Why do later generations insist on turning historical women into heroines, and what can we know about the women behind the legends?
These papers uncover how truth is often stranger than fiction, that women were often morphed to fit the stories and ideals of different times and in the process we lose sight of the real. Dig beyond modern agendas and pop history to uncover the lives of real historical women, from modern sterility to the actual women stereotyped as sinners, saints, and spies.
Moderated by Jennifer Binis. Jennifer is the president and founder of Schoolmarm Advisors, which provides freelance editorial and research support to education authors and publishing houses. She writes about education history, especially as it relates to race, gender, and the implications for a female-coded profession.
Elisabeth Achler’s Dirty Laundry, or, the Medieval Saint and Her Suffering Sisters, by Cait Stevenson
In late medieval Europe, women who wanted to be saints had to imitate Christ’s suffering in specific and horrific ways. Eating nothing but thin wafers of sacred bread. Stigmata wounds that never stopped bleeding, screaming fits, never bathing. Accurate prophecies, levitation, and constant adulation. We overlook the impossibility of these acts to focus on their cultural significance. But St. Catherine of Siena starved herself to death in 1380. Blessed Elisabeth Achler von Reute (1386-1420) tried to starve, but could not stop herself from binge-eating at night on food she stole from the convent kitchen. Real women attempted to achieve these goals, and real women failed. This raises the question: what was it like to live with a bleeding, screaming, stinking, saint?
Her friends’ (successful) attempts to explain away Achler’s failure let us see beyond the curated Instagram of sainthood. They reveal the sisters who washed the stigmatic blood out of her bedsheets every day, who risked their own safety in public to protect her virginity, who complained about it frequently, and who loved her anyway. Achler’s sisters turned her insufferability into their own suffering to imitate Christ. They stole her sainthood for their souls—but only Achler got the glory.
Cait Stevenson earned her PhD in medieval history in 2019. She concentrates on breaking down the barriers and hierarchy among academic and popular history. She writes for the University of Notre Dame’s Medieval Studies Research Blog, and has moderated AskHistorians since 2016. She writes on topics ranging from Augustine’s Confessions to whether 17th century children playing with guns said their equivalent of “Pew, pew, pew.” Her current research focuses on visionaries, lay writers, and self-help literature in fifteenth-century Germany. You can find her on reddit and Twitter as @sunagainstgold.
Through Chimalmantzin’s Eyes: A Family History of the Conquest of Mexico, by Joshua Anthony
The Spanish colonization of Mexico in the sixteenth century was a defining moment in world history, but too often we forget that it was a process experienced by real people, with personal consequences. For the Nahuas, the majority ethnic group of the Aztec Empire, colonization disrupted the basic family structure that organized their lives. Indigenous noblemen before the conquest took multiple spouses, and their children grew up in households surrounded by half-siblings mothered by their father’s other wives. But soon after the conquest, evangelizing friars endeavored to replace the Nahua’s family structure with a European model based on Christian monogamy.
My paper examines the colonization of Mexico from the viewpoint of Chimalmantzin, a Nahua noblewoman who became the first women in her village married in a Christian ceremony. Chimalmantzin appears in a set of annals written by a Nahua historian in the seventeenth century. By reorienting the historical narrative contained in these annals around Chimalmantzin’s life, I illustrate how a noblewoman’s identity and power before and after the conquest depended on her family relations. Ultimately, I argue that Chimalmantzin used Christian marriage to improve her and her children’s prospects as they faced a chaotic, uncertain future under Spanish rule.
Josh Anthony is a second year Ph.D. student in History at Rutgers University in New Brunswick. His work focuses on colonial Mexico during the sixteenth and seventeenth century, especially the region of Chalco south of Mexico City. He is primarily interested in using indigenous-language sources to understand how the Nahuas of central Mexico reckoned with Spanish conquest and colonization. Issues of gender guide his research, specifically pertaining to Nahua perceptions of the family and masculinity.
Sex, Murder, and the Myth of the Wild West: How a Soiled Dove Earned a Heart of Gold, by Ronald James
Women involved in sexual commerce in the American West typically experienced harsh, short lives, and with death, they too often faded from historical memory. Popularly referred to as "soiled doves," these women were often granted patronizing forgiveness, excused as intrinsically good but too frail to avoid the pitfalls of prostitution. A few became noted for having a "heart of gold," a cliché that allowed remembrance of generosity and kindness.
Julia Bulette was an average sex worker in Virginia City during the 1860s. She was murdered with sensationalized gory details, but she would probably have been forgotten if it were not for the later conviction of someone who was hanged in the first public execution in the mining town. This allowed for a reconsideration of the victim, setting her on course to rise above the ranks of the average "doves" and earning her a golden heart in regional folklore. The long process of Bulette taking on legendary attributes is well documented: it is consequently possible to understand how historical memory adjusted to a changing world and how a woman, who once walked the streets, transformed to fit the evolving view of the mythic Wild West.
Ronald M. James has contributed to AskHistorians (itsallfolklore) since 2012
during the reddit Neolithic; coincidentally Ron was born in the Pleistocene. He is the
author or co-author of more than a dozen books dealing with history, folklore,
archaeology, and architectural history. Retired from administering the Nevada historic
preservation office for three decades, Ron also served as chair of the National Historic
Landmarks Committee for the National Park System. His most recent book, The
Folklore of Cornwall: The Oral Tradition of a Celtic Nation was a finalist for the
prestigious Katharine Briggs Award.
When Black History Becomes Multicultural Clickbait, Manure Happens: Uncovering Civil War Spy "Mary Bowser", by Lois Leveen
Print and online accounts of slave-turned-Civil War spy "Mary Bowser" have increased dramatically in recent years, reflecting growing public interest in black history and women's history. Yet nearly everything circulating about her is inaccurate, even the name "Mary Bowser." These inaccuracies reflect an impulse to celebrate diversity that presumes black history doesn't deserve diligent research and assiduous evaluation of sources. Born enslaved in Virginia, Mary Richards Denman was educated in New Jersey and expatriated to Liberia. Returning to America, she participated in Richmond's interracial pro-Union underground during the war. She also taught newly emancipated African Americans and became a postbellum activist for racial justice.
Prevailing accounts of "Bowser," which confirm the individualistic trope of an exceptional hero and reinforce a feel-good version of history that ends with emancipation, obscure how Mary Richards Denman allied with other activists to challenge manifold manifestations of racism. In a particularly demeaning twist on white saviorism, one fallacious claim has the white spymaster burying "Bowser" in a cartload of manure to smuggle her past suspicious Confederates. Examining the circulation of this falsehood exposes how supposed tributes to African American achievement can promote racist degradation, distorting how Americans of all races perceive black agents of resistance.
Lois Leveen earned degrees from Harvard, the University of Southern California, and UCLA. As a public humanities scholar, she shares assiduous research outside academia: teaching online and at museums, libraries, and similar venues; and publishing in The Atlantic, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The New York Times, TIME.com, and similar outlets, and in scholarly journals and academic books. Having turned a footnote from her dissertation into the novel The Secrets of Mary Bowser (HarperCollins 2012), Leveen is currently writing a biography of Mary Richards Denman, whose real life proves more astounding and edifying than anything anyone could make up.