Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Wiesner-Hanks and Karant-Nunn: One Wise(ner) Lady, and Another Wise Lady Who Isn't A Nun

Here’s the question of the day: is a revolution really a revolution if conditions stay the same or worsen for half the population? Is an intellectual movement a movement if the wives of the Great Thinkers don’t actually move? The two articles that deal with this question fall under this general theme: finding a place for women within traditionally masculine categories and periods of history. Merry Wisner-Hanks’ article addresses the concerns first raised by Kelly’s article “Did Women Have A Renaissance?” in the 1970s. She acknowledges some of the concerns of this article and of surrounding scholarship, scholars who maintain that broad historical and chronological categories first established by male scholars and that have primarily studied male actors are not applicable to the field of women’s history. This argument seems important to acknowledge: it’s a bit like writing that United States a country where men have the right to life and liberty while ignoring the slaves harvesting the crops that sustain that life.
The term “early modern” also might imply “modern Europe against a yet-to-be-modernized non-Europe” (543). This is a problem for all western scholars – why should we pretend that it isn’t? Our categories of analysis have long rested upon cultural assumptions, and these assumptions are important to know and to understand before we can rid ourselves of them. Ultimately, Wiesner-Hanks’ argument becomes one that refutes essentialism and decides to be creative, looking at new historical areas of study which have taken on the idea of women in history. “Change outweighs continuity across the medieval/modern divide” (545). Her most convincing arguments are her articulations of these new fields of study, including the vast impact of female household members on religious revolutions and movements, the newly-recognized “camp followers” in military history, as well as the effects of Ottoman slavery on mothers and sisters who were left behind. It seems like we might just be missing the scholars who will acknowledge these facts and study them at length.
Susan C. Karant-Nunn, is an example of a scholar who follows this line of thinking. She outlines a detailed analysis of the women who were involved in or affected by the events of the Reformation – a sweeping category that, as she shows, that can be used for effectively analyzing the lives of women at the time and changes that impacted their lives specifically. She details the lives of women in religious sects who were forced out of convents and brothels, and how this shift contributed to an overall focus toward women in the home. These changes, she believes, may have led to a decline in religious and social choices, as well as rights for women. The doctrines of the Protestant faith that led the Reformation established an entirely new role for women: an elevated status as wives and homemakers, and an accompanying strengthening of the power of the state to intervene in these relationships through the state marriage court (184). Counter-Reformation movements also changed the lives of women in significant ways, most significantly through increased religious scholarship and fervor by all Catholics, including women (188).
Both Karant-Nunn and Wiesner-Hanks base their scholarship on the concern that throwing out all categories altogether might depict women’s lives as “motionless,” a constant that isn’t a part of history scholarship and therefore shouldn’t be bothered with it (543). I argue that women do, in fact, need a Renaissance, because their contributions and involvement in the period are impossible to ignore for those who decide that it’s valid to look for them. Rejecting the systems by which we have been analyzing history sets the historical conversation back by too much, and in too many ways.

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