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Feminist History And Women's history

Updated Thursday 1st September 2005

Professor Anne Laurence explores women's role in the past in this article on feminist history.

Woman in Venetian clothing Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Production team

The Rise of Feminism

The rise of feminism in the '60s and '70s influenced many academic disciplines, not least history. Inspired by new claims for woman's autonomy, historians began to work on women's role in the past, especially on the franchise debate.

Many of these pioneers were unaware that the movement for women's rights of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had itself given rise to works on the historical role of women.

Many of these works were devoted to showing that women did not aspire to win political rights, but rather to regain them from an earlier age when there had been women members of trade guilds, women office holders and powerful abbesses.

Alongside this feminist consciousness, inspired by the work of E.P. Thomson, there developed a concern for 'history from below', the history of ordinary working people.

But, historians cried, "there's nothing on women, there are no sources". The very techniques that allowed these historians to unearth material on the hitherto invisible masses, also allowed them to see women where they had not been seen before.

Looking for Women

To see women in the past, apart from those such as Queen Elizabeth who are all too visible, requires not only the consciousness that women have a part to play in society, but also a desire to read sources to look for women.

It used to be thought that apprenticeships in medieval and Renaissance towns were always boys, yet most apprenticeship registers contain plenty of girls put out as servants, seamstresses and in many other trades.

Apart from an attitude of mind which is looking for women's presence, rather than assuming their absence, we've had to look at old sources in new ways.

Court proceedings tend to involve men as the principal actors, but women often appeared as witnesses, making complex witness statements and depositions. Women paid taxes as householders. Women got involved in disputes about marriage, inheritance and property. In all these matters they had contact with officialdom, so they enter the record.

What is particularly noticeable is that many women were familiar enough with the processes involved to use them constructively to their best advantage. It's no accident that women appear far more often in cases tried in the church courts (where even married women had a separate legal identity) than in the common law courts (where married women could not bring cases on their own account).

The Economy of Makeshifts

The history of women may be, in part, the history of their ill-usage because of the nature of the evidence. But it is also the history of their ingenuity, of their efforts to make things work, to circumvent the disadvantages of their sex.

The historian Olwen Hufton has coined the phrase 'the economy of makeshifts' to describe the ways in which women often had to operate. Perhaps the greatest economic disadvantage that women endured was that women's work was not a definite category like men's work (which was trades and occupations that had a name and a workplace), but the never-ending housewifery of the home. Men's work stopped, women's didn't.

Questions, too, have been raised about whether the eternal verities of life and death actually have a history.

But it is clear, through work done on the history of women, that marriage, fertility, childbearing and child rearing, all central to women's lives in an age when the lone woman had little legal status and when children were the hope and support of the future, that these are very specific to time and place.

Fertility

Rates of marriage, ages at marriage, duration of marriage, all varied considerably from country to country, with very different effects upon women's expectations.

Maximising fertility, in an age when childlessness was a tragedy for economic reasons as much as dynastic ones - they were the only source of an old-age pension and when infant mortality was at a level seen now only in famine-stricken Third World countries, was a major concern for married couples.

Rearing children with such rates of mortality was a devastating task when out of the average eight births, only two or three might reach adulthood. And it's clear that while parents might treat these deaths with resignation, the personal tragedy was no less than it is today.

Without a concern for the history of women, we would have far less understanding of the family structures and everyday life of earlier periods. We have learnt to see women in history rather than ignoring those signs which lurk, half concealed, in the record.

Did Women Have a Renaissance?

The historian, Joan Kelly, famously asked 'Did women have a Renaissance?' The answer must surely be a cautious yes, but not necessarily the same Renaissance as that of men. Not for them the significance of antique forms of sculpture, but humanism gave them greater access to education.

Their religious lives were transformed, but in different ways from that of men. Closure of convents in Protestant countries closed a possible career for those who didn't want to marry. Protestantism brought mixed consequences: the elevation of household religion and the role of the godly wife, but as few opportunities for public life as Roman Catholicism.

What women's history has done is to offer a new set of questions about the past. We had formulated our questions about class; we are still formulating our questions about gender.

About this article

This article is taken from Leading for Results (B572), a course from the Open University Centre for Continuing Professional Development.

 

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