Writing Women into History

As it is Women’s History Month we’re looking at how women’s history is represented in different media. Here, our very own Lauren Johnson discusses why she didn’t include a chapter about women in her latest book…

So Great a Prince FINAL artBefore I started writing my latest book (So Great a Prince: England and the Accession of Henry VIII, out now, sorry, getting the plug out the way early) I made one big decision: it would not include a chapter dedicated to women.

This isn’t because I don’t think women deserve a chapter all to themselves – women deserve all the chapters. A chapter for every one, as far as I’m concerned. I bloody love historical women. I’ve been trying to fill the gender gaps in my knowledge of the past since I was a kid, and not always with the greatest of ease. At university I was met with mild bewilderment every time – at least once a term – I asked to do a paper on women’s or gender history as part of my period of study. One tutor was so startled at the prospect of teaching me about medieval women that he grasped about for a couple of female mystics and left it at that. Not tremendously representative of general experience, it must be said.

No, the reason I denied women this chapter is because it is my firm belief that:

History should – must – always did – involve both men and women.

 

Women deserve more than being relegated to a sparse twenty pages, in which all of them – from migrant apprentices to pawn princesses – are lumped together as a single entity. No queen in history would have considered herself comparable to a washerwoman. Female CEOs today still probably have more in common with other managers than they do with their cleaners. Obviously there are biological facts that remain common, but the experience of periods, childbirth and pregnancy would have varied enormously depending on a woman’s class and status.

Instead, I set out very deliberately to use female examples of general historical experiences. Looking for a middle class parent? Clear off John Middleton, I’ll use your wife Alice instead. Want someone who trained apprentices and kept servants? Hello Thomasine Percyvale (nee Bonaventure – she demanded attention for that brilliant name alone). In this age of burgeoning new learning and ‘heresy’, yes I will pay you attention, Joan Warde.

Alice Middleton wikimedia.jpg

Alice Middleton in later life (Wikimedia Commons)

I won’t lie, this made my life harder. Women’s identities are obscured in historical sources at the best of times and the late medieval period is far from the best (although it’s a lot easier than the early Middle Ages, so that’s a boon). Chronicles occasionally mention a queen or heretic but they were written by men about prominent public figures and so largely concern themselves with other men. Guild archives refer to women but often just as ‘so and so’s wife’. Married women could only write wills with their husband’s permission and many working class men and women were still dying intestate. Legal records brim with female criminals or those fighting for their rights, but these women pop into existence for the duration of the case and then promptly disappear again (and that’s if enough of the case survives to fully work out what was going on). Religious theory? Medical texts? Decidedly problematic.

After all this effort meticulously researching, carefully selecting and then writing my women into the wider narrative, it was with some dismay that I read the proofs of my index and found it’s full of bloody men! Flicking back through the book, my anxieties were slightly allayed. A number of women pop up alongside men, but are not indexed due to the brevity of their appearance. And the index entry for old Thomasine lists almost a dozen appearances. (As a wealthy widowed tailor who left a will, she provided me with an enormous amount of anecdotal detail – I even know her horse’s saddle was made of blue velvet.)

The relative sparsity of female figures in the final book – they make up less than half the total characters who appear – does not make me regret the approach I took. Without the often engrossing, occasionally frustrating, effort taken to dig out these women, I would have had an easier time but a much less rounded book. I also, whether I fail or (hopefully) succeed, feel it is my duty to try and find these women. Not because I am a woman or a feminist or because I personally find women’s stories fascinating – although all of these things are true – but because I’m a historian. History has always involved both men and women. If we only tell the story of one half of the population, we are missing a huge part of the picture. Let’s not just write women’s history in single chapters or consign it to the ‘women’s history’ corner of the bookshop. Let’s tell it in all our history books.

Let’s make all our stories History.

 

©Photo. R.M.N. / R.-G. OjŽda

©Photo. R.M.N. / R.-G. OjŽda (wikimedia commons)

 

 

This piece was originally posted at Lauren’s blog on International Women’s Day 2016.

Lauren tweets at @History_lauren and her website is Lauren-Johnson.com

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