The relative status of the sexes has changed rapidly and remarkably in the modern era in Western countries as elsewhere. Adult women have in many countries all over the world been emancipated legally and economically from the restraints of guardianship by males still common last century, and they are sovereign citizens in most respects. Participation in higher learning and scientific work, the labour force and political, social and cultural activities widely and side by side with men in society has nurtured and developed in women new kinds of consciousness and resulted in new forms of thinking not only about the issues of sex and gender but also about the whole human condition on earth, both by women and men.

The latest phase of thinking in terms of sex in the Western countries began in the 1960s in connection with the neo-feminist or new women’s movement. The starting point was the sudden realization by educated and socially and culturally active women that they still were not taken seriously even by contemporary radical men except as sexual partners, wives and mothers and that during their youth they were partly led to expect too much of their possibilities in society, partly constrained by rules and norms that did not apply to their brothers and male peers. In short, they realized that the equality of the sexes pronounced in some connections was merely lip-service and disguised the fact that women as a group still got the least and the worst societal resources and that this arrangement was still legitimized by references to God’s will and the inferior nature of womankind as compared to men.

The biased nature of both social practices and cultural conceptions as regards women thus revealed became a challenge that has been taken up by numerous women scholars and activists both in the United States and European countries during the last three decades. During these decades, feminist theories and women’s studies have progressed from (1) the critique of male traditions and scholarship (critique of androcentrism) through (2) the emphasis of female alternatives (e.g. women’s culture, gynocentrism) towards (3) a wider understanding of the use of the sexual difference in culture and society (the process of gendering people and other things) and (4) problematizing the dichotomical nature of Western thinking which emphasizes hierarchical distinctions (culture/nature, men/women, strong/ weak, sacred/profane, etc).

In the empirical study of culture and society from a gender perspective, at least the following questions can be asked and have been asked:

1) into what categories are people divided on the basis of biological sex or sexual orientation,
2) what are the social arrangements and consequences connected with these categories,
3) what kinds of cultural conceptions are used to legitimize and maintain these categories, and
4) where and how are these conceptions expressed?

As students of folklore and tradition we are, of course, mostly interested in the last two questions about cultural conceptions and their expression – although not only in them. I think that what we can contribute in the study of social and cultural gender, is an analysis of the meaning and role of folkloric discourse in representing, reproducing and maintaining the gender system in any society or community. In putting the question in this manner I am referring to folklore’s alleged nature as tradition and its expression. Are there, for instance, lagging traditional conceptions of sex and gender in the different items or uses of folkloric discourse? And does sexual difference make a difference in folklore also?

As to the alleged normative and affirmative nature of the gender traditions, we know very well as students of folklore that tradition as a process is not only pro status quo, but also contestant, giving alternative and opposing interpretations and meanings to experiences and events in life. On the level of everyday life there is an ongoing discussion as to whose knowledge and whose experiences are relevant, and the line of discussion is contradictory, full of different meanings presented as possibilities at least in the “possible world” of folklore narratives. In other words, folklore as non-institutionalized discourse leaves more space for alternate interpretations than the literary discourse where there are gatekeepers to see whose words may be published or distributed.

This is also true as to the nature of placing and seeing oneself as a gendered being: folklore may be read as representing the normative gender system and male domination, but there are flaws and cracks in the system where we can hear women’s voice saying very different things from the “canonized” truths.

The recent systematic use of the gender perspective in the study of folklore has mostly been of interest to scholars with feminist ideas. That is why women have been in focus. But woman is not the only gender, men are likewise culturally and socially gendered, as masculinity studies in different fields have shown. Therefore even in the study of folklore traditions the construction and definition of the sexual difference in terms of culture and societal arrangements is important.

We hope to make progress on some of these points in our ongoing Finnish research project Culture, Tradition and the Gender System. Working with me on the project are ten other women researchers, most of them folklorists. Interesting themes from a folkloristic perspective are, for instance, alcohol traditions and the gender perspective (Satu Apo), Vepsian women’s prazdniks and magic (Kaija Heikkinen), women’s work place humour (Eeva-Liisa Kinnunen), girls’ personal poem collections (Ulla Lipponen), women’s lyric songs (Senni Timonen), conceptions of death in one woman performer’s folklore (Terhi Utriainen), gender and old age in traditional and contemporary Finland (Sinikka Vakimo) and genderized economy and culture in a premodern rural area in Finland (Riitta Räsänen).

My experiences among Finnish and Nordic folklore scholars and also in the Folklore Fellows Summer School 1993, where we had a group “Rituals and women’s studies”, have told me that at least among women scholars and students, but maybe also among male scholars and students, there are many who need international contacts. This has prompted me to take the opportunity offered by the advisory board of the Folklore Fellows to propose an FF Gender Network. Any reader of this newsletter interested in cooperation in information and work in women’s and gender studies in the field of folklore research is welcome to contact me at the address below and to present her/his wishes and ideas as to the form and ways of cooperation.

Just now I am on my way to Budapest to take part in a Finnish-Hungarian symposium on Folklore and Gender. Maybe I will have an opportunity to tell you more about it in the next issue of FF Network.

Aili Nenola
Department of Cultural Studies
University of Turku

(FFN 7, November 1993: 10-11)

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