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What Can a Medievalist Teach us about Jacinda Ardern's Resignation and Women in Power?

Jacinda Ardern recently announced her resignation as Prime Minister of New Zealand. She led and united New Zealand through the Christchurch terror attacks, then the COVID pandemic, holding the island country up to the international community as (to many) a model of good stewardship. But media coverage of her has not always focused on her leadership, but rather on her being a [insert shocked face here] woman.

And as Dr. Eleanor Janega pointed out on twitter, the minimization of Ardern’s accomplishments - the questioning of her very right to be there - is a very very old trope.

Dr. Janega is the perfect person to comment on this, as she’s the author of a new book (out now!) that engages just these questions. And The Once and Future Sex: Going Medieval on Women’s Roles in Society (WW Norton, 2023) is marvelous - a learned, engaging, and FUNNY read that moves expertly through medieval sources and modern stereotypes. She’s just as comfortable talking about Geoffrey of Vinsauf as Dolly Parton (though one is objectively more fun than the other. Hint: It’s not Geoffrey).


Ok, to your book. Reading a lot of books on medieval Europe, we’ve been led to believe that there were no women. Are you arguing in The Once and Future Sex that there were?

Many are surprised to learn that there were more than three women (Eleanor of Aquitaine, Hildegard of Bingen, and Joan of Arc) in the medieval period!

To be honest rather a lot of the blame for that falls on what we, as a society, tend to classify as “real history” or “serious” history. This is usually defined as “great” men who do violent things to each other and “change the world” as a result. Women are usually treated as a niche interest because, on the whole, they do not do things such as annex Milan on a grudge. More to the point we also still have a medieval (and even ancient) tendency to see women as frivolous or extraneous to the happenings of the real world. The default person is a man and an interest in whoever it is that makes his life possible is extraneous.

Of course there are also issues like coverture which get in the way of learning about women in the past. If your name is erased upon marriage and your husbands is listed on all documents about you, it makes it very difficult for people seven hundred years into the future to snoop on you and turn it into history.

In theory the book is supposed to address not only the disparity in history about women but explain how it was we developed it in the first place.

More than even existing, it seems that women actually DID stuff? What kind of stuff did they do?

The short answer is literally everything, but also have children and look after the house as well.

Of course about 80% of European women were going to be peasants, so that meant the jobs in question were farming. There are no agricultural pursuits that women weren’t involved in. They were less likely to be, for example, ploughing, but the hundreds of single women who owned farms certainly did, as did women with smaller families.

There were a lot of work that was designated as more specifically feminine, however including milking, animal husbandry, brewing, sewing, and weaving. Plus they did all the house work so laundry, dishes, floor scrubbing, sweeping, dusting. In cities women did all sorts of interesting work. On the lower end of the economic scale they might sell things on market stalls, or work as domestic servants. Higher up, women who were married to men in guilds were expected not only to be able to participate in the same work as their husbands. So if your husband was a grocer, so were you, and you also did the taxes. There were also whole guilds that only included women like silk weavers’ guilds. There were religious women living and working as nuns and writing away or working in hospitals. And at the uppermost echelons of society noble and royal women were involved in diplomacy, money lending, and running their houses and armies of staff while also looking after things like how the harvest was coming and what taxes they could expect to come in from the serfs.

On top of all of this, most women, with the exception of nuns were expected to participate in the labour of child birth and care, which was very much conceptualized as a form of work. Women were expected to be wives and mothers first and foremost so they were putting their bodies on the line in order to do so and then changing the diapers after the fact. It’s almost easier to ask what women didn’t do in the medieval period which is pretty much just “be Pope or a Bishop”.

Read entire article at Modern Medieval