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Cooking. Gets you every time.

Cooking. Gets you every time.

Three holes (at least; there might be four) and mending to do. The patches are cut, but I’m thinking now that a wool apron might be a good thing to have. The other thing I’ve been thinking about is what James Thurber called The War Between Men and Women, and how even in educated, enlightened North America, it plays on. [i]

At living history events or reenactments, the work and activities are divided along gender lines. Participants are supposed to follow “the rules,” which keep women on the observer side of the rope line and the men free to run around with muskets. Women sometimes seem purely decorative at the military events, and the relationships between men and women are curious. There’s the sexism between reenactors, and the sexism of the public, who can often assume women know nothing about what’s happening.  Women should, after all, know their place, just as the men know theirs.  Women can cook and clean up after the men, and the men will do all the talking, even when they’re wrong.[ii]

In a more domestic setting, this same historical dynamic can play out: women cook and serve the meals, wash the dishes, fetch the wood and water, and clean the kitchen, while men muck about outdoors until their tools break. Then they lounge about smoking, drinking, and talking.

Sandby, Washing at Sandpit Gate, 1765. Royal Collection.

Sandby, Washing at Sandpit Gate, 1765. Royal Collection.

That’s all OK, to a degree.  But we’re not in the 18th century, and the women in the kitchen don’t enjoy washing other people’s dirty dishes as well as all the cooking pots and tools. We had a system on Sunday evening, but I did notice that some men just can’t be the only guy helping: once the other guys leave the room, they’re out, too, with a kind of desperation, even as the light wanes and we need all the help we can get to finish up.

So what to do? Interpreting the 18th century means facing gender roles that most American women today don’t like or embrace. What’s the best way to interpret women’s history and women’s roles in the past to people today?

On Sunday, I left the house to call the guys to the first meal, and a visitor asked if the sheep in the field were part of the site. “Yes,” I said. “ But I don’t know where the sheep are today; I don’t get to leave the house much.” And that is true: aside from fetching water when I didn’t have a man or boy to ask to do it, there was hardly need, reason, or even time, to leave the house.

I think we do a disservice to the visitors to living history sites of all kinds if we don’t find a way to talk about women’s history, and the roles—proscribed or not—that women could take on. At a RevWar encampment, we can talk about the reasons women followed the armies, the kinds of work they did for pay or rations, and what the Revolution meant for women. At the farm and at the manor, I think it’s important to talk about women’s lives in the Early Republic. How this would work at the farm, exactly, I’m not yet certain; at the manor it is easy enough, for the women who lived there were born just before the Revolution. They were well-educated and expected to choose their own husbands. We know who they were; we know less about the women at the farm, though we know about their work.

How we experience that work isn’t really the point, but the chasm between choosing to spend a day never looking beyond the scope of the hearth and having to spend days that way is enormous. It’s a point I want to make,  in a way more sophisticated than “life was hard and greasy.” It’s something to work on.

[i] This is in no way meant to equate the petty first world problems of a bunch of reenactors/living historians with the larger and more brutal problems elsewhere in the world. But relationships can change when situations change…

[ii] Fortunately, the Second Helping Regiment doesn’t work quite this way, and not just because they’re busy chewing whatever has been made for them. Cooking, and the subsequent chewing, can be used strategically.