Thank you!

Tuesday evening saw the final session of Writing Women in History, and very successful it was too! A trip to the wonderful Sampled Lives exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum (go if you haven’t been – it is amazing) was followed by our very own (subversive) embroidery attempts. While needlework may have been an effective means for women to achieve invisibility in the past, between our squeaks of pain as we stabbed ourselves, and cursing at mis-stitching, it is safe to say it would not have worked for us!

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Serious concentration

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Proud of our efforts!

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Probably the greatest achievement of our weeks!

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Writing Women in History has been running for two very successful years, with much discussion, challenging ideas, and laughter. We would like to thank everyone who contributed to the project through sessions, the symposium, or moral support. In addition, many thanks to the Cambridge AHRC DTP who generous financial support made it all possible.

It has been fantastic fun to learn about so many (unexpected!) facets of women’s history, and we wish everyone the best of luck as they continue with their exciting academic endeavours!

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Final session: Needlework

The final ever session of Writing Women in History will take place next Tuesday 12th June. We want to thank you all for making this project so interesting and enjoyable for us, for attending and contributing to the sessions, coming on our trips and participating in our conference. We couldn’t have done it without you!
Our final session is on the topic of needlework. As part of this, we are taking a trip to the ‘Sampled Lives’ exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum
We will meet at the entrance to the Fitzwilliam museum at 16.00 on Tuesday, and will spend an hour there before heading back to the Sidgwick site for the reading group session, which will start as usual at 17.30. Feel free to come to one or both the museum trip and the session afterwards.
The article we will be reading this week is on women and needlework, to complement our museum trip. We shall also be engaging in some cross-stitch ourselves during the session (along with wine and cheese) – how could you refuse?
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Session 3: trollwomen

(The mythical kind, not the online kind).

Join us on Tuesday 5th June, 5.30-7pm in the Grad Centre of the Raised Faculty Building (room 336) for the next in our series on ‘Monstrous Women’. We will be discussing the characterisation of trollwomen in medieval Icelandic sagas.

Our discussion will centre around Sandra Ballif Straubhaar’s article: “Nasty, Brutish, and Large: Cultural Difference and Otherness in the Figuration of the Trollwomen of the Fornaldarsögur”, (Scandinavian Studies, 73 (2001)), as well as an extract from Ketils saga hængs [The Saga of Ketill Trout], one of the sagas she discusses in detail.

If you are not on our mailing list, drop us a line to also receive Ketill’s family tree, showing his family’s intermarriages with troll women and giantesses in blue. Plus, there is a summary sheet, including quotes from the article and a few questions to consider to get discussion going.

We welcome contributions from any discipline and we are always happy to meet new faces so do come along even if you have never attended a session before.

Session 2: a fiend-like Queen

A sunny evening saw us transported to bleak, war-torn Scotland. The National Theatre’s production of Macbeth was brutal and post-apocalyptic, a distraught vision of humanity. Sadly, we agreed with the majority of reviewers out there: Rufus Norris’ production was big on shock value and visuals, but weak on substance. The overly intrusive staging accompanied an unnecessarily literal interpretation of Shakespeare’s words, with dead babies and children murdered onstage in a bath of blood. The music of the lines was lost in a series of cuts which showed little respect for verse and its power. The witches themselves also lost their significance, reduced to little more than conduits for some sort of voice from above; any sense of their own agency in their action was lost. Moreover, in a war-torn dystopian future, Macbeth‘s concern with hierarchy and lineage felt out of place and meaningless. The mash of too many influences eventually meant that all lost their sense and power.

In turn, this led to us questioning whether it is ever possible to update the witches. Do they lose their importance as characters as soon as you remove them from a world which believes in their power? Without belief, where is their strength? It was suggested that AI witches might be the answer to witches for our age, working in ways we cannot understand to seemingly predict our thoughts and actions.

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The excellent-as-ever performances by Rory Kinnear and Anne Marie Duff were the play’s redeeming feature, their relationship believable, even as guilt became an increasingly meaningless emotion in a society without a moral code.

Moving on to Lady Macbeth more broadly, we pondered the old question of why an ambitious woman is inevitably condemned for that trait, while a man is never blamed for desiring to be king. We reflected too on quite how brief her time in the play is: an instigator of rise and then of fall, she disappears surprisingly early, to become an often-invoked memory and presence instead. While she is undoubtedly a malign presence at times, we could not condemn her as unilaterally and superficially as some have done.

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We found the article, Mark Thornton Burnett’s ‘The ‘fiend-like Queen’: rewriting Lady Macbeth’, Parergon, 11 (1993), 1-19, unconvincing (admittedly, written a while ago; work on gender has progressed). His reading seemed to reach too far to see characters as gendered, or bi-gendered, and we also were sceptical of his analysis that Lady Macbeth’s suicide was a supposed sign of her integrity. We also felt that, actually, gender is perhaps not a primary preoccupation of Macbeth, important though it is, and fascinating as a character as Lady Macbeth is. We certainly managed an impassioned and lengthy discussion!

Join us in a fortnight for Old Norse goddesses, monstrous and powerful women of a whole other sort!

Easter Session 2: Lady Macbeth

On Tuesday 22 May, 5.30-7pm, we will be discussing another monstrous woman, Lady Macbeth, in the Grad Centre of the Raised Faculty Building (room 336). She has inspired all sorts of contrasting interpretations, on page and on screen, so debate is sure to be lively!

The article which will form the basis of our discussion will be Mark Thornton Burnett’s ‘The ‘fiend-like Queen’: rewriting Lady Macbeth’, Parergon, 11 (1993), 1-19. Sign up to our email list to receive our summary sheet, including quotes from the article, choice reviews of the National Theatre’s production of Macbeth, some quotes from Macbeth, and questions to fuel conversation.

Even if you have never been to a session before, or could not make the NT Macbeth screening, do come along! We will be serving wine and nibbly things, and the tone is informal. We welcome contributions from all fields, so come along even if Shakespeare is not your specialty.

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John Singer Sargent, Actress Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth (1889)

Easter Session 1 – Perfecting the Monstrous Female Body, Articulating Race: Early Modern Cosmetic Recipes

Come and join us for wine, nibbles, and the first discussion on this term’s theme: ‘Monstrous Women’! Our first session of Easter term will be taking place on Tuesday 8th March in the MML Grad Boardroom (room number 336 on the top floor), Raised Faculty Building, Sidgwick Site, from 5.30pm until 7pm.

We will be discussing early modern cosmetic recipes used to perfect the imperfect female body and articulate racial difference. Our starting point will be Kimberly Poitevin’s article ‘Inventing Whiteness: Cosmetics, Race, and Women in Early Modern England’ (Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies, 11.1 (2011), 59-89), considering the ways in which women used cosmetics to create racial identities in early modern England.

As our primary resource, we will have a look at some of the recipes from Caterina Sforza’s Experimenti, compiled in Italy at the end of the fifteenth century. We will be looking at a record of a cosmetics workshop at the University of Edinburgh – more information can be found here:

https://sites.eca.ed.ac.uk/renaissancecosmetics/cosmetics-study-day/cosmetics-workshop/

You don’t have to have been along before to join us: we are always happy to welcome new faces to the reading group! We look forward to seeing you on Tuesday.

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Lorenzo di Credi, La dama dei gelsomini
(presumed portrait of Caterina Sforza)

Term Card for Easter 2018 – Monstrous Women

Fantastic sessions and two group trips coming up for this term – our theme is Monstrous Women!

Easter 2018 | Monstrous Women
8th May | Perfecting the Female Body: Cosmetic Recipes
10th May | NT Live Screening of Macbeth [alternative screening on 21st May]
22nd May |  Lady Macbeth on Page and Screen
5th June | Giantesses in Old Norse
12th June | Fitzwilliam Museum ‘Sampled Lives’ Exhibition and session on needlework

Our regular sessions take place 5.30pm-7pm in RFB room 336 (the grad boardroom) with wine, nibbles, and lots of discussion! No need to come to every session, just drop in as takes your fancy. Any reading materials will be circulated in advance, so if you haven’t already, email writingwomeninhistory@gmail.com to join the mailing list!

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(Lady) Macbeth – NT Live Screening

On the 10 May we will be taking a trip to see the National Theatre Live screening of Macbeth at the Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge, starring Rory Kinnear and Anne-Marie Duff. We will discuss the show at our 22 May session and tickets for those coming along to our Lady Macbeth session are absolutely free! Just drop us an email to say you would like to come as soon as possible, because space is limited. We look forward to seeing you there.

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Symposium Panel 2: Methodologies and Sources for Women’s History

Our second panel brought together three speakers from diverse disciplines who sought to revise accepted assumptions about women in their field by bringing to light previously unstudied source material and suggesting new methodological approaches.

Dr Samantha Williams began the session with her paper: “The Making of Metropolitan Bastardy: Unmarried Mothers in London in the Long Eighteenth Century”. Samantha highlighted the disparity between prescription and practice by examining English bastardy laws in conjunction with court records and the London Foundling Hospital records. In bringing to light these documents to light, she demonstrated the necessity of turning to alternative sources in order to fully reconstruct the social and economic experiences of unmarried mothers in this period, which can go against gendered expectations.

Our second speaker was Auriane Terki-Mignot who spoke to us about “Patterns of Female Employment in Westmorland, 1787-1851”. Auriane underscored the importance of understanding Industrialisation as a gendered process. She demonstrated that a consideration of women’s employment in Westmorland in the 18th-19th centuries alongside census reports (which only takes into account men’s work) prompts a re-evaluation of the historiographic narrative of the Industrial Revolution in England as we know it. Including women’s employment figures suggests that the move from primary to secondary sector work in fact occurred a lot earlier, as women were involved in textile production in the home. A move away from quantitative analysis has the possibility of creating more space for the analysis of women’s employment, with far-reaching results.

Finally, we heard from Dr Regine Maritz on “Re-thinking the Labour of (Extra)Ordinary Women at the Early Modern Court”. Regine is interested in the role of gender differences in the practices of power. In this paper, she proposed redefining traditional concepts of labour to include ’emotional work’. This type of labour is often undertaken more by women than men, who are usually expected to engage in economic labour. Regine focussed on the marriage of a noble couple in the German court, highlighting the time and emotional effort the wife invested into maintaining the marriage, which is evident in the letters she writes. Her paper encouraged us to condsider how broadening our conceptions of labour might allow for the labour of ‘ordinary’ women in history to be made visible.

All three papers were fascinating and combined excellently together, provoking us to consider how new sources can provide new ways of envisioning not only the place of women in dominant historical narratives, but those narratives themselves.

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Symposium Keynote 2: Sarah Dunant

The Symposium concluded with award-winning historical novelist Sarah Dunant, who took us on a sweeping trip through medieval Florence in search of inspiring women.  A city filled with reminders of the achievements of great men, painters, architects and writers, Sarah showed us instead images of women, from the peasant woman hidden in the bustle of a street scene to the portrait of a proud courtesan, flaunting the pearls only respectable ladies were allowed by law to wear!  These were the women she sought to bring to life in her stories, whose thoughts and emotions could transport a reader to the brink of the Renaissance and make it feel like an unpredictable adventure instead of the inevitable march of history.

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Already inspired by the papers she had heard she sketched a number of stories for our amusement, all based on extraordinary facts: a woman meets a man on a coach, shares a brief moment of passion with him while the horses are changed and becomes pregnant.  Abandoning the baby, she moves to Westmorland where industry is booming and joins the urban workforce! A society lady lavishly decorates her house in the very latest style with panels of exotic mahogany wood.  Brought to task by some friends, who know the unsavoury details of its harvesting by slaves in the Americas, she indifferently ignores their complaints, because historical characters can’t always make comfortable decisions for the reader! And finally, a wife languishes in wedded misery, writing letter after letter to the husband she has displeased, without even knowing what she has done to offend. How can she guess it is her smelly womb to which he objects, fumigation must be prescribed and perhaps all shall be well!

By such short stories, she ably demonstrated for us the intersection between academic inquiry and popular culture and her role in mediating between the two.  Her books are filled with historical nuggets for the reader who goes searching, such as the prostitutes’ potion which prevents conception, not by chance but because the main ingredient is crushed mare’s liver, a natural source of oestrogen, which functioned as rudimentary birth control.  Yet it must always be the narrative which sweeps the reader along, a challenge we in academia are spared.  She impressed upon us the symbiotic relationship between scholarship and fiction, for popular culture plays a key role in disseminating ideas to the public and shaping public perceptions of history.   It is the duty of the academic to provide rigorous scholarship and to make it intelligible to those outside as well as within the academy and it is the duty of the novelist to build their works on this foundation and to remind the world why the women we study are so worthy of our attention.