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History Matters: Patriarchy and the…

History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism

by Judith M. Bennett

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This short book, by a very distinguished medieval historian, argues that the study of the past—particularly the pre-modern past—is vital to the feminist movement. Judith Bennett believes that in the decades since the 1970s, historians who study women have become increasingly disconnected from those involved in the contemporary women's movement, to the detriment of both groups. There has been much more work done on women's history outside of North America and Western Europe, and indeed on the lived experiences of women of colour within those regions, but the post-1800 West still dominates academic departments and popular history books. This means that many scholars are too presentist, and work without the kind of deep historical knowledge needed to perceive continuities within women's experiences.

Though this is, as I said, a short work, it provides much food for thought and is well worth the read by historians in all fields. I wholeheartedly agree with Bennett on the necessity of studying medieval women (well, that's my day job; I would, wouldn't I), and the next time I teach on women's work I will assign the chapter here on the gender wage gap. That said I have quibbles—some minor, some less so—with her arguments in other places, particularly her advocacy for the use of the term "lesbian-like" to describe the experiences of many pre-modern women.

Is failing to recognise that there were women in the Middle Ages who engaged in same-sex intercourse, whose sexual desires were directed in part or in whole towards other women, heteronormative and homophobic? Sure. Are there enormous difficulties in finding documentary smoking guns that prove romantic, sexual, and/or erotic relationships between women in pre-modern Europe? Yup. But is everything that is non-heteronormative automatically "lesbian-like"? She would classify here chaste communities of nuns, or even two biological sisters who rejected marriage and lived together, as "lesbian-like." A cross-dressing female student in fifteenth-century Poland is described as "lesbian-like." Here's where I start looking askance at Bennett. This is an oddly binary formula, and entirely rejects and/or absorbs other forms of non-heteronormativity such as asexuality or transgender identities. All she seems to be doing here is to invert heteronormativity to create a new form of categorisation to force on something that's inherently fluid and changing. ( )
  siriaeve | May 28, 2016 |
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