• Kristin Bundesen, PhD

History is not a science experiment

Notes from a lecture - This one is boring but important. Nerd out.


Word choice and language have conspired to exclude women from the political narrative. Your English teachers likely droned on about word choice while you looked for the quickest way to earn a higher grade. I know the topic is boring. No matter how many ways writers explain that word choice matters, we all tend to zone out a bit or make misguided attempts to use an online thesaurus. But, this stuff matters if we want traditionally excluded populations written back into the narrative and if we want to change preconceptions and prejudices. (See the American Psychological Association's recent apology on this score regarding race.)


The semantic difference between 'reigned' and 'ruled' has political implications. To reign is to have sovereign power. To rule is to control or command. There are, of course, other meanings to the words, but 'reign' is not as powerful a word as 'rule', which connotes direct power. When used as a reference to an historical period, as in 'Edward's reign' or 'Mary's reign', the word lacks gender connotations. But as a verb, 'Elizabeth reigned', it denotes less than total command, suggesting a passive image of the sovereign sitting on a throne while ministers run the government. The difference is subtle but telling in how we perceive women and power.

Use of passive voice is often encouraged in scientific and academic writing as a means of removing the writer from the narrative and suggesting dispassionate objectivity. But history is not a science experiment; it is a story set in geographical and temporal space with characters that participate in the plot. Here are two examples describing the same event in the lives of Mary of Guise and her daughter Mary Queen of Scots. Both were written by women, the first in 1908 and the second in 1986. Passive terms and words with gendered connotations or gendered uses are in bold.


The infant Queen was removed on July 26 from Linlithgow to Stirling Castle and at Stirling she was crowned on September 9. (Stoddart, 1908)


No one could speak of anything but the infamous treaties and, terrified in case the English should sail up the Firth of Forth, Mary of Guise decided that her daughter must be moved to a place of greater safety than Linlithgow. (Marshall, 1986)


A more recent version by a male historian expands the account:


In charming and beguiling Henry VIII's ambassador Sadler, Mary of Guise showed her political skill. A plan had formed in her mind. She would move Mary from Linlithgow, a pleasure palace that could not withstand a siege, to the security of her own castle of Stirling, an almost impregnable fortress at the top of a steep rock that was also near enough to the coast to restore her links to France by sea. [Twelve days later] Under the watchful eye of her mother, Mary had ascended the throne. And if she was now Queen, her mother was indisputably queen-maker. (Gu, 2004)


In the first example, somehow the baby queen was removed to Stirling and crowned in some unknown and unspecified way, the passive voice reinforcing passive female roles. The second example gives direct responsibility to Mary of Guise although it attributes her motivation to terror, an emotion rarely associated with the political decisions of male rulers. The final example, in contrast, clearly identifies Mary of Guise as a formidable political operative orchestrating foreign policy to the benefit of herself and her child. However, there is something patronizing in the phrase 'a plan formed in her mind', as though her mind was otherwise empty space, while male diplomatic skills are rarely described as 'charming' or 'beguiling'.


The three examples quoted have been taken from three different biographies and progress over time in reconnecting female actors with their actions is clear. However, reliance on biography as a tool for liberating women's history is also proving an obstacle in furthering the integration of women into the broader political narrative. Biographies of women tend to isolate the person from their political context. Biographies of female monarchs, in particular, disproportionately weight romantic and sexual relationships over political effectiveness; biographies of royal mistresses are even worse.


Male rulers are simply not treated in the same way; their personalities, in contrast, are explored as a key to understanding their policies and actions, not as 'an end in itself'. 'Beguiling' becomes strategizing; plans do not 'form in men's minds'; they are developed.


Let's try this instead:


Having forestalled the English ambassador Sadler, Mary of Guise decided to move her daughter Mary to the security of her own castle of Stirling, an almost impregnable fortress at the top of a steep rock that was close enough to the coast to maintain her links with France. Less than two weeks later, Mary of Guise orchestrated the coronation and anointing of her infant Mary declaring her Queen of Scots. As Queen Dowager with physical possession of monarch, Mary of Guise's strategy to rule of Scotland took effect.