There’s a lot to unpack, and it’s been happening online and in private conversations. Yes, children, Aunt Kitty pays attention, even if she’s silent. This is a tough topic: how can modern feminists represent historical women in a patriarchal culture without losing their minds? How can events better reflect the actual past? The population has, historically, always been about 50-50 male-female. We understand why there aren’t women on battlefields. We get that traditional events (by which I mean the ritualized commemorations of battles) have ridiculously gender-segregated and inauthentic roles. We get that it’s hard to adapt to new ideas, even free, documented ones.
The irritation and anxiety I feel as I expand the kinds of events I attend is actually reassuring: that’s how I know I’m learning. The frustration we feel means we’re banging up against a wall that we can break down with research.
It’s not easy research: women not married to or otherwise affiliated with prominent men are poorly documented. We may never know their names– or we may have a name from a census, newspaper ad, or city directory, and nothing more. But we can fill in the gaps with interpretation. (As it happens, I’ll be talking about this very idea in just a few weeks. Come taunt me in person.)
There’s a lot to think about in recreating the past, in particular at this event. The organizers have done a phenomenal amount of research, gathered the details, sorted them out, assigned roles, scripted and timed an event, and recruited a chorus of characters that reflects the texture of a tense city in 1770.
Building an event, even one that recreates an actual moment in the past, is as much as work of theatre or fiction as it is of fact: character development, motivations, costuming, setting, all of those combine with the documented words to create a scene that conveys an interpretive point for the public. It’s similar to a museum exhibition– it’s interpreted.
Traditionally, living history has interpreted the past with a bias to men’s roles (that’s the nature of our society, folks) and with a tendency to assign roles and activities by gender (again, the nature of our society for centuries). Our task in breaking that pattern is not to right the injustices of the past, for we cannot, but to interpret them.
One way to do that is to bring the undocumented, or poorly documented, people of the past to light. I tried to do that in exploring Bridget Connor. I’ve tried to do that by interpreting a late 18th/early 19th century servant. It’s a long and frustrating process, reading letters and diaries for scraps of information, usually casual references to servants and cooks. But in the frustration lies the promise: we will find the people on the margins, and bring them in to clearer focus.