Writing Women out of History – Another Stupid Response

This is just a quick post.

A while back, I blogged about the current campaign to include mothers’ names on marriage certificates, which currently require you to fill in your father’s name and profession, but not your mother’s. It’s an exceedingly simple petition (which you can still sign, it’s in the link), and, frankly, pretty gobsmacking that in 2014 it’s even necessary.

Here’s what the author of the campaign had to say:

In England & Wales mothers’ names are not on marriage certificates.

This is not fair.

This is 2014.

Marriage should not be seen as a business transaction between the father of the bride and the father of the groom.

This seemingly small inequality is part of a much wider pattern of inequality.

Women are routinely silenced and written out of history.

Pretty clear, right? Simple, obvious, and not difficult to sort out. I mean, come on. A marriage certificate is a piece of paper that needs to have two more lines on it. We have the technology.

And yet. Here’s the response. It is so monumentally lacking in historical awareness I wish I could say I can’t take it seriously. But, unfortunately, it’s sincere.

Mr Andrew Dent, Deputy Registrar for England and Wales, writes that there are no plans to change the form. But, he suggests brightly, it’s all ok really because mothers can still choose to sign as witnesses. You know, as a sentimental gesture, like what women enjoy. Of course, such a signature doesn’t include stuff like the witnesses’ professions, but that’s ok, because we’ve slipped through the spacetime continuum into a fictional version of the 1950s, where women don’t work anyway.

Why, oh Lord, why?

Why, oh Lord, why?

It might be time for us to do a quick recap of why we fill in this information anyway. Do we need to know our fathers’ names and professions in order to be legally married? Why, no. Does the registrar require the information in order to tax us? Nope. So why is it there? It’s there because it forms part of the historical record.

For historians, this sort of documentation is primary source material. We need it. Not because it’s of sentimental importance, but because it’s vital in building a picture of how people live.

This is what I do. I work mostly on the cultures of the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. We’re talking about handwritten books, often very fragile. Most of them have never been edited, and they’re often the only copy in the world. They’re kept in special collections in libraries that require you to have a phenomenal amount of educational (and geographic, and financial) privilege before you’re allowed in. They require a hefty amount of training before you can actually read the words on the page.

As you can imagine, this means that trying to get together information about people’s lives in medieval England is extremely difficult. People want to ask big questions like ‘how common was it for people to be able to read?’ or ‘how much did most women earn?’ But with source material accessed like this, you can only answer fragments of those questions, and you always have to explain you’ve only been able to analyse a tiny proportion of the available data. It is incredibly frustrating and unsatisfactory.

Recently more and more source material has been digitised, and shared online, and we can make statistical analyses of it. In the time it takes me to drink a coffee, I can whip through the records for a couple of hundred years of wills and court cases and housing records for, say, the city of York. This should give me the capacity to answer those big questions, to give you a real sense of connection to the past by telling you exactly what it was like.

Obviously, you will already know I can’t do that. I can tell you a lot about various menfolk. Off the top of my head I know I will find reams of information on prosperous merchants of the Alne, Morton, Blackburn and Bolton families. I will find lists that included everyone who paid rent, or everyone who held civic office. I will find wills, records of court cases and lists of payments. Men’s names are routinely included in the day-to-day paperwork produced in a busy medieval city like York. Women’s names are not. When I come across women in this sort of record, I know that they are there by chance – chance with a substantial economic bias behind it, because if the records I use are biased towards  rich men who left a paper trail, you can believe they are biased towards super-rich women. And this … this is more than frustrating and unsatisfactory.

I understand that, working on medieval England, I am going to keep coming up against evidence of patriarchy in action. Every medieval historian will tell you that these records are biased against women’s experience because, well, society was profoundly misogynistic.

This recent decision not to include women’s names by default erases women from the historical record, but you can be sure that the structural misogyny of our culture won’t suffer the same fate: historians looking back on our own culture will have to trot out the same excuses I trot out when I explain about historical evidence in medieval England: ‘it was a profoundly misogynistic culture with a bias against recording the history of women’.

One thought on “Writing Women out of History – Another Stupid Response

  1. Pingback: Mind-boggling Arrogance in the Face of Feminism. A quickie. | Jeanne de Montbaston

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