We ask a lot of history. It must tell us not simply of our varied pasts, but justify them to us, explain the present, excuse or support our weaknesses and desires, reflect for us those things about ourselves – our believed selves – that we admire or cling to or wish to make acceptable. We accuse it of lying or of incompleteness when – as it must do – it contradicts our deepest held understandings. We snatch at it, claw at it, paw over it to find the stories that make us feel safe and whole and good. It’s a lot to ask of anything, let alone a thing – a set of things – as fragile and oblique and compromised as this profession we call history. We make it our magic mirror, to show us who we want to think we are.
As a woman and a writer and a historian, I’m asked to justify myself a lot. What point is there to history: it manufactures nothing tangible, critics say. It adds nothing to the GDP. What point is thereto fiction? What point to any woman speaking out, anywhere, at any time? I have answers of a sort to all of these, differing according to my company. But they all come down to the same thing in the end: human beings seem to have a need to understand themselves as they are now, and they look back for help in this. Woman’s history month seeks to highlight the hidden and forgotten histories of women, who, as a class, have been largely side-lined by the gatekeepers of the official past. Women’s history in general seeks to rediscover and document the lives and achievements of our female forebears of all times and identities. It’s a project I have a lot of sympathy with. And yet, and yet….
We ask such a lot of the past. As women – as female historians – it sometimes seems to me that we ask even more of those women who preceded us than we ask of the past itself. Their lives become our voyages of discovery, their acts and desires are re-patterned and repurposed to fit modern needs and frameworks. As with the common complaint of women in a patriarchal culture – we have to be more than good enough, more than very good: we have to be better, best of all, to gain even the first step, the first rung, the first chance. Our female forebears must needs almost be superwomen, to justify their space in our narratives of history. It is not enough to have lived and worked. They must have been special, unusual, rare, even to get their names noted down in the sources on which historians depend. I have on my shelves a books on the histories of women, entitled Silences of the Middle Ages, a name which reflects the difficulty of finding much material at all about women for large periods of time. And yet, for all the slow increase of raw sources as we come closer to the present day, I sometimes think that all women’s history is the history of silence and of silencing. We are so easy to silence: many of us are taught to stay silent from our earliest days and can be reduced back to that state with a handful of sharp words. We are so easy not to hear or see or record, because of our social silence. A woman who speaks is mad or bad and, almost always, dangerous to know. There is a whole joyful industry of scholars and writers who rediscover and document such women now; those women who accidents of birth (usually) or marriage or situation or talent brought into the purview of the compilers of chronicles. Eleanor of Aquitaine, Wu Zetian, Hildegarde of Bingen, Lady Yohl Ik’nal, Hatshepsut, Börte, Makeda, Maria Sibylla Merian, Angelica Kauffman, Indira Gandhi. We celebrate and interrogate their lives in our search for ourselves, our meanings.
But we ask a lot of them. Not long ago, on a day devoted to celebrating women in science, I had a conversation about Annabella Milbanke, who even now, in our era of rediscovering women, is mostly remembered as a wife (to Byron) and a mother (to Ada, countess of Lovelace). Annabella was a highly talented mathematician, who as a teenager corresponded with adult men who were members of the Royal Academy, and was respected by them for her ability. Yet, if you glance at her biography on Wikipedia, say, what dominates our narrative of her is her piety and her strictness with her daughter. Biographers, over and over, accuse her of ‘not understanding’ her husband (her rapist and abuser) and of being cruel to her daughter. She was, certainly, not an easy woman. But why should she have been? She was a gifted women in an age when women were not permitted full access to a scientific life, nor considered possessed of full intelligence; she was a survivor of rape and violence. Byron was not a nice person, either. Yet his genius remains worthy of study, we are told, and hers does not. Annabella, across nearly 200 years, is not nice enough, sweet enough, silent enough, to deserve study and rediscovery by historians, male or female. Our female forebears, our re-found heroes, must be worthy by the standards imposed on us both by patriarchal culture and by ourselves. In seeking heroes, we still, it seems, seek to please the social standards that constrain us, and silence, ignore, or avoid those female forebears who make past and present mores uncomfortable. Some women, like Annabella, are too mean: they are the angry mad women in our collective attics. Others, (in)curiously, are too meek, too goody-goody to be worth noting (they don’t fit the check-list of modern ideas of agency). Blanche of Castille, Jane Seymour, Queen Tiye, Anne of Brittany: good wives and sisters and daughters, women who suffered and served. They make us uncomfortable, by fitting the social roles laid out for us too well. As male-dominated history judges us – not significant, not valuable, not important – so we judge other women from our collective pasts and consign them to continued silence. Women of the past must make us proud, and to do so, they must live up to our present-day needs. To justify ourselves, we need a history full of successes: we must answer the questions well – see our female Shakespeares (Lady Murasaki, Aphra Behn), our female politicians (Emma of Normandy, Matilda of Flanders, Wu Zetian), our musicians (Hildegarde, Fanny Mendlesohn) and artists (Frida Kahlo, Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun) and astronomers (Caroline Herschel). We don’t have space for the silent or those who failed for whatever reason to shine. We can’t afford them, though histories worldwide are full of undistinguished men. For women, even now, only the best will do.
Far more time and ink is expended in my field (Celtic and Gaelic cultures of the British isles c. 400 – c.1300) on the legal fiction of the banchomarbha (a land-holding woman with full social legal status, noted as a possibility in the highly schematising books of Irish laws, but who probably almost never happened in reality – no, not even in that highly imagined land ‘pre-Christian Ireland’, a place full of late 20th century wish-fulfilment fantasies and no reliable historical evidence for female agency at all)(1) than on the handful of real women whose names we know and about whose lives we possess fragmentary information. There’s part of me that understands that and sympathises. It’s hugely frustrating trying to reconstruct lives that are noted down so sparsely, and in terms of motherhood, marriage and renunciation. But these quiet women were real; they lived in those past worlds under those past rules for female conduct. And they deserve our attention as much as the women who broke or transcended those rules by being royal or rich or very, very lucky.
But they are very hard to find. Mostly, they have left us little or no trace at all. We can wonder, in museums or at archaeological sites, who owned and used that comb, that quern stone, those loom-weights? What did they talk about, the millions of everyday women whose names we don’t know? What were they like? There are, of course, also many millions of silent, forgotten, ordinary men. History – official histories – are classist as well as sexist and racist. The poor are not, in general recorded, and, when recorded, are noted mostly for crimes and accidents. But when we concentrate on Eleanor of Aquitaine and Wu Zetian, over Blanche of Castille and Xu Yihua, when we chase after fictional mediaeval Irish female lords over Gormflaith and Derforghaill, we are complicit in the silencing. We play the game by the rules imposed on us by social and cultural norms, that, where women are concerned, only the very best, the shiniest, the specialist snowflakes are worthy of attention and record and time.
We ask history to make us worthwhile, worthy of space and air and attention in our own lives. It’s a lot to ask. And perhaps we should be asking for something rather different. Not for a right to agency, or a justification for the claims we might make for agency, but rather, for something simpler. For recognition. We are here. We are real. We exist now and we existed then, and we are all of us worthy of attention and notice and record.
(1) I can supply a reading list on this. Please do not tell me about women from myths, legends, sagas or Roman period sources. They are not the same as real women in early Ireland. I’ve done years of detailed academic research in this field. This sounds brusque, I realise, but I’ve been having the ‘liberated Celtic women’ conversation with people for 25+ years, and it gets wearing.