Gender versus class in women’s history

Anyone working on the history of women has at some point to consider the problem of social class and how much priority to give it. Does it make sense to stress the commonality of women’s experience across class barriers, or is that a denial of socio-economic realities? Does focusing on class end up with producing a work which is more Marxist than feminist? There are different ways of approaching the question and I’m not sure that there’s one right answer. But reading Lisa Bitel, ‘Women in early medieval Europe, 400-1100’(CUP, 2002), I’m fairly sure that there are some wrong answers. Bitel seems to me to set up a framework that is deeply misleading (if technically correct) right at the start of the book, when she says (pp 2-3)

This book is also about men. More men than women were literate in medieval Europe, hence men wrote most of what we know about medieval women. They decided who should enter the historical documents…They wrote stories and expressed opinions about women, generated rules for how women should behave, and decided what was to happen when a woman erred. They were also the lords, warriors and ecclesiastics who governed medieval societies and their religions. They owned most of the property and conducted most of the business.

For the early medieval period, saying that seems to me just stupid, giving a coherence to men as a group that is completely unwarranted. And the same tendency to surreptitiously slide ‘men’ into meaning ‘upper class men’ and ‘women’ into meaning ‘lower class women’ is repeatedly visible. Bitel also says, for example (p 14): ‘The causes of Rome’s fall concern us here as little as they probably bothered most women in the early fifth century’ and (p 30): ‘The average woman was no Latinized aristocrat, Frankish queen, or educated nun.’ Then she promptly starts using St Genevieve and Radegund as evidence, because though it’s perfectly reasonable philosophically to write a book about early medieval women which focuses on peasant women, the fact is we don’t have much evidence about them.

Bitel’s failures in the book have got me wondering whether it does make sense to treat ‘women’ as a fundamental category in early medieval history, which takes priority over all other social facts, and I’m less and less convinced it does. The best argument for women’s common experience is probably in considering their life-cycle, but even here, it seems to me that religious women’s life-cycles are substantially different: maternity is not key for them. (This also has a big impact on the risks to their health from childbirth, which is another characteristic that secular women of all classes share). All women shared legal disabilities, but some still had more rights than many men. The economic disadvantages of women didn’t prevent some being richer and more powerful than most men. Even if you want to talk about images of women, the universal misogynistic clichés about women’s behaviour don’t seem as potent in the earlier medieval period as later in the Middle Ages.

I think it’s perfectly possible to give priority to class in the early Middle Ages and still maintain that women were systematically discriminated against: at every social level they did less well than men. One of the neatest illustrations of this is an article by Jane Martindale: ‘The nun Immena and foundation of the abbey of Beaulieu: a woman’s prospects in the Carolingian church’. In Women in the church. Papers read at the 1989 summer meeting and the 1990 winter meeting of the Ecclesiastical History Society, edited by W. J. Sheils and D. Wood. Oxford: Blackwell (1990), pp. 27-42. This examines the career of a noble brother and sister (thus with an identical socio-economic background) and shows how many additional options and privileges Rodulf (who became Archbishop of Bourges) had than sister Immena, who was an abbess. The limits even for privileged women become very clear here.

For exploring other historical times and places it may well make sense to prioritise gender over class: I suspect that in modern Saudi Arabia women of all social standings have more in common with each other than with men of their own socio-economic class. And one of the classic suffragette posters contrasted the inability of professional women to vote with that of marginal/criminal men. But for my period, trying to produce women’s history that doesn’t carefully and explicitly separate out different kinds of women seems liable to produce a deeply unhelpful result.

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3 thoughts on “Gender versus class in women’s history

  1. I owe you a glass of wine at the next IHR seminar where we coincide for that Martindale reference; Beaulieu keeps coming up in my work on family archives in monasteries and some up-to-date prosopography on that bunch is just what I need.

    In return, I would say to this thatI believe dimly that it matches certain anthropological perspectives that stress the uselessness of binary gender categories for more or less this sort of reason, that gender rôles change so massively over the life-cycle that the social expectations of a person have less similarity to someone of the same sex at a different stage of the cycle than they do across sexes at a similar stage. This kind of work therefore argues that gender should be disconnected from sex and allowed to function on its own as a social totem. I don’t know where you’d find such work offhand–Googling produces references to Robert Munroe, John Whiting & David Hally, “Institutionalized male transvestism and sex distinction” in American Anthropologist Vol. 71 (1969), pp. 87-91, cited in William Jankowiak, “Gender” in Thomas Barfield (ed.), The Dictionary of Anthropology (Oxford: Blackwell 1997), pp. 217-220, which might be a start, but I can probably get better references from my usual sources if they would help.

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