Doing Gender in Historical Reenactments

Abstract: Historical reenactments are an increasingly popular pastime around the globe. Mostly male reenactors perform the past in a playful and corporal way. In recent years questions about gender representations gained increased attention: Can women participate in combat? Is gender-crossdressing an appropriate form of reenactment? Besides offering answers to these questions, I will discuss how practices of doing history such as reenactments are intertwined with practices of doing gender.
Languages: English

In the context of public history, gender representations are a crucial issue. Whenever history is displayed, performed, or staged publicly along with an explicit narrative about the past, notions of gender and gender stereotypes are staged and performed as well. Historical reenactments as a bottom-up, ephemeral, and performative practice are an interesting case in point to examine how practices of doing history and doing gender are linked.

Women in the Ranks?

In popular culture, gender nonconformity and gender fluidity – transcending or subversively questioning gender conventions in cross-dressing performances or in queer cinema – have gained increased visibility over the last couple of years.[1]

However, the performances I am concerned with here – historical reenactments – cannot be considered as spearheading this kind of gender nonconformity. On the contrary, as a mostly male dominated activity, they create spaces in which traditional binary gender models are re-performed, despite the fact that historical reenactment groups are not as male-dominated as they used to be. They have started to attract considerable numbers of women, becoming more gender inclusive. Women even started to run their own female groups. As a result, questions about gender representations have gained increased attention: can women, for example, participate in combat and is gender-crossdressing an appropriate form of reenactment?

Besides offering answers to these questions, I will – on a more general level – discuss how practices of doing history such as reenactments are intertwined with practices of doing gender.

Reenactments as a Form of Doing History

Historical reenactments attempt to bridge past and present as they try to evoke, revive or restage past events in an authentic manner. As a popular pastime and a form of historical role-playing, they embrace a personal, bottom up, do-it-yourself approach. The bodily, affective and multi-sensory way of evoking past events helps to transcend a purely cognitive approach to history. Embodying a historical person in a restaged battle has strong immersive qualities and boosts the reenactors’ subjective experience of authenticity – termed famously “period rush”. In such moments reenactors encounter a collapse of temporality and experience the recreated past events and places as if they were real.[2]

The success of reenactments relies as much on the reenactors’ play as on a supposedly authentic location of the reenactment and the audiences’ reactions during the performance. These are the features of historical reenactments that make them into forms of “doing history” – a term which was introduced in 2016 to the public history discourse to denote performative processes and practices of sensory-emotional historical knowledge production and representation.[3]

Doing History and Doing Gender

In their introduction, the editors of the eponymous anthology build their argument about the performative character of doing history practices around earlier concepts which advocate a praxeologist approach.[4] The most prominent one is the concept of doing gender, which emerged during the 1980s: it emphasized the notion of gender as a routine embedded in everyday interaction.[5] Judith Butler further stressed the performative and constructivist aspects of gender as a historical and reflexive concept.[6] These approaches emphasize that gender is not a biologically founded attitude people possess but a constant practice which needs to be re-performed anew in different, every-day constellations.[7] Taking this approach a step further, Stacy Holman-Jones stressed that reenactment has the ability to destabilize perceptions of ‘fixed’ or ‘natural’ gender roles by failing to precisely or exactly repeat them, thus identifying a “potential for resistance” within reenactment practices.[8]

Despite the initial nexus between doing gender and doing history, research on gender in practices of doing history has only partly attracted scholarly interest to date, which is mostly concerned with how history is being performed. This is surprising for at least two reasons. Firstly, because research on gender is a well-covered topic in many related fields. The questions how gender norms and differences are (re)produced and how they affect products and practices of everyday culture is an established area of research in popular culture.[9] The same holds true for studies in the broad field of public history. Here the focus of inquiry has largely been on institutions like museums and historic sites and the ways in which they display and represent gender.[10] Ephemeral, performative and bottom-up phenomena like reenactments still await comprehensive in-depth analyses of how gender roles are (re)produced and represented, and how they affect the gender perceptions of the reenactors themselves and their audiences.[11]

On the other hand – and this is my second point – gender plays a crucial and very visible role in doing history phenomena. In historical reenactments men still outnumber women in most cases. Thus, it is mostly historical battles or military combat that are considered worth staging – a realm strongly connected with the masculine. Subsequently, if scholars focus on gender in reenactments, they mostly deal with the assumption that they idealize and revalorize (historical imaginations of) masculinity.[12] In spite of the fact that historical reenactments seem to be a male prerogative, they have recently been attracting more women. The spectrum of female participation is diverse and depends heavily on the recreated historical period. In Napoleonic War reenactments, female participants overwhelmingly perform camp followers who engage in everyday procedures such as cooking or mending laundry. This remains a marginalized part of the reenactments, taking place at the sideline, off the battlefield. Aspects of how wars have affected the everyday reality of civilians – mostly women – is evidently far more difficult to stage for the public.[13]

Other forms of female participation are highly controversial within the reenactment scene. In female-to-male gender cross-dressing, women cover up their femininity and take part as combat soldiers. This practice is often at odds with the authenticity standards of the reenactment groups, as disguised female soldiers can only rarely be found in historical sources.[14] Female soldiers are, however, very active in the virtual space: visual performances of female-to-male cross-dressers are common in Facebook groups like ‘Women in the Ranks of the American Revolution’. A different case is the women-exclusive ‘Army Nurse Corps’ group which portrays U.S. army nurses during World War Two. In this all-female unit cross-dressing is not an issue at all. These groups’ performance evolves around, and plays with, historical and contemporary images of femininity and their relation with women in combat.[15]

Renegotiating or Cementing Gender Roles?

These brief insights into the reenactment world indicate that research on the nexus of gender and history performances opens up a broad field of inquiry. Connecting to research on gender in popular culture more detailed questions can be asked about how gender norms or gender identity are being re-negotiated, actively questioned or reproduced as stable in doing history practices. This line of inquiry can as well be twisted around by exploring whether history performances can create situations in which gender is “undone”, rendered neutral and irrelative.[16] Further research can examine in more detail if and how historical reenactments emphasize, conceal, challenge, re-affirm or subversively undermine expectations of gender binarity beyond notions of masculinity and femininity.[17]

And, lastly, connections between the spheres of historical role-playing and the everyday life worlds of the reenactors should gain more scholarly attention. How are the intense embodied experiences during the historical role-playing, especially in gender cross-dressing settings, connected to the mundane life worlds of the reenactors? To put it differently: does the carefully curated historical (and gendered) character of historical reenactments transcend the spheres of performance and play, and “spill over” into concepts and perceptions of the (gendered) self in everyday life? Seen from this perspective, reenactments may constitute not a single event but are rather part of a performative routine, which has an impact beyond the realm of play.[18]

This catalogue of questions is little more than a point of departure, which can be extended and refined in many ways and directions. One of them could concern the intersectional aspect, highlighting questions of power relations and (at least) race and class to this line of inquiry. Patricia G. Davis’ work is indicative here as she analyzed how images of idealized, traditional white “Southern” femininity were subversively questioned by the performance of Afro-American women in U.S. Civil War reenactments.[19] Such counter histories foster a critical stance towards the conditions of construction of both gender – and history.


Further Reading

  • Willner, Sarah, Georg Koch, and Stefanie Samida, eds. Doing History: Performative Praktiken in der Geschichtskultur. Münster/New York: Waxmann, 2016.
  • Agnew, Vanessa, Jonathan Lamb, and Juliane Tomann, eds. The Routledge Handbook of Reenactment Studies: Key Terms in the Field. Oxon/New York: Routledge, 2020.
  • West, Candace, and Don H. Zimmerman. “Doing Gender.” Gender and Society 1, no. 2 (1987): 125-151.

Web Resources


 [1] Cf. Jenny Schrödl, “Travestie ≠ Drag. Geschlechterwechsel in der Hoch- und Subkultur. Queer Up!,”
Maxim Gorki Theater (12.06.2014) and Anne-Berenike Rothstein (Ed.), Kulturelle Inszenierungen von Transgender und Crossdressing. Grenz(en)überschreitende Lektüren vom Mythos bis zur Gegenwartsrezeption (Bielefeld: transcript, 2021). This is not to cover the fact that there are strong “anti-gender” movements and backlashes against LGBTQ communities, most recently for instance in Poland or Hungary.
[2] To be sure, from an epistemological perspective this privileging of personal experiences of knowing the past is problematic. It might lead to a “circular logic” which re-enforces the reenactors’ beliefs and hinders a critical historical account. Cf. Anja Schwarz, “Experience,” in The Routledge Handbook of Reenactment Studies: Key Terms in the Field eds. Vanessa Agnew, Jonathan Lamb, and Juliane Tomann (Oxon/New York: Routledge, 2020), 63–67.
[3] Cf. Sarah Willner, Georg Koch, and Stefanie Samida (Eds.), Doing History: Performative Praktiken in der Geschichtskultur (Münster/New York: Waxmann, 2016).
[4] Stefanie Samida, Georg Koch, and Sarah Willner, “Doing History – Geschichte als Praxis. Programmatische Annäherungen,“ in ibid., 1–25, here 4–7.
[5] Cf. Candace West and Don H. Zimmerman, “Doing Gender,” in Gender and Society 1/2 (1987), 125–151.
[6] Cf. Judith Butler, Gender Trouble. Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge 1990).
[7] Jürgen Martschukat and Steffen Patzold, “Geschichtswissenschaft und ‘performative turn‘: Eine Einführung in Fragestellungen, Konzepte und Literatur,“ in Geschichtswissenschaft und “performative turn”. Ritual, Inszenierung und Performanz vom Mittelalter bis zur Neuzeit eds. Martschukat and Patzold (Köln/Weimar: Böhlau, 2003), 1–32, here 9.
[8] Stacy Holman Jones, “Gender,” in The Routledge Handbook of Reenactment Studies (see fn. 2), 89–94, here 91.
[9] For an overview see Domitilla Olivieri, “Popular Culture and Gender,” in The Wiley Blackwell Encyclopedia of Gender and Sexuality Studies ed. Nancy A. Naples (Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 2016).
[10] Cf. Regina Wonisch und Roswitha Muttenthaler, “Gesten des Zeigens. Zur Repräsentation von Gender und Race in Ausstellungen” (Bielefeld: transcript, 2007) and Vered Vinitzky-Seroussi and Irit Dekel, “Moving gender: Home museums and the construction of their inhabitants,” in European Journal of Women’s Studies 26/3 (2019), 274–292.
[11] Cf. Ulrike Rambuscheck, “Lebendige Archäologie – stereotype Geschlechterbilder? Archäologisches Reenactment und Living History aus der Geschlechterperspektive,” in Archäologische Informationen 39 (2016), 193–194.
[12] Cf. Stephen J. Hunt, “But We’re Men Aren’t We! Living History as a Site of Masculine Identity Construction,” in Men and Masculinities 10/4 (2008), 460–483 and Ulrike Jureit, Magie des Authentischen. Das Nachleben von Krieg und Gewalt im Reenactment (Göttingen: Wallstein, 2020).
[13] Cf. Kamila Baraniecka-Olszewska, World War II Historical Reenactment in Poland. The Practice of Authenticity (New York: Routledge, 2022), 149.
[14] Famous exceptions are the figure of Molly Pitcher, a nickname or common label for a number of women who either actively fought in the American Revolutionary War or helped soldiers with ammunition or when they got injured. Another one is Eleonore Prochaska, a woman who fought as a male soldier against the Napoleonic Army and died in combat in 1813.
[15] Lise Zurné, “Women at the front: remediating gendered notions of WWII heroism in historical re-enactment,” in Journal of War & Culture Studies (2023), DOI: 10.1080/17526272.2023.2228587.
[16] Cf. Stefan Hirschauer, “Die soziale Fortpflanzung der Zweigeschlechtlichkeit,” in Kölner Zeitschrift für Sozialpsychologie, 46 (1994), 668–691.
[17] Some of these aspects were tackled during the Workshop “Doing Gender in Practices of Doing History: Engendered Performances of the Past” in Leipzig in March 2023 which I co-organized with Karin Reichenbach at the Leibniz Institute for the History and Culture of Eastern Europe (GWZO), (last accessed 23.06.2023).
[18] Cf. Katherine Johnson, “Performance and performativity”, in The Routledge Handbook of Reenactment Studies (see fn. 2), 169–172, Stephen Gapps, “Role Play,” in ibid., 206–209 and Juliane Tomann, “Female Counter Curation: Women’s Engagement in Napoleonic War Reenactment in Poland” in International Public History 5/2 (2022), 81–92.
[19] Cf. Patricia G. Davis, “The other Southern Belles: Civil War Reenactment, African American Women, and the Performance of Idealized Feminity,” in Text and Performance Quarterly 32/4 (2012), 308–331.


Image Credits

“Reenactment in Biskupin (Poland),” 2015 © Chrumps CC BY-SA-4.0 via Commons.

Recommended Citation

Tomann, Juliane: Doing Gender in Historical Reenactments. In: Public History Weekly 11 (2023) 6, DOI:

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    An excellent point of departure for future research

    In this article, the author combines questions and observations of “doing history” and “doing gender”, especially in historical reenactments. She/he points out, that research on gender practices of doing history, and especially in historical reenactments, is rare – even though gender as research topic is in general well-covered in historic research.

    Reenactments create a living and lively image of the past, based on the sources we have of a given time. For historical reenactments that re-create a given moment or a certain event in history, theses sources can be diverse and can cover also reports of social interactions or gender role expectations. However, for others the actual sources can be more blurred, and displays of gender roles and social interactions depend more on modern interpretation and expectations. Therefore, any form of reenactment can be seen as displaying the past from a modern point of view – including gender role expectations.

    The article points out that historical reenactment groups are not as male-dominated as they used to be and show some examples of women in reenactment. However, it seems that female participation is often still treated as the exception, with single women whose names and biographies are known. Female reenactment in general seems mostly accepted when women adopt tasks that are considered as female ones, like cooking or caring for others.

    It seems that gender roles are expected to have been more binary in the past than today – and the article rightfully ask: Why? Single cases of individuals of the “wrong” gender show that gender was also a spectrum in the past, and people would have been as diverse as they are today.

    If reenactment is always seen as a staged display of the past, and in it the interaction between people (and genders), gender crossdressing might make this more visible to reenactors as well as to an audience. This might disturb the reenactors’ subjective experience of authenticity the article discussed – but can reenactment, performed with our contemporary healthy and well-fed bodies, ever be authentic?

    Historical reenactment not only re-creates the past, but also influences the present. Gender roles presented in reenactment are shown to have a history, which might be used as argument to favour certain gender roles today. Therefore, researching the practices of doing gender in doing history and it influences on the present is important. The article provides interesting observations and great questions. It is an excellent starting point for future research on doing gender in historical reenactments.


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