Sunday, March 22, 2009

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.


Historiann said...

ADM--this is a really fascinating post. I think your question about continuity--essentially, how far can we go?--is spot on.

I also really find your point about the place of natal families interesting, too. Your description of family and property in the very early West (Rome, late Antiquity, and the early middle ages) resonates with my understanding about Native American women's history in the colonial period. Kinship (by blood and fictive kin relations) is much more important than marriage, and maternal uncles among some Native Americans are much more important than fathers or husbands, and there was no real way to abstain from marriage for all of one's life. Besides that, continuity seems like a hard sell when we look at (for example) Indian women's lives pre- and post-1492. This doesn't mean that Bennett's insights have no value--but your comments here push us to consider women's lives that weren't lived in the English-speaking urban world in the past 600 years.

Susan said...

I've been musing about this for the past few hours, trying to control my instinctive desire to respond immediately. So a few thoughts here.

First, with change and continuity, I think one of the things that we need to do is find ways of helping students understand that different does always mean significant change. I think that's how the legal stuff needs to be worked. That is, change is not the same as transformation. Here we struggle with the tendency of students to be so black and white in their thinking.

I do think legal structures are an interesting way of thinking about issues of change and continuity, because different structures provide different kinds of agency for women. None of them are straightforward. And they might help students think in more complex ways about change.

I really like the idea of thinking about birth families. They are harder to track, at least in late medieval England, but you're right that it would be worth thinking about more.

The one thing I'd like to argue with you on is about history as political. It seems to me that it is political by its very nature. That is, every choice we make about what's important (or not) has political implications. In this sense it's not (for me at least) about advancing a particular agenda, but that if I have these values, this is the way I should write/teach; these things need to be valued/honored/named etc. This is a fairly expansive definition of political, I realize, but it does work. To say this does not mean that I don't value political or legal history, for instance, which often excludes women. But you can write about such subjects aware of how gender is shaping what is happening, even if women are nowhere in sight. And also how the informal as well as formal structures of power and politics operate. (I hate the almost formulaic "women, of course, were allowed no where near political power...", since by saying this the writer absolves himself from thinking about gender.)

Janice said...

Excellent post! I loved that you were drawn to the same question that I've been toying with -- how do we understand and use this concept of a patriarchal equilibrium? I think that's a useful idea as it permits us to use both change and continuity without privileging one or the other, exclusively and endlessly.

Despite the endurance of the wage gap, the history of women's working lives has changed in many other ways from 1300 to today -- there is some transformation occurring alongside the continuity, obviously. And when we sift into regional questions, as well as change over time, the picture becomes even murkier (to my mind, more interesting as it gives us new fodder for debate).

This post came as I'm prepping to lead a class on gender history in the Renaissance, contrasting the viewpoints of Christiane Klapisch-Zuber (advocating continuity) and Stanley Chojnacki (advocating change) on the agency of elite women. Now, I could run right up the middle of this and say "Remember reading Joan Kelly?" and deny the value of elite women's history, entirely, but how helpful is that? Not at all.

Moreover, I'm missing the chance to have them look for a middle way between the extremes -- what are the sources and questions that each historian is using? What might they be missing by not using the types of sources or questions that the other has employed? Can we assume that there's a better history that allows for some of what Chojnacki sees as well as the analysis of Klapisch-Zuber? In other words, the equilibrium might be there, between the extremes of the historical tidbits that scholars tend to fixate on in our micro-histories and articles. But we can't confuse equilibrium with stasis (and that's a concept that I'm pretty sure is too advanced for any of my sophomore students).

In the end, I'm hoping to lead them to a point where they can see the strengths and weaknesses of each argument but, more importantly, here, that they'll also see how central the questions of gender history are to our understanding of so many elements in economic, political, social and cultural history. That women's history isn't just a little colour added to the traditional narrative, nor is it a solidly progressive or regressive path, nor even a steady-state of ahistorical balance but something much more complicated and human, like all good histories.

Magistra said...

On the question of continuity v change, one of the key questions is what finding continuity in women’s history is intended to do. I’ve suggested elsewhere that for Bennett continuity is not only about a deeper knowledge of women’s history, but it’s connecting history to feminist action: you should care about oppression of women in the past because the same thing is still happening now. The problem is for that you need not just centuries of continuity, but centuries of continuity that include the present day: it’s no good showing continuity from 1400-1900 to young feminists who thinks nothing before 1950 counts. And it is difficult to find that kind of continuity: it’s hard to argue that modern Western women are still the legal property of men, for example. If you’re looking for continuity for the purposes of university teaching, it’s revealing to look at the shame of the adulteress from the New Testament to the early twentieth century (I’ve just been reading ‘East Lynne’, which is why that comes to mind). But that is unlikely to resonate with many feminists in the 21st century west.

I don’t think the problem of finding such continuities necessarily invalidates the concept of the patriarchal equilibrium, because it may be like the old joke about Anne Boleyn’s axe. A tourist at the Tower of London gets shown the axe with which Anne Boleyn was executed. Is it the original? Yes, but the blades’s been replaced once or twice and so has the handle...The individual components of the patriarchal system can all have been changed substantially while the overall system still keeps going. But in terms of individual classical/medieval institutions that survive to this day you’re looking at the Catholic and Orthodox churches and monogamous marriage and not a lot more.

On the issue of birth families that ADM mentioned, I think there are interesting differences between societies on this, and particularly the unfamiliar classical Roman model in which the wife was not actually a member of the husband’s ‘family’. (On the specific historiography of this, Kate Cooper has argued that Christian attempts to strengthen the marriage bond in the fourth to sixth centuries were partly aimed at breaking a classical pattern in which the real alliance was of a man to his father-in-law via his wife).

It’s interesting how Bennett in her chapter on teaching makes rather more of the teaching possibilities of change and discontinuity. Because the limited teaching I’ve done has focused on gender, this discontinuity has been particularly useful for me: I’ve been trying to show students that the ‘natural ideas’ about what women are like are historically contingent. (My favourite one is the change in ‘scientific’ opinion from the view that women are naturally more lustful than men (classical/medieval/early modern periods) to the view that men are naturally more lustful than women (modern).

Anonymous said...

"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."

In reference to this statement, I don't think using historical data to influence how our students deal with the here and now has anything to do with positing continuity between some historical epoch and the present. The connection between them exists in the mind of the observer--whether historian or otherwise--and the juxtaposition of here and now, by virtue of both similarities and differences, can be exploited to produce insight.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Susan -- I do agree that history is political in the way you say it is, and I agree that our politics often shape our own historical interests. But I also like to think that we can be aware of those things, and try to make sure that we are also presenting counter-arguments and are covering areas we don't care as much about.

I know that in World Civ I focus on some themes over and over again. I tend to talk about empires and colonialism and avenues to power,class and how class is defined, and different conceptions of power and gender a lot. And in those discussions, I tend to talk a lot about the Other. Those things are especially true in the modern half.

Put like that, I admit it sounds pretty political. It feels less that way in the first half of the course, because there is such chronological distance. The second half is almost contemporary, though, and students want to draw many more direct connections.

But in other courses, the focus might be different. In Ren-Ref, there's a lot of intellectual stuff, and lots of time on confessionalization, and even some basic theology, and not nearly as much on gender as I'd like.

I don't know what it means, really, but I do think it's possible to teach without letting one's own politics and interests entirely dictate what we do.

Anastasia -- My problem with the observer juxtapositioning the here and now with the past is the issue of presentism that TR brought up in her post and that Bennett also addresses. There is often a tendency for students to compare with the assumption that the present is better, and more advanced. Whatever that means. And I'm very, very leery of exploiting students' desire to connect the present with the very distant past in ways that ignore or deny things like context.

Anonymous said...

One thing that has sprung to my mind again and again while reading these discussions is the book by Wendy Davies I recently read, which in the context of donations of land in tenth-century Spain does spend a while looking at the gender distribution of those involved. Her conclusion is that women act alone in those documents in about a sixth of cases, if I remember rightly, and men alone only in two-sixths; this is because a full half of donations are made by a couple. It doesn't seem to me that this is as simple as whose property it was, from which side of the marriage it had come and so on. It makes more sense, as has been done, to remind the reader that under the Visigothic law that still ran there the wife was entitled, during the marriage and after it until her death, to a tenth of the husband's property, and so if this division was not specifically made during life she had a tenth share in all decisions about how to dispose land. But this implies a participation in that process that itself implies interaction between men and women as, if not equals, partners with shared interests, else why have the wives participate at all? Their voice is apparently necessary, which implies a kind of respect of their interests, however much that might be squashed, confined or prescribed. I think that this sharing of interests can get lost in the opposed space between unreformed patriarchal history and the more ardent feminist thought.

We've talked elsewhere in these discussions about how hard it is to find a female-only space in the Middle Ages, but I wonder if we think enough about shared space and how individual couples might have balanced the power in them, then indeed as now. That could be one sort of continuity or discontinuity (much less discontinuous if we avoid considering the Victorian/Edwardian English gentry and upper class as representative I'd hazard), and a very human one too.

Historiann said...

Susan wrote, "with change and continuity, I think one of the things that we need to do is find ways of helping students understand that different does always mean significant change. I think that's how the legal stuff needs to be worked. That is, change is not the same as transformation."

I like this--why not have it both ways? Perhaps it's not just our students' thinking that can be black and white! This is especially useful I think for explaining why and how watershed events according to a traditional historical timeline--the Reformation, or in my field, the American Revolution--are clearly important and transformative for some, but perhaps not so much for others. (Or they're transformative for others, but not in a Whig Narrative fashion--these transformations meant loss and increased suffering for many people.)

Anonymous said...

"And I'm very, very leery of exploiting students' desire to connect the present with the very distant past in ways that ignore or deny things like context."

I'm not talking about denying context. I'm also not talking about exploiting student's desire to connect with the present. I'm talking about using the juxtaposition of dissimilar elements to produce disciplined insights into human realities.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Anastasia -- it sounds nice, but how do you get those disciplined insights? And whose human realities are we talking about? My human reality stops at, for example, Bennett's illustrations of the wage differential. I hope that students will click on that and see it as part of a longer term problem that they might want to think about, if they really buy into ideas of equality and equity. But I don't think it's my job as a history professor to tell them what to do about human realities.

Anonymous said...

I think I'm with Anastasia on this one, in that what she describes is kind of my whole justification for studying what I studied and teaching what I taught. I always felt that teaching (say) gender in the Middle Ages was important because it gave us ways to think about gender in other contexts, including the present - not because medieval gender connected directly with present gender, in the sense that the one caused the other, or that one was better/worse than the other. I just figured that the more you analyze a given issue/topic in a given time, and the more you understand how that issue was/wasn't connected to its particular time/place, the more mental frameworks people have for dealing with the contemporary issue. (This is beyond the other kinds of skills of reading/writing/etc. that studying history provides.)

A very simplistic example is reading medieval misogynistic texts in my women's history class, and many of my women students seeing similarities between the medieval and the present day. They weren't saying, "the medieval misogyny caused the modern ideas" in any direct, simplistic way. But recognizing that there were similarities gave them a new way to think about the kinds of misogyny they encountered in their own day (maybe a better sense of how religious ideologies might play a role, or the importance of who gets to write things down, stuff like that).

I don't think Anastasia was at all suggesting the professor tells students what to do about human realities. (I know Anastasia teaches about death - I'd bet that juxtaposing different cultures' approaches to death, especially with modern approaches, would get students to think more deeply about what it actually means to die - a basic human reality. That's very different from telling students what to do about that reality.)

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Thanks, NK -- I was really unclear on how that worked, but now I think we're pretty much in agreement. I would use 'the human condition' rather than 'human realities' -- and yeah, the more, and more different, experiences we are exposed to, the more we think. But I have still often -- more often than not -- run across students who looked at, say, misogyny in the past and their first reaction is the same as it is when looking at other cultures in the present: "Well, at least WE aren't like that!" And it's that linking in a presentist, self-congratulatory fashion that I'm leery of.

Anonymous said...

Well, yes, but that's why they take our classes, so we can point out there's more to it than "WE aren't like that!" :-)