Stephen Scobie, on the Naropa Institute’s 1994 tribute to Allen Ginsberg (via thisisendless)
I’m just frozen. Absences of women in history don’t “just happen,” they are made.
^could not cosign that thought harder as an historian
reblogged this before, would reblog again
As someone who originally trained as a social historian of the Medieval Period, I have some things to add in support of the main point. Most people dramatically underestimate the economic importance of Medieval women and their level of agency. Part of the problem here is when modern people think of medieval people they are imagining the upper end of the nobility and not the rest of society.
Your average low end farming family could not survive without women’s labour. Yes, there was gender separation of labour. Yes, the men did the bulk of the grain farming, outside of peak times like planting and harvest, but unless you were very well off, you generally didn’t live on that. The women had primary responsibility for the chickens, ducks, or geese the family owned, and thus the eggs, feathers, and meat. (Egg money is nothing to sneeze at and was often the main source of protein unless you were very well off). They grew vegetables, and if she was lucky she might sell the excess. Her hands were always busy, and not just with the tasks you expect like cooking, mending, child care, etc.. As she walked, as she rested, as she went about her day, if her hands would have otherwise been free, she was spinning thread with a hand distaff. (You can see them tucked in the belts of peasant women in art of the era). Unless her husband was a weaver, most of that thread was for sale to the folks making clothe as men didn’t spin. Depending where she lived and the ages of her children, she might have primary responsibility for the families sheep and thus takes part in sheering and carding. (Sheep were important and there are plenty of court cases of women stealing loose wool or even shearing other people’s sheep.) She might gather firewood, nuts, fruit, or rushes, again depending on geography. She might own and harvest fruit trees and thus make things out of that fruit. She might keep bees and sell honey. She might make and sell cheese if they had cows, sheep, or goats. Just as her husband might have part time work as a carpenter or other skilled craft when the fields didn’t need him, she might do piece work for a craftsman or be a brewer of ale, cider, or perry (depending on geography). Ale doesn’t keep so women in a village took it in turn to brew batches, the water not being potable on it’s own, so everyone needed some form of alcohol they could water down to drink. The women’s labour and the money she bought in kept the family alive between the pay outs for the men as well as being utterly essential on a day to day survival level.
Something similar goes on in towns and cities. The husband might be a craftsman or merchant, but trust me, so is his wife and she has the right to carry on the trade after his death.
Also, unless there was a lot of money, goods, lands, and/or titles involved, people generally got a say in who they married. No really. Keep in mind that the average age of first marriage for a yeoman was late teens or early twenties (depending when and where), but the average age of first marriage for the working poor was more like 27-29. The average age of death for men in both those categories was 35. with women, if you survived your first few child births you might live to see grandchildren.
Do the math there. Odds are if your father was a small farmer, he’s been dead for some time before you gather enough goods to be marrying a man. For sure your mother (and grandmother and/or step father if you have them) likely has opinions, but you can have a valid marriage by having sex after saying yes to a proposal or exchanging vows in the present (I thee wed), unless you live in Italy, where you likely need a notary. You do not need clergy as church weddings don’t exist until the Reformation. For sure, it’s better if you publish banns three Sundays running in case someone remembers you are too closely related, but it’s not a legal requirement. Who exactly can stop you if you are both determined?
So the less money, goods, lands, and power your family has, the more likely you are to be choosing your partner. There is an exception in that unfree folk can be required to remarry, but they are give time and plenty of warning before a partner would be picked for them. It happened a lot less than you’d think. If you were born free and had enough money to hire help as needed whether for farm or shop or other business, there was no requirement of remarriage at all. You could pick a partner or choose to stay single. Do the math again on death rates. It’s pretty common to marry more than once. Maybe the first wife died in childbirth. The widower needs the work and income a wife brings in and that’s double if the baby survives. Maybe the second wife has wide hips, but he dies from a work related injury when she’s still young. She could sure use a man’s labour around the farm or shop. Let’s say he dies in a fight or drowns in a ditch. She’s been doing well. Her children are old enough to help with the farm or shop, she picks a pretty youth for his looks instead of his economic value. You get marriages for love and lust as well as economics just like you get now and May/December cuts both ways.
A lot of our ideas about how people lived in the past tends to get viewed through a Victorian or early Hollywood lens, but that tends to be particularly extreme as far was writing out women’s agency and contribution as well as white washing populations in our histories, films, and therefore our minds eyes.
Real life is more complicated than that.
BTW, there are plenty of women at the top end of the scale who showed plenty of agency and who wielded political and economic power. I’ve seen people argue that the were exceptions, but I think they were part of a whole society that had a tradition of strong women living on just as they always had sermons and homilies admonishing them to be otherwise to the contrary. There’s also a whole other thing going on with the Pope trying to centralized power from the thirteenth century on being vigorously resisted by powerful abbesses and other holy women. Yes, they eventually mostly lost, but it took so many centuries because there were such strong traditions of those women having political power.
Boss post! To add to that, many historians have theorised that modern gender roles evolved alongside industrialisation, when there was suddenly a conceptual division between work/public spaces, and home/private spaces. The factory became the place of work, where previously work happened at home. Gender became entangled in this division, with women becoming associated with the home, and men with public spaces. It might be assumable, therefore, that women had (have?) greater freedoms in agrarian societies; or, at least, had (have?) different demands placed on them with regard to their gender.
(Please note that the above historical reading is profoundly Eurocentric, and not universally applicable. At the same time, when I say that the factory became the place of work, I mean it in conceptual sense, not a literal sense. Not everyone worked in the factory, but there is a lot of literature about how the institution of the factory, as a symbol of industrialisation, reshaped the way people thought about labour.)
I am broadly of that opinion. You can see upper class women being encouraged to be less useful as the piecework system grows and spreads. You can see that spread to the middle class around when the early factory system gears up. By mid-19th century that domestic sphere vs, public sphere is full swing for everyone who can afford it and those who can’t are explicitly looked down on and treated as lesser. You can see the class system slowly calcify from the 17th century on.
Grain of salt that I get less accurate between 1605-French Revolution or thereabouts. I’ve periodically studied early modern stuff, but it’s more piecemeal.
I too was confining my remarks to Medieval Europe because 1. That was my specialty. 2. A lot of English language fantasy literature is based on Medieval Europe, often badly and more based on misapprehension than what real lives were like.
I am very grateful that progress is occurring and more traditions are influencing people’s writing. I hate that so much of the fantasy writing of my childhood was so narrow.
Wanna reblog this because for a long time I’ve had this vague knowledge in my head that society in the past wasn’t how people are always assuming it was (SERIOUSLY VICTORIANS, THANKS FOR DICKING WITH HOW WE VIEW EVERYTHING HISTORICAL). I get fed up with people who complain about fantasy stuff, claiming “historical accuracy” to whine about ethnic diversity and gender equality and other cool stuff that lets everyone join in the fun, and then I get sad because the first defence is always “it’s fantasy, so that doesn’t matter.”
I mean, that’s a good and valid defence, but here you have it; proof fucking positive that historical accuracy shows that equality and diversity are not new ideas and if anything BELONG in historical fiction. As far as I can tell, most people in the past were too bloody busy to get all ruffled up about that stuff; they had prejudices, but from what little I know the lines historically drawn in the sand were in slightly different places and for different reasons. (You can’t trust them furrigners. It’s all pixies and devil-worship over there).
So next time someone tells you that something isn’t “historically accurate” because it’s not racist/sexist/any other form of bigotry for that matter-ist enough for their liking, tell them to shut the hell up because they clearly know far less about history than they do about being an asshole.
I found this terribly interesting, and I’m sure some of you are interested in writing fantasy so…
The more you know.
History is written by those who win. This is why you can celebrate Columbus Day but there is no Hitler Day. This is why you commemorate the Holocaust but you don’t even know the extent of the genocide that was inflicted upon the Native population in the Americas. Had Nazi Germany won, nobody would have known about the suffering of the Jews and the Nazi leaders would have been looked at under a different light. Nor would the rest of the West would have shown the same consideration towards the Jews and the Holocaust as they pretend to do now in such a case. And if the Europeans had lost in the Americas, history would have narrated to us the crimes that the Europeans committed when they came here, not their glorification.
- Elementary School: Here's a basic understanding of history and how the world works.
- High School: Actually, that's not quite right. Everything is actually a whole lot more complicated than that.
- College: EVERYTHING YOU KNOW IS WRRROOONNNNGGGG
- History Channel: Aliens.
But my rant is actually not quite about that stuff at all. It’s about history, and this notion that History Is Authentically Sexist. Yes, it is. Sure it is. We all know that. But what do you mean when you say “history?”
History is not a long series of centuries in which men did all the interesting/important things and women stayed home and twiddled their thumbs in between pushing out babies, making soup and dying in childbirth.
History is actually a long series of centuries of men writing down what they thought was important and interesting, and FORGETTING TO WRITE ABOUT WOMEN. It’s also a long series of centuries of women’s work and women’s writing being actively denigrated by men. Writings were destroyed, contributions were downplayed, and women were actively oppressed against, absolutely.
tansyrr.com» Historically Authentic Sexism in Fantasy. Let’s Unpack That. / A great post from Tansy Rayner Roberts; read the whole thing, share it. (via gwendabond)
Yes. This reminds me of my perpetual frustration with that “well-behaved women rarely make history” thing - not the original quote, the “rah-rah for social rebels” way it’s used. Originally, it’s about how the lives of most women, women who weren’t The Special Woman, Not Like Those Other Girls, but who mostly tried to do what they were supposed to, those lives get ignored and were often unrecorded, the women washed out of history for their trouble.
And then the problem gets compounded in microcosm thanks to the wealth of classic, respected and popular male-authored SFF novels which elide the presence and importance of women in EXACTLY THE SAME WAY that the historical record does, so that people who grow up reading those novels subconsciously learn that both history AND fantasy are inherently masculine spaces.
And with far too many of those people, you can’t win: because on the one hand, they think it’s implausible to cast female characters in what they perceive to be traditionally masculine roles, but on the other, they find it boring and irrelevant to focus on female characters occupying what they perceive to be traditionally feminine roles. Realism to them - both as relates to history, and to imaginary spaces - therefore amounts to the studied absence of women.
If any of you are going to be writing in a Victorian England -based setting (I’m looking at the Dishonored fandom in particular, but lord knows it’s not just them), seriously consider checking out Inside the Victorian Home: A Portrait of Domestic Life in Victorian England.
It is the most useful and utterly fascinating book. Seriously. It takes you room-by-room through an upper-class family’s house and discusses fucking everything. I lost an hour of the morning re-reading the chapter on the dining room and subsequent discussion of when meals should be served and what color the walls should be painted and where the soup should be placed on the table, and I am now seriously considering taking a leaf our of the lovely medievalthedas’s book and posting excerpts for your reading and setting-enriching pleasure, because who says research has to be boring? This stuff is so good.
This weekend I was schmoozing at an event when some guy asked me what kind of history I study. I said “I’m currently researching the role of gender in Jewish emigration out of the Third Reich,” and he replied “oh you just threw gender in there for fun, huh?” and shot me what he clearly thought to be a charming smile.
The reality is that most of our understandings of history revolve around what men were doing. But by paying attention to the other half of humanity our understanding of history can be radically altered.
For example, with Jewish emigration out of the Third Reich it is just kind of assumed that it was a decision made by a man, and the rest of his family just followed him out of danger. But that is completely inaccurate. Women, constrained to the private social sphere to varying extents, were the first to notice the rise in social anti-Semitism in the beginning of Hitler’s rule. They were the ones to notice their friends pulling away and their social networks coming apart. They were the first to sense the danger.
German Jewish men tended to work in industries which were historically heavily Jewish, thus keeping them from directly experiencing this “social death.” These women would warn their husbands and urge them to begin the emigration process, and often their husbands would overlook or undervalue their concerns (“you’re just being hysterical” etc). After the Nuremberg Laws were passed, and after even more so after Kristallnacht, it fell to women to free their husbands from concentration camps, to run businesses, and to wade through the emigration process.
The fact that the Nazis initially focused their efforts on Jewish men meant that it fell to Jewish women to take charge of the family and plan their escape. In one case, a woman had her husband freed from a camp (to do so, she had to present emigration papers which were not easy to procure), and casually informed him that she had arranged their transport to Shanghai. Her husband—so traumatized from the camp—made no argument. Just by looking at what women were doing, our understanding of this era of Jewish history is changed.
I have read an article arguing that the Renaissance only existed for men, and that women did not undergo this cultural change. The writings of female loyalists in the American Revolutionary period add much needed nuance to our understanding of this period. The character of Jewish liberalism in the first half of the twentieth century is a direct result of the education and socialization of Jewish women. I can give you more examples, but I think you get the point.
So, you wanna understand history? Then you gotta remember the ladies (and not just the privileged ones).
Holy fuck. I was raised Jewish— with female Rabbis, even!— and I did not hear about any of this. Gender studies are important.
This is wonderful. Thank you.
In 1995, Roy Disney decided to release an animated movie about a Powhatan woman known as “Pocahontas”. In answer to a complaint by the Powhatan Nation, he claims the film is “responsible, accurate, and respectful.”
We of the Powhatan Nation disagree. The film distorts history beyond recognition. Our offers to assist Disney with cultural and historical accuracy were rejected. Our efforts urging him to reconsider his misguided mission were spurred.
“Pocahontas” was a nickname, meaning “the naughty one” or “spoiled child”. Her real name was Matoaka. The legend is that she saved a heroic John Smith from being clubbed to death by her father in 1607 - she would have been about 10 or 11 at the time. The truth is that Smith’s fellow colonists described him as an abrasive, ambitious, self-promoting mercenary soldier.
Of all of Powhatan’s children, only “Pocahontas” is known, primarily because she became the hero of Euro-Americans as the “good Indian”, one who saved the life of a white man. Not only is the “good Indian/bad Indian theme” inevitably given new life by Disney, but the history, as recorded by the English themselves, is badly falsified in the name of “entertainment”.
The truth of the matter is that the first time John Smith told the story about this rescue was 17 years after it happened, and it was but one of three reported by the pretentious Smith that he was saved from death by a prominent woman.
Yet in an account Smith wrote after his winter stay with Powhatan’s people, he never mentioned such an incident. In fact, the starving adventurer reported he had been kept comfortable and treated in a friendly fashion as an honored guest of Powhatan and Powhatan’s brothers. Most scholars think the “Pocahontas incident” would have been highly unlikely, especially since it was part of a longer account used as justification to wage war on Powhatan’s Nation.
Euro-Americans must ask themselves why it has been so important to elevate Smith’s fibbing to status as a national myth worthy of being recycled again by Disney. Disney even improves upon it by changing Pocahontas from a little girl into a young woman.
The true Pocahontas story has a sad ending. In 1612, at the age of 17, Pocahontas was treacherously taken prisoner by the English while she was on a social visit, and was held hostage at Jamestown for over a year.
During her captivity, a 28-year-old widower named John Rolfe took a “special interest” in the attractive young prisoner. As a condition of her release, she agreed to marry Rolfe, who the world can thank for commercializing tobacco. Thus, in April 1614, Matoaka, also known as “Pocahontas”, daughter of Chief Powhatan, became “Rebecca Rolfe”. Shortly after, they had a son, whom they named Thomas Rolfe. The descendants of Pocahontas and John Rolfe were known as the “Red Rolfes.”
Two years later on the spring of 1616, Rolfe took her to England where the Virginia Company of London used her in their propaganda campaign to support the colony. She was wined and dined and taken to theaters. It was recorded that on one occasion when she encountered John Smith (who was also in London at the time), she was so furious with him that she turned her back to him, hid her face, and went off by herself for several hours. Later, in a second encounter, she called him a liar and showed him the door.
Rolfe, his young wife, and their son set off for Virginia in March of 1617, but “Rebecca” had to be taken off the ship at Gravesend. She died there on March 21, 1617, at the age of 21. She was buried at Gravesend, but the grave was destroyed in a reconstruction of the church. It was only after her death and her fame in London society that Smith found it convenient to invent the yarn that she had rescued him.
History tells the rest. Chief Powhatan died the following spring of 1618. The people of Smith and Rolfe turned upon the people who had shared their resources with them and had shown them friendship. During Pocahontas’ generation, Powhatan’s people were decimated and dispersed and their lands were taken over. A clear pattern had been set which would soon spread across the American continent.
Chief Roy Crazy Horse
It is unfortunate that this sad story,
which Euro-Americans should find embarrassing,
Disney makes “entertainment” and perpetuates a dishonest and self-serving myth
at the expense of the Powhatan Nation.