Women in History or Women’s History? – Alma Boykin

*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).

125 responses to “Women in History or Women’s History? – Alma Boykin

  1. I went round and round with one of those Womyn Herstory types in a comment thread in my writer’s group a couple of months ago, and a more hysterical and unreasoning female can hardly be imagined. She was one of those who believed passionately in that womyn were oppressed and disenfranchised up to the very moment that they got the right to vote. No property rights, no legal rights, no social rights … all until the early 20th century was one long male-administered tale of abuse and woe.

    I came back with chapter and verse, names and examples of 19th century women who had run their own businesses (either independently or as co-owners with a husband), practiced law and medicine, been writers (best-sellers, even) public speakers, abolitionists, had voted in local or state elections … to no effect. She had her meme, and was sticking with it, cold hard historical facts be damned. It was exasperating – and I can sympathize with the “pffffftt!”

    • Yeah, I’d love to sic some of the women I’ve read about onto modern Womyn’s Herstory devotees. *beatific yet slightly evil smile*

      I gave a paper at a big history of the US West conference several years ago. One other women and I gave papers about environmental/legal history. As best I could tell, all the other American women presented on some facet of Women’s History. Every female grad student there from University of State was doing Western Women’s History! All the more reason for the “Thppppth.”

    • To make matters worse, several Western US states allowed women to vote before the 19th Amendment anyway.

      • Wyoming, for one. I’d also read that women could often vote in local (town) elections as well. And in fact, the civic life in many little western towns – especially as they began to be settled – was almost entirely in the hands of women. They pushed for establishing churches, schools, hospitals and libraries … all those little gracenotes of civilization.

        News to my little Womyn’s Herstory expert, of course.

        • Regarding women in the western towns, I’m not surprised.

        • It probably doesn’t help that your Average East Coast Liberal thinks people in Wyoming still live in Bonanza days.
          From what I understand, Wyoming gave women the vote because they needed enough “citizens” to qualify for statehood.

      • for an amusing story you ought to check out why New Jersey took away the right to vote from women at the very beginning of the 19th century.

        • That sounds interesting. Got a link?

          • Long story short, New Jersey required property ownership in order to vote. No other requirements.
            This meant that some women, mostly widows, could vote.
            In an effort to expand the franchise, New Jersey changed it to “all white males.”
            Overall it did expand the franchise, particularly to urban artisans and rural day-laborers, but it ended up cutting some people out.

    • One of my textbooks from a Family History class I took was “Women and the Law of Property in Early America”. Very fascinating. It starts in the Colonial days and brings it forward to I think the late 1800s and tells it region by region. There were varying degrees of “liberality” in the law concerning women in business, land transactions, inheritance, etc. but the general trend was towards more freedom rather than less almost from the beginning. We used the book to help us understand where to find records on women for family history research, but it is a great resource for the social history aspects too.

  2. Many kudos to Zach at Minimum Wage Historian for writing about women in history properly.

  3. there is a video on youtube from Lindybeige about the difference of influence of men and women – and he focuses on Greece – where men dealt with other groups and issues external to the group and women dealt with the internal operations of the group.


    • I saw that. The last couple video’s he did where on the topic of women in history and that they where not some oppressed belittled group. Very well done I thought, though I’m sure the Wymyn’s studies types foam at the mouth over it.

  4. Nothing to add, so I’ll leave you with this, “Where? Oh, where are you to night? I searched the world over, and thought I had found true love. But you found another, and 😛 you were gone.”

  5. 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.)

    So… actually speaking, as the phrase goes, ‘truth to power’ and being successful but not trying to make all women act like men (but better because !1!11!!1) is ‘siding with the patriarchy’?

    Actually, I’d never heard anything about the Abbesses of Quedlinberg. A little odd, I’m Catholic and female and enjoy Finding Out stuff like this, which usually means anything unusual like this gets sent to me by someone better studied.
    Turns out that’s because they’re an example of this:
    In medieval times the Abbesses of the larger and more important houses were not uncommonly women of great power and distinction, whose authority and influence rivalled, at times, that of the most venerated bishops and abbots. In Saxon England “they had often the retinue and state of princesses, especially when they came of royal blood. They treated with kings, bishops, and the greatest lords on terms of perfect equality; … they were present at all great religious and national solemnities, at the dedication of churches, and even, like the queens, took part in the deliberations of the national assemblies, and affixed their signatures to the charters therein granted.” (Montalembert, “The Monks of the West,” Bk. XV.) They appeared also at Church councils in the midst of the bishops and abbots and priests, as did the Abbess Hilda at the Synod of Whitby in 664, and the Abbess Elfleda, who succeeded her, at that of the River Nith in 705. Five Abbesses were present at the Council of Becanfield in 694, where they signed the decrees before the presbyters. At a later time the Abbess “took tithes from churches impropriated to her house, presented the secular vicars to serve the parochial churches, and had all the privileges of a landlord over the temporal estates attached to her abbey. The Abbess of Shaftesbury for instance, at one time, found seven knights’ fees for the king’s service and held her own manor courts. Wilton, Barking, and Nunnaminster, as well as Shaftesbury, ‘held of the king by an entire barony,’ and by right of this tenure had, for a period, the privilege of being summoned to Parliament.” (Gasquet, “English Monastic Life,” 39.) In Germany the Abbesses of Quedlinburg, Gandersheim, Lindau, Buchau, Obermunster, etc., all ranked among the independent princes of the Empire, and as such sat and voted in the Diet as members of the Rhenish bench of bishops. They lived in princely state with a court of their own, ruled their extensive conventual estates like temporal lords, and recognized no ecclesiastical superior except the Pope. After the Reformation, their Protestant successors continued to enjoy the same imperial privileges up to comparatively recent times. In France, Italy, and Spain, the female superiors of the great monastic houses were likewise very powerful. But the external splendor and glory of medieval days have now departed from all.

    So, in as much as it was ever mentioned in my “odd stuff” or “Catholic stuff” searches, it was in those things mentioning that the really strict “women WILL only do this!” stuff was more of an Enlightenment and later thing.

    • Apparently, according to the lecture I endured, the great abbesses and saints should have been 21st century wymynists, overthrown the Church hierarchy, and empowered the women within their domains to throw off the shackles of domestic life, yadda yadda. And worshiped the Virgin Mary alone because Magna Mater wink, nudge. *exasperated sigh* The refreshments after the talk were NOT worth 80 minutes of my life, although her slides and art examples were pretty good.

      • Makes you wish you could perform some sort of a “Summon Saint” thing and have one of those ladies “chat” with her about the notion they were false Catholics….

        Ah well. We’re talking about a group that assures me I’m not being truly female, because I’ve got too many kids. *wry smile*

        It’s still totally awesome to find out about things like those Abbesses which one side didn’t mention because– well, come on, it’s not like they’re unusual, of course women could do that– and the other didn’t mention because They Aren’t Meeeeeee!!!!!

  6. BobtheRegisterredFool

    Women in history? No such thing, up until I was young, men sprang fully formed from the ground. Those ‘women’ in the records were actually boys.

    Seriously, my intent is that the above is as legitimate as some treatments of Women’s History. I thought to show it in a mirror to condemn it, but there are things I’m not prepared to say about the small number of women who really matter to me, even in jest.

  7. One hears a lot lately about how “women warriors were totally a real thing.” But I’m very well-versed in history and don’t know of many actual examples. Can someone suggest a resource on the subject which isn’t a lot of exaggeration and fabrication?

    • Christopher M. Chupik

      Here’s one: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kahina

      I suspect Hollywood won’t be rushing to make any movies about her, though. Not when a handful of hackers can threaten studios into not releasing movies.

    • J. Jesch, _Women in the Viking Age_ (2005); S. Edington and S. Lambert _Gendering the Crusades_ (2001); A. Mayer _Amazons_; M. McLaughlin “THe Woman Warrior” in _Women’s Studies: An Inter-Disciplinary Journal_ (Vol. 17, 1990 p. 193-209); V. Eads, “Sichelgaita of Salerno” in _The Journal of Medieval Military History_ 3 (2005); D. M. Lang _The Georgians_ 1966; A. Fraser, _Boadicea’s Chariot_ (1988); and the entire issue of _Medieval Warfare_ Vol. IV, no. 2 (2014), from which many of the above sources are taken. There are also good foreign-language sources, but they have not been translated AFAIK.

    • There are mentions of shield maidens and such in old poems from hereabouts, both the Vikings and my ancestors. How well based on reality who knows.

  8. Reblogged this on The Wandering Witchling and commented:
    I’m just going to leave this here….

  9. The Medici and the House of Borgia perhaps?

  10. “Ecofeminism wandered in about this time”

    Ecofeminism always wanders, because the only way anyone can even begin to believe it is to be stoned out of their gourd… or hit on the head with a large rock; repeatedly.

  11. “Brave Clara Barton stood beside the door,
    Watching young soldiers march away to war.
    The flags are very fine, she said,
    The drums and trumpets thrilling;
    But what about the wounds when the guns start killing?”

    Early 60’s, elementary school. I still remember the poem. Of course there are women in history. Always have, always will. Cleopatra, Joan of Arc, Madame Currie also come to mind. Cleopatra used crocodile dung as a contraceptive, Joan of Arc fought for her religion, Madame Currie died of radium poisoning.

    Perhaps we should just label conventional History as ‘White man’s History’ so others would not be confused. Back when I worked, we had the annual Black History Luncheon. One of the most fascinating speeches was of the local black sharecroppers dislocated from the land turned into the Navy Mine Depot at Yorktown during WW I. (Which was where I worked.) It was interesting because I worked with some of their descendants, I doubt the story would have lots of global appeal.

    I don’t think anyone really believes all women did was stand around in corsets and swoon. Barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen is not really their default position either. Generally, whenever any modern University starts offering XX’s studies, XX’s histories, etc.; you can rest assured the course offerings are all second-tier tripe and drivel.

    Weren’t we discussing female aversion to risk, relative to men the other day? Now days, when women can have their eggs frozen and implanted in a foreign womb, perhaps we no longer need to ‘protect’ them as the source of the next generation. History (the real kind) shows that for most of history, this wasn’t the case, and enough women died in child-bearing to not want to kill them in other ways.

    • We’ve still got more women dying from having kids than we have guys dying in war (yes, really– the same things that make childbirth less dangerous also make for combat injuries being less deadly) and it’s not like using foreign women as actual disposable gestation units is a suitable replacement…..

  12. I catalog a lot of academic works and I see a lot of nonsense. Sometimes, I come across gems though.

  13. “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).”

    And there are some great books like that. I love LTU, and my other favorite is Elizabeth Wayland Barber, who wrote about the development of textiles and weaving, and women’s work in general (why was this traditionally ‘women’s work’ and that wasn’t? Usually because it went reasonably well with having a lot of toddlers underfoot and nursing babies–easily interruptible, not too unsafe, etc.)–fabulous stuff. I LOVE reading about how things were done, daily life type books. People were just amazing.

    Then there is the other stuff. I heard a lot of good things about Radical Homemakers–a book about people dropping out and homesteading, or whatever, and it sounded interesting, but the first third of the book was cockeyed ‘social history’ about how once upon a time we had peaceful matriarchies until the rotten male-centered warrior tribes came along and ruined everything (prove it. Oh, you can’t. You’re just making stuff up.), how Darwin hated women (got a quotation? No?), and now evil industrial farming/corporations are ruining the world. By the time I got through all that I was too grumpy to enjoy the parts about modern homesteading, and only wanted to take my whole family to McDonald’s for dinner.

    Which kind of history honors women (and men too) as real people who could solve their problems and handle their lives and build civilization out of wilderness? Which kind makes women into uniformly oppressed, helpless widgets without the ability to tackle their circumstances and make the best of them? Yes, many women were victimized and enslaved and miserable, but you can say the same for many men, because human history is pretty icky a lot of the time.

    • There don’t seem to be too many histories moaning about the fates of the poor men who were forced to go and get killed on battlefields or do back breaking labor outside in the rain and cold like maybe logging or digging ditches or tilling the fields while the women were cooking dinner or making cloth while keeping an eye on the toddler and nursing the latest baby (not that easy either, but at least with my minimal experience with both I’d rather slave over the wood stove and peel a lot of potatoes than dig a ditch, thank you. Digging a ditch is hell of a lot harder than it seems like in the movies where the ground is always soft and can just be shoveled easily, not something into which you have the pound the shovel repeatedly before you can get even a little bit off 😀 ).

      And the poor repressed women of those times might have rebelled if somebody had tried to ‘liberate’ them to do those jobs which the men did, especially the ones which were men’s because they needed more muscle power.

      Lords and ladies maybe had it a bit better, and some of the lords’ jobs were ones the ladies might have done (or did) as well, but not everybody can be nobility. Sometimes one kind of does get the impression that the womyn’s whatever kind of see history through those lenses: as if everybody was more or less noble, or at least a merchant. They seem a bit blind to the existence of the people doing the absolutely necessary manual labor. Like, most people.

      • Digging a ditch near my house consists of pushing the shovel down until it hits a rock, then scraping off the clay dirt at that level. Rinse, repeat, until you get the outline of the rock uncovered. Then you get a pick (or more usually, a grubbing hoe), and hook it under the edge of the rock and pry it up, until you can (hopefully) pull it from the hole. Might take two people, or might take a chain and something to haul it out. Then, you go back and repeat the performance, while smaller rocks stop your shovel or pick while you’re working around the big rocks.


        • And if after spending the day digging that ditch the men came inside and wanted to be _served_ that meal and then just relax a bit after it (or go straight to bed) instead of starting to help the women to set the table and then do the dishes afterwards… Bad men. Representatives of the evil patriarchy, obviously. 😀

          • Now I have no doubt that the fact that men did most of the more dangerous and at least physically harder jobs could at times skew both the attention and the valuation of the jobs the sexes did towards the ones men did, both with individuals and with whole societies.

            If the man was expected to go and dig that ditch, or go and risk getting killed when the enemy was closing in, while the woman could just (or ‘just’…) cook the meal or stay safer behind his back is it miracle men at times have perhaps resented the arrangement a bit, and felt entitled to praise their part more?

            But there is no evil cabal of patriarchy involved. Just humans being humans.

          • Incidentally, in case anyone should wonder – I do not claim that ditch digging here is particularly harder than anywhere else that has hard clay soil. It’s just that it’s damned frustrating.

            • Just remember, if you need a ditch close to trees, all of the roots will grow of the side of the tree the ditch is on.

            • Dynamite is your friend!

              • Only danger there is that someone might think a meth lab blew up.

              • Funny story, an old guy was telling me the other day about when he was younger working with a guy who was an old powder monkey. The guy had bought (or been given) a large metal building next to the high school, that he had to tear down and move. Andre said something about how much work it was going to be to pull all the nails (back before they used screws) to remove the tin. The old guy told him, not a problem, they would just blow it off. He did a little figuring on how much to use, and hung sticks of powder of each of the trusses, closed all the doors and they got back three or four hundred yards and touched them off. Andre said the whole building looked like it hopped, then settled back down, then all the tin on the roof just started sliding and slid off the roof to hit the ground flat without bending a single piece; most of the tin on the sides stayed on, but had most of the nails pulled out, and the few that weren’t were loosened so it was very little work to pull them and set each of those sheets down.

                Of course he also mentioned the Fire Chief (small town, no police) coming flying up there, wanting to know what the heck was going on. 🙂

      • Somehow, the progs got the notion that once their dream of neofeudalism is in place, every last one of them would be in the manor house. Their happiness seems to depend on having a class of people to look down on. The fact that the people they need to feel better than are the ones who actually make the world work just makes it worse for them, since they know they don’t actually contribute to the survival of the human race.

  14. C4C

  15. Macaulay on reviewing a work that included a number of letters from a man’s future wife to him.

    “His letters are lost, but hers have been preserved; and many of them appear in these volumes. Mr. Courtenay expresses some doubt whether his readers will think him justified in inserting so large a number of these epistles. We only wish that there were twice as many. Very little indeed of the diplomatic correspondence of that generation is so well worth reading. . . . But of that information, for the sake of which alone it is worth while to study remote events, we find so much in the love letters which Mr. Courtenay has published, that we would gladly purchase equally interesting billets with ten times their weight in State papers taken at random. To us surely it is as useful to know how the young ladies of England employed themselves a hundred and eighty years ago, how far their minds were cultivated, what were their favourite studies, what degree of liberty was allowed to them, what use they made of that liberty, what accomplishments they most valued in men, and what proofs of tenderness delicacy permitted them to give to favoured suitors, as to know all about the seizure of Franche-Comté and the Treaty of Nimeguen. The mutual relations of the two sexes seem to us to be at least as important as the mutual relations of any two Governments in the world; and a series of letters written by a virtuous, amiable, and sensible girl, and intended for the eye of her lover alone, can scarcely fail to throw some light on the relations of the sexes; whereas it is perfectly possible, as all who have made any historical researches can attest, to read bale after bale of despatches and protocols, without catching one glimpse of light about the relations of Governments.”

  16. Susan
    Golly in catalan there are several book on the impact of women in history
    Here’s one one abeyesses and prioresses of Catalunya
    Another commemorating the role of women in the siege of Barcelona http://www.grup62.cat/llibre-les-dones-del-1714-116965.html
    I could go on but you get the idea