Leeds Reaction #1
First off, my Leeds was a bit odd. I never felt I hit my stride till maybe the last day. Normally, I ask questions — in fact, I have been accused of asking awkward questions. This time, I felt very disconnected, and had a horrible time processing information. I think part of it was that many of the session moderators paused for questions after each paper, and so I didn’t have the time to ruminate as I usually do. Anyway, it was a far more difficult Leeds than I expected. The best part was that I got to talk to some really nice and intelligent people, and even though I felt more imposter-like than usual, there were moments that inspired me. One was Guy Halsall’s paper, which confronted outright the issue of historians whose work seemed, willingly or unwittingly, to lend fuel to (especially) right-wing political agendas, particularly those that connected immigration to barbarian/Roman relations.
It was especially interesting to me because it bears on an internal conflict I regularly confront. I absolutely agree with him — yet I am also very aware of the fact that I try very hard not to engage with the current political atmosphere when I teach. Except that I do, in some ways — it’s probably not a coincidence that I frame my surveys around issues like the relationship of the subject/citizen to lord/state, and on ways in which different cultures saw legal status, for example.
It also made me think about what it was that made me uncomfortable about my own paper. I was, and am, very certain that we need to re-think certain basic assumptions about the history of women. But I also do believe Judith Bennett is right about the patriarchal equilibrium. So I honestly worry that, by challenging people to stop simply assuming the oppression of women and the absence of female agency as a starting point, I might also be giving the false impression that I don’t think they could be true. Ok — I’m not entirely sure that “oppressed” is a helpful or good word for the early MA, because it seems to me to be a word best employed when there is a clear understanding of rights being restricted against one’s will.
When I argue that we need to understand the situation of women differently, it doesn’t mean that I think women’s situations were better, or worse. I just mean that we should think about imposing our own values on the past in ways that might not have made sense to the people living there. But Guy’s post hits at the underlying problem, and it is one I deal with regularly: to a non-specialist reader, or student, I can see how my approach could reinforce the opinions of people inclined towards anti-feminism and perhaps even give them excuses for dismissing the inequalities of the early MA. And that’s not what I want. I don’t want them to say, “oh, but look — women DID have these legal rights we thought they didn’t, so obviously we can dismiss any silly feminist arguments.” I want people to ask questions so they can see that sometimes things look like one thing, but have a different meaning in a different context. And I think that that should make people more aware of feminist issues (in this case, but really, pick an issue and you can make the argument). But the sessions helped me to put a name to the nagging worry that people will think I am asking them to throw the proverbial baby out with the proverbial bathwater, or even that they will try to find evidence to support a right-wing view that feminism is somehow a bad thing, or a lie.