, , , , , , ,

A Female Philosopher in Extasy at Solving a Problem. London, England; about 1770 Mezzotint and engraving with watercolor on laid paper
Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

Scandal and outrage rock the reenacting world as reading comprehension lags and The Gentle Author is accused of presentism– or, at least, that’s the most reasonable translation I have for comments made about me last night on social media, including:

Yeah- she’s got great stuff. But I feel awful that she fell into a modern-think trap.

and, my favorite,

I’d say its a post modern Critical Theory think trap. Frankfort [sic] School is gushing from the pores.

Let’s take this apart, shall we? The Frankfurt School (not this place) was a social and political movement based in Frankfurt am Main in the immediate post-World War I years. After 1933, the school, formally known as the Institute for Social Research, moved to Columbia University in New York city. Being insulted by association with the likes of Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno is a new experience for me; I’m more usually associated with the ideas of Mary Daly and Jacques Derrida but I’ll take backhanded intellectual flattery where I can get it. (Also, thanks for thinking of me, but Kitty does not require your pity.)

More seriously, the postings last night (which happened while I was in class and have been deleted) brought to mind two powerful issues in living history and the reenacting community: Presentism and Feminism (with its unholy shadow, mansplaining).

Let’s go over these:

Presentism: uncritical adherence to present-day attitudes, especially the tendency to interpret past events in terms of modern values and concepts.

Feminism: The radical notion that women are people. the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes.

My recent post about MoAR’s Occupied Philadelphia event was accused of presentism, or “falling into a modern-think trap” and a “Critical Theory trap.” Here’s how that post came about:

Images were posted to Facebook, and I was tagged in one that showed me in the midst of a crowd that included members of the 17th Regiment of Infantry, one of the forces that occupied Philadelphia in 1777. My cousin, ever the wag, commented:

click to enlarge in a new window

“I suppose you hang out with Confederates, too,” had some bite. What surprised me was my well-educated and thoughtful cousin’s facile conflation of Confederates and British. Is the world that easily black-and-white, good-and-bad, Manichaen? Not usually, and certainly not usually to my cousin. Explanations seemed in order. Why had I done what I did, and what did I do? What was Occupied Philadelphia about?*

To me, it offered the chance for some complicated interpretation that’s more readily accessible via living history than by exhibit panel, or at least significantly more engaging than text. How do you elucidate the complexity of the American Revolution? How do you get people to think about the past in the past’s terms? How do you get them to query and interrogate their accepted understandings of history?

Apparently that position towards living history– that it is complicated, worthy of criticism, can be used to create a complicated look at the past, and can be understood through cultural criticism– is deserving of the dog-whistle scorn of men hiding behind false names on social media. It elicits from them suggestions for interpretation that include impressions already being done, and referenced in the original post. It elicits suggestions based on 1811 paintings of Philadelphia, because of course, nothing helps illuminate 1777 Philadelphia like a genre painting made 34 years later.

If anything, I was suggesting that complicated interpretations (that is, showing how an “occupying force” might be “good” for the population) can further an understanding of the past that helps us understand the present. Isn’t that the mission of most history organizations? Understanding the past to illuminate the present and shape the future? It’s unsettling to realize so immediately how people who practice history use it to reinforce the status quo, and use misreadings of interpretation to further their own sense of superiority.

That’s where feminism comes in: suggesting “new” roles for women in living history (Laundry? How ’bout being a Quaker?) on a page dedicated to women’s history is a dizzying feat of sexist thinking. It is particularly delightful given that the Gentle Author and her associate, Our Girl History, are among the people who have suggested new roles for women, and have organized events that included suggested roles, and in fact required them. But please, tell me what to do. Belittle me by association with some of the leading critics of the 20th century. Because when you do, you reveal yourself not only to me, but to others.

Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough. Oil on canvas by Charles Jervas.

As Our Girl History wrote recently, women’s voices in living history are too often silenced in the present by excuse of the past. That anti-feminist approach was on view last night, and continues to be the default setting for many men in living history. It reflects a persistent bias against intelligent, educated women, like the Female Philosopher.  It reflects a persistent position that women should “know their place:”

The greatest sin a woman could commit was to participate in any sort of public life, be it theatre, politics, or social causes – this made her immediately ‘difficult’

Margaret Perry on “difficult” women in the long 18th century.)

It will not remain a viable position for long.


*Brits-as-Nazis is not my origination, but the distillation of a comment made about the dedication of a monument at Guilford courthouse and subsequently reported to me. Despite a commenter’s attempt to attribute the equation to me, it is not mine, as should have been clear from “in certain circles.” Not my circles, not my monkeys.