Judith Bennett Roundtable, the Penultimate Part
Judith Bennett Roundtable, the Penultimate Part
Hmph. Here’s me, trying to think up something original to say, when Notorious, PhD, Historiann, and Tenured Radical have already covered most of it! Not to mention that this series has also created some wonderful spin-offs over at Magistra et Mater. Let me tell you, these are tough acts to follow! But follow I must, so I’m going to revisit some things from the point of view of someone who comes at this from the perspective of the Early Middle Ages, who doesn’t really have the chance to teach grad students, and who seems to be hitting every interstice possible in background and approach. I also freely admit that I may be opening myself up to criticism here, but there you are!
One of the first things that struck me about Judith Bennett’s History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism (besides the fact that I deperately want to call it “Feminism and the Challenge of Patriarchy”) is how modern it all seems to me. Another is how good Bennett is at articulating clearly some of the issues that so many of us, whether or not we think of ourselves as feminist historians, need to deal with when we teach any history. Finally, I have to admit there was some, “but what about this???” going on, too.
In the discussion at Notorious, PhD’s place, we turned to the issue of whether or not history should be political. I tend to think not, even as I admit that we all bring our own interests and beliefs to our scholarship and teaching. But I’m fairly uncomfortable with pushing a particular agenda with the idea that it will make a difference to how our students deal with the here and now, in part because I don’t think that Late Antiquity or the Middle Ages really have much to do with the here and now, despite Bennett’s arguments for continuity. I really do think that the study of history is every bit as much about acquiring a set of tools and skills for critical thinking and writing that transcends the study of the past, and that that is the continuity that is most important to us as teachers.
Having said that, Bennett’s call to arms seems to me to be one that is natural. Bennett herself touches on this when recounting her experiences in re-writing Hollister’s Medieval Europe. Adding more on women might be a feminist thing. It might be a response to half-hearted attempts to toss some more women into the mix because publishers feel they have to (who was it who talked about the ‘chick boxes’?). But the reality is that adding women means offering a richer, better-developed picture of what was going on. While I certainly admit that it is down to feminist historians of a slightly earlier generation for pushing this aspect of history, for making it political, I think we may now be at a point where it is becoming much easier to include the history of women and minorities as necessities than it was even ten years ago. It occurs to me that in my own case, teaching about women allows me to engage students in things that they are interested in — even though I teach at a SLAC where much of the student body is pretty conservative, the students, male and female, really do enjoy reading primary sources that have to deal with women’s lives. And they often want to compare them in presentist ways. All I have to do is question their assumptions about ‘choice’ and ‘oppression’ — and combat the “Oh, look! things are so much better now!” impulse. Which means, I suppose, that I’ve been pointing out the patriarchal equalibrium without the focus on the continuity that Bennett argues for.
About that continuity… Damn, but I wish that there had been more. I really enjoyed that section of the book, but it still seemed fairly narrow to me. All England, all pretty late. And I’m still leery of continuity when we can’t really talk about the causation except in terms of general patriarchal equalibrium. This is a real problem for me, and perhaps for others. Patriarchal equalibrium feels like it exists. It looks like it exists. It explains so damned much. But I think Bennett shows enough evidence that it’s an equalibrium made up of different factors in different times and places that it’s … hard to get a grip on. I want to dig deeper, splitter that I am. The continuity section also seemed to me to be begging for more in terms of both time-span and evidence. Most of the the evidence that Bennett uses is fascinating; I’ve used some 17th C English wills for teaching before, and am glad that some of my students noticed the disparities in how property was divided between men and women, and between widows and children, that Bennett mentiones (90). And obviously I can’t fault Bennett for writing what she knows best. But as she admits, the continuity discussion is based mostly on wages and standards for working women in mostly urban environments. I wanted more. I wanted the laws, dammit!
The laws. They’re problematic. If we look at women’s legal status in the very long term, I think that examining various law codes supports the idea of patriarchal equalibrium in many ways. But it also throws a spanner into the continuity argument, if only because we have to unpack an awful lot that looks like (and sometimes is) transformation. But I think we have to do it. The fact that there are examples in so many law codes in the western tradition (including the Ancient Near East) of women-as-property, of violence against women punishable not because of the crime against the woman, but because a crime had been committed against a man and his family, seems to me an essential issue in teaching the history of women. I don’t think anyone can argue with Bennett’s evidence on the value of women’s labour, but in teaching, at least, it seems to me that we cannot leave out the many ways in which women were themselves valued less. The problem is, I suppose, that we can look at the world around us and argue, as Bennett does, that the wage gap has been more or less constant for as long as we’ve been able to measure it. When we look at women’s legal standing, there is difference. And in some cases, transformation. My question here is: how can we teach that transformation and still demonstrate that the idea of a patriarchal equalibrium really does hold true?
Another place where I feel we need more integration and study is on women and their ties to their birth families. Bennett’s women are mostly defined as singletons, wives, or widows, i.e., their families are defined by their spouses. It makes sense when looking at the women she does. But from the perspective of someone more familiar with Rome, Late Antiquity, and the Early Middle ages, there is something lacking. The idea of husbands — or even widowers — blithely alienating away their wives’ dowries may work well in the 14th – 18th centuries, but I’m not entirely sure that it works earlier on. The sorts of things I’ve been reading suggest that, at least before the High Middle Ages, there was an expectation among the elites (and who else owned and held enough property that their actions were recorded?) that daughters would act in the interests of their birth families. In these cases, patriarchy really did have to do with fathers. And again, I’m not sure that by looking more closely at how women were identified, or identified themselves, in terms of family we aren’t opening up another can of transformational worms. It’s always something, isn’t it?
So … even though I’m convinced by most of Bennett’s arguments, and more convinced that there are ways to teach a stronger feminist history that is legitimate because it is interesting and necessary and just better history, I am not sure that it can be done as well as it needs to be, unless we get a bit messy, and figure out how all of these other things fit in.
Speaking of making things messy again … I need to address the concept of “lesbian-like”. I can see how it can be initially useful, but I think in the end it can distract us from a lot of questions that help us to write better history. As Magistra pointed out, if we use Bennett’s definitions, we end up with Heloise living a ‘lesbian-like’ life, despite the fact that she is one of the most clearly self-identified heterosexual women in the MA! Hell, I fit in there, and there are women I know who identify as lesbian who don’t fit Bennett’s definitions. Tenured Radical deals with most of my concerns at length, so I won’t go into too much detail here, except to say this: if we have to construct an almost asexual category of ‘lesbian-like’, how do we then deal with teaching our students about the differences in how people conceived of sexuality in the past — at least of what we know? How do we deal with the idea that women in sexual relationships with women didn’t exist in some people’s minds because sex = penetration? And how do we deal with the growing corpus of evidence for ideas of masculinity where sometimes men having sex with other men is masculine and ‘not gay’ and sometimes it is gay and wrong? I think lesbian-like is a term that muddies the water more than it filters it.
So what’s my point? I think it’s that Bennett’s book is an important starting point. I think it reminds us of many of the things that historians, especially younger women historians, often take for granted. The frameworks for dealing with women’s history, especially the ideas of patriarchal equalibrium and remembering to look at continuities as well as transformations, are useful and can improve the ways in which we teach history. And although I think this is probably not what Bennett had in mind at all, I think that those frameworks make it possible to show that including women’s history in the master narrative is necessary because the narrative is just plain better with extra! added! women!
Don’t forget, the ultimate part of this discussion will take place next week at Notorious, PhD’s place, where Judith Bennett herself will offer her own take on the discussion.