*ARGH. If you’re looking for the writing post, it’s not here. I posted it here by mistake. Kindly go over to Mad Genius Club.*
Women in History or Women’s History? – Alma Boykin
They’re different. The End.
Ow! [Rubs spot where blog owner poked her.] Oh, you wanted details? Sorry, OK. Gotcha. This will gloss over a lot of details and academic points, OK? Right, onwards and odd-wards we go.
In the beginning there was no such thing as Women’s History. This is not to say that women never played a role in history, or that women were not important during that ever-lengthening period we call “history.” But the first people to write down accounts of past events focused on what they thought were the big, important things, such as wars, treaties, the rise and fall of dynasties and governments (often the same thing). Because men played the largest roles in such things because war required physical strength and stamina, and free time that women didn’t have, they got the main roles. A few people writing what we would call historical accounts, usually justifications for why their patron’s side was in the right, did include women, usually as bad examples or as models of patience and piety.
By the 19th century, more women appeared in the historical record, thanks to Elizabeth I of England and a few other politically important women that historians wrote about. But still the majority of mentions focused on queens and other women in their roles as wives and mothers. Politics, diplomacy, and war still made up the bulk of historians’ accounts. First, the available sources in archives were mostly government documents and diaries written by people in government, so researchers focused on what they had. Second, women still remained within the domestic sphere (in Europe) and who was interested in that? Women had always been in the domestic sphere, aside from a few very notable (and book-worthy) examples who left documents or were mentioned in documents.
By the mid 20th century people began writing about common folks, including women. But it wasn’t until the 1960s and 1970s that Women’s History really got going as a separate field. First, people started moving out of the traditional archives and digging into museum collections, family libraries, church chronicles, often reading between the lines to reconstruct domestic life mentioned in business and domestic ledgers and accounts, and finding a lot of material that had been overlooked (or unavailable) before. The first major works about women in history that did not center on reigning queens appeared. Some of the Marxist historians, mostly in England and Europe, began looking at women participating in economic activities, peasants and laborers’ wives. From this came both standard Marxist works about women as an economic class, and really fascinating accounts of women in business, equal partners in their merchant-husbands’ businesses. Historians in general also became less willing to take chroniclers at face value, and began wondering if perhaps Countess Elizabeth Bathory had not been the mass murdering monster of legend, or if Margarete Maultasch (Margaret of Tirol) had really been as sexually profligate as later writers claimed.
Alas, the pendulum continued to swing farther and farther from the center, until Women’s History appeared as a separate discipline with its own theoretical approaches and sub-sub-specialties. And with consequences for those women currently “doing” history. During a very forthright Q&A session in grad school, one professor flat-out told the five of us female-type grad students that when we went looking for academic jobs, we would be asked if we could teach Women’s History, no matter what our actual specialty was. And the only correct answer was “Yes.” If we’d focused elsewhere, the proper response was, “Yes, but I will need a semester/ few months to familiarize myself with the literature and major theories in the field.” Women teach Women’s History, and if we didn’t want to, tough. To which my (silent) responses were 1) “Well that stinks.” 2) “Thpppth!” 3) “I don’ wanna and you can’t make me!”
Don’t get misunderstand me: I enjoy reading history that includes women. The last written/next to be published Colplatschki novel, Peaks of Grace, came about in large part because of the spring 2014 issue of Medieval Warfare magazine, which focused on women in warfare, including a very nice essay about women war leaders and why they disappeared from tradition and history (probably because of the rise of the state and of large non-personal armies, to squish a lot of discussion into a tiny packet.) As you would expect, now that historians know what to look for, we’re finding out all sorts of interesting things about how women worked with, around, and against official law and custom to run businesses, manage properties, influence policy and other things, as well as raise children, cook, and pray (the [in]famous Kinder, Küche, und Kirche trinity of German post-Reformation tradition.)
Where things go astray is Women’s History as an academic subfield with a power-based conceptual framework. The idea that power relations between men and women, and the social construction of gender, should be a major focus (if not the major focus) through which to look at the history of women shifted the field in the 1970s and especially in the 1980s-90s. Ideas imported from Marxism, critical race theory, and the power structures between individuals and the state discussed by M. Foucault and others began shaping how Women’s Historians approached the field. That’s where I lost any interest in the topic. Historical theory leaves me sleepy, and once things like gender othering, gender and power relations, and related topics come up, I tend to head for the exit. At the extreme, women, like non-white, non-straight, non-western males, become a totally separate, isolated topic of study, acted on and oppressed by patriarchal society and losing their natural rights and position to a combination f the Scientific Revolution and the rise of the republic as a political system. This is where “intersectionalism” appears, and history becomes a long slog of abuse, oppression, silencing, and stories of women who abandoned the opportunity to uplift their sisters by siding with the patriarchy and embracing the male role (see Elizabeth I, the abbesses of Quedlinberg, St. Catherine of Sienna, et al.)
Ecofeminism wandered in about this time, the late 1970s, as Women’s Historians explained how the Scientific Revolution disenfranchised women’s knowledge of nature by enforcing a masculine-centric domination of knowledge via experimentation that separates humans from the environment and demoted women to passive, confined, domestic actors subordinated to their fathers and husbands, just as Nature was subordinated to science. I’m exaggerating, a little, but at its worst Women’s History can be that shrill, complicated, and tooth-pullingly tedious.
Meanwhile, women still participate in history. As mothers, daughters, and wives, as helpmeets and partners, businesswomen and domestic managers, women work with, around, despite, and for men. And vice versa. One of the best books I read in the past three years was about families in what is now Germany between 1300-1550, by an author who used the church, legal, business, and family records of the patricians of Nuremburg to explore how life changed and how the family shaped business and society. Although centered on men, because they left the records, Steven Ozment’s book provides a lot of information about women and children, and how precious those stern patriarchs thought their wives, daughters, and sisters were. Let’s face it, after eight children are still-born or die before age two, when you finally have a boy (or girl) live past age five, you are going to be ecstatic, dote on them, and wrap them in every protection you can think of. And you are going to worry about their mother and her health and well being after each of those other losses. And you will prize that wife when she assists you with business and manages the household. Laural Thatcher Ulrich’s A Midwife’s Tale is another good example of what, to me, how women’s history should be: history with lots of women that talks about how women lived, loved, celebrated, mourned, and made their way in the world. Not history of women as a class of and for themselves, oppressed by everyone and everything and bemoaning the lost glorious ages of legal and social and sexual equality and even superiority (that probably never was).