”, whereas the meanings we give these terms do not appear before the nineteenth century, that approach has opted to problematize the present, with which one may disagree, but which immediately obliges the historian to question his or her own concepts, and then re-configure them, through contact with the sources and cultural and social environments of the past. This critical approach is no doubt an advantage, but it can also become a weakness, precisely because there is a risk of being trapped into seeing emotions as “natural”. Today, even if historians of the emotions do stress their fundamentally cultural and socially constructed aspect, most writers nevertheless still see them as based in some kind of universality, forgetting the tautology represented by this presupposition, which remains the basis of contemporary views of emotion. The answer is not to give up on the attempt, but on the contrary to make strenuous efforts to denaturalize emotions while never losing sight of the overall unity of the subject. Faced with this challenge, gender, an excellent critical tool of analysis, which is well used to unpicking the cultural and social processes that have affected the naturalization of sexed identities, can be a valuable ally in the work of historicizing emotion. In return, the replacing in context of emotional concepts and practices can question the logics of gender, revealing their complexity and malleability, confirming frontiers over the long term in some cases, but elsewhere pointing out discontinuities and variations from one milieu to another. By questioning gender about its frontiers, the history of emotions is working towards its own scientific legitimacy.


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[1] Cohen-Hanegbi 2008.

[2] Solomon 1993; Dixon 2003.

[3] In Elias’s analysis, the control of instincts, the capacity to tame one’s desire and to repress feelings, emotions and bodily signs of the same, were the result of a very slow process, hastened in particular by the extension of the practices of the French court (essentially Louis XIV’s Versailles) before eventually trickling down to the rest of society. See Elias 2012 [1973-1975]. For a critical evaluation of this theory, see Rosenwein 2002.

[4] Carol 2017.

[5] Ibid.: 235.

[6] Febvre 1941 and Mauss 2004 [1936].

[7] Mandressi 2011.

[8] In Germany, the Max Planck Institute for Human Development has a research programme on the history of emotions:; In the UK, there is the Queen Mary Centre for the History of Emotions:; in France there is the EMMA programme “Emotions au MoyenÂge” directed by Piroska Nagy and Damien Boquet:; in Australia, the Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions, specializing in research on Europe 1100-1800:

[9] Rosenwein 2006; Boquet & Nagy 2011 and 2015.

[10] Boquet & Nagy 2016.

[11] Boquet & Nagy 2015: 66.

[12] Wu 2007.

[13] Baschet 2007 and Lett 2013: 213.

[14] Bray 2003; Daumas 2011.

[15] Fraeters & de Gier 2014; Bynum 1994 [1987]; Hollywood 2001; Coakley 2006; Newman 1995.

[16] Boquet & Nagy 2015: 287-297.

[17] Hollywood 2001; Boquet 2014.

[18] St Ambrose On the Duties of the Clergy, chapter 19.

[19] Monsacré 1984; Vincent-Buffault 1986; Nagy 2000; Rey 2015 and 2017.

[20] Reddy 2001: 129.

[21] Ibid.: 141-333 and Plamper 2012: 307-309.

[22] Rosenwein 2006: 2.

[23] Lett 2012: 565-566.

[24] Nagy & Boquet (eds) 2009: 39.

[25] Hochschild 2017 [1983].

[26] Bernard 2017.

[27] Illouz 2006.

[28] Dalarun 2009.

[29] Pitt-Rivers 1977; Frevert 2017.

[30] Brancher 2015.

[31] Labrusse-Riou 1992.