History Matters 2: Change and continuity in feminist history

One of Judith Bennett’s main arguments in History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006) is that historians of women have overstressed change rather than continuity in women’s history. She attributes this to a variety of factors (pp. 65-71): a rejection of the simplistic continuities in 1970s feminist histories, historians professionally trained to find change, a desire to show that women were not timelessly outside history, and a sense as modern feminists that past changes showed that present changes were possible. All these are important points and Bennett is right to call for looking at the evidence of continuity more carefully. But her own stressing of continuity, however evidentially-based, can’t escape the fact that it’s also politically/ideologically based.

Bennett’s stressing of continuity is fundamental to her claim that history is important to modern feminists. Implicitly it is an answer to the feminist non-historian’s question: ‘Now that I know that women were oppressed in the ninth century (or the thirteenth or the nineteenth) what difference does it make?’ It is only if you argue for continuity that you can say: ‘because it is the same kind of oppression women suffer today’.

The problem for Bennett is that she may be able to make a convincing argument that women’s work didn’t change much from 1300-1700, but to many non-historians that is akin to saying that the very distant past isn’t like the distant past: literally, of academic interest only. For her to show medieval history to be relevant to feminists, she has to demonstrate this kind of continuity in aspects of women’s status from medieval times through to the present day, and that is exceptionally difficult. (If you argue for continuity on the basis simply of women’s inferior status to men, you’re back to arguing for 5000+ years of continuity and women being effectively ‘outside’ history: the patriarchy seems to go back into pre-history).

Bennett has mixed success in finding these 500-1000 year continuities. Her chapter on women’s work (chapter 5) does seem to me very effective in arguing not just for continuity in unequal wages, but for the persistent characteristics of women’s work (p 95): ‘It tended to be low-skilled; it usually yielded low remuneration in terms of either wages or profits; it was regarded with low esteem; it was work that combined easily with a wide variety of other tasks or remunerative work’. For a contemporary take on this, just look at this recent article comparing the wages of public sector classroom assistants and grave-diggers.

Bennett’s second case-study of very long-term continuity, however, on lesbian history (chapter 6) seems to me far less successful. In terms of actual continuity, lesbians have always existed (using the term in its common meaning as women who have sex with other women). The problem is that we have even less evidence for medieval lesbians than we have for medieval gays (and that’s not a lot): Bennett hasn’t been able to find a single specific medieval lesbian from before 1295 (p 191).

At this point, Bennett could do what some scholars of gay and lesbian history have done and start focusing instead on texts which seem to show homoerotic desires, but she’s a paid-up member of the Campaign for Socio-Economic History and she wants real flesh and blood people. Unfortunately I think she may be looking for historical lesbians in all the wrong places.

Bennett’s solution to the lack of known lesbians is to create the term ‘lesbian-like’ (p 117), into which she wants to incorporate women who ‘lived in ways that offer affinities with modern lesbians – such as sexual rebels, gender rebels, marriage-resisters, cross-dressers, singlewomen, and women who found special sustenance in female worlds of love and ritual’. This seems to me to be going against Bennett’s normal care to use language in its ordinary sense (which makes her book one of the clearest written works of feminist history I’ve read for a while), but more importantly misleadingly conflates female radicalism and sexual desire.

If you take her checklist of traits, then you have to conclude that one of the most lesbian-like women in the whole Middle Ages is Heloise (who fits 4 or 5 out of 6 of these characteristics as sexual rebel and marriage resister and as a long-term (probably) single scholar; whether she found sustenance in the community of Argenteuil is more debatable). And yet she’s probably also the medieval woman about whose enduring heterosexual desire we are best informed, because we know it from her own words. On the other hand, I think it’s likely that there were women in the Middle Ages whose lives were socially unremarkable and who did not challenge the patriarchy in any way, except that they were women who loved women. Laurence Poitivin and Jehanne Goula, for example (p 121) don’t seem terribly socially rebellious apart from in their sexual activity. Although it’s always slightly problematic drawing parallels between gay men and lesbians in history, Alan Bray has suggested how early modern ‘sodomites’ went unsuspected precisely because their behaviour was not unusual in any other way: apart from their sexual behaviour, they were ‘respectable’ men, not rebels or outsiders.

If you step outside Bennett’s preferences on socio-economic history, ironically, you can find some even longer-term continuities: in Christian theology, for example, and in a tradition of misogynistic writing that goes back to classical times. But as Bennett says in her chapter on teaching history (Chapter 7, which seems to me to be noticeably less radical than her other chapters), the study of the medieval past also encourages students (p 151) ‘to acknowledge the powerful differences between ourselves and those long dead.’ I think it’s worth looking for these extremely long examples of continuity in women’s lives: fifty years ago, Keith Thomas did an excellent article on ‘The Double Standard’ (Journal of the History of Ideas 20 (1959), 195-216) that ranged over English history from the Anglo-Saxon period to the twentieth century. But too great an emphasis on continuity as a principle in women’s history may mislead us as much as emphasis on change as a principle in women’s history.

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