In dialogue: Writing women’s history

In dialogue: Writing women’s history

By Marion Turner, Margaret Chowning, Virginia Trimble, and David A. Weintraub

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Over the last century, radical shifts in historical scholarship have filled glaring gaps in the way we understand gender from the past and in the present. By developing new methods of writing history, feminist scholars have produced more pluralistic and inclusive histories globally. In celebration of this collective effort, we asked four of our authors the following question: What do we find when we read ‘women’ into histories that often exclude them? Their responses, ranging from medieval British literature to postcolonial Mexico to modern astronomy, illuminate the necessity of excavating women and womanhood from the past and the gifts we all enjoy upon doing so. This Women’s History Month, we present this dialogue to honor the innumerable women who make up our history as well as the many who write it.

Marion Turner | The Wife of Bath: A Biography

In Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, the heroine, Catherine Morland, confesses that she cannot make herself enjoy reading history: “The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all—it is very tiresome.” Across time, the kinds of records that we have, and the kinds of stories that historians have most wanted to tell, have undoubtedly focused on men: on kings, soldiers, parliaments and other institutions which rigorously excluded women for most of history. Women’s histories are harder to excavate, but can be glimpsed and sometimes uncovered, if you know where to look and if you want to tell those unheard stories.

My 2019 biography of the fourteenth-century poet Chaucer—Chaucer: A European Life—was the story of a privileged man’s life, a story that had been told in different ways by many male biographers before me. I tried to do many things in this book, and one of those things was to look more at the women in Chaucer’s life. Very little work had been done on his daughter Elizabeth, for example, and I was able to find out fascinating information about the nunnery in which she lived. The nuns had been chastised for dancing and partying too much and having too many overnight guests. Similarly, while medievalists had long known that the earliest Chaucer life-record involved Chaucer being given some clothes, I put this record under a closer focus. The clothes had been given to him by his female employer, the countess of Ulster, and she was choosing to dress her young page in a scandalously tight and revealing outfit—in a style that was roundly condemned by contemporary chroniclers.

“Women’s histories are harder to excavate, but can be glimpsed and sometimes uncovered, if you know where to look and if you want to tell those unheard stories.”


Nuns, parties, and fashion: these are as important in understanding Chaucer’s life and world as his work as a Member of Parliament, a Customs’ Officer, and a diplomat. And these more traditionally ‘male’ strands of history are not exclusively male either. His second trip to Italy, for instance, was made with the aim of organising a marriage alliance; he got his job as a Customs’ Officer at least partly because of his sister-in-law’s liaison with John of Gaunt.

My most recent project focuses primarily on recovering medieval women’s stories. It concentrates on an extraordinary female character—the Wife of Bath—and explores why and how she emerged in the late fourteenth century and how she has been treated across time, most recently with Zadie Smith’s 2021 adaptation. Taking this fictional woman as a focus, I created a methodology that allowed me to write a composite and experimental ‘biography,’ by delving into the lives of many fascinating medieval women.

I found, for example, a group of women who formed a union in the 1360s to complain to the king and mayor of London about price-fixing by a prominent male merchant. I found a widow who took over her husband’s skinning business, producing furs, ran it successfully, employed apprentices, and remembered a female scribe, as well as other women, in her will. I found a maid who abandoned her employer half-way across Europe in order to begin a social ascent, eventually gaining a far better job in Rome and dispensing patronage to her former employer. I found female blacksmiths, parchment-makers, and ship-owners. I found women who suffered abuse and women who made their voices heard in exposing misogyny and violence.

Perhaps most importantly, by tracing long histories, it became absolutely clear that things have not steadily improved across time. Women’s voices were sometimes suppressed more in later centuries than they were in the medieval era: for example, 1970s adaptations of the Wife of Bath were more misogynist than fifteenth-century versions. Recent events in the US have reminded us that the history of women’s rights is not an ongoing forward march. In my own study of the Wife of Bath, I saw hopeful signs in the last twenty years, when more female authors have made their voices heard and have produced intelligent and sensitive adaptations. But women’s voices are by no means heard equally with men’s, even today. The work of listening to women’s voices is as urgent now as it has ever been.

Margaret Chowning | Catholic Women and Mexican Politics, 1750–1940

Bucking the recent trend toward long, story-telling titles, I decided to call my recent book simply Catholic Women and Mexican Politics.” This was after some false starts that included the word “gender” somewhere in the title. Although there is gender analysis in my project—both comparisons between women’s and men’s experiences, and discussions of gendered political discourses—the research centers on the real Catholic women who led other Catholic women, first into new relationships with priests within the church and then into political battles and collaborations with priests in an effort to try to preserve the special role of the Catholic church in Mexico.

“In my field of Mexican history, by the time women’s history was dead we had hardly begun the work of retrieving women from the archive.”


My embrace of social history and women’s history is a bit of a contrarian (some would say antiquarian) position among feminist scholars, most of whom—at least since 1986, with the publication of Joan Scott’s famous essay that called gender (not women) a “useful” category of analysis—have seen “women’s history” as a more or less failed experiment. Too easy for non-feminist historians to ignore, too focused on stories of overcoming male oppression, too predictable and narrow in its themes. The very universality of those themes across time and space, thrilling in the early days of women’s history, eventually made them seem banal.

But in my field of Mexican history, by the time women’s history was dead we had hardly begun the work of retrieving women from the archive. Potentially important stories (not just about oppression; not predictable; capable of altering the traditional narrative) were abandoned in favor of a framework of gender (itself sometimes producing predictable results, though that is not my point here).

I lucked out in my project. The archive revealed not just a rather shocking change in women’s relationship to the church after the turmoil of Mexican independence (women suddenly came to lead lay associations with men as members, “governing” them in an upending of the natural order of things), but also a story of Catholic women first organizing and leading lay associations and then using those lay associations as vehicles to mobilize petition campaigns in defense of church power and privilege. Since the proper and appropriate role of the church in Mexican society was at the center of politics from independence in 1821 to well into the twentieth century, this meant women were weighing in on vital political issues. And they were being paid attention to. The way the liberal press handled women’s petitioning falls into the category of predictable gendered political discourse, but the way the conservative press squirmed and shuddered its way to an embrace of women’s petitioning was as interesting as the way the church managed to accept Catholic women as leaders of important parish organizations.

This story of Catholic women shifts the traditional narrative of Mexican history, not just by showing that women seized political power much earlier than generally thought, but also by refocusing our attention on the liberal and anticlerical reform era of the mid-nineteenth century, and away, to a certain extent, from the 1910 Revolution. I was lucky to find such a story, but I found it because I was interested in women and not just gender.

Virginia Trimble | The Sky Is for Everyone: Women Astronomers in Their Own Words

Perhaps it should be unnecessary to say (but perhaps isn’t) that we all want our stories to be as accurate as possible in history of science as well as in chemistry, cosmology, condensed matter physics, and all the rest. Properly including the contributions of women scientists, as well as other minorities, is part of this process.

Now, assuming we all agree about this goal, other questions arise. One not much asked is whether our science would have progressed more rapidly if the capabilities of women had been more fully incorporated in the past. An example from my “alternative history” file is the case of Cecilia Helena Payne (later Gaposchkin). Her 1925 astronomy PhD dissertation at Harvard was a “first” in several respects, but the astronomically important point was that she demonstrated (using observations gathered by women and men, plus theoretical contributions from men) that stars are made mostly of hydrogen and helium. She finished this about when her fellowship funding ran out, was later employed at Harvard College Observatory by Shapley, and then had to work mostly on what he ordered. This was stellar photometry, variable and binary stars, not more about chemical composition of stars.

“If you take away the (not always properly recognized) contributions made by women, do you significantly slow down the progress of science?”


My “what if” is this: What if she had continued along her own lines? Would she have discovered the differences in heavy element abundances between different populations of stars and thus laying the foundation for our understanding of the evolution of the Milky Way and other galaxies? This foundation is now credited to Eggen, Lynden-Bell, and Sandage in a 1962 paper, perhaps 30 years after she might have got there following her own path. There are surely other examples from other parts of science. Names to conjure with include Rosalind Franklin, Marietta Blau, and Lisa Meitner.

A different follow-on question is this: If you take away the (not always properly recognized) contributions made by women, do you significantly slow down the progress of science? Some of these contributions were made by wives, or sometimes sisters or daughters, of scientists who generally get most of the credit. Others came from women hired, cheaply, to act as human computers and other assistants to the men. Clued-in astronomers today would surely think of Henrietta Swan Leavitt, who discovered the period-luminosity relationship for Cepheid variable stars, used (and sometimes misused) in studies of galaxies and cosmology today.

A second example that comes incompletely to mind is the computers who worked with Chandrasekhar over the years at Chicago, carrying out complex numerical calculations that fed into his results in stellar structures, stellar dynamics, and most of the other topics on which he made major impact. It is a sobering aspect of the issue of women’s under-recognized contributions across the sciences that I am going to have to stop to look up her name, though she was parodied as Canna Helpit in a paper supposed to be by S. Candlestickmaker (meaning Chandra, whose 1983 Physics Nobel Prize primarily recognized work done 50 years earlier, before he had her or other computational assistants). His papers generally recognize her role, and some of his autobiographical material records her as catching and correcting mistakes in his own calculations. She does not, however, generally appear as a co-author, though his work would surely have proceeded more slowly without her input.

I return triumphant with the name of Donna Elbert (1928–2010) who worked with Chandra from 1948 to 1979, and whose name (thank you, Astrophysics Data System) appeared as co-author on 17 of his 187 astronomy papers published during those years. She wrote (after Chandra’s death) about working with him, and a postdoctoral fellow at UCLA celebrated her in a press release on September 18, 2022. What can or should we do about all this? Does it help to write and edit books? Such was not the primary motivation for Dr. Weintraub and me—though we hope it won’t hurt!

David Weintraub | The Sky Is for Everyone: Women Astronomers in Their Own Words

In helping Virginia Trimble compile autobiographical essays by women astronomers, I learned something particularly eye-opening from one of our chapter authors. Meg Urry is the Israel Munson Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Yale. She wrote about an encounter she had with a male astrophysicist during her postdoctoral years at MIT. At a dinner one night, the senior scientist, believing himself to be an expert on the subject, announced that there had never been any good women artists. Urry’s response to this assertion comes from a famous essay by Linda Nochlin entitled “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” Nochlin explains, “As we all know, things as they are and as they have been, in the arts as in a hundred other areas, are stultifying, oppressive, and discouraging to all those, women among them, who did not have the good fortune to be born white, preferably middle class and, above all, male. The fault lies not in our stars, our hormones, our menstrual cycles, or our empty internal spaces, but in our institutions and our education.”

“Histories that include women are exceptions because the victors usually write the histories. And women, historically, have not even been participants in the fight, let alone the victors.”


And so, women have been excluded from histories of art, of science, of literature, of politics—the list of excluded areas of human endeavor is nearly unbounded. This we know. But why? The answer is simple: Throughout most of human history and in most cultures, they have been—and even continue to be—excluded from actively working in the professions of art, of science, of literature, of politics, and so much more. A person cannot be written into the story if that person is not allowed in the room.

So, what have I learned? My eyes and ears are more open. I am more attuned to and notice the double standards and barriers still placed before my female colleagues. And I am much more aware that many changes are still needed before the playing fields are level. I also recognize that this story is repeating itself. Most professions still are exclusionary. In many countries, those excluded are still women. In other countries, the “firsts” are no longer women; instead, they are persons of color or those whose sexuality is nonbinary. Histories that include women are exceptions because the victors usually write the histories. And women, historically, have not even been participants in the fight, let alone the victors. These histories open our eyes to what might have been and to what should be. The latter is more important, and these histories might help us reach a better, more inclusive future much sooner.

This exchange was facilitated by Akhil Jonnalagadda as part of the Princeton University Press Publishing Fellowship program.