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  • Kristin Bundesen, PhD

Looking for women in history

Notes from a lecture - We see what we are looking for

. . . So how did all the women but the queens disappear from the 16th century historical narrative? Most of us are familiar with the phrase, 'history is written by the victors'. Spin is an ancient concept. If I am now in charge, I want people to think it's a good thing, I'm a good person, and God is on my side. Spin. When Henry VII won the English throne through military victory and a judicious marriage, it was important that the national narrative stress his vanquishing of evil and his goodness. Hence, the historical record of the Tudor era paints the vanquished Richard III as evil and Shakespeare cemented that image for the next several centuries.

Historians write about what is of interest to them. For a long time, academic and professional historians were male. Women were not admitted to universities and therefore could not join the exalted ranks of the professionally trained. This meant that history was primarily about things that interested those male historians.

Strickland, Green, and Clark

In the Victorian era, some cracks in male history-telling began with Agnes Strickland (1796-1874). She was educated by her father at home. She wrote my treasured books, but much of the work published under her name was written by her sister Elizabeth who did not want to be acknowledged. Although Agnes researched in the collections that became known as the National Archives of the United Kingdom, these books, my books, are typical of their age in that they are romantic in tone with a shocking lack of footnotes. Although many historians today rely on Strickland, they also dismiss the quality of her writing as too emotional.

Then came Mary Ann Everett Green (1818-1895), daughter of a Methodist minister also educated at home, who edited a two-volume set on letters and lives of royal and illustrious ladies. She researched at the British Museum. Her work was recognized and she was recommended to assist on the great project assembling calendars of state papers. Unlike the full time employees at the Public Records Office doing similar work, Green had no paid support staff - her only helper was her sister Esther, but Green became the most highly respected and 'most efficient compiler of calendars'. While still under male supervision, the primary documents calendared were still following the traditional male his-story, but a few documents pertaining to or by women creeped into the tomes.

She sometimes complained about being paid less than the men, but her superiors eventually agreed to her suggestion of historical prefaces written by herself and the other editors. These came to be seen as an essential part of the calendars. Green herself wrote 700 pages of prefaces which amount to a history of seventeenth century England and she edited 41 volumes of state papers. Quite an achievement.

The next big step in integrating women back into the historical narrative come from Alice Clark - as in the Clark Shoe Company family. Alice was a business woman, overseeing production and personnel in the family factory. She started serious historical research when she was in her late thirties. Born in 1874, she was strongly influenced by the first wave of feminism, particularly by debates about female economic dependence and 'parasitism' on men and its negative effects on women and society as a whole. At the time, there was increasing interest in what is now called economic history. Remember we research and write what is of interest to us and this was right smack dab in the middle of what is called the second industrial revolution.

Alice Clark was admitted to the London School of Economics which was coeducational from its opening in 1895 and where there were a handful of women studying history professionally. She wrote Working Life of Women in the Seventeenth Century (1919) looking back a century from her own life. She concluded that women had always worked, had always paid their own way, but as work moved outside the home into factories, women were forced to follow the new form of employment working outside the home where compensation was determined by others - and that this contributed to a myriad of social issues and was detrimental to the family structure.

. . . women had always worked, had always paid their own way, but as work moved outside the home into factories, women were forced to follow the new form of employment working outside the home where compensation was determined by others - by men.

By the mid-twentieth century additional fields of history started to open up many falling under the generic category of social history. Areas of social history include Black history, ethnic history, labor history, history of education, history of leisure, urban history, rural history, women's history which is different than gender history and history of the family - or as I tend to think of it - everything aside from white western male history.

So women should start showing up now, right? In fact, they did. More women started attending university doctoral programs and started writing about what interested them. Unfortunately, many of them did not get jobs teaching in the ivy towers of academia and research on women of the 16th century was still frowned upon as a frivolous endeavor. Then second wave feminism happened.


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