Women and War (and Public Scholarship) – Medieval Style

I’ve been caught up in my disability journalism lately, but don’t want to neglect some of my other passions  – medieval history and helping academics share their expertise with wider audiences.

Over the past few weeks, a number of outlets have passed around research – just a working paper really – that argues women rulers are more violent than male. It’s a classic case of correlation without context. On the Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship mailing list, a long thread emerged pointing out all the ways this research was either wrong or misguided in its findings. I offered only this – anyone on that list who wanted to publish an oped could contact me within 24 hours and I’d help them craft a pitch, critique their essay, and try to help them find the right editor.

I mention this only because I extend my offer to you, dear reader. If there’s a timely story and you are willing to hustle (and willing to be rejected), contact me and I’ll see what I could do.

Here’s Katrin E. Sjursen’s first piece for The Atlantic on what medieval history really shows about female rulers. It’s an outstanding piece of public scholarship, detailed and interesting, teaching me things I didn’t know, hopefully shaping our national discourse around women, history, and power.

Hillary Clinton’s victory in Iowa marks the first time a woman has won the presidential caucuses there. Enter the latest round of gender-based speculationsabout female candidates’ inherent pacifism versus their over-compensating hawkishness. With Clinton in the presidential race for the long haul, now is definitely—finally—a good time to throw out the binary competition between passivity and warmongering that always seems to be ascribed to female leaders. There’s no need to cram women—including Clinton—into one-dimensional categories: History demonstrates that women employ multiple and complicated approaches to leadership.

Politically active women thrived in the Middle Ages—as queens, duchesses, countesses, and so on—because the medieval period seated political power within noble families, and women were members of those families. Medieval history may not be the obvious source for an examination of active women rulers—after all, books on the Middle Ages often center on the infighting between kings and their knights, while increasingly misogynistic monks produced diatribes against the wiles of women. Nevertheless, noble wives in the Middle Ages were regarded as co-rulers of territory, alongside their husbands, and were expected to participate in both political and military affairs even when their husbands were present and available. This expectation meant that medieval noblewomen had the opportunity to develop a personal ruling style.

Sjursen  wants us to discard the false binaries of women as hawk/dove, and instead embrace the complexity of gender and rule in both past and present. I look forward to her next piece!

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