The Ya-Ya Sisterhood
Notes from a lecture - My first conference paper
Academic conferences are a rite of passage. Academics present their research to groups, sometimes very small groups, of other academics, take questions and then refine their research in preparation for possible publication. As a doctoral student in the U.K., I was expected to start giving papers at conferences at the end of my first year of research. A doctoral student at the university next door, Nottingham Trent, organized a small conference for graduate students intending it as a non-threatening environment to try out our research. So, towards the end of my first year of trying to figure out the local accent, how to pay the gas bill, how to get the laundry to dry when the humidity is almost always 70%, how to work American hours when the city rolls up the sidewalks at 5:30, I took the bus to the outskirts of town where that campus is, found the classroom where the conference was to take place, and waited my turn to stand up and read my paper.
By the way, historians read papers and, at the time, rarely used PowerPoint or illustrations unless they were art historians - or trying for a TV job, Even then, they are not adept clicking the right arrow to move to the next slide. The very fact that I could run a PowerPoint presentation was met with oooos and ahhhhs my entire time in Nottingham.
I titled my paper 'The Ya-Ya Sisterhood in 16th Century England'. I think The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood movie had come out a couple years before. In this paper, I started to build a case for female participation in early modern politics. (By the way, periods of historical research are arbitrary and fluid. Some historians consider the 16th century, 1500-1599, to be the late medieval period; some consider the early modern period to start in the 15th century 100 years earlier.)
I launched into my presentation by reminding the attendees that the 16th century is frequently referred to as 'the century of queens'. I mean, come on. If the century was known for its queens, how could there not be female political activity? The queens couldn't have been the only women in their respective kingdoms that were interested in politics. So I ran through the most well known female politiques of the time and then. moved to some contemporary accounts - all well known within the specialized air of Tudor historians, and sometimes spoken of in popular history books. Note that this was before The Tudors (2007) aired on Showtime and just as Philippa Gregory was starting her domination of Tudor era fiction. Then I detailed the challenges to restoring women to the historical narrative. Note that I proposed no solution, had no answers, just the question:
If the 16th century is called the 'century of queens' surely women were politically active. Isn't 'queen' a head of state title? And, if a woman was head of state, how is it possible that she would be the only woman in her kingdom involved in politics?
I delivered my paper, only breaking into a sweat once or twice, and waited for questions. The room was equally divided between graduate students and their professors. There may have been 12 people in the room. The head of the history department at the host university asked me, 'How are you going to prove this?' I replied, 'I have no idea but I have two years to figure it out."
His question was valid. It's not as though the Tudors are under studied, that this was a virgin area of research waiting for some uppity American to stumble upon. Surely someone would have turned something up by now. I am confident, dear Reader, that you have seen at least one movie, read one book, or seen an episode of something Tudor related. Yet, the work to date on early modern, or late medieval, female political agency is very thin on the ground and dates from the 1980s in the wake of Second Wave Feminism.
Except for the queens, some famous, some infamous, and a couple of famous courtesans and religious martyrs, women in the early modern period are nearly invisible. They do not exist. We barely know a handful of names. Invisible on the book shelves, invisible in the archives - or at least the catalogues of the archives. Thankfully, in the last decade this has started to change. Sarah Gristwood has published a good book detailing the arc of female rule through the 16th century, titled Game of Queens (2016). At the time I gave this paper, it was much worse and I was shocked ,but not surprised, at the exclusion of women in traditional history - especially for a century nicknamed 'Century of Queens'.