Women’s History Month 2017: Afterthoughts

To wrap up this month, this post is just a few notes – half-formed thoughts, not ‘conclusions’ – on some recurring themes that struck me as I was writing and researching posts (and shaped some of my choices as the month went on).

Uncertainties, silences, fragments

We often don’t know who wrote down these texts, how much of it really represents the words and thoughts of the woman herself, or how much is bound by institutional or cultural convention (let alone how accurately it reflects “what really happened”). Some of the texts were written by unsympathetic officials or professional scribes; some were not published until long after their ostensible author’s death, perhaps in service of someone else’s agenda.

Moreover, we often know very little about who the women were beyond these surviving words, especially the poorer women in many of the manuscript sources, which exacerbates the problems of interpretation. Even in the case of the aristocratic Bess of Hardwick, not all that much is known of her early life before she made her first advantageous marriage. Tracing a poor, migrant woman who had travelled long distances and changed her surname at least once is often likely to be impossible. Women of colour – especially slaves – have no surname at all in many records (an additional example being this London petition from Sophia, a Native of the East Indies, which was on the short list for inclusion).

Travel and migration

Many of the women travelled long distances during their lives – not necessarily voluntarily – and experienced the perils of travel, by sea or land, before modern transportation systems, as well as homesickness and grief at enforced separations from their homes and loved ones, separations that for some would be permanent. And if these experiences were sometimes startlingly different from the mobility of modern life – a journey that took 5 months in the early 18th century may now be a matter of hours by car or minutes by air – there were some equally striking modern resonances: resistance to migration or refugees’ experiences of being torn away from home and family.

The familial is the political

The early modern household-family detailed by Naomi Tadmor is very present in these accounts. There are abundant close and loving family ties – perhaps especially noteworthy have been the bonds between mothers and daughters. Several posts have shown the importance of gifts, bequests, loans, mutual support between family members. But we also see the family as a hierarchical institution in which subordinates were supposed to know their place, one where servants could be accused of theft and find it difficult to defend themselves, and where justice might only be had by doggedly appealing to higher authorities.

All the posts

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