Marooned on an Island Monographs: a History of Femininities Reading List

Guest Blog by Amanda Herbert

What 5 history monographs would you take with you to a deserted island? In this monster mini-series, experts offer suggested reading on a particular topic or type of history.

Amanda Herbert is Assistant Professor of History at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Virginia, and is the inaugural Molina Fellow in the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California (2015-2016). She is interested in histories of the body and all that it entails: gender and sexuality, the consumption of food and drink, health and healing. She’s the author of Female Alliances: Gender, Identity, and Friendship in Early Modern Britain, and is currently at work on her second book project, ‘Spa: Faith, Public Health, and Science in the British Atlantic’. She co-edits The Recipes Project, a blog about recent research on historical recipes of all kinds: medical, culinary, magical, and scientific. She’d be delighted if you’d follow her on Twitter @amandaeherbert.

Amanda Herbert

When Joanne Begiato (Bailey) posted her ‘Marooned on an Island’ list on the histories of masculinity at the many-headed monster in June of 2015, I read it right away and with great enthusiasm – there is so much good, important work being done now on manhood and masculinity – but having just written a book on womanhood and femininity, it made me think: what would I put on my own ‘Marooned on an Island’ list? The question is more complicated than you might think. For many years, historians of women have done double-duty. They’ve recovered and reclaimed women’s lives, experiences, voices, and perspectives from the archives. But then many of them have also worked to understand the ways that people in the past defined the characteristics (mental, physical, emotional) of supposedly ideal or ‘normal’ women. Both enterprises share much in common and are of important scholarly value. But their underlying premises are different: women’s history seeks to redress the historic underrepresentation of women; gender history attempts to understand the historic definitions of terms like ‘feminine’ or ‘womanly’, and to determine which authorities decided upon and regulated those terms. Historians of women can choose to pursue one, or both, of these objectives in their work. But I think that it’s important to recognize their distinctions. There’s a certain risk in naturalizing gender difference if we don’t separate women’s experiences from constructions of femininity, but I also hope – especially as gender history continues to develop as a rich, nuanced field – that acknowledging this distinction will encourage more scholars to undertake topics beyond the limiting binary of femininity/women and masculinity/men.

I was therefore delighted when the editors asked me to write a ‘Marooned on an Island’ post on this very topic. In light of my thinking about women’s history and gender history, I set five parameters for myself: 1) the books had to have a significant ‘gender history’ component; e.g., they had to explore the historic definitions of femininity 2) the books had to be substantively (e.g., over half) about femininity; this left out a lot of really smart books comparing masculinity and femininity, but I wanted to give the histories of femininity their due 3) the books had to be histories; literary critics have written excellent books on this topic, but I wanted to foreground my own discipline 4) in keeping with the many-headed monster’s themes, they had to be about early modern Britain and 5) – and this was really the hardest one – the books had to have been written since 2000. I wanted to provide a platform for the newest, most current books out there (fifteen years is actually pretty cutting-edge for historians – check out Karin Wulf’s excellent recent post at The Scholarly Kitchen about the ‘slow digestion rate’ of good history) and I especially wanted to highlight those written by first-time authors. So here we go.

1) Ingrid Tague, Women of Quality: Accepting and Contesting Ideals of Femininity in England, 1690-1760 (Boydell, 2002).

Tague_Women of QualityThis excellent book checks all of the boxes: it’s a first book, written by a historian (Ingrid Tague is Associate Professor of History at Denver University), and describes constructions of British femininity in the long eighteenth century. Tague examines prescriptive literature – conduct books, advice manuals, domestic guides – in order to show how women were expected to behave in the areas of life considered to be most critical for them in the period: in marriage, in the household, in church, in society, and in the provision of charity. She also provides a careful analysis of criticisms of femininity via attacks on fashion, consumption, and recreation (eg., diversions such as theatre, masquerades, gambling, and drinking). The book has compelling images, with portraits as well as some lesser-known and insightful satirical prints, and a well-constructed and helpful bibliography. For those interested in early modern femininity, this book is essential and covers all of the bases.

2) Laura Gowing, Common Bodies: Women, Touch, and Power in Seventeenth-Century England (Yale, 2003).

Gowing_Common BodiesCommon Bodies is concerned with early modern ideas and expectations about the female body. It’s Laura Gowing’s (Professor of Early Modern British History at King’s College, London) second monograph – her first, Domestic Dangers, was edged out by a 1996 publication date and is listed under Honorable Mentions, below – and it shows how both women and men thought about and acted around women’s figures and frames. Highlighting in particular the perspectives of lower-status Britons, the book reveals moments in which women’s personal bodies became objects of ‘public’ concern: in sexual intercourse, sexual violence, and rape; in pregnancy, childbirth and parenthood; and under the law and in politics. Gowing’s subjects are shown to have agency and toughness while it is made simultaneously clear how, due to the limiting and damaging discourses about women’s bodies that circulated in early modern society, many women themselves were made terribly vulnerable.

3) Jennifer L. Morgan, Laboring Women: Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004).

Morgan_Laboring WomenIf you’re a historian of early modern Britain, this book may not be on your radar, but it absolutely should be: in her first book, Jennifer Morgan (who is Professor of History at New York University) reveals the way that early modern Britons thought and talked about enslaved women in the Caribbean and mainland British American colonies. Morgan shows in devastating detail how enslaved women’s bodies were commodified and manipulated, and examines changing early modern ideas about race and gender that made this abuse possible. The images in this book are both spectacular and horrifying, and Morgan’s analysis of them is powerful. By imagining that enslaved women of African descent could withstand crushing labor regimes, survive on very little food, give birth without pain, and even nourish their children as animals did, white Britons were able to convince themselves of the acceptability and validity of slavery based on racial heredity as well as gender.

4) Christine Peters, Patterns of Piety: Women, Gender and Religion in Late Medieval and Reformation England (Cambridge, 2003).

Peters_Patterns of PietyChristine Peters (Queen’s College, Oxford) has written a first book which examines intersections between ideas about women and ideas about religion in early modern Britain. She questions how and why the Reformation changed the experience of religion for early modern women, pushing back against scholarship which characterized this as a painful and debilitating transition due to the loss of chaste female saints such as the Virgin Mary as objects of worship. Drawing upon court transcripts and wills as well as printed sermons and theological treatises, Peters documents early modern attitudes towards and about spiritual women, and argues that women had already been re-imagined – and in many instances had successfully re-imagined themselves – as ‘frail Christians devoted to Christ’ prior to the English Reformation. Peters includes great illustrations and a comprehensive and helpful appendix, bibliography, and index.

5) Susan Stryker, Transgender History (Seal Press, 2008).

Stryker_Transgender historyThis book falls outside of some of my criteria, but it represents such an important new voice in gender history that it had to be included. Susan Stryker’s (Associate Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Arizona) book examines modern American transgender history – the book’s story begins in the 1850s, but much of its richest material comes from the 1950s, 60s, and 70s – and provides a foundational account of the transgender community in the U.S. as well as a good grounding in the political, legal, and cultural challenges that have been faced by trans people in American history. The text is intended to be inclusive, introductory, and informative, and that’s what I like about it: it recognizes that gender studies should and can be about much more than a binary battle of what makes women different from men. There should be more work in this style, and I hope to see more of us engage with and explore the complexity and diversity of systems of gender in early modern British history.

Honorable Mentions (top-notch histories of femininity that didn’t quite meet my criteria in terms of publication date, scope, or discipline): Carole Levin, The Heart and Stomach of a King: Elizabeth I and the Politics of Sex and Power (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994); Margaret Sommerville, Sex and Subjection: Attitudes to Women in Early Modern Society (New York: E. Arnold, 1995); Laura Gowing, Domestic Dangers: Women, Words, and Sex in Early Modern London (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996); Amanda Vickery, The Gentleman’s Daughter: Women’s Lives in Georgian England (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998); Mary Fissell, Vernacular Bodies: The Politics of Reproduction in Early Modern England (New York: Oxford, 2005); Kathleen Long, Hermaphrodites in Renaissance Europe (Burlington VT: Ashgate, 2006); Stephen Bending, Green Retreats: Women, Gardens, and Eighteenth-Century Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

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4 thoughts on “Marooned on an Island Monographs: a History of Femininities Reading List

  1. Dear Amanda,
    Firstly, I wanted to thank you for a really excellent article, highlighting some of the very best of recent scholarship- plus a few titles I’m not yet familiar with. I’m now eager to pop out to the bookshop.
    What fascinated me about your article was this question of the history of ‘femininities’ as opposed to the history of ‘femininity’. I noticed that you used both the plural and singular forms in your article, and its something that I’ve been thinking about a lot in my own research. It has struck me that this question of the history of femininities (plural) is a fertile site at which the two disciplines of gender history and women’s history, which you so compellingly distinguished, can interact: there were ideals of gender difference at these times, and there were also real live women, sometimes ideals of gender differences affected these women, sometimes they didn’t. Crucially, I think, is the point that when these two things (discourses and ‘real’ individuals) coincide, what is highlighted is the fact that there wasn’t one singular definition of ‘femininity’ but in fact many ‘femininities’ which were forged through social, economic, political difference: ideals for a rural peasant, for example, were hugely different than for an aristocratic women, perhaps more so than the differences between ideals for male and female peasants or aristocrats. This plural has demonstrated so clearly the same approach being taken in the history of masculinities, and is something that I am very happy to see taking hold within women’s and gender history.
    Many thanks again

    Anna

    • Dear Anna — Many apologies for the lateness of this response to your very important and interesting comment. I’ve only just seen it and am sorry that I didn’t reply right away! You’re absolutely right. It is very important to recognize that in each past moment multiple (and sometimes competing) ideals of femininity existed, and it is imperative for scholars of both/all genders to recognize those differences and multiplicities. Looking back at my list, I think that Morgan’s *Laboring Women* book offers a particularly good example of this, as it shows so clearly that early modern people believed there were differences between black and white femininities. Thanks so much for your comment — it’s really gotten me thinking. Best wishes, Amanda

  2. Pingback: Marooned on an Island Monographs: a History of Femininities Reading List | Maria Acucena Saad Pires

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