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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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era