ALL WOMEN HAVE A PAST
RECONSTRUCTING WOMEN IN THE HISTORICAL IMAGINATION
Women’s lives have long been the subject of overexcited imaginations. Whether they seek to vilify or romanticize, the sensationalized ways in which women have been represented and remembered rarely does justice to the historical reality, rendering them as one-dimensional caricatures rather than rich, complex characters in their own right. While historical and literary representations of women tend to center around the home and gendered notions of women's roles, in reality women have always been at the center of political and military histories. This roundtable uncovers the stories of elite women such as queens and spies for whom such shallow misrepresentations have become the norm, showcasing how historians now seek to reconstruct the fullness of their lives.
DANIEL HOWLETT (/u/dhowlett1692)
DANIEL HOWLETT (HE/HIM) is a PhD student at George Mason University where he also received his MA in 2019. He currently works as a Graduate Research Assistant at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media on a variety of digital history projects. His research focuses on race, gender, and disability in early American religious history. He is also a moderator of r/AskHistorians where he answers questions about seventeenth-century New England and the Salem Witch Trials.
SPEAKERS AND PAPERS
CASSIDY PERCOCO (/u/mimicofmodes)
WICKED QUEENS: THE AFTERLIVES OF ISABEAU OF BAVARIA, CATHERINE DE’ MEDICI, AND MARIE ANTOINETTE
French queenship has been fraught for centuries. With the possibility of any French princess inheriting the throne quashed in the fourteenth century by Philippes V and VI, the category of “queen” was inextricably linked to the role of consort, a relatively powerless category. Traditionally, the French queen consort played little role in public life, and received little attention after her death. When she was remembered, it was typically in the context of disasters that had occurred during her tenure, the blame for which was placed firmly on her shoulders by surviving male politicians and historians.
Isabeau of Bavaria (ca. 1370–1435), wife of Charles VI, served as her husband’s regent during his periods of mental instability, and their son’s regent after his death. She would be blamed for the power struggle between the Orleanist party and the Burgundians, which she was required to mediate, as well as the losses of the French in the Hundred Years’ War that resulted in the humiliating Treaty of Troyes.
Catherine de’ Medici (1519–1589), wife of Henri II, was a marginalized figure at court until Henri’s death, when she stepped in to advise their son, Francois II, and then to be regent successively to his brothers. She would be portrayed as a sadistic and poisonous woman, and the cause of relentless and bloody persecution against French Protestants.
Marie Antoinette (1755–1793), wife of Louis XVI, is the most well-known of the three today. During her marriage and after her execution in the French Revolution, she was portrayed as a profligate outsider and the downfall of the ancien regime.
This paper explores the misogynistic black legends that have grown around these figures, and the truth behind them.
CASSIDY PERCOCO (SHE/HER) is the Collections Manager at the Fenimore Museum of Art and The Farmers’ Museum, and the author of Regency Women’s Dress: Techniques and Patterns, 1800-1830. Her research interests include the history of women’s dress, social history of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and the comparative study of queenship.
DOMINIC WEBB (/u/Dom_Webb)
CHURCHILL’S ANGELS? THE FEMALE AGENTS OF SOE’S F SECTION IN POPULAR MEMORY AND CULTURE
“The girls who served as secret agents in Churchill’s Special Operations Executive were young, beautiful and brave”. It is a testament to the scale of public misunderstanding surrounding Britain’s female operatives that this opening line from Marcus Binney’s ‘The Women who Lived For Danger’ is only one third true. That the 39 women sent into occupied France by SOE’s F Section to build up resistance networks were all brave is undeniable, that they were all young is incorrect and whether they were all beautiful is rather irrelevant.
Britain's involvement in the Second World War remains a cultural fascination, especially so stories of daring undercover operations carried out by glamourous secret agents with the grey coated Gestapo hot on their heels. Names such as Noor Inayat Khan, Virginia Hall and Violette Szabo are, if not household names, nonetheless recognizable to any armchair historian of the Second World War. However, waves of low-quality pop histories and films, especially in the modern day, have distorted popular understanding of these women, and often of the concept and function of female agents themselves. Whether the Orientalized description of Noor Inayat Khan as a "spy princess", or the sexualization and objectification of women in intelligence work more generally, there is a vast gulf between the myth and reality of F Section's female agents.
DOMINIC WEBB (HE/HIM) has a degree in history from the University of Warwick and an MA in Journalism from Goldsmiths College, University of London. He currently works as a financial journalist and writes answers on r/AskHistorians on all things relating to the secret war.
ANNIE WHITEHEAD (/u/AnnieAuthor)
KEPT IN THE DARK: WHAT IS THE TRUE STORY OF WOMEN OF POWER IN PRE-CONQUEST ENGLAND?
The Anglo-Norman chroniclers depicted many noblewomen as witches and murderers, and the modern perception can sometimes be that early medieval women were downtrodden, bought and sold into unhappy matrimony and left with little rights or freedoms. This paper shows, by examining earlier and therefore more contemporary sources, such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, charters, law codes, letters, and the writings of Bede, that women had greater control over their lives than might be supposed and that the more salacious stories about them, such as that of Lady Godiva’s naked horse ride, cannot be corroborated.
Women were allowed to refuse their suitors and to hold land in their own right which they could then bequeath as they saw fit. Royal wives had influence over policy, and one queen, Ælfthryth, was, despite being accused of witchcraft and incitement to murder, written to by plaintiffs and acted as an advocate in judicial cases.
Despite the fact that we often are not given their names, the lives of many powerful and influential women can be pieced together using a combination of sources and by doing so, it is possible to show how their status enhanced that of their husbands: one royal wife was written to by the pope and sent personal gifts to encourage her to evangelize, and we know of the case of the wife of Rædwald of East Anglia who, although unnamed by the sources, persuaded her husband to renounce his religion.
By examination of the earlier texts, and focusing on the lives of specific women, it can be shown that far from living in the "Dark Ages", these women were influential, literate, and often independent, and that the perception of their lives and times has been skewed by the later chroniclers.
ANNIE WHITEHEAD (SHE/HER) Annie is a History graduate and an elected member of the Royal Historical Society. She has written three award-winning novels set in Anglo-Saxon England, one of which, To Be A Queen, tells the story of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians. She has contributed to fiction and nonfiction anthologies and written for various magazines. She was the winner of the inaugural Historical Writers’ Association/Dorothy Dunnett Prize 2017 and is now a judge for that same competition. Her nonfiction books are Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom (Amberley Books) and Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England, (Pen & Sword Books). A fourth novel will be published in September 2021, as will the paperback edition of Women of Power, and a collection of alternative stories: 1066 Turned Upside Down.