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Leeds Reaction #1

15 July, 2011

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.


10 Comments leave one →
  1. 16 July, 2011 1:35 am

    You're right that oppression is a loaded word, but the ideas of controlling women certainly are there, over and over. Bennett's thesis is more convincing the more I think it over: that societies react to changes in one area by pushing back against that change in another.

  2. 16 July, 2011 5:26 am

    Re: GH's paper topic: dunno if this is relevant, but one of the things I use to diffuse this is to ask my students, out of the blue, "So, why do we say 'barbarian invasions,' but 'Roman expansion'?"

  3. 16 July, 2011 9:25 am

    That is an excellent question, NPhD! I must remember that!

  4. 16 July, 2011 11:21 am

    And so must I!

  5. 17 July, 2011 12:24 am

    Yes! Time to question some fundamental assumptions about our period! Time to ask new questions! I'm sensing a conference "strand"…

  6. 17 July, 2011 1:26 am

    But it isn't always men = oppressors, which I think is what people often think of when you talk about feminism/oppression. It's the systemic nature of the patriarchy IMO that people don't get, and that may simply be "fish don't know they're swimming in water." (I've had my own struggles with this.) But women did have (and continue to have) agency: to collaborate with the patriarchy/oppress other women, or not to. Or, to sometimes do, and sometimes not do. As did men. As did corporate and collective entities that were not acting on the decision or feelings of a single individual (please note: I'm not a medievalist, so can't address the details!).People's agency may have been able to have wider influence if they were wealthy, white, males… but that doesn't mean that everyone else was incapable of making any decisions that affected their lives and the lives of those around them. If someone has an important test coming up, and you steal their study notes or change the time on their watch so they miss it, that's a damn lot of agency as far as that other person is concerned. And you don't have to have power over them to do it.Another question you bring up that is important, and may well be worth a discussion with students, is: "What is our responsibility for what others do with our work?"

  7. 20 July, 2011 5:05 pm

    Thanks for this ADM, and I'm sorry I'm so late to the party. I think you (and Digger) are right that "oppression" is perhaps not an entirely useful word for the premodern period for a number of reasons. Some are the reasons that Digger suggests, which is that people all too often (mostly incorrectly) hear "oppression" as positing that power works uniformly and unidirectionally (and most people rightly suspect that that's too simplistic.) But your comments make me think about the ways in which the word "oppression" is rooted in a very modern human-rights sensibility that probably doesn't make sense for your time period (or even for much of the period I work in.) Perhaps we should reach for some Marxist language like "exploitation," which to my ears puts a little less weight on the intention of individuals and more emphasis on the systemic nature of differential power relations. Most people in the worlds we study were exploited to some degree–but we can acknowledge that some were more exploited than others, and that some exploited people exploited others.Maybe your readers will disagree–I'm not married to "exploitation" and would welcome other ideas for a new vocabulary.

  8. 20 July, 2011 5:15 pm

    Oh, and on your point that "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."A qualified agreement: (We can hardly "impose" on the dead, can we? They are long past any worldly impositions, I should think.) Yes, we need to understand the worlds we have lost instead of *merely* passing easy judgments on them. But in the end, I think it's perfectly fair for a historian to judge a past world and its values. And I also think it's perfectly fine–if not indeed completely unavoidable–to think and write about the past in ways it never even would have occured to past actors. I had a professor in grad school who interrupted our wishy-washy social & cultural history fantasies about "wanting to understand the past on its own terms" by asking if we really wanted to write books about wheat, the weather, and Free Will. "What did those people think about all day long, and should we really care?" His point was that history is written for the present, and I agree with him.Hellz to the yes on the "Roman invasions," BTW. Back when Anglophone protestants in this country were reflexively anti-Catholic (in the 17th and 18thC), they used that kind of language about the cruelties and exploitations of Rome. Check out yer Cotton Mather–he can lead the way on this revision, again!

  9. 20 July, 2011 5:38 pm

    As with Guy's paper, I think that we have competing responsibilities here: to the truth and to our politics. It is possible, though I hope not often, for these to pull in opposite directions. I get this most with medieval sexual ethics: being something of a hippy with a queer-friendly social group, medieval assumptions about homosexuality I find really bothersome. But it was the way it was.As for the patriarchal equilibrium, isn't the enemy case here not "hey so feminism is a lie", but the golden-age feminism that harks back to a time when women weren't oppressed? I realise that case's falsehood then becomes a stick to beat feminism with, but the actual opponents of equality will need more to make a fire with than just whatever tinder your search for accuracy can give them coincidentally to its main purpose.

  10. 21 July, 2011 7:16 pm

    I think the enemy is both, Jonathan. And for everybody — it's not that I am seeking to deny oppression, or anything else like that. I'm just wondering how useful the current framework is.The thing is, I accept that studying women is still seen as political, although it shouldn't be. BUT, I also think of it as filling out a bigger picture as much as anything else. Is that political? kind of. I guess. But it shouldn't be, should it? Shouldn't we want our history to be based on the greatest amount of data available? So yes, it's a corrective to our picture. And yes, it's political, I suppose, because it challenges a traditional sort of history that focuses on elite males. BUT, on the other hand, my feeling is that in general, mainstream historians all accept that studying women, minorities, etc., are as "normal" and acceptable* as any other history. This is especially true for those people who are using traditional documentary sources, especially the diplomatics stuff, to show more about society in general. BUT, on the other other hand, it's clear that, by not having their works key-worded as women's history, or even gender history, the growing corpus of information on women's activities isn't making it to women's history. SO… is this proof that the unwillingness to cater to the women's history market is in itself a political statement? Maybe, but I don't think so, mostly because the people doing it (especially the grandes dames) are pretty feminist, IMO. Is it because they have overestimated the acceptance of talking about women's stuff? Maybe.Is it, as magistra mentioned in a conversation with me, because they don't want to be pigeonholed only as women's historians, because it might affect how they look on the job market? I think that's possible, and would therefore point to a more limited acceptance of women's history — which again makes it more political, but not in the minds of the people of the past (so to speak), but in the power structures of academia in the present. And that simply pisses me off. And that isn't even getting to the part where the general women's history textbooks on the EMA in English are at best years out of date, and commonly just crap. I need to look more closely at the HWG book — would it be worth translating, I wonder?

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