Well, that's done.
I recently read a trio of well-written pieces on this issue. Discussing the upcoming Boston Massacre event, Our Girl History unpacked some of the problems of accurate portrayal of women (and lack of appropriate roles). Kitty Calash posted a response, and pointed out our inherent bias in gravitating toward male-dominated historical events to begin with and the need for more focus on people in the margins. Fife4Life posted an articulate response from a male perspective asking how we balance modern expectations with historical realities.
And still the questions remain....When recreating male-dominated events, should women be present at all? In strictly document-able numbers? In what ways? Much of the history we work within is heavily male-oriented: battles, riots, signings of important documents. What place does a woman have?
And when she doesn't have a place in the immediate vicinity of the event itself, should she be there at all?
The anal historical part of me aims toward the nitpicky. Not right for the period, right out. But the educator in me starts to ask some other questions, questions about the value of all the stuff that focusing on single events and momentous days leaves *out.* Let's be honest--the draw for a re-created military engagement is greater than the draw for Random Tuesday Afternoon in 1778 when it comes to events (which I am focusing on--not sites and museums, but specific recreated events). We have limited opportunities to engage and educate, and part of me says "if people are going to show up to watch the Gun Show, then that's where we have to hit them with the other elements, as well." We don't want to revise history, but what about editing it?
Because we're working with edited history, no matter what we do.
Hold on, don't get crabby.
First, we're working with edited timelines and edited spaces. The spaces and timeframes available to us are seldom in precise alignment with the spaces and timelines historically. For most events, we're compressing something that took much longer into a shorter timeframe--the battle lasted X hours, but the machinations of getting everyone there and the retreats and the mopping up and the skirmishes on the sidelines--we pick what to focus on, and that's editing. The space--most events have camps and have fields of battle (and have restroom facilities over the hill and a parking lot for the tourists...). These spaces are often compressed by necessity. Two hundred years ago, there was nothing here, but the Gundersons five miles down the road didn't want anyone pitching a tent in their begonia patch and neither did the rest of their neighbors, so the camp is going to be a lot closer to the field than historically correct. Even when we pick a precise moment in a precise place, like the Boston Massacre event. Even if we time the elements of the event to correspond with the best research. We won't be showing the treating of the wounded extending into the next week, will we? Or people venturing out to discuss with their neighbors the next morning? Also editing.
Editing isn't a bad thing by nature--editing is just clipping and cropping for necessity's sake and for impact's sake. I'm sure any bright reader would notice quickly that of course showing Timmy Smith succumbing to his infected wounds a week post-Monmouth isn't really in keeping with the concept of highlighting an "event" in history--even though Timmy's sad demise is certainly a part of the historical event known as The Battle of Monmouth.
Thing is, if we can acknowledge that we're editing regardless of our good intentions, we can acknowledge that what we choose to present to the public is often editing out women's contributions and stories. (See, I brought it back to gender.) No, there were no women on the field of battle (or, rather, very few), but there were women in military camps and in adjacent towns. When we edit the scope to "The Battle of" we edit out women's stories that were happening simultaneously. I tend to think that there is value in these stories. So how to focus the lens to avoid editing them out--or revising history by introducing a cast of characters in roles they should play?
So often this comes back to tired arguments--should women be allowed to dress as men? What about women on the field in other ways? I'm not talking about those right now--they've been discussed quite a bit and suffice to say, I'm not trying to suggest here that inserting women into roles they didn't play is the sole solution to this editing issue. (And even though I'm focusing on women here, you could probably come up with a laundry list of marginalized people who are usually edited out--civilians, especially the poor, plus enslaved men and women...this conversation might start around gender but it quickly balloons.)
Maybe that space and time constraint "problem" can come back to help us. If we have to have the camp a quarter mile from the field anyway, then the women in those camps can certainly be telling their stories and we can embrace this element of engagement as a valid mode of education. (Yes, I am accommodating mainstream reenacting preference for a "camp" camp and not focusing solely on a more progressive mode--but even if I were, space is still an element we deal with, right?) Historically, there was a town over there with people trying to live their lives. No, they didn't come to watch the battle...but neither did a crowd of modern spectators. Can they be introduced into the space in a way that permits broadening the understanding of the event and the period? I'm a huge fan of letting living historians in marginalized roles serve as tour guides and "answer people," thereby allowing them to share their own voices. It shows the public that you don't need a musket to be a participant in history (while acknowledging that the public wants to see things go boom. I get it--I like seeing things go boom sometimes, too).
And as for timelines, if we have to accelerate (or, more rarely, slow down) a single event for educational consumption (sorry, Timmy), we may create opportunities for precursor and reactionary events that happened earlier or later. Perhaps I, as a lady of some quality, should quit the area before the riot breaks out. That doesn't mean I can't be talking about it with spectators five minutes later down the road (even if I wouldn't be in that space and time historically--to be honest, neither would they). Part of our work with the public is discussing and digesting, not just presenting. There is room here for introducing elements that have traditionally been edited out.
Sometimes the time crunches and space constraints that seem at first glace to be obnoxious anachronisms are in fact opportunities. As long as everyone is on the same page and clear with the public about changes made to accommodate a re-creation (which will *always* be made to some degree, however accurate we wish to be), we can broaden, in a sense, by accepting and working with the narrowing. Even when it's imperfect, I do believe that the presence of women in many historical events is important for telling a story that *did* exist, even if it existed a mile or so over thataway. We just have to be intelligent and honest about it, and consider how to do so respectfully.
My view? Don't revise history, but work within the constraints to provide education and voices that would otherwise be edited out by space and time constraints.