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History and Women

Elizabeth Down discusses the representation of women in the EWH1 module, and why historians still aren’t getting it right on gender.

Tutors say that the goal of the ‘Approaches’ paper in first year is to make you think differently about the study of history. Studying gender as part of this module undoubtedly has done this, such that I can no longer think about my other papers in the same way.

I found EWH1, which covers European and World History in the period from 370-900, particularly interesting. It lacks female representation in both the content and on the reading lists, and the way that women are discussed is troubling when it does happen. This is perhaps slightly inevitable in a period lacking sources generally, a problem that is amplified when considering women. However, the fact that these issues are noticeable beyond these limitations makes the problems in the paper all the more pressing.

The first issue is the representation of women on the reading lists. The proportion of women on our reading lists varied hugely, from only 4% of women historians to 60%, perhaps unsurprisingly for the gender essay. The average across seven reading lists was only 19%. Of course, this is a problem in itself, but not necessarily a pressing one, and something that I think is more importantly indicative of wider problems with scholarship in the period; that it is largely male. It is, after all, easier to hide a gender imbalance on a reading list when you’re only using initials. Perhaps this shouldn’t be too surprising, considering the fact that women were only granted entrance to academia relatively recently – a fact that is brought home even more by the fact that my 756-year-old college is celebrating the fortieth anniversary of the admission of women undergraduates this year.

My tutorial partner ended up keep a tally of the number of named women we encountered in reading for our tutorial essays, with the number never leaving the single digits

The second issue is the representation of women within the topics. This one is impacted more by the general source issues in the period, but nevertheless there are larger problems. My tutorial partner ended up keeping a tally of the number of named women we encountered in reading for our tutorial essays, with the number never leaving the single digits. Initially, I was unsure if this was only an issue perhaps in the essay topics I had picked, or perhaps in the reading lists given to us. However, this was a sentiment commonly expressed amongst the undergraduates I consulted. Katie Hobson, a first year at St Anne’s College, stated that ‘women were very briefly discussed, almost like background characters.’

The only essay where they are really given any notice was the gender essay, which made clear the fact that there were prominent women in previous topics who had simply never been discussed.

However, even when women were discussed, it was most often in the context of sexual violence or kidnapping. ‘Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness’, a report by an envoy from Baghdad who encounters a party of Viking traders, was a key text for the module and often referenced in historian’s work. It included extremely graphic sexual and physical violence against slave women in Viking ceremonies, and yet this rarely seemed to be discussed in secondary texts except for as evidence of Viking funeral rites. There was little to no mention of the humanity of the women involved and no acknowledgement of the extreme cruelty that made it difficult to read. Even our lecture in Hilary term on the Vikings made reference to the fact that Viking trade was largely based on the enslavement of countless women, but referred to these slaves in much the same way as goods like amber and furs. This was a common theme in the debate over whether Vikings were ‘traders or raiders,’ especially amongst arguing that they were (the much more neutral sounding) traders. The most shocking part of this for me is the fact that these historians could very easily just ignore or discount the suffering of women if they wished to for the sake of their argument.

The fact that most modules seem to have a token ‘women and gender’ essay instead of integrating gender history into their other essays is an issue

These are problems which exist in almost all aspects of historical study, even if they do seem particularly obvious in a period with relatively few original sources. I should also add that this is not necessarily a criticism of the EWH1 paper, or the Faculty, but instead of issues in the period generally. With that being said, the fact that most modules seem to have a token ‘women and gender’ essay instead of integrating gender history into their other essays is an issue; women should be included more in other essays, and how men interact with gender in any given period can be examined, even if it’s a topic with relatively few women.

The good news is that this situation is improving. There are many historians publishing work on the period, discussing women’s and gender history, and evaluating and criticising the current historiography. Ongoing efforts to make the history course more inclusive have found success, with the expansion of the European paper to include the rest of the world, and students required to take a non- European paper in their degree. Hopefully, these changes can also account for gender. However, these are not separate issues, as one student pointed out; having requested to mostly study Asia during the period, they found women to be represented and discussed far more often than students who had mostly been confined to Europe. This indicates that the problem is perhaps not with the period but its Eurocentric nature, despite the recent expansion to include non-European topics.

Regardless, the EWH1 module has a long way to go, but discussions about these issues seem like a good place to start.

Read more about women in history here.

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