Gender has shaped the way social and academic organisation is constructed. It has fashioned the way that women have been viewed in the past and how their lives were recorded. Consequently, there is a lack of sources written about women that adequately convey how they lived their lives, and what they did to work within the confines of their sex. It is difficult to study people who have left little or no evidence about their lives. The nature of history as a discipline means that it is difficult to construct a ‘legitimate’ history of women. In order to incorporate women into history, historians need to re-examine the sources and also re-evaluate what constitutes historical text.
Women have always been present in history. They have been characters in the past, in all stratas of society from a peasant woman to a queen such as Elizabeth I; women have played the role of mother, worker, icon or brave politician throughout history. Women were involved in the economy and business, but they could not be witness to contracts. Despite their skills they could not be granted office in government positions because such offices were the concern of men. Although the law saw women as being inferior to men, there is evidence that women managed to take control of their legal lives quite regularly. For example in England the Court of Chancery was established to hear matters on a case by case basis based upon the principles of equity, this allowed women the opportunity to take legal action which was often successful, even against their husbands. Women also had a role in religious life, and although they never became clergy, religious life was as accessible to women as it was to men.
Women were more involved than men in the vicissitudes of daily life and the most natural of life’s events; birth, death and childrearing. Therefore, women became associated with nature, not politics. It is clear that women figured in life in the past, however they have been kept on the margins of history. Natalie Zemon Davis and Arlette Farge contend that although women were thoroughly addressed in mythical, scientific, philosophical and theological studies, this addressing was an attempt to exclude women from real importance rather than celebrating their presence in life.
Femininity has been formed within an intellectual tradition. Not simply an exclusion of women, but rather a construction of femininity through their exclusion. Mary Spongberg contends that the suggestion that there was an absence of women in the study of history is problematic. She argues that it is more a case of women being excluded from history because of the background of information about them. Women’s history relied on an essentially masculine historical framework and thus limited the capacity of historians to create a genuinely feminine approach to history. Spongberg asserts that the absence of women from history has come to be an integral characterisation of history as a discourse. History thereof re, just like historical actors, is gendered.
Joan Wallach Scott argues that gender is the knowledge of sexual difference Scott contends that while new proof about the existence and conduct of women in history may be documented, this does not necessarily result in an increase of importance credited to the lives and activities of women. The separation of women’s history, rather than the integration of women into history in general, confirms the marginal relationship women have with have with male ‘subjects’ which are established as principal and undisputed. Thus, historians need to consider whether their approach to history is gendered, and how their subject’s lives were gendered. The implications of utilising the knowledge of sexual difference can be found in Davis’ book and film The Return of Martin Guerre.
Sometime in the 1540s the peasant Martin Guerre left his wife Bertrande de Rols, young son Sanxi and the property he was to inherit and was not heard from until he returned as suddenly as he departed, seven years later. However, the man who returned, it was later found, was not Guerre but an impostor named Arnauld du Tilh. Du Tilh somehow managed to immerse himself in the life of Guerre. After a considerable period du Tilh’s true identity came into question and he was eventually brought to trial for fraud in Toulouse in front of Judge Jean de Coras. He had very nearly succeeded in convincing the court that he was the genuine Martin Guerre. However, evidence had been given that the true Martin Guerre had a wooden leg. When a man, recognised as Martin, with a wooden leg came to reclaim his identity, Arnauld du Tilh was finally uncovered as a sure impostor. Davis has written a book and been involved in a film, both with the same name, The Return of Martin Guerre. Davis’ book examines the evidence left by Jean de Coras in his recounting of events in his book, Arrest Memorable, but she also contends that Bertrande de Rols was complicit in allowing du Tilh to fraudulently claim her husband’s identity, because she loved the impostor more than the true man. By making this claim, Davis is making a hypothesis about the possibilities of women’s lives. Bertrande is little more than the duped woman in Cora’s text, but yet she was obviously integral to the entire situation. Davis has integrated the female experience into a story which has, for four hundred years, been a tale about a man and his stolen identity and the crafty impostor.
This has generated debate between Robert Finlay and Davis because of their differing views of what constitutes history. Finlay argues that Davis is portraying an inaccurate and thus illegitimate view of history because of her application of fiction in a historical context. However, Davis has illustrated that sources can provide only so much information and therefore, a historian’s fictional narrative is legitimate as a form of historical text. Finlay has argued that Davis’ representation of events in The Return of Martin Guerre is inaccurate because she employs historical fiction and speculates about what the historical characters might have felt, rather than reconstructing the events as they happened. Davis acknowledged that The Return of Martin Guerre was not simply a factual work, instead it was a work comprising both fact and fiction. Finlay argues that Davis is improper in considering the actions of Bertrande de Rols beyond any previous deliberations by historians. Davis asserts that de Rols was “self fashioning” and was aware that her marriage to du Tilh was not genuine, but that she did not want to end the union. Consequently, de Rols was not the swindled wife, but more likely to have been the shrewd woman who was aware of her actions and of du Tilh being a fraud. Finlay contends that this is not substantiated in the sources, and therefore Davis is reading into the sources her own concerns as an historian. However, the irony of Finlay’s position is that his source is corrupt anyway; it was written by the French judge Jean de Coras who tried the case, and therefore is not a reliable guide to what happened itself. Coras would have viewed Bertrande through masculine eyes, and seen what Bertrande presented; a duped woman. Coras was not present when Arnauld and Bertrande were together, so his source does not convey the ‘truth’ of their time together. Therefore, our sources can tell us only so much, the rest is left to the historian’s imagination. The debate between Davis and Finlay demonstrates that because gender shaped the way in which sources were written, it also shapes the debates of historians today.
The lack of source material available to historians makes it particularly complex to represent women’s historical experience. Leopold Von Ranke endorsed a search for history “as it essentially happened” based on primary source evidence. The implication of this is that there were many people unable to leave sources about their lives, including women. The sources that do exist were predominantly written by educated men. Robert Finlay contends that historical writings must be drawn from source material; otherwise it is not historical fact. Rather, it is a work of fiction. This is problematic because without some speculation and interpretation of the sources as to what happened to women in the past, there would be a somewhat emotionless representation of women’s history with a primarily masculine perspective. Finlay’s argument does not allow for sufficient justice to be given to the emotions and activities of women who lived in the past. By totally relying on the sources which are available it becomes easy to hide, or simply discount, the realities of women’s historical experiences. Women’s gender often excluded them from being properly examined by historians, judges and intelligentsia of their day. In the twentieth century gender has become a more pertinent issue and therefore calls for the re-examination of the way in which history is studied in order to correctly integrate women into history. What constitutes an historical source and an historical text should be re-examined, by doing so it can be recognised that fictionalisation in historical texts could be the means by which women’s history can be more effectively incorporated and represented in general history.
The reign of Queen Elizabeth I is the classic example of a woman’s life being impacted by her gender. While it is apparent that many constructions of femininity were made by men, Elizabeth is an example of a woman manoeuvring within the constraints of her sex with extraordinary success. The main issue of course, is why did Elizabeth choose not to marry and become the “Virgin Queen”? This one act consolidated her power as a female ruler and perhaps contributed to her status as on of Britain’s most successful and powerful monarchs.
Elizabeth made herself into an icon and a legend. She was not simply a mother to her people; she was a “holy mother” by elevating herself to the status of a Virgin Mary. Davis states that Elizabeth developed a “style of self mastery that sustained her royal authority within the framework of sixteenth century hierarchical thought”, despite a reign that was fraught with gossip that attempted to explain her unwillingness to wed. Elizabeth’s place in history is as the gendered queen, the image of the Virgin Queen has been an enduring one. Elizabeth became a self-fashioned icon who manipulated traditional ideals of her gender in order to create an image that strengthened and maintained her position in power. This demonstrates the comprehensive extent to which gender shaped the lives of women and the things they did and experienced. Elizabeth’s success in becoming such an important figure in politics and becoming a lasting figure in history illustrates that gender can be viewed as both a positive and negative force for women in history- not solely a negative one.
One can try to extrapolate from the sources written or dictated by Elizabeth herself why she chose to become the Virgin Queen rather than marry a man:
“I am directly bound unto a husband,
Which is the kingdom of England,
And that may suffice you. And that makes me wonder that you forget, yourselves, the pledge of this allegiance which I have made with my kingdom.”
Elizabeth could retain more power as the Virgin Queen, symbol of servitude to England and its people, than if she would if she were to marry. Any husband she married would undoubtedly become the principal decision maker, while Elizabeth would become a figurehead, essentially useful for the production of an heir to the throne. The marriage of Elizabeth was such an important and regularly reiterated issue. She was regularly petitioned by parliament on her refusal to marry. That Elizabeth should marry in order to rule was unquestioned, except by Elizabeth herself. This clearly demonstrates how women were shaped by their gender at all social levels- they were expected to marry, bear children, be good wives and mothers. What Elizabeth I and Bertrande de Rols both highlight is how women could effectively overcome and manipulate the constraints placed upon their sex.
It is difficult to convey these pressures of writing, and women’s history with its evidentiary problems can often fail to represent women’s lived, embodied reality. Davis has been able to capture this in a filmic representation of The Return of Martin Guerre. Many issues about Elizabeth were also conveyed in the 1998 film Elizabeth, directed by Shekhar Kapur. Elizabeth dramatised the personal and relational problems in the young queen’s life leading up to her adoption of the title “Virgin Queen”. Despite being a work of “fiction” the film raises several historical and historiographical questions.
The film Elizabeth breathes life into the history of Elizabeth I. While politics are clearly addressed, the film implies that the personal and private life of Elizabeth became the central point in her decision to become the Virgin Queen. The film develops a line of argument that clearly links her alleged romance, and its subsequent end, with Sir Robert Dudley to Elizabeth’s decision to become the Virgin Queen. The film does not explicitly state that this is its intention, but rather, subtly conveys it through a series of images. Ian Jarvie contends that film as a historical text is problematic because it does not adequately convey the debates about a historical event or leave room for reflective contemplation of the content by the audience. Instead, Jarvie argues, film makes the literal acceptance of the images as historical fact likely. However, R.J. Raack argues that written history excludes the finer details about what life was really like for people in the past, this includes women. Raack contends that written history is too directional to fully flesh out these experiences. He argues that film strives to convey human emotions and actions through images and that film can better reconstruct events and experiences of the past because it can much more easily approximate real life. This is important for studying the lives of people in the past, particularly women, because although film is often fictive, it is capable of integrating women and their experiences into history by gleaning what can be from the sources that are available.
The Elizabeth that we see in the film Elizabeth is a woman who recognised the constraints of her gender and manoeuvred within them, using her sex to her advantage. Similarly, Bertrande de Rols is represented in the film The Return of Martin Guerre as a woman who was able to manipulate the common view of her time, that women were the inferior and less intelligent sex. The audience is shown that Bertrande is a woman who was able to use her sex to maintain her duplicity, and to extend the time she could spend with Arnauld, who, despite his fraudulent claims, was a tenderer husband than the true Martin Guerre had ever been. The films and the cases of Bertrande and Elizabeth demonstrate that gender shaped the decisions and experiences of women from either end of the social spectrum. The way their stories have been treated historically is also an indicator that their gender had excluded the vicissitudes of their lives from the source, leaving the politics and legalities as their legacy for many years. The films demonstrate that women did do things in their lives and in order to integrate the possibilities of what they did and said, though and felt, into history the re-examination and reinterpretation of sources is necessary, and possibly the re-examination of what constitutes history.
Despite their gender, women like Elizabeth and Bertrande were able to maneuver within the confines of their femininity in order to lead lives which were self-directed and productive. They were both subject to male scrutiny and their stories had traditionally been captured by men, therefore, the sources could be described as fictitious. The fact that finer details of their experiences were not explicitly stated in sources about them has shaped the way they have been viewed historically. As women, their activities and thoughts have not been thoroughly recognised. In order to include women into history as general discourse historians must re-evaluate the sources and re-examine what comprises an historical text. Gender has shaped the experiences of women in life, the way they were addressed by writers in their time, and the way in which they have been dealt with in the study of history.