Something Old, Something New – The Medieval and Modern War on Women

“I respect you very much as a woman for your
accomplishments. I even read that you studied medieval history, which I think
will come in handy with trying to defend the Republican war on women.”
Liberal Radio Host
Stephanie Miller to Carly Fiorina, failed Republican Senate Candiate, on CNN
State of the Union, 7/6/2014.

On CNN last Sunday, Stephanie Miller used Fiorina’s degree in medieval history and philosophy from Stanford as an easy way to score a rhetorical point. Miller argued that the Republicans, especially in their views on women, are medieval, and medieval things, as everyone knows, are bad.

This idea that the Middle Ages were especially
backwards doesn’t really hold up to close analysis, but it’s a pretty pervasive
myth and I’m not surprised to see Miller use it. In fact, Fiorina has used that
kind of language as well. In a keynote address in 2000, she labeled ignorant government
regulators as medieval and celebrated cutting-edge tech companies as the heroes
of the Renaissance.  
This is, of course, nonsense. 
The kinds of
regulations to which Fiorina objects are a product of the development the
modern state and economy. The heroes of the Renaissance frequently served
tyrants in an era of terrible war and strife, though they produce beautiful art
in a time of chaos, disease, and religious strife.
Despite this, if we take Miller seriously and
think about what the study of the Middle Ages might tell us about gender
discrimination, patriarchy, and health care in the wake of the Hobby Lobby
decision, we might make two arguments. First, knowing about the past in fact
does come in handy when trying to understand the present. Second, one of the
things the past reveals is that dangerous parts of the war on women are very
Let’s start with a medieval story about women
and healthcare.
14th-c drawing meant to depict “Trotula,”
a female doctor. Miscellanea medica XVIII
Wellcome Library, London. CC-zero
In 1322, the all-male medical faculty of the
University of Paris took Jacoba Felice to court for practicing medicine without
a license. At trial, witness after witness attested to her skill and denied
that she had ever asked for payment. The court nevertheless found her guilty
and ordered her to refrain from practicing medicine on pain of fine and
On the surface, this looks like a classic
example of medieval patriarchy at work.  But if the Middle Ages last from
500 to 1500 or so (and some scholars would end the medieval much earlier), 1322
is actually pretty late in the period. This is important because it shows that
the specific issues in 14th-century Paris are new. 
Before that
point, the men and women of the city had trusted Felice, investing her with
social capital, although that didn’t help her in the face of the law. After
this, male doctors increasingly worked to ban women from practicing medicine
solely on the basis of their gender. In fact, according to Monica Green,   Professor of History at Arizona State
University, Felice’s case may have sparked the physicians’ practice of applying
gender-based barriers to the profession, since competency was harder to argue (Felice being supremely competent).
A modern analyst could use the case to inform
either right-wing or left-wing arguments. On the one hand, it’s a kind of
overreach of regulation that served the vested interests of male physicians who
felt threatened by Felice’s competition. On the other, the case features a
corporate body (the medical faculty) that used the courts and the church to
enforce gender norms and restrict women’s access to quality healthcare. In the
wake of the Hobby Lobby decision, that latter analysis does seem especially
relevant, even if it’s not one Fiorina would make. 
Beyond the relatively narrow confines of
medicine, the story of Felice also says a lot about the power of the state and
what happens when that power is leveraged to reinforce gender or religious
norms. The “state,” as we know the term, really begins to take shape in what we
call the “early modern” period (starting around 1500, more or less), but we can
see the roots in moments like the trial of Felice.
On the other hand, at its height, the
pre-modern state had nothing like the kind of power that the weakest government
can exercise today. The richest men or groups had nothing like the kind of
wealth that corporations and plutocrats hold. The medical profession may have
achieved power over credentials, but the knowledge and invasive possibilities
of medicine today would have seemed largely inconceivable to the pre-modern
At the core, Hobby Lobby’s arguments against providing
contraceptive care do reflect older Christian ideas about gender, religion, and
power. They are dangerous not because they are old, however, but because of the
intrusive power of modern technology to peer into our most intimate lives. They
are dangerous because of the control that corporations have over their worker’s
health, a truly bizarre accident of 20th-century American labor
history. They are especially dangerous because of the vast wealth leveraged by
powerful conservative men who want to enshrine their religious views into law.
This is a modern battle as we decide what kind
of country we want this to be. We resist the forces behind the Hobby Lobby
decision not by mocking them for being antiquated, but through the ballot box,
the courts, public opinion, and even the ultra-modern tool of
internet-organized consumer boycotts.
On CNN, Miller’s quip suggested that patriarchy,
gender repression, and even would-be theocracy are problems of the past, that
the “war-on-women” is some kind of throwback to a barbaric and long-past age.
If only that were true.

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