Look at me! I'm blogging from a remote location!
My new computer came this week. Why did I ever opt not to have my last computer be a laptop? Being able to take my computer with me is so liberating. Even more liberation -- almost to the point of decadence -- is having a wireless connection.
Where am I? I'm in a motel in western Massachusetts. Why am I here? Well, I'm attending the Little Berks meeting of the Berkshire Conference of Women's Historians. This is a smaller version of the big one that I attended in Minnesota this past summer, but about which I failed to blog because the whole airplane drama overshadowed it.
The drive up here was long, but Kunta Kinte accompanied me on CD. My late start meant that I ended up in rush hour traffic in New York City, which didn't differ too much from the traffic that I've encountered during non-rush hour times there. My late start meant also that I hit the country highways in the late day golden sunlight as it hit the changing leaves. I'll do a photo essay when I get the pictures downloaded later. I'm a bit too tired now.
Then, the sun set, and I was left on those unfamiliar, winding, country highways alone and with my rather convoluted Map Quest directions. After driving up and down a highway that involved a number 4, looking for a street name that was associated with another highway that involved another number 4, I found the lodge for the opening part of the meeting. I think I got the schedule mixed up because I thought that dinner was at 5 and the talk was at 7:30. I figured that I would get there just in time for the talk, or at least withing 20 minutes after the talk began.
I remember the times wrong or something because, when I got there, everyone had just sat down to dinner. So I made an entrance, which meant that I also did not look my best. Everyone welcomed me right away, and made a place for me at one of the two big tables. The fabulous and wonderful Tenured Radical was at mine.
Dinner was lovely, as was all of the conversation. All of the women around me seemed to have known each other forever but were not the least bit exclusive. "Damn!" I thought. "Look at me with these proper historians who went through graduate programs that actually educated them, and work at major institutions. This is so cool! I'm such a fraud!" Although I revealed my actual first name, I think I prefer being Clio at these functions. My real last name can stay off the record for now because she's sort of embarrassing. Clio is a bit more interesting if for no other reason than that she blogs.
Since I promised not to blog about what went on at dinner,* I'll skip that part and jump to the talk, "'A Woman that is Willful is a Plague of the Worst': Gender and the Black Death in England," by Sandy Bardsley. Willful women and infectious disease? Count me interested!
To be honest, I have never, in my entire academic career extending all the way back to Montessori school, had the opportunity to learn anything about Medieval history beyond the bits mentioned in English literature classes. Prof. Bardsley made me quite aware how deprived I've been. Her talk was fascinating.
According to Bardsley, in the dominant narrative of the plague's impact, women gained greater status through wage labor and property inheritance in the wake of high male mortality. In her own research, however, Bardsley found that the plague actually did not necessarily improve the lives of women. Their wages were not always better, and the work that they did was often the grunt labor. Nor did the move to wage labor necessarily mean a better life for the women.
Her interpretation on this point reminded me of a book that I read about women in the Civil War, by George Rable. In his concluding chapter about the aftermath of the Civil War, he interpreted southern women's entrance into the workforce as a positive change. I disagreed with that interpretation because, to those women, working meant declining status. Not long ago, I reviewed an edited volume of Sarah Morgan's post-war correspondence and essays. She, terrified by the need to work but also thrilled by the prospect of profiting from her writing, tried to find some synthesis in this conflict. She, being educated and possessing an enamored and connected friend (later husband), had the means to earn a satisfying living and to leave the documents that detail the ways in which she herself interpreted her situation. Most other women did not. That is a very frustrating wall to hit.
I digress. Back to Bardsley's talk.
She also found that there were not significant changes in the types of property that women inherited from their fathers before, during and after the plague. Men continued to inherit the property, even in the absence of a direct male heir.
Furthermore, she found that women's public voices were meeting with stricter prohibitions or punishments. This sources for this last one fascinated me. She used instance of women raising "hue" -- that is, calling for help when witnessing a crime. A false hue led to penalties. When women raise a hue, they more likely to be believed. She also looked at cases of scolding. The graph she handed around told the story: the bars representing women accused of scolding went to the top of the page. The bars representing men might be missed if you weren't looking for them. Finally, she looked at depictions of gossiping women, particularly the figure of Noah's wife in morality tales. Needless to say, these were all negative, although they invoked the immediate sympathy of the audience! So, over the course of the period that she studied, women's public voices seemed to transform for one assisting the community to one damaging the community.
One of the audience members pointed out that this last point -- about women's public voices -- anticipated tomorrow's panel on blogging. One of the points that I want to make on that panel is related to the abuse that many female bloggers have endured sometimes simply by daring to venture a voice into the public. This seems so cliche and expected. Of course when women venture into the public sphere, they sustain vicious attacks. Of course, when they protest sexism, they are told to suck it up. They should, in other words, to be a "man" about it. What original can I bring to this conversation, especially in the absence of some concrete data? I'm rather hoping that all of these wicked smart women can offer some insight!
*O.k. dudez, I confess, it involved brushing each other's hair and eating lots of chocolate, then we all had a pillow fight and practiced kissing. Satisfied? Tomorrow we burn the bra.