Is Women’s History Passé? Only if Women are

Men have not existed in a vacuum for centuries. Female experiences can present us with an alternative narrative that is relevant and fascinating. The study of women’s history is as significant as the study of women’s lives today.

In an online discussion group recently, I was told that women did not play “significant” roles in the past. That’s a pretty sweeping statement. It’s also a fairly reductive one. Part of the problem is that the women of previous centuries are often invisible beside their menfolk; the further you go back, the less their voices can be heard. Beside the tiny percentage who repeatedly feature in BBC documentaries or whose status ensured their names survived, many women went unrecorded in the official male-authored documentation of their day. However, this does not mean they were not there or that they were unimportant. Men have not existed in a vacuum for centuries and as wives, mothers, sisters and daughters, as well as in the independent positions tolerated by religion and business, female experiences can present us with an alternative narrative that is relevant and fascinating. In fact, the majority of women spent their days facilitating those whom history has deemed to be important. That in itself is a significant achievement.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not taking a “Feminist” approach. I was also informed in this group that Feminist History, bracketed along with Marxism, was considered passé in academia. I quite accept this may be the case. But then, I don’t feel that such emotive labels are always helpful and have found the semantics of nomenclature to frequently obscure the real questions. So I stay away from it. I’d rather spend my time discussing medieval women, because that is what interests me. And that’s the bottom line; I find the lives of women in the past fascinating, perhaps because I am a historian who also happens to be a woman. Quite a few other women I’ve spoken to also enjoy it as well as a number of men. At the moment, there even seems to be quite a buoyant market for biographies and female studies, like Sarah Gristwood’s “Blood Sisters” and Helen Castor’s “She Wolves,” recently the subject of a BBC documentary. Yet it was only really in the twentieth century that historical narratives embraced women, children, ethnic groups and others who had hitherto languished in the margins. It’s a comparatively new discipline, with centuries of balance to redress. Rather than being obsolete, women’s history is still in its infancy.

In spite of this plethora of books to suggest the contrary, women’s history is not a topic that interests everyone. But insignificant? That would be to write off half of our history. And how exactly would the human race have continued without women? Equally, it is just as reductive to pretend they had an influence beyond that determined by their sphere; we can’t rewrite history to pander to modern sensibilities but it would be wrong to underestimate the intelligence, ambition and abilities of the wives, mothers and daughters of the past. Personally, I love the minutae of women’s daily lives, the details of their routines, the decisions and dangers they faced, the balance of spiritual and bodily experiences, at all ages and stages of life. Because they did have lives and that in itself makes them significant. I bet those lives were significant to them, too.

This question goes hand-in-hand with attitudes towards women’s work. If they were not sitting in Parliament, training as lawyers or doctors, hunting the hart, jousting or fighting in battle or writing great works of literature, what were medieval females doing? It’s the age-old prejudice about the validity of childrearing and domesticity again; someone had to wash the medieval dishes (or rub them with sand.) Someone had to cook and clean, milk the cow and make the clothes. One sermon of 1470 advised wives that without their help, men their husbands would sleep “in a pit,” with the “sheets never changed until they are torn.” They should also pick up the melon rinds, bones and salad peelings which he dropped on the floor and wash his feet.

 I’m not suggesting that men didn’t do these things, only that historically, labour was largely divided along these lines. Illuminated manuscripts do also depict rare images of women acting as stonemasons, artists, doctors, teachers, hunters and engaged in trade. Who is to judge that their contributions were of any greater significance than that of a mother, or that the application of the mind helped shape the past more decisively than the creation of a new life? Traditionally, the maternal and domestic roles have been dismissed by many scholars as not of interest or worthy of study. Yet we only need to look at the lives of Henry VIII’s wives to see how important female fertility and pregnancy were to the nation and its King.

No woman was more significant that the medieval queen. Even the extent of their power is disputable though, as they were more often a symbolic, ceremonial head of state rather that an active player in politics. Medieval literature has much to say about queenship as the accessible, charitable and pacific counter to their warlike king. Christine de Pisan’s works are full of the desirable qualities to which women in power should aspire, such as piety and discretion. If Eleanor of Aquitaine and Isabella of France, Margaret of Anjou and Elizabeth Wydeville had not deviated from this “ideal” regal role, they would not have attracted so much contemporary censure. Whilst Isabella and Eleanor openly rebelled against their husbands and Margaret raised armies in the name of Henry VI, Elizabeth’s role was more subtle. Her hold over Edward IV led to accusations of the country being run through “pillow-talk” and sexual favours. No doubt she did exert an influence on her husband behind the scenes, as did many women, but this was because there was not a valid arena for them to do so publicly. When they did try to exert themselves to protect their dynasty or the inheritance of their children, they were accused of being manly, warlike and unnatural.

So what exactly did a medieval woman have to do to be “significant”? It seems she has to feature somewhere on a scale of male achievement or be recorded in literature dominated by men. And for a twenty-first century historian, isn’t that a rather anachronistic way of looking at their lives? I’m not claiming they had super powers or ascribing to them any abilities or influence they did not have. But that in itself is interesting to me, the study of how women existed and managed their lives within such restrictive perimeters. Wonderful examples crop up in legal records of vociferous females speaking their minds, such as the woman in 1503 who called a statue of the Virgin Mary a “burned-tailed imp” or the Canterbury girl who claimed she could produce “piss” that was better than the Cathedral’s holy water. These flashes indicate a significant spirit and bravery. Set beside those Protestant women who were publicly martyred during the reign of Mary I, there are the thousands who were recorded for recusancy, for failing to attend church under Elizabeth I. Perhaps this was out of laziness, or exhaustion; perhaps they were ill or nursing children. Or just perhaps it was a silent protest against religious reforms.

I like my history to be inclusive. But there is a lot of it and my time is finite, so I chose to specialise. I am interested in women in particular but also in men’s lives, actions, motivation and experiences in the past; in fact, I don’t think we can divorce the two. The symbiotic relationship of the sexes means that women’s roles can never have been insignificant. They have been essential in the lives of men whose actions have been taken to form the backbone of a narrative stretching back for centuries. Yet there are other narratives to be told, alternative stories that prioritise the voiceless. “Feminism” as a term is still evolving; recent books by Natasha Walter and Ariel Levy, Naomi Woolf and Laurie Penny document its latest phase. It does not mean now what it did in the 1920s, the 60s, the 80s or perhaps even as late as the millennium. As a historical tool, it may well be a jaded, unhelpful diversion, conjuring up the images of extremism which have placed vocal modern journalists on the receiving end of trolling activities. Yet the study of women’s history is as significant as the study of women’s lives today. Women’s history will only become passé when women do.

"Part of the problem is that the women of previous centuries are often invisible beside their menfolk". Photograph: Getty Images.

Amy Licence is a late medieval and early Tudor historian focusing on women's lives. She is the author of the forthcoming biography Anne Neville, Richard III’s Tragic Queen and her blog can be found here.

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Did Titantic do more for climate change than Leonardo DiCaprio’s new documentary?

Sex, icebergs and individual plight: the actor’s earlier outing teaches us more about vast disasters than his new docufilm about global warming’s impact, Before the Flood.

“Now you know there was a man named Jack Dawson and that he saved me . . . in every way that a person can be saved.” Or did he? For Titanic actor Leonardo DiCaprio, there is one way in which Jack never did rescue Rose: from the threat of climate catastrophe. 

Over the last 15 years, DiCaprio has made the issue a personal mission. Yet even in his role as UN climate ambassador, he stills feels far from heroic:

“If the UN really knew how I feel, how pessimistic I am about our future . . . I mean to be honest, they may have picked the wrong guy.”

So begins his new documentary, Before the Flood. A quest for answers on climate change, the film sees Leo racing around the world, marvelling at the sound of endangered whales, despairing at the destruction caused by tar-sands – “it looks like Mordor” – and interviewing a series of concerned experts, from professors to Barack Obama to the Pope.

There are plenty of naysayers to stand in his way and put him down. “Who better to educate world leaders on made-up climate change and a crisis that doesn't exist, than an actor with zero years of scientific training?” mocks one commentator from Fox News.

But if DiCaprio can gather enough evidence to believe in himself – AND believe that there are viable solutions out there – then so can we. Or so the story arc promises. His journey thus stands as a guide for our own; a self-education that will lead to salvation for all. 

It's all a little messianic. The film is even named after a biblical painting. And will those who don't already know who DiCaprio is even care? 

The sad fact is that, while DiCaprio’s lasting popularity still owes so much Titanic, the 1997 box-office smash that made his name, his new documentary fails to recapture the dramatic wisdom that put him there. It doesn’t even quip about the icebergs.

This is an oversight. Titanic didn’t win 11 academy awards for nothing. As well as a must-see rite of passage (pun intended) and soundtrack for infinite school discos, it taught me something invaluable about storytelling. Though I was not initially a DiCaprio fan, over the years I’ve come to accept that my lasting love of the film is inseparable from my emotional investment in Leo, or at least in his character, Jack. What Titanic showed so brilliantly was that the fastest way to empathise with suffering on a vast scale – be it a sinking ship or a sinking planet – is to learn to care for the fate of one or two individuals involved.

Every part of Jack and Rose's story is thus intimately linked with the story of the ship. Even that famed sex scene gains its erotic force not from the characters alone, but from their race through the blazing engine room (situated as it is between the foreplay of the naked portrait and the famous post-coital ending in the back of the cab).

And such carefully crafted storytelling isn't only essential to great entertainment but to great activism too. It can literally inspire action – as evidenced by fans’ desperate attempts to prove that both Jack and Rose could have climbed to safety aboard the floating piece of wood.

So would Before the Flood have been better if it had been a little bit more like Titanic and less like An Inconvenient Truth? Yes. And does that mean we should make climate films about epic polar bear love stories instead? Not exactly. 

There are many powerful documentaries out there that make you emotionally invested in the lives of those experiencing the consequences of our indirect (fossil fuel-burning) actions. Take Virunga, a heart-wrenching insight into the struggle of those protecting eastern Congo’s national park.

Sadly, Before the Flood is not one of them. Its examples of climate change – from Beijing air pollution to coral reef destruction – are over-familiar and under-explored. Instead of interviewing a Chinese official with a graph on his iPad, I would have preferred visiting a solar-panel factory worker and meeting their family, who are perhaps suffering from the effects of the smog in a way I can't yet imagine.

If you want a whistlestop tour of all things climate change then this necessary and urgent film is the movie for you. But those hoping it will give new depth to climate activism will be disappointed.

DiCaprio's distant relationship with the effects of climate change leave him stranded at the level of a narrator. He makes for a great elderly Rose, but we need a Jack.

Before The Flood is in limited theatres from 21 October and will be shown on National Geographic on Sunday 30 October.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.