Sunday, May 11, 2008

But can I still write about Women, though?

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 you think she really was?" I blinked and said, " 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....


Flavia said...

I'm going to totally ignore the real content of this post (although I agree about this phenomenon, and think it's worse for y'all who work on gender issues, though I've seen a strange inability to read, or get the point elsewhere, too) in order to say CONGRATS to both you (for your grant) and Friend (for her contract)!!

Way to go, dudes.

New Kid on the Hallway said...

This is really interesting, because in some ways it's really different in history. Women and feminism and medieval history (at least for England) have a LONG history going back to the beginning of the 20th century with people like Annie Abrams and Eileen Power (a wee bit later) and so on. I think people do sometimes get what you're talking about, but I think there might be a stronger base for the kind of work you talk about.

But it's also funny because I went to a session at Kzoo where a big point of discussion was that historians don't want to go to the archives any more but want to read gender in treatises, sermons, etc., and that lit people WANT to go to the archives (and hence use evidence from the "historical record"). I have to admit that I came away from it with a feeling that some of the senior historians were disapproving of the non-archival turn, which annoys me (not being especially archivally-focused). Anyway, it was an interesting discussion.

Barbara said...

As a historian whose early work was on a woman who had been studied almost exclusively by literary scholars before my diss, your comments sound really familiar! The first article I ever submitted was rejected because one reviewer said "This has already been done (when it hadn't)" and the other said "But what about (some aspect of the person I wasn't even looking at)." Now I'm working on archival sources that no one has ever looked at from a gender history perspective, and everyone says "But why aren't you looking at the men's interactions?" Arrgh!

Kimberly said...

I should probably introduce myself first--I am a PhD student in medeival gender history and I found your blog by way of the medievalstudies community on livejournal. I really enjoy your commentary.

My comment to the post directly is that I really appreciate these thoughts on the intense interdisciplinary nature of medeival studies. I am training to be a historian but primarily have worked with literature thus far. I sometimes have a great deal of difficulty remaining within my discipline's perameters about what are relevant sources.

And on feminism and medievalism--there are infinite numbers of interpretations and approaches to it, just like there have been a multitude of approaches to Aquinas over the last few centuries. Eileen Power and Caroline Bynum are not the be-all and end-all of medieval women's history. I really worry about these things for when I enter the job market in a few years and my work will be seen as dated or irrelevant.

medieval woman said...

Flavia - thanx lady!

NK - that's so interesting that medieval history has a longer relationship with feminism - maybe my thoughts about the comparatively late discovery of feminism and medieval literature, but that's what I've always thought. You're right about the polarization of archives/non-archives - it seems to me that the best, coolest work out there doesn't see these two things as mutually exclusive, eh? This is why we should take over academia and change it to comply with our personal will... :)

And Barabara and Kimberly - welcome and thanks for commenting!
I heartily agree with you, Kimberly, that there is a much longer and more nuanced history of medievalism and feminism - that's what I bank on in my own work! I've found that many audiences (at conferences and/or readers of written work) don't want to engage with what they seem to think has already been done as much as it can be.

Perhaps I need to be very overt and much more up-front about how my work is doing something NEW regarding women and literate practice than I ever thought I needed to. It's like saying, "Um...I'm going to talk about women BUT NOT IN THE WAY YOU THINK! HOLD IT RIGHT THERE, DUDE! DON'T LEAVE UNTIL YOU'VE HEARD THE WHOLE THING SERIOUSLY SIT DOWN!!!!"

hee, hee

Fifi Bluestocking said...

This post really resonated with me as I am also a lit person working on "wimmin" (in a later period). I attended a conference recently where I was on a panel with a v eminent scholar and we ended up spending the entire Q&A justifying working on women (in a particular profession to which they didn't have access for a long time) to a couple of (male) curmudgeons in the audience. So the entire content of what we each talked about was totally lost. Grrr.