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There are certain histories in which we often expect women to be absent. Whether it’s elite politics, war and conflict, or male-coded workplaces, we tacitly assume that we’re not dealing with women’s history, that these were spaces in which men alone were present and exercising power. But what if these assumptions were leading us astray in the first place? This panel explores the historical reality of women’s power and presence in what have long been regarded as male-dominated spheres, challenging long-held assumptions about the ways in which women have exercised historical agency.


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President of Schoolmarm Advisors, a freelance editing, fact-checking, and research service for education authors, JENNIFER BORGIOLI BINIS (SHE/HER) has her M.Ed. from Vanderbilt University and is a former teacher and professional development provider. She is published in the field of special, middle level, and gifted education and her writing on the history of education has appeared on Nursing Clio. She is an AskHistorians flair and moderator.


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CLARE BURGESS (/u/ClareBurgess)


The French Wars of Religion were a period of extreme turmoil: assassinations, battles and infighting left many women mourning husbands, brothers, and sons. Given the bellicose context, women are often relegated to the sidelines, presented only as pawns to be married off, and given little agency. This is a significant distortion of the truth. Women played a major role in the conflict, and this paper examines just one way in which women wielded power: they weaponised their grief as a tool with which to justify their involvement. Focusing on the triumvirate of Guise women, Anne d’Este, Catherine-Marie de Lorraine, and Catherine de Clèves, who were leaders of the Catholic League from the late 1580s into the 1590s. They conducted political negotiations, waged a vicious propaganda war, and resisted a siege by the royal army. Despite a swathe of contemporary evidence which puts all three women at the heart of League politics, their involvement has been virtually erased. Instead, they are presented as vicious harpies whose ineffectual diatribes were little more than background noise – to date, there is no biography of either Catherine-Marie de Lorraine or her sister-in-law Catherine de Clèves, and Anne d’Este is only now receiving the attention she deserves. This paper will examine contemporary pamphlets, diaries and correspondence to show that all three women effectively politicised their grief in order to further the Catholic cause, and to preserve the power of their dynasty. By demonstrating their central role in the Catholic League and the struggle for Paris, I aim to restore the Guise matriarchs to their rightful position as leaders of a religious and political movement, and as the stewards of the Guise dynasty’s legacy.

CLARE BURGESS (SHE/HER) is a masters student in Early Modern history at the University of Oxford, where she will be beginning a DPhil in autumn 2021 as an Oxford-Swire graduate scholar. Her research focuses on the history of women in the early modern period, in particular in France, Spain, and their colonies. Clare is the conference assistant for the online seminar series ‘Womandla! Feminism and Social Movements in the Global South’, and is publishing an article this autumn in Women’s History Today about Indigenous women’s access to the colonial legal system. She will also feature in a guest episode of The French History Podcast, speaking about her research into the women of the Guise family and their actions during the French Wars of Religion and beyond.

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CHELSEA HARTLEN (/u/MoragLarsson)


In both academic and popular representations, the Anglo-Scottish border region of the late medieval and early modern periods has been cast as a violent, lawless and masculine arena. Any mention of Borderers evokes the image of swords clashing and the sound of epic romantic ballads that chronicle the heroism and villainy of border raiders and their kin. In recent decades, the life in the borders has been further explored and the culture of violence and conflict better understood with historians like Jackson Armstrong (2020) advancing strong arguments about the positive and organisational role that violent raiding and feuding played in regulating social, cultural and economic relationships. In short, what modern observers and the early Scottish state considered messy and chaotic, the borderers themselves understood as a crucial part of a stable economy and productive conflict resolution. What is missing from recent assessments of life in the borders, however, is the involvement of women. Several scholars have asserted that women were excluded from the raiding and feuding that characterised border society. On the one hand, this is true: it would appear that the English and Scottish men who made their living trafficking goods and livestock across the border tacitly agreed to leave women and children unharmed during their escapades. However, historians have perhaps been too quick to dismiss the involvement of women in the feuding culture of this region. The records of Scotland’s highest criminal court are not the juiciest or most detailed documents but reading between the lines offers a glimpse into the ways that noblewomen related to prominent border families engaged in legitimate uses of violence typically reserved for men. The judicial responses, or lack thereof, to these women suggest that society perceived them as as acting well within their social and political roles.

CHELSEA HARTLEN (SHE/HER) is a PhD candidate at the University of Guelph and a flaired member of AskHistorians. Her research addresses Scotland’s justiciary court as a social, legal and bureaucratic institution during the first half of the sixteenth century and explores questions about violence versus violation, including how gender and status figured into the perpetration and prosecution of homicide and near-lethal assaults. Her most recent publication is entitled ‘Catching Fire: Arson, Rough Justice and Gender in Scotland, 1493–1542’ in Crossing Borders: Boundaries and Margins in Late Medieval and Early Modern Britain (Leiden: Brill, 2018).

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JULIA STRYKER (/u/JConnellStryker)


There are a few things everyone knows about ships, sailors, and the seas of the past: about pirates, that the captain goes down with the ship, and, in that superstitious and overwhelmingly male world, women are bad luck on ships. Women, however, have always gone to sea, just like men – as necessity and desire dictated. Their history has not been hidden so much as erased – overwritten by an understanding of the maritime past built on nostalgic mythmaking, itself born of the wracking change wrought by the end of the Age of Sail. 

Nineteenth-century Britain saw its maritime predominance as fundamental to its world-spanning empire, even as the rise of steam redefined maritime life – and concurrently saw the birth of the literary genre, the nautical novel. These novels helped define the popular understanding of the maritime past that persists today – from Treasure Island to Pirates of the Caribbean, Mr. Midshipman Easy to Master and Commander.


Women went to sea in record numbers, and even gained professionalized positions aboard ships, over the same period, but, at the turn of the twentieth century, women working at sea still saw themselves as pioneers, breaching forbidden, masculine shipboard spaces. What happened to the history of women’s work at sea that even those living it couldn't see it?


Maritime history has, for decades, picked apart the myths and matter of maritime life; just because seafaring was the practical engine of empire, doesn’t mean it lost its mystery. We need to know what was real, what was believed to be real – what are our stories, and what are the stories we tell ourselves? The history of women’s work at sea, and what happened to that history, together reveal the ties and tensions between culture and power, technology and craft, experience and meaning.

JULIA STRYKER (SHE/HER) is a PhD candidate in history at the University of Texas at Austin, and received her MA at Memorial University of Newfoundland. Her current research uses shipping contracts, law, and literature, to investigate women’s work at sea in the British Empire, particularly in the nineteenth-century. She also pursues digital historical and digital humanities methods, including using Python to map the voyages of women working at sea. She is a member of the COST Action Women on the Move, and an editorial board member for Anthem Studies in British History.

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