Sunday, July 27, 2008

La plus ça change...

I just wrote the following sentence in ch. 4 of my MS:

"Female plaintiffs had a fine line to walk when describing violent sexual encounters: in a culture where submission to male authority and protection of sexual reputation were both part of an appropriate female sexuality, women could have a difficult time describing rape in a way that did not implicate themselves as at least partially culpable."

As someone who writes on (among other things) the history of women in the Middle Ages, the reactions I get from non-academics tend to focus on how uniformly awful things were for women before -- what? 1968? -- and, by implication, how far we've come since then. Unless I'm actually in a lecture hall, I try to shift the topic quickly, because stepping back and really thinking about the above sentence makes me want to take my interlocutor, shake them, and ask them how much they think has really changed.** The problem is that my well-intentioned patriarchy-blaming would probably come out sputtering and quasi-incoherent, thereby undermining my point.

And now I have to wonder, for all those of you historians of women/gender out there: do any of you study any time period, anyplace, where the sentence I wrote above would not be true?


**Yes, yes: I'm aware of the myriad of ways in which my lot is better than that of a woman living in the fourteenth century. I get it. But my point is that it's a little early to hang the "Mission Accomplished" banner, ya dig?

7 comments:

Anastasia said...

not i.

Dr. S said...

Wait a minute... didn't we have this very conversation a few months ago?

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Well, something very like it. Great, it's literally dejá vù all over again.

So either this reinforces my point, or it means that I'm getting old and senile.

What were we saying?

The Bittersweet Girl said...

Heh heh. "Mission Accomplished." That's too funny.

I also grind my teeth whenever I hear anyone (usually a young "fun feminist" student) say that things are sooooo much better for women now than then (whenever). Part of the burden of feminist historiography is that it keeps having to make the point you state here: yeah, okay, things are better than [name your dark age for women's rights] but not really THAT much better, right?

Dr. S said...

I will repeat something like what I think I said back when we last talked about this issue of recurrence and relevance:

Every single fall, as I'm getting ready to teach the women's writing course I teach every single fall, some damn fool thing makes the news and gives me a gorgeous way to say "This is why I'm teaching you this material" to my new crop of students.

One year it was a new iteration of the study that finds (again and again) that Ivy League women say they're planning to opt out of careers and have babies. One year it was the Forbes.com article headlined "Guys: Don't Marry a Career Girl." (And I'm not even exaggerating.)

And so every single summer, right about now, I start to wonder what that fall's damn fool thing will be.

Care to hazard a guess?

Maybe I should just get "ROAR" tattooed somewhere on my body and be done with it.

Belle said...

Not me either.

historiann said...

There may be a different history of sexual assault among Native American peoples before European contact, but your proposition is right for all of the recorded history of the early Americas we have in any language.