Monday, February 8, 2016

A Woman's Place

Gender and reenacting.

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.


Anonymous said...

You definitely took the best of what the three of us were getting at and summed all up very nicely in your piece!

Reading this brought up some memories of a few discussions. I think the backlash at editing history, from the progressive point of view, comes from the "history hard-ons" (As a certain French sailor put it to me) us reenactors get from particular events. Events like the Massacre that have such high clothing standards and take place on the actual ground and on the exact date gives me a sort of transcendent experience. And that history high becomes addictive to where the only events I want to attend are ones like that because the others just don't deliver that high I desire.

Any change or acknowledging that heavy editing has been done diminishes the history hard-on and makes the event a little less worthwhile to the progressives. It's one of those cases where ignorance truly is bliss.

I attended the Continental Line meeting and I got to discussing with some very drunk older men about progressives. As the youngest unit representative in the whole meeting and one of the handful of progressives in the largest mainstream convention, I was in a bit of a reenactor culture shock. But one of them said to me that the only reason we should be reenact is to educate the public. Anything else comes second.

And that got me to thinking, why am I in it? If you had asked me two years ago when I was on the mainstream side of the hobby, I probably would've said the same thing that middle age man told me. But now that I've changed sides, I feel like the main reason is for me to get that history high I so desire and in an extremely close second is public education. If I'm gonna travel multiple hours to an event, I better get something out of it. In my view, the public gets the best "show" or "lesson" when those reenacting really feel like they're in the actual event.

That said, throughout the day and leading up to the massacre and afterwards, there are some great opportunities for women. I and a few reenactors have been doing research on oyster sellers for our friend to portray (who is already planning an oyster party to prepare some shells). But as you and others have alluded to, it's time to get away from boom-boom stick events and do events that allow women to not only participate fully, but turn the focus on women entirely. And hell, if that means I have to stay home, so be it.

Thank you for the kind and thought provoking words,
Mr. Hiwell

Tea.EarlGrey.Hot. said...

I just learned about this progressive vs mainstream and I don't really get why it has to be so complicated. Why can't a woman pretend to be a man if she wants or a man a woman regardless of appearance AS WELL AS including more events that have various women's roles? This "progressive" view excludes people of color, trans/nonbinary people, and disabled people and likely sidelines women... Why would you want to push out people who just want to enjoy the hobby? Why can you not respect history and people's identities at the same time? And if you really want it that strict, instead of pestering people at regular events why not create "progressive" events with the guidelines laid out for attendees?

Rowenna said...

Mr Hiwell--I think you hit on an *excellent* point--that there is a balance and a conflict inherent in "why we reenact." I know exactly what you mean about the "history high"--there is nothing, save nothing, like having an experience that you realize only later was uninterrupted by modern intrusion. Yet I also believe in educating the public (and I do get a little high from that, too) even if just having them around interrupts my own experience sometimes. Finding balance is hard. And I don't think it's necessary for every event to hit that balance perfectly for me, but in an overall year, I feel burned out if all I've done is serve as an educator, if that makes sense.

Tea--(Earl Grey is my favorite, by the by...)I admit that I stayed away from the "should women dress as men" question in this post nearly entirely (though I have discussed it before) because it really strayed outside my focus, which was on the people marginalized by our standard treatment of history. The question of inclusion is another balance question, and probably the most delicate one I'm aware of in our hobby right now. I'm not at all for pushing people away from the hobby! but we do have to acknowledge that inherent in inclusion is another edit. (And again, I'm not using "edit" in a negative sense here.) And the question gets especially thorny when we recognize that women, people of color, people with disabilities, even trans people all *existed* at the time--just not necessarily in the roles we've been privileging at reenactment events. I'm not for pushing anyone into a limited role, but wouldn't we have more people willing to portray those historical roles and not feel sidelined if we did a better job including the historical roles to begin with?

For what it's worth: There *are* progressive events that lay out specific guidelines for participants, or are invite-only. I'm ok with that. People enjoy different things in this hobby, and if it keeps us all wearing funny clothes, neats.

Ruth Hodges said...

I really like your use of the word "edit" with regard to events that are reenacted. After all, reenactments are the re-telling of stories which necessarily must be edited. These edits not only include leaving things out but adding things in which add to the texture and enrichment of the event.

Tea.EarlGrey.Hot. said...


I agree completely about organizing events that focus on more marginalized groups! However, I would also see how some of these roles may make them feel uncomfortable and left out. So both is a good solution, I think. I find this so interesting since I have only been to a few middle age reenactments that were fully inclusive, though for women that may be easier for that time period!

Tea.EarlGrey.Hot. said...

I am also curious to know, if you don't mind answering, if it is exactly fair to allow certain women to play male roles as long as they can disguise themselves passably as your idea of how a man looks, while leaving out women with undeniably "feminine" features that she simply cannot physically mask well enough according to the others. Also, are males with feminine features who don't appear 'masculine' enough turned away from male roles as well? If not: why?

Rowenna said...

Thanks, Ruth! I was a little worried about using it because it often has negative connotations. But editing and revising? Not the same :)

Tea--"Is it exactly fair to allow certain women to play male roles...while leaving out women with undeniably "feminine" features?" In a word--no. It's not fair. It's a standard I set for myself, that I will not take on roles I cannot portray well--but I am not advocating an organization or event applying such a standard (in addition, what a subjective nightmare!). Mr. Hiwell and Our Girl History both got into it in their posts a bit how, well, life then *wasn't* fair and attempting to revise for our sensibilities is tempting. However, many choose to portray the unfair historical world rather than revise a fair recreated one.

I'll also push back a little against using the concept of "my idea of how a man looks" in this context. I'm not working within modern constructs of gender identity here--I'm working within a very different 18th century world in which a biologically-based gender binary was the norm. Again--no, it's not fair. History just plain isn't fair. But if I want to portray that world for educational purposes, I need to at least be aware of it.

That said, most women, if they try, can disguise female features, but it might involve choices that go beyond a change of clothes (for instance, not using makeup, doing hair in a rather unflattering way, wearing chest binding, and not over-shaping eyebrows). I think some of the resistance (where there is resistance) to women playing men comes from women playing men badly--that is, maintaining (typically 21st century) standards of personal grooming and presentation (to be fair, this is a personal frustration of mine with women playing 18th century women badly, too). Historically, there were women who dressed as men and became soldiers--but they had to do it well enough to "pass." Many expect the same out of women fielding as soldiers in reenactment today.

Tea.EarlGrey.Hot. said...

I simply meant that if no one knows what's under your pants, for reenactment purposes, would it matter? I see your points, even if I think it's unfortunate. Thanks for the insight! This really is more complicated than it seems at first