I was talking with Adjacent Field Friend the other day (who recently got a book contract - way to go!) and we were talking about studying women in the early periods. We both work in this subfield and we both do work that, at one point or another in our graduate work and/or our fledgling careers, has been considered to be "non-literary" - not so hot when you're an English Ph.D. Without giving anything away about either of us, let's say that she works on both canonical and noncanonical authors and genres. I work in more than one medium (but don't we all, really?). Anyway, we were discussing how our work has been dismissed by using evidence from the "historical record" (with all the attendant caveats that term requires).
For example, many people think I work on women's literacy - I don't, not really anyway. My work is predicated on early women's literacy in the same way that some conclusions about medieval population studies might be predicated on the fact that there was, actually, a series of plagues in the Middle Ages. But many, many wonderful scholars before me have already established that women were literate to varying degrees and in many different ways in the Middle Ages. I refer to their work and build on it to go in my own, slightly tangential, direction.
I remember giving a paper on one of my dissertation chapters once about a series of manuscripts that showed an interesting kind of women's readership. I was looking at a series of very cool and, theretofore, little studied marginal notations to make arguments about how these women were reading these texts, what purposes those texts seemed to serve in their lives (again, with all attendant caveats), etc. One of the questions I got asked was from a professor at the university hosting the conference. He said, "what you've outlined here is really interesting - I really want to believe that she was writing all these things...do you think she really was?" I blinked and said, "yes...as certain as I would be if a hand calling itself 'Henry Smith' was writing so thoroughly and aggressively in the margins of the text." Just because there were far more men than women involved in literate practices in the Middle Ages, doesn't mean that every hand signing the name "Jane Doe" automatically has to really be John Doe. Or even John Doe who's in love with a girl named Jane and decides to write her name 60 times in a book margin! (that possibility was also suggested to me)
But basically, the guy was missing the point. As I've said before, I'm aware of all the caveats needed to make a responsible argument about medieval women's literate practice - I know that the historical record is even more patchy than usual. And I'm a responsible scholar, so I take these things into account before I make my assertions. But we still come back to this whole question: could women really read in the Middle Ages?? It seems like that's the point at which a lot of people stop and then decide on the basis of that question whether or not to pursue certain arguments with me (and also my colleague). Funnily, I published a portion of that chapter in an essay collection - it was reviewed by someone and the only thing they really said about my piece was that "Medieval Woman discusses how women read these texts; but surely we've already concluded that women were reading these texts by now..." Again, they went along for the ride only so far. Was I clear about what my argument was really about? Yep. Women's reading was only step one - I lost the reviewer and the commenter after that.
What's interesting is that they both left the party at the same point, but for different reasons. Commenter couldn't get past the notion that the historical record doesn't provide (in his opinion) enough evidence to help overcome his skepticism, no matter how much he wanted to believe it. Reviewer left the party once they thought that I was merely stating that, yes, in fact, women were reading these texts. In their opinion, this was old hat; it had already been established.
My colleague has encountered the same thing in the work she does in the field chronologically adjacent to my own. She will combine texts written by and about women with the work of canonical male authors and look at the way certain vocations traditionally done by women are represented in both (for anonymity's sake, I can't give her project even a tiny measure of its true coolness). She once got a snide, dismissive report (written, as it turned out, by a man) that said: "Why are you looking at these women's texts when X phenomenon is clearly going on in Y Male Author's texts and a bunch of other Male Authors' texts?" Because that's not the point of her work. Yes, she could have written that book/article/conference paper. But that's not her work. You have her work in front of you and she's done a damn good job justifying why she's doing it this way and not that way.
We've all encountered in one form or another the reviewer who says, "Why didn't you write the article/book the way I would have?" But what my friend and I were discussing is how the presence of early women in the historical record - either their seemingly too overt or too clandestine presence - is used as a reason to a) dismiss certain kinds of scholarship once you've (mis)read it or, b) not engage with it at all.
Basically, I'm not sure if this is just something that plagues gender and early literature and/or history. Feminism and the Middle Ages had its beginning relatively late - late 80s, early 90s with folks like Dinshaw, Ferrante, etc. And that's not to say that people aren't still working on medieval women - jeez, I know one medieval woman who's working on medieval women! But it just seems like many people think it's been done to death. But I would love it if (after hearing that I work on medieval women's textual practices) if that medievalist or other scholar/colleague asked me, "Oh really? How does your work differ from the early work done on feminism and medieval literature? How do your methodologies differ from X and Y critics'? How do your questions build on rather than replicate this previous work?" Because I can speak to that - I can engage with that because I have to engage with that. But I can't bear another bored response from a fellow medievalist: "Oh. Could women even really read back then? I mean, do you have any evidence for that?"
Argh! Either we have to educate our audience beyond the point of ridiculousness or we have to deal with an already educated audience saying, "Oh please. Haven't we already established that women could read??"
Dudes. Please just finish the article or conference paper before you dismiss it? There's a step 2 and 3 and 4, etc. after step 1.
P.S. My colleague's and my conversation was brought on my some comments I recently got on a grant application that I didn't get (and, really, no sour grapes because I ended up getting the other one!). The reviewer said, simply: "the applicant hasn't even said why female literacy in the Middle Ages was important."
(*hits head repeatedly against desk*)
Because it's not about female literacy....