‘Useful’ Old Women: ageing women in the dual role of patient and caregiver in early modern England, by Amie Bolissian

How did the older gentlewomen healers and caregivers of early modern England feel about providing hands on care when suffering illness and infirmity themselves? Amie Bolissian provides a historical perspective on being an ageing and infirm carer. [Content Warning: injury detail]

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Despite being disparaged as ‘quacksalvers’, or marginalised, witch-like ‘crones’ by qualified doctors, ‘old women’ played a crucial role in the care of patients at every level in Tudor and Stuart cities, towns, and villages. Most of these women were also usually suffering from some sort of illness or infirmity themselves. Why did these ailing women continue to care for the sick into their old age? Some, of course, may have needed the income for everyday subsistence. Parish records have shown that poor women with ‘nursekeeping’ experience might be pressured into caring for patients by the authorities, on pain of losing their own poor relief of money and food.[1] But what of wealthier older women, who cared for patients in their families and communities while also suffering from disease or disability? These women were entirely capable of paying for others to provide care, but they chose to persist, working on through feelings of fear, ‘grief’, pain, and discomfort. Why might this have been? Affection for an ailing relative may have played a part, and a feeling of duty towards kin and friends, but my research into diaries and letters has also revealed the particular importance of feeling ‘useful’.

An example of this can be found in the extensive writings of English gentlewoman Lady Anne Halkett (1623-1699), who suffered from extremely painful kidney stones, a chronic cough, and breathing problems but continued to care for the sick up until months before her death aged seventy-six. Former courtier and staunch royalist, Halkett was schooled in medicine and surgery by her mother – Jane Drummond Murray, previous governess to King Charles I’s children – and treated patients for most of her life. This included stints during the civil war, and within her community in Fife, Scotland, where she lived with her husband until he died at age sixty, then as a widow for a further 29 years.

 

Wax figure of Lady Anne Halkett at her desk in Abbots House, Dunfermline, Wikimedia Commons

Halkett made and distributed remedies, but her ‘meditations’ reveal that she also provided in-person care, day and night. Descriptions of her attending patients, including her own son, as she entered her seventies, show the toll that could take on her health – causing neck pain, cramps and worse. In 1696, at the age of seventy-three, she described a charitable care visit one evening but explained that, while she had little ‘paine or sickness’ at the time, after supper her painful ‘fitt of the stone… grew so much worse as I could get noe rest’. She eventually passed the stone, described as ‘a Pea & sharpe att one end’, and felt much better, but she directly linked her relapse with her caring labours.[2]

Directly after her ‘fit of the stone’, she wrote that she had declined to take in a sickly child for care because, as she put it, ‘I absolutely refused […] in the reason of my old Age & unfittnese to undertake new trouble of others when I had so mych of my owne’, referring also to her substantial debts. But then she had a change of heart. The pious Protestant wrote that she began to interpret the petition to help the child as a sign from God. ‘Perhaps’, she wrote, ‘the Lord in his Providence had sent this occation to lett mee see hee would have mee still continue to bee usefull to others.’ The word useful appears twice in this passage, and she also refers to her practice as doing God’s work.[3]

An old woman wearing a black veil; head and shoulders. Etching by or after Rembrandt van Rijn, 1631. Wellcome CollectionAttribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

While the term ‘useful’ does not (curiously) appear in the King James Bible, the notion of being of use and in service to God was commonly expressed. ‘Useful’ as applied to a person appeared with greater and greater frequency in Protestant religious commentary over the seventeenth century. The theologian Richard Steele’s 1688 Discourse on Old Age suggested that before decrepitude set in, old age might even be considered the ‘best parcel of our Life’, because ‘our impetuous Passions being already spent, we are furnished by great experience to be very useful’.[4] Halkett may have felt that, as long as she maintained her ‘usefulness’ in her medical care-work, she might avoid entering the culturally dreaded decrepitude of extreme old age – what a contemporary diarist of hers, Lady Sarah Cowper, called the bitter ‘dreggs’ of life and what is now often referred to as ‘the fourth age’.[5]

Early English Books Online, Burke Library, Union Theological Seminary

Yet there were other routes to feeling useful for ageing women in early modern devout Protestant culture. Printed religious discourse, following the teachings of Cicero, assured the aged that, despite being infirm and unable to work as they formerly had, they could turn to studious, religious contemplation, edifying reading and writing, and a pious preparation for death – thereby avoiding ‘idleness’ which was considered a gateway shrug to sin. When describing the ideal old man, Steele recommended that ‘Aged men be sober, grave, temperate, sound in Faith, in Charity, in Patience’, but added, ‘The aged Women likewise, &c.’[6] As customarily found in published works, ‘old women’ were an addendum, an afterthought, a postscript, inhabiting the &c. This also occurred in texts on women’s health, where postmenopausal women past childbearing were found relegated to parentheses and consigned to caveats. On the rare occasions that old women were addressed in spiritual literature, they were urged to be exemplars for younger women. The cleric and author Thomas Becon, used the image of a mirror, claiming the ‘dutie of olde women’ was to ‘shew themselves … naturall myrrours of all godlines and honestie’.[7] To be useful, they could erase their own decrepit, post-menopausal, post-protagonist body by becoming a reflective surface representing a purely spiritual ideal for the reproductive-age women who mattered.

Page from Lady Anne Halkett’s ‘Meditations’, Image: Public Domain, https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/autobiography-of-lady-anne-halkett

As a devout, literate woman with visibility, and some means (despite her debts) Anne Halkett had access to these forms of cultural identity and validation in old age. Nonetheless, despite her prodigious efforts in spiritual writing and religious practices, something about her medical ministry still called to Halkett, and made her feel that she was truly the ‘worke’ of God’s ‘owne hands’.[8] It appears her characterisation of ‘usefulness’ was far more active and embodied than that recommended by religious doctrine.

My research has shown me that there is no doubt ageing women like Halkett, and others, believed their medical care-work was hazardous to their health and emotions, but the desire to be ‘useful’ to God, those they loved, and the wider community seems to have compelled them to continue. In a cultural context which largely ignored, vilified, or ridiculed older women, unless you were the actual Queen of England (and even then… ), they may well have gained a valued identity and sense of continuing relevance from their medical roles.

Amie Bolissian is a Wellcome-funded PhD Candidate researching ageing patients in early modern England, examining medical understandings of old age and the experiences of sick older people from c.1570-1730.

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  1. See: Harkness, Deborah E., ‘A View from the Streets : Women and Medical Work in Elizabethan London: Women, Health, and Healing in Early Modern Europe’, Bulletin of the history of medicine, 82/1 (2008), 52-85, 66; Munkhoff, Richelle, ‘Poor women and parish public health in sixteenth-century London’, Renaissance studies, 28/4 (2014), 579-96, 587; Wear, Andrew, ‘Caring for the sick poor in St Bartholomew’s Exchange, 1580-1679’, Medical History; Supplement, 11 (1991), 41-60, 46. Also: Pelling, Margaret (ed.), The Common Lot : Sickness, Medical Occupations and the Urban Poor in Early Modern England (London: Longman, 1998), Ch.8: 179-202.
  2. National Library of Scotland, Halkett, Lady Anne, ‘Meditations’ NLS MSS.6489-6502 (Mid seventeenth century), MS 6501, fol.246.
  3. Halkett, Lady Anne, ‘Meditations’, MS 6501, fol.249.
  4. Steele, Richard, A discourse concerning old-age tending to the instruction…of aged persons (London, 1688), 11.
  5. Kugler, Anne, The Diary of Sarah, Lady Cowper, eds Lynn Botelho and Susannah R. Ottaway, 8 vols. (The History of Old Age in England, 1600-1800, 7; London, 2009), 87; Gilleard, Chris and Higgs, P., ‘Aging without agency: Theorizing the fourth age’, Aging & Mental Health, 14/2 (2010/03/01 2010), 121-28..
  6. Steele, Richard, A discourse, title page.
  7. Becon, Thomas, The sycke mans salve, (London: 1561), unpaginated.
  8. Halkett, Lady Anne, ‘Meditations’, MS 6501, fol.246.

‘Why are adolescent girls so awful?’ Challenging stereotypes of teenage girlhood by the readers of ‘Just Seventeen’ magazine, 1987, by Amy Gower

“So who are these people, these thirteen- to nineteen- year-olds? Is that all we know about them? What is their function in society, what do they look like, how do they dress, how do they smell, etc? But, most of all we need to know, is it true that their only interest in life is a dog-like interest in sex?

Well, I can start to make these points clear to you by introducing myself on the scene. Here is a real life teenager.”

Hilary Edwards, in Bitter-sweet Dreams

In 1987, Virago published a collection of writing by the readers of teenage girls’ magazine Just Seventeen. The essays, poems, and short stories aimed to counter stereotypes and misconceptions about teenage girls, as the introduction by Janice Long made clear.

“It wasn’t that long ago that ‘teenage’ books were written by doctors, educationalists and the like – establishment figures with textbook ideas. The danger with these books was that if you didn’t fit with their theories, you were made to feel odd. To me, the only valid words, thoughts and opinions of girls and young women are their own.”

Just Seventeen had replaced Jackie as the most popular teen magazine in the UK, substituting the chaste romance of Jackie with an edgier, more assertive, ‘street-wise’ femininity for the 1980s adolescent girl. This collection then provided a space for girls who identified with the new femininity of Just Seventeen to question normative assumptions of their age and gender, drawing on their lived experiences to challenge the expertise of professionals and adults.

Ideas of teenagers as self-centred and impulsive were evident in developmental psychology and in educational circles throughout the postwar period, and were also informed by stereotypes about class, race, and gender. In the 1970s and 1980s, as language and policy around equal opportunities entered education discourses, ideas of ‘natural difference’ between boys and girls were used to explain gendered disparities in academic and professional achievement. In a 1981 opinion piece in The Guardian, former headteacher of Oxford High School and philosopher Mary Warnock attributed what she saw as girls’ lack of ambition to sexuality.

“Little girls are bright, bossy, competitive and ambitious. Big girls are passive, conservative, intellectually vapid and without ambition. This is the story every school teacher tells… Why are adolescent girls so awful? What happens to them? Why do they make such depressingly predictable choices at school? Why do they not want to compete? Alas, it seems that the cliché answer is right. It is sex.”

Girls were, according to Warnock, rejecting work and study because of social pressures, and instead were focusing on boys, sex, marriage, and children, making poor choices, and ‘wasting’ their futures. In her attempts to account for girls’ apparent lack of drive, Warnock drew on ideas of girlhood as sex- or boy-obsessed, with girls unable to overcome the short-term enjoyment of romantic relationships and consider their futures.

This idea of girls as sex- or boy-obsessed was not entirely refuted by the girls of Bitter-sweet Dreams. Some acknowledged that their peers were often discussing boys, but that they did not fit this mould. ‘Niamh’ expressed her understanding that adolescence was a time ‘when you find your sexual identity’, but that she was as an ‘outcast’ for not having a boyfriend. Other girls also described their difficulties in living up to unrealistic expectations and the pressures to date and be sexually active. But, this was not, as Warnock described, a distraction to their other roles. ‘Niamh’ also asserted that girls were highly ambitious.

“They want to get to the top of the profession they choose, or exam they take…I still feel, though, that this country will see an upheaval in the traditional role of the woman, and a new generation will emerge whereby women and men are equal. Possibly another fantasy of the teenage mind?”

‘Niamh’s’ use of ‘fantasy’ can perhaps be read as a jibe aimed at adults who did not take teenage girls’ viewpoints seriously, another common contention in Bitter-sweet Dreams. ‘Maisy’ asserted that adults did not appreciate that ‘…us young teenagers have lots of bright ideas…To them we don’t know anything’. Hilary connected this to ideas of biological development.

 

“As an adult, your views can be heard…You may be classed as a ‘teenager’ by society, but by your family, your school and your teachers you’re thought of more as a kid who has just embarked on puberty.”

For Hilary, being a ‘teenager’ should have been different to being a ‘kid’, but assumptions of adolescence based on biological development – puberty – shaped her interactions and relationships with her parents, who dismissed her as she was ‘at that age’. The language of biological development could therefore be used to undermine and demean, reinforcing teenage daughters’ place within the power dynamics of the family.

Many girls also expressed their anxiety at an unjust and violent world to emphasise that they were not as passive or clueless as adults imagined them. The National Front, apartheid, nuclear war, unemployment, crime, drugs, sexual assault, and divorce were all topics covered by the young writers, many of whom recounted their own personal experiences. ‘Karina’ stated that learning about the darkness in the world was part of growing up.

“Being a teenager? I’m not sure what it means…I want to change things. I want to help the poor, I want to ban the bomb, I want us all to live in harmony, black, white, yellow, blue, whatever. I want to make my impression on the world, on this cold and bitter and confused place I live in.”

Another author, Vickie, highlighted the hypocrisy of her parents’ generation who came of age in the 1960s, ‘making love not war’, but who now wanted ‘to ban abortion and confidential contraception for the under-sixteens’, a reference to the attempts of campaigner Victoria Gillick to restrict teenage girls’ access to the Pill without parental consent. At a time when girls’ capacity to make choices about their lives and bodies was being dissected in the press and in the courts, the Bitter-sweet Dreams writers aimed to prove their capability to make informed choices and affect change.

Within this collection, teenage girls contested adult assumptions of teenage girlhood which they felt adults used to restrict their lives. By demonstrating their individuality as ‘real-life’ teenagers, these girls tackled stereotypes of teenage girls as boy-mad, vapid, or shallow, and asserted their expertise over adults’.

All extracts from: Bitter-sweet Dreams: Girls’ and Young Women’s Own Stories, by the readers of Just Seventeen, Virago Upstarts, 1987.

Mary Warnock, ‘Why are adolescent girls so awful?’, The Guardian, 17th August 1981.

Amy Gower is currently writing up her PhD on girlhood, feminism, and schooling in late twentieth century England, and can be found on Twitter @AmyG_Historrry 

“The master whished to reproduce”: The (Forced) Reproduction of Enslaved Life in the Antebellum South, 1808-1865′, by Aisha Djelid

“When my babe was born, they said it was premature. It weighed only four pounds; but God let it live. I heard the doctor say I could not survive till morning. I had often prayed for death; but now I did not want to die, unless my child could die too. Many weeks passed before I was able to leave my bed. I was a mere wreck of my former self. For a year there was scarcely a day when I was free from chills and fever. My babe also was sickly. His little limbs were often racked with pain. Dr. Flint continued his visits, to look after my health; and he did not fail to remind me that my child was an addition to his stock of slaves.”

– Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself (1861)

Spring and Easter is a time of year that many begin to ruminate on new beginnings and the circle of life. Chicks, bunnies, and lambs are the general motif of this new life. However, for enslaved people in the pre-Civil War US South, life cycles and reproduction were a daily concern within plantation communities, with many enslavers comparing enslaved people to livestock such as cows, calves, horses, and pigs. Slaveholders actively encouraged their enslaved ‘property’ to reproduce by cajoling, threatening, and coercing them into intimate relationships. Enslavers then either sold or exploited the children born of these sexual relationships for labor, earning themselves a profit. In this way, enslaved women were both producers and reproducers of slavery, and these children also grew up to unwillingly follow in their parents’ footsteps. This was known, at the time, as ‘slave-breeding’, but will be referred to here as ‘forced reproduction.’

Houghton, G. H., photographer. (1862) Family of slaves at the Gaines’ house. Hanover County Virginia, 1862. [Hanover County, Virginia] [Photograph], Retrieved from the Library of Congress

Forced reproduction manifested itself in the emphasis on what enslavers deemed ‘healthy’ and ‘strong’ infants absorbed into slavery. A 1662 law originating in Virginia, known as partus sequitur ventrem, meant that children followed the status of the mother. So, if the mother was free, so too were her children. But if the mother was enslaved, her children inherited the same status. By reproducing, enslaved men and women increased the enslaved workforce, which was especially important after 1808 when the international slave trade ban came into force. Enslavers could no longer traffic people from West Africa, and so had to concentrate on the internal market and ‘natural growth’. Thus, enslavers coerced enslaved men and women to procreate, supervised their children’s exercise and diet in an attempt to control their growth, and raised them as laborers and commodities to be sold on the market.

Harriet Jacobs (1894)

The above quotation from Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) demonstrates the different motivations enslaved parents and enslavers had for the survival and health of children (1). Harriet worried for the wellbeing of her premature baby, praying for his recovery and growth. Dr Flint (whose real name was actually Dr James Norcom) saw Harriet’s baby not as a sick infant, but ‘an addition to his stock of slaves.’ Harriet later wrote that her children ‘grew finely’, and that Norcom often remarked to her ‘with an exulting smile, “These brats will bring me a handsome sum of money one of these days.”’ Enslavers shrewdly calculated the life of enslaved children. As they grew older, they grew more valuable, and enslaved boys and men were valued higher at market than girls and women.

However, the commodification and marketisation of ‘breeding women’ – enslaved women either at the prime of their fertile lives or who had already proven to birth multiple children – were a more complicated story. Some enslavers preferred to avoid purchasing particularly fertile women as they could not labor as productively in the fields due to their pregnant state and were reduced to what was known as a ‘half-hand’, rather than a full hand. Others, however, saw potential in fertile women, and valued women that produced lots of children as they were reproducing the workforce with their ‘natural increase’, and thus increasing the number of slaves that could be sold or exploited through labor. Thus, the value of these ‘breeding women’ at auction varied depending on whether enslavers viewed these women as the creator of potential lives and profit. In particular, slaveholding women saw value in these ‘breeding women’, and financially savvy white women purchased them with the intent to exploit their ‘future increase.’ (2)

The children born of relationships forced by slaveholders were kept under the watchful eye of their enslavers, and white men and women often took them away from their parents and into the ‘Big House’ to utilize them as domestic ‘servants’ and keep a close eye on them. Many enslavers also carried out a feeding regime by forcing the children to eat from long troughs, not unlike those they used to feed livestock. In this way, enslavers systematically controlled what and when children ate. Slaveholding women also gave the children medicine such as ‘Jerusalem Oak’ to cure parasites like worms, and forced them to run around the plantation, and engaging in races to see who the fittest was. All of this was to make sure that the children grew up to fit their specifications for the labor they intended them to carry out (3).

Many of these enslaved girls and boys were singled out as potentially productive producers and reproducers. Just as their enslavers had forced their parents to reproduce the labor force, they also forced the next generation to do so, too. Slaveholders forced mothers and fathers to witness their children experience the same violent and traumatic ordeal that they did – forced reproduction. Some enslaved men and women resisted forced reproduction through what has been termed ‘reproductive resistance’ – the use of natural contraceptives, long periods of nursing, abortions, and infanticide (4). However, those who did not choose or were unable to carry out this method of resistance witnessed their enslavers forcibly march their children down the same path they themselves were forced down. Life cycles and the reproduction of life was thus a huge part of enslaved peoples’ day-to-day lives in the early- to mid-nineteenth century (5).

(1) Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself (Boston, 1861) https://docsouth.unc.edu/fpn/jacobs/jacobs.html

(2) Stephanie Jones-Rogers, They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South (Yale University Press, 2019).

(3) Easter Wells, Federal Writers’ Project: Slave Narrative Project, Vol. 13, Oklahoma, (1936), https://www.loc.gov/item/mesn130/, p. 318.

(4) For works on reproductive resistance see: Thelma Jennings, “‘Us Colored Women Had to Go Through a Plenty”: Sexual Exploitation of African-American Slave Women,’ Journal of Women’s History, 1 (1990)45–74; Liese M. Perrin, “Resisting Reproduction: Reconsidering Slave Contraception in the Old South,” Journal of American Studies, 35 (2001), 255–74; Emily West with Erin Shearer, ‘Fertility Control, Shared Nurturing, and Dual Exploitation: The Lives of Enslaved Mothers in the Antebellum United States’, Women’s History Review, 27(2018), 1006-1020.

(5) For more on forced reproduction see: Gregory Smithers, Slave Breeding: Sex, Violence, and Memory in African American History, (University Press of Florida, 2001); Thomas Foster, Rethinking Rufus: Sexual Violations of Enslaved Men, (University of Georgia Press, 2019).

Aisha Djelid is a second year PhD student at the University of Reading, currently researching her thesis on forced reproduction in the Antebellum South. Her work explores the intersection of race and gender and considers how while enslaved people were raising their families, enslavers were raising them as bodies for exploitation. Aisha is also a postgraduate representative for the association of British American Nineteenth Century Historians (BrANCH), and co-convenor of the Reading Gender and Sexuality Research Network.

‘Hidden Voices: Enslaved Women in the Lowcountry and U.S. South’: Emily West in Conversation with Beth Rebisz for Women’s History Month

Launching Women’s History Month for the Gender Research Cluster is Professor Emily West, here in conversation with Beth Rebisz about her exhibition Hidden Voices: Enslaved Women in the Lowcountry and U.S. South. Developed in collaboration with the Lowcountry Digital History Initiative at the college of Charleston, this amazing exhibition explores the history of Black women in the American South from the Antebellum era to the Reconstruction era. Focusing on the experiences of enslaved women in the South Carolina and Georgia Lowcountry in both rural and urban contexts, the exhibit examines African American women’s labour, interconnected relationships, and cultural practices. It reveals the types of violence they were subjected to as well as the joys and triumphs they created for themselves. By exploring the history of slavery through the lens of gender, Hidden Voices illuminates African American women’s specific experiences and contributions.

Emily provides an invaluable insight into the design of this exhibition, from the choices raised by including problematic sources, to ensuring audience members are free to interpret the material in their own ways. She emphasises the obligation of historians to share their research outside of academia, particularly to include a better integration of women’s history in accessible mediums.

We are thrilled to have had the opportunity to speak with Emily for Women’s History Month, and to spotlight this incredible exhibition as an important window into enslaved women’s hidden histories. Thank you, Emily!

Click the image below to watch the full video.

Don’t forget to access the exhibition here.

 

 

Teaching Transgender Histories in School: Richard Harris in Conversation with Amy Austin

Continuing this important series for LGBT+ History Month is Professor Richard Harris, interviewed by our own Amy Austin. Richard is Director of Teaching and Learning at the University of Reading’s Institute of Education, specialising in the theory and practice of history teaching, curriculum policy and development, and transgender issues in education.

We are so thrilled to hear Richard’s expert insight into teaching transgender history in schools, from the barriers in resources and subject knowledge, to the opportunities for teachers to deliver their own interpretation of the curriculum.

“I quite like this idea of creating teachers to be critical curriculum thinkers, so they’ll have the discussion about ‘how do I teach, but also what do I teach and why am I actually teaching that?’ “

Click the image below to watch the full interview.

 

If you missed it, you can watch last week’s interview with Amy Austin about transgender history as a developing field in LGBT+ history here.

Follow us on Twitter to keep up to date with our latest activities for LGBT+ History Month: @genderhist_Rdg

Time to talk about transgender history: Amy Austin in conversation with Richard Harris

Kick-starting LGBT+ History Month is our very own Amy Austin, a PGR student of transgender identities in Britain from 1870 to the 1940s. Interviewed by Professor Richard Harris from the University of Reading’s Education Institute, Amy gives an important insight into transgender history as a developing field in LGBT+ history, the critical contributions made by scholars of trans history to our understanding of gender identities, and the difficulties surrounding how best to categorise gender fluidity in a period that predates modern terms.

“Transgender [histories] can be marginalised and end up as a footnote… it is important to get that representation out there to make sure transgender history gets the recognition and the platform it deserves”.

We are so grateful to Amy and Richard for this interview, and can’t wait to hear Richard’s perspectives on transgender history in education next week!

Click the image below to watch the full interview:

You can also catch Amy on the podcast Surprisingly Brilliantdiscussing transgender identities in 1800s Britain with Susan Stryker and Laurie Metcalf.

Edit: Since posting, we have been made aware that having wear three articles of clothing of your gender in America is an urban myth. You can read more about the manipulation of masquerade laws in America here. Great to share knowledge and continue this important conversation!

Women and the Levellers: Beyond Domesticity, by Dr Rachel Foxley

Participating in politics forces women in any male-dominated society and political system to make a whole suite of decisions, conscious or otherwise, about how to present themselves and their aims. The Leveller movement of the 1640s pressed for a representative, non-monarchical settlement after the civil war which would rest on the electoral consent of a broadly inclusive male electorate. When women appeared in print or in public as part of the Levellers’ campaigning, they had to navigate the gender expectations of society without (further) alienating those suspicious of Leveller radicalism.

Women who engaged in the politics of the English Revolution did so in a period when women’s formal involvement in politics (now that the line of male Stuart monarchs had succeeded Elizabeth I) was assumed to be entirely unnecessary and illegitimate. The arguments for this were hardly rock-solid: even some relatively modest male property-owners and household heads did have political representation when parliament sat, and many women – particularly widows – might be property-owners and household heads of very similar status. What is more, these widows really did have some of the status which went with their economic and household roles, for example in actively continuing their husbands’ businesses in their own names. Nonetheless, the largely customary way in which politics was done meant that these inconsistencies over representation went undebated before the English Revolution.

The Levellers, however, brought the issue of representation to the fore as they developed an argument that (in John Lilburne’s words) ‘the poorest that lives’, not just the propertied, were entitled to vote. For the Levellers, all legitimate government was founded on the consent of the governed, and this, in the Levellers’ radical constitutional proposals, was to be granted both through popular subscription of a new constitution, the ‘Agreement of the People’, and thereafter through the annual re-election of the new unicameral Representative which would govern the country. In seeking to radically expand the electorate, the Levellers found themselves having to define its limits in ways which had not been so urgent before, and they were explicit that the new electors were to be malean assumption which echoed Colonel Rainborough’s telling version of Lilburne’s demand: at the Putney debates in 1647 he argued that even ‘the poorest he’ had the right to vote, ‘as the greatest he’.

But there were active Leveller women. Katherine Chidley’s role in the movement grew from her involvement in the radical religious congregations which formed the base of Leveller support in London. Writing to justify religious separatism against its opponents, who accused it among other things of encouraging wives to disobey their husbands, she accepted that a husband had authority over his wife ‘in bodily and civill respects, but not to be a Lord over her conscience’. Only Christ could govern the conscience.[1] Other individual Leveller women, unlike Chidley, are known to us almost entirely through their husbands’ pamphlets and their own individual petitions on behalf of their husbands when they underwent imprisonment. This is not to underplay their extraordinary grit and political engagement, which indeed their husbands paid tribute to: Mary Overton, for example, even when imprisoned herself, refused to obey the authority of the House of Lords, regarded by the Levellers as illegitimate, for her transfer to another prison, but (in her husband Richard’s words) ‘to the utmost testimony of her weake power, made opposition and resistance against it… like a true-bred Englishwoman.’ Not only did this refusal lead to her being brutally dragged through the streets and verbally abused with her baby still in her arms, but, as her husband stresses, any onlooker would have concluded that she was ‘no woman of honest & godly Conversation, whom they so barbarously abused, but a vile strumpet or whore’, endangering her ‘reputation’ for ever.[2] While even a ‘weake’ woman could be courageous and principled, it was evidently the Levellers’ enemies, not the Levellers themselves, who were violating gender norms by treating a respectable woman so outrageously. Thus Ann Hughes has argued that the Levellers invoked the idea of a politics fundamentally based not on individuals but on households when they publicised the travails of their wives in their writings, and ultimately sought to claim full citizenship only for male household heads.

In spite of these claims for the protection of respectable domesticity against the incursion of the authorities, Leveller women did also sometimes act collectively, as women, in a way which made explicitly gendered statements about their stake in the radical politics of the English Revolution. Rather than simply petitioning individually on behalf of their husbands, in 1649, on the eve of the crushing of the movement by the new post-regicide regime, they also presented two notable collective petitions, as women, which – to reinforce their message – were physically taken to Westminster by a crowd of women to be presented to the House of Commons. A Commons official predictably told them to ‘goe home… and meddle with your huswifery’,[3] but the women’s petitions made very clear that it was the violation of their households which had forced them to come out and petition in the first place:

“We are so over-prest, so over-whelmed in affliction, that we are not able to keep in our compass, to be bounded in the custom of our sex; for indeed we confess it is not our custom to address our selves to this House in the Publick behalf, yet considering, That we have an equal share and interest with men in the Common-wealth, and it cannot be laid waste… and not we be the greatest & most helpless sufferers therein… and we are not able to see our children hang upon us, and cry out for bread, and not have wherewithall to feed them, we had rather die then see that day…”

Nonetheless, the women’s claim of ‘an equal share and interest with men in the Common-wealth’ was bold, and they made entirely clear that they knew and agreed with the causes for which their ‘husbands, sons or servants’ were campaigning and being arrested.[4] In a further petition on 5 May 1649, the women reported themselves ‘no whit satisfied with the answer you gave unto our husbands and friends’, implying, as Gary de Krey comments, that they as well as their male colleagues could hold the government accountable.[5]

However clever their rhetorical moves, the sight of a crowd of perhaps 500 women, bringing a printed petition perhaps signed by hundreds more to a parliament which even their male colleagues in the movement did not intend them to vote for, was certainly unprecedented. But so were the times. As one of the women retorted when an MP told them it was ‘strange’ that women should petition, ‘It was strange that you cut off the King’s head, yet I suppose you will justify it.’[6]

Rachel Foxley is Associate Professor of History, specialising in the history of political language and political thought, particularly in seventeenth-century England.

[1] Katherine Chidley, The Justification of the Independant Churches of Christ (1641), p. 26.

[2] Richard Overton, The Commoners Complaint (1647), pp. 17, 19.

[3] Kingdomes Weekly Intelligencer, 24 April – 1 May 1649.

[4] To the Supreme Authority of this Nation, the Commons Assembled in Parliament, The Humble Petition of divers Wel-affected Women (April 1649), p. 4.

[5] Gary de Krey, Following the Levellers (London, 2017, vol. 1), p. 245.

[6] John Rees, The Leveller Revolution (London, 2016), p. 291.

Gender and Memory in British Maritime History: In Conversation with Richard Blakemore

Next up in our gender and memory series is Dr Richard Blakemore, who kindly agreed to participate in a short video podcast about his work with two important sailor autobiographies in the Early Modern Period. Richard discusses performances of seafarer masculinity, the interaction between private memoirs and public memory, and the complexities of family relationships in which the sailors act as absent patriarchs of the household. Thank you, Richard, for sharing this fascinating research with us – we can’t wait to read the book!

Click the image below to watch the full podcast

 

 

Dr Richard Blakemore is a historian and lecturer of the Early Modern Atlantic World at the University of Reading. His research explores the social history of seafarers in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. If you would like to find out more about Richard’s work on the maritime world of Early Modern Britain, you can do so in his recent edited collection here.

Don’t miss Richard’s children’s Christmas lecture: What is a Pirate? 16th December, 16:00!

‘Eternal Glory to Our Martyrs!’: Gendered Memories of War in Ethiopia’s Civil Conflict, by Francesca Baldwin

The northern state of Tigray in Ethiopia is at the centre of the current civil crisis embroiled in the Horn of Africa. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has ordered all civilians remaining in the capital of Tigray, Mekelle, to surrender to government forces in the next two days or face a full-scale artillery attack, while the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) leading the region have vowed to continue fighting. The conflict has resulted in the deaths of hundreds of soldiers and civilians, displaced tens of thousands and threatens a catastrophic humanitarian crisis. Communication in and out of Tigray is nearly impossible so the total human impact of this conflict has yet to be fully revealed.

In many ways, this war is a continuation of problems raised during the Civil War of the previous century (1974-1991), where the TPLF led a coalition of liberation movements to victory over the repressive Derg regime governing Ethiopia at the time.

Tigray, Ethiopia

What has gender got to do with it?

A whole lot. Gender is the stage and language of militarism in Ethiopia and is deeply entangled with the representation of Civil War memory throughout the country.

Much of the current rhetoric in the country is characterised by fierce debate over historical narratives and contested memory surrounding regional groups’ contributions to nation-building, with, unsurprisingly, explicit gendered dimensions.

Gail Hershatter writes, ‘Memory appears to be created anew whenever it is called upon… [memories are] a product of the confluence of past events and present circumstances’.[i] Memory, and memory culture, is a process, inextricably informed by social constructions and distinctions of gender. Questions of who remembers, and whose memories are publicly legitimised, also address parallel questions of who is represented, authenticated and heard. Debates over historical narratives are less about the ‘truth’ of past events and much more concerned with ‘who’ is authorised to speak for the past in the present.[ii] Gender is an inevitable dimension to differential power relations, and memory is created and deployed during discussions of contested claims to power.[iii] Thus, what is collectively remembered (and forgotten) is closely bound to dynamics of power and hegemony and, therefore, gender.[iv]

The Tigray Communications Media Bureau recently posted on its social media a declaration littered with references to a uniquely Tigrayan experience and memory:

The illegal, unitarist and, personalistic dictatorship currently in charge of political power at the federal level, in a move that reaffirms the adage that history repeats itself, finds itself repeating the injustices committed by the previous imperial and military regimes, conspiring with external actors with the sole purpose of bringing the people of Tigray to their knees.

It is well known that you, the people of Tigray, have continually tolerated the numerous acts of injustice perpetrated against them thus far and have paid tremendous sacrifices for the sake of saving the country from destruction…we call upon you to make extensive preparations to, as always, counter your enemies and make a glorious history in the process.

Eternal Glory to our Martyrs!’

The Martyr’s Memorial Monument, Mekelle

The TPLF famously included a high proportion of women in its military during the liberation war, offering a taste of gender equality to combatants that was not tangibly translated into post-war society. Nonetheless, the TPLF continues to draw upon memories of its female soldiers to mobilise residents in support of its political legitimacy, espousing a specific Tigrayan history that was built from its foundations to victory by women.

In times of social and political upheaval (and perhaps beyond), ‘memory work’ can become ‘memory politics’; no longer situated in the field of history but firmly in the public domain. Collective memory represents history as meaning or, in other words, the ways in which a shared narrative is crafted to make sense of historical occurrences and translate them into something tangible and accessible. Understood in this way, memory works as its own kind of archive that reveals as much about the present as it does the past.

Book Cover, Sweeter Than Honey: Testimonies of Tigrayan Women, ed. by Nell Druce and Jenny Hammond (London: Links, 1989)

In the case of the Ethiopian crisis, collective memory of the creation of the transethnic federation at the end of the war in 1991 illuminates a distinctly and deliberately gendered social structure. In public discourse, hypermasculine operational and theoretical frameworks are glorified. The war is romanticised, military values of discipline and order are reminisced, and organised violence in response to political division is legitimised. In what Jacklyn Cock terms an ideology of militarism, collective memory allows us to see the gendered order put in place in the post-war state to embolden the specific political and social hierarchies designed by the federation.[v]

Scholars of feminist theory have investigated the dynamics of states as gendered, redefining the interaction between women and the political sphere to encompass the mutually constitutive relationship of women and the state.[vi] The concept of gendered states inspired the theory that key binaries associated with war and peace, order and disorder, security and insecurity are themselves gendered and rely on particular forms of gendered order. We see this in Ethiopia now more than ever in repeated references to the responsibility of ‘Mothers of the Nation’ to call for peace, and reports that stress the devastation caused by the fighting to women and girls.

The discourse masculinizing violence and feminizing victimhood and peace – while neither conceptually valid nor particularly useful – is not new and does depict the ways in which gender is constantly constructed and renegotiated in the interaction between the realms of state, war and memory.

There is undoubtedly a gendered dimension to the humanitarian crisis emerging as the number of refugees in Sudan reach 40,000, aid is restricted and reports of shortages of water and fuel circulate. But, the relationship between gender and humanitarianism deserves a blog (or several books!) all of its own….

Francesca Baldwin is PhD research student at the University of Reading. Her doctoral project researches the complex narratives of female combatants in the TPLF during the Civil War, and their post-conflict experiences.

[i] Gail Hershatter, The gender of memory: rural women and China’s collective past (California: University of California Press, 2011), p. 22.

[ii] Contested Pasts: The Politics of Memory, ed. By Katharine Hodgkin and Susannah Radstone (New York: Routledge, 2003), p. 1.

[iii] Marianne Hirsch and Valarie Smith, ‘Feminism and Cultural Memory: An Introduction’, Signs, Vol. 28, No. 1: 1-19 (2002), p. 6.

[iv] Hirsch and Smith, ‘Feminism and Cultural Memory’, p. 6.

[v] War and Society: The Militarisation of South Africa, ed. By Jacklyn Cock and Laurie Nathan (Cape Town: David Philip, 1989).

[vi] Alicia C. Decker, ‘African Women and the Postcolonial State’, in The Palgrave Handbook of African Colonial and Postcolonial History, ed. by M. Shanguhiya and T. Falola (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), p. 1,139.

Recommended readings:

Conjugal Order: Megan H. MacKenzie,, Female Soldiers in Sierra Leone: Sex, Security and Post-Conflict Development (NYU Press Scholarship Online, 2016)

Militarism: Alicia C. Decker, In Idi Amin’s Shadow: Women, Gender, and Militarism in Uganda (Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2014)

 

 

‘Stool’ Crazy After All These Years – Amie Bolissian asks why older women diary-writers in early modern England were more likely to mention their bowel movements than younger women

Science Museum Group. Chamber pot, Netherlands, 1651-1780. A1189Science Museum Group Collection Online. Accessed 9 November 2020. https://collection.sciencemuseumgroup.org.uk/objects/co146585/chamber-pot-netherlands-1651-1780-chamber-pot.
Portrait of Anne Clifford, Countess of Dorset and later Countess of Pembroke (1590 – 1676), Wikimedia Commons

In the journal sections of the indefatigable Cumbrian noblewoman Lady Anne Clifford’s (1590 – 1676) manuscript diaries, she wrote of her occasional distempers, swooning fits, and medical treatment. It was not until her final diary entries in the last months of her life at the impressive age of 85, however, that she shared details of her bowel movements. Never would I have imagined, that this small finding would promote a whole blog-post.

When I set out to research the experiences of ageing patients in Tudor and Stuart England, I did not anticipate that pooing might be a gendered topic. Studying medicine in this period means that the evacuation of faeces, or ‘stools’, is difficult to avoid. The flux and flow of fluids and substances around and out of the body was considered essential for health, and promoting them the primary treatment for most diseases. Medical writings were particularly keen on bloodletting, and the use of plant-based or chemical laxatives (referred to as purging or ‘physic’). As Suffolk preacher and medical practitioner Simon Harward explained with undisguised enthusiasm, ‘purging, and letting of bloud’ were the two ‘great helps’, not just ‘because they are applyed unto great diseases’, but because

‘they do bring the greatest and most present eases and remedyes, that ever either inwardlie or outwardlie were devised for mans health’.[1]

Lay healers (mostly women), who provided the majority of medical care, also purged the body therapeutically, as shown by the number of loosening remedies in manuscript recipe books. The phrase ‘better out than in’ neatly sums up Humouralist medical attitudes to any matter they felt was obstructing or corrupting the body. Purging was also supposed to be strong-acting. Shakespeare’s son-in-law, the physician John Hall treated the poet Michael Drayton with syrup of violets for a fever and wrote that it ‘wrought very well both upwards and downwards’. The definition of ‘very well’ can be put into context when considering that Hall regularly administered preparatory purging concoctions which ‘gave five or six stools a day without griping’, ‘five or six stools without pain the following days’, or ‘seven vomits…[then] eight stools for four mornings’.[2]

The ‘Aged’ patients that I study were thought to suffer from both diarrhoea and constipation as they aged, so I did expect this subject to be important in my research. But why would poo be gendered?

The main reason stems from scholarship that has highlighted how rarely early modern women’s writings mention bowel movements, in comparison to men. My research into ageing patients has found that this gender disparity then decreases with age. Why would this be? It seems that older women tended to refer to purges and stools a little more as they aged, while the proportion of men stayed the same. But what caused the initial gender difference and why did this change in old age?

Lady Anne Halkett figure at the Abbot House, Dunfermline Fife, Wikimedia commons

From costume dramas of courtiers in floor-length gowns and puritan women in austere body-concealing garments, we might assume that elite women diary-writers may have been deterred from sharing their bowel movements due to delicacy or demureness. It is possible that cultural feminine norms at this time precluded discussion in writing or in person about bodily evacuations, especially in gentrified circles, but this notion is somewhat challenged by details of other bodily excretions in diaries and letters. Women mentioned bloodletting, urine, phlegm, and kidney stones but rarely ‘stools’ or purges. The author and medical practitioner Lady Anne Halkett, for example, vividly described how she passed a bladder or kidney stone that ‘came away Longer than a Date Stone & very neere as big’.[3]

One explanation highlighted by historian Olivia Weisser in her ground-breaking 2015 book on illness and gender, stems directly from the production and preservation of the sources themselves.[4] Women’s diaries that have survived from this time were overwhelmingly written by intensely devout noblewomen or wealthy elite. They generally follow the literary tradition of the spiritual diary. The largely Protestant trend for self-examination and spiritual practice through diary-keeping became increasingly popular into the latter half of the seventeenth century for both genders. Published manuals such as John Beadle’s 1656 The Journal or Diary of a Thankful Christian instructed the devout in how and why they should keep a journal. The practice was encouraged to prevent believers from the ‘root-sin’ of forgetting God’s power and benevolence and had step-by-step guidance on what to write.[5] They cited the advantages of meticulous ships’ diaries to successful journeys, and suggested the journals might be left to future generations as examplars of a pious life. Women wrote often of their health and illnesses in these diaries, but usually within a larger framework of the health of their faith and soul. Any meticulous record-keeping of the form and frequency of their faeces does not seem to have made the cut.

The journals of men, on the other hand, while also following the spiritual diary tradition in many instances, also tended to demonstrate other textual influences. Diarists such as Samuel Pepys, John Evelyn, and Elias Ashmole (who all mentioned purging) were exposed to a classical University education, scholarly and business record-keeping, and intellectual circles promoting empirical investigation – or scientific exploration as it would come to be known. They attended lectures and meetings at the newly-formed Royal Society ‘for Improving Natural Knowledge’ on the new mechanics of the body, and had physician friends who promoted detailed observations of patients’ symptoms. Making careful notes and ‘readings’ of their body’s workings would not have seemed out of place in this intellectual context. The antiquarian Elias Ashmole’s diary of 1683 contained daily entries of:

‘-I took purging Pills, which wrought very well.

-I took my Pills, and purged very well.

-I took Pills’[6]

Elias Ashmole by an unknown artist (detail), c. 1688, after the portrait by John Riley, Wikimedia commons

Women, meanwhile, were excluded from University educations, the Royal Society, Royal College of Physicians, and the Guilds of Surgeons and Apothecaries. Some women fought against these restrictions and became medical practitioners and/or intellectuals via various oblique routes – such as Lady Ranelagh, Robert Boyle’s sister – but this does not seem to have resulted in a greater tendency to track the quantity and quality of their stools in their diaries in the way that men did.

Another possible contributing factor to the gender differentiation may stem from traditions of oral transmission and memory. There are very few explicit references to women’s periods (‘flowers’, ‘courses’ or ‘termes’) in their diaries either. Yet, from the few mentions available, and evidence from doctors’ case histories, it is likely many kept track of them. Perhaps, in an environment where women used repetition and memory to practice and pass on much of their skill and knowledge, they had methods other than the written word for remembering and recording when they had menstruated, as well as any pertinent defecatory details. There is also the possibility that they did record them in a material way, but these systems have not survived for various reasons. Women might not have thought them valuable enough to keep, or they may have been inscribed on perishable materials.

In which case, why did a greater proportion of older women record their purges and stools in their diaries? Back to the force of nature that was Lady Anne Clifford in her eighties. She described both the quality and number of her stools in the last few months of her diary. An entry for 6th January 1676, penned by one of her scribes, reads:

‘this morning after I was out of my bed I had 7 or 8 great loose stooles downards, which I thought did me much good, but withall weakened my Body so much that it cast me into a Swoning fitt. But God be praised I recovered soon after’[7]

Lady Clifford is not the only older women to mention the state of her bowels or purging, either. Why were older women writers more likely to be open about this subject?

Old woman, After Rembrandt, Wellcome images

An obvious explanation may simply be that almost all diarists tended to focus more on health and bodily matters as they aged. Perhaps, with the accumulation of what they frequently called ‘the infirmities of old age’, women’s bowel movements seemed even more significant to their health. Moreover, with the passage of time, women in their sixties, seventies, and eighties may have been less confident of the powers of their memories to recall their evacuations. Women past childbearing and/or child-rearing age, especially gentlewomen, may also have had fewer demands on their time, to allow them to go into greater detail about their evacuations and medical treatments, as well as fulfilling their spiritual duties in writing. When suffering from chronic diseases and ageing infirmities, older women sometimes found themselves bed-bound or confined to their chambers for months on end.

On top of this, older bodies were believed by doctors and ordinary people to be weaker and less able to withstand strong purges. We find ‘gentle’ purges recommended to both children and the elderly in remedy books. My research has shown that those accustomed to purging as a remedy in their youth defied doctors’ warnings, and usually continued into old age, but with some concern over the effects on their vulnerable health state. Although older patients may have wanted to feel as if their purge had ‘wrought well’ and done them ‘much good’ they might also have felt the need to monitor the outcomes in order to judge the strength and resilience of their physical health – just as Lady Clifford did above.

It is impossible to know for sure if younger women were too busy or too constrained by writing conventions to record their bowel movements, or even if they had other methods of monitoring them which are lost to us. But these bodily evacuations were perceived as crucial to health by both genders, and the fact that older women did refer to them in their writings does tend to suggest the roots of the gender disparities in younger diarists stems from gendered cultural differences in writing and recording practices. A few weeks after Lady Clifford’s entries about her stools, she began to regularly note in her diaries about her ‘ill fits of the wind’, but farts are a whole other blogpost.[8]

Amie Bolissian is a Wellcome-funded PhD Candidate researching ageing patients in early modern England, examining medical understandings of old age and the experiences of sick older people from c.1570-1730.

  • Recommended reading: Weisser, Olivia, Ill Composed: Sickness, Gender, and Belief in Early Modern England (New Haven & London, 2015); Churchill, Wendy D., Female Patients in Early Modern Britain: Gender, Diagnosis, and Treatment (Fredericton, Canada, 2016); Read, Sara, Menstruation and the Female Body in Early Modern England (Basingtoke and N.Y., 2013); Smith, Lisa Wynne, ‘The Body Embarrassed? Rethinking the Leaky Male Body in Eighteenth‐Century England and France’, Gender & History, 23/1 (2011), 26-46.
  1. Harward, Simon, Harvvards Phlebotemy, (London: 1601), unpaginated.
  2. Hall, John and Cook, James, Select observations on English bodies of eminent persons in desperate diseases first written in Latin by Mr. John Hall (London, 1679), 18.
  3. National Library of Scotland National Library of Scotland, ‘Meditations’ by Anne Lady Halkett, Mid seventeenth century, MS 6501, f.350/348.
  4. Weisser, Olivia, Ill Composed: Sickness, Gender, and Belief in Early Modern England (New Haven & London, 2015).
  5. Beadle, John, The Journal or Diary of a Thankful Christian (London, 1656), 171.
  6. Ashmole, Elias, Memoirs of the life of that learned antiquary, Elias Ashmole, Esq; drawn up by himself by way of diary. With an appendix of original letters. (London, 1717), 69-70.
  7. Clifford, D. J. H. (ed.), The Diaries of Lady Anne Clifford (Stroud: Alan Sutton, 2003), 233.
  8. Ibid, 243.