authenticity, common people, history, interpretation, living history, Reenacting, women's history, women's work, work
Or, Fleshing Sexism into History
Here’s a bitter blog post instead of the angry one someone expected after the Turkey Shoot. It started elsewhere with a discussion of this print: there’s more going on in this, and in many genre images of oyster girls and oyster sellers, than you notice at first glance. (First glance is that fab-u-lous bonnet.) There are clues, though, that she is selling more than just oysters. It’s a code, remember? The gaze is one clue, though it reminds me of a cholera victim’s languor.
Yes: this image suggests she is also selling herself.
It’s something I’ve thought about doing as part of my street vendor/Bridget impression. Transgressive, dangerous: true. As a milliner, I’ve had a money bag shaken in my face, coins rattling suggestively, a sailor eager to spend his pay. Milliners and seamstresses both had reputations as women of exploitable, if not overtly easy, virtue. They’re a classic trope in 19th century literature, though I suspect the real reason for the suggestion of looseness was economic independence. But women certainly were selling themselves in the past, so why not portray that reality with carefully selected, trusted role players?
For one thing, it’s dangerous. You’d have to script it, and interact only with really trustworthy people. It’s not family friendly, though despite the strenuous efforts of some sites, actual history isn’t family friendly either. (I’m looking at you, CW .)
I ponder this role, and women’s lack of power historical, as I ponder Fort Ti and nurses’ reputations, carefully maintained in Army hospitals in later wars. (Not to fear, I will behave, honest.) And I also ponder it as I continue to struggle to understand the Gun Show, the misogyny in the hobby, and the general misogyny of American culture. Like many others, I’ve read this blog post,, and some of the more annoying comments. Yes, I, too, de-escalate now and have in the past. Some of the changes I’ve made in my life revolve back to this concept, and have to do with authenticity and stepping back from de-escalation, subsumation, and self-repression. So why would I not continue that process into my historical work and play?
As I wonder how to spin a feminist interpretation of women’s marginal roles and drudgery in the past, it occurs to me that forcing the women’s economic disparity and lack of agency to the foreground might provide an answer. Selling myself along with oysters, apples, or cherries might finally make the points I want to not just about women’s lives historically, but about women’s roles today.
(I’ve already made the jokes about hands-on demonstrations, so y’all can keep ‘em yourselves, okay?)
I think this would be a great idea for an impression. Selling oneself is so rarely represented, and when it is, it seems to always be done with a very modern impression of prostitution, and more for fun than for education (like the more “adult” version of history Disneyfication). Someone dedicated to creating an accurate picture could really do something with it …
I think Kirsten’s latest post gets to a core issue facing the whole idea of historical re-enactment/recreation, one even more profound than the question of the representation of women’s experience in past worlds, as critical as that is.
Ultimately, a deeply evidence-based recreation of any piece of the pre-modern world–whether the battlefield, the street, the workplace, or the household–would, I think, be so alienating to most modern visitors (not to mention “families”) that the sponsoring institutions couldn’t sustain such efforts for very long.
How many of us would really want to travel back to the 18th century and viscerally experience first-hand the realities of hygiene, class/gender/racial relations, or violence and death?
For example, I recall how far short Newport’s 2014 “first run” reenactment of that 18th-century port town’s 1765 Stamp Act riots fell from the true violence of those demonstrations, which involved major destruction of property and at least threatened violence to the persons targeted.
The Newport reenactment was a valuable undertaking in calling attention to an important historical episode, but to me seeing how tame it was compared to the original only underlined our inability to recreate past episodes involving such high emotions and aggression. (Of course, maybe that’s a good thing!)
Yet, even so, I do think that living history has a valuable role to play, as limited as its ability is to convey anything approaching the “full” reality of the past. But it will always be a frustrating and partial endeavor, as I suppose all historical enterprises ultimately are.