Discuss the Role of Women in [Thing]

You know what essay question bores the pants off me?

Discuss the role of women in [Thing].

For [Thing] insert primary text, time period, historical event, whatever. This question annoys the  hell out of me.

The Lion in  Winter - We've *all* got knives.  It's 1183 and we're barbarians.And yet I wrote that essay almost every time it came up, in my undergrad. And before, actually.  I have a twenty-something-page folio which I compiled somewhere in early high school, entitled (in metallic gel pen) Women in the Middle Ages. It concludes with a one-thousand-word essay on The Role Of Women In The Middle Ages, laid out in more or less the same format as the one I’d keep re-using in uni (answer: SEXISM, BUT.  Or sometimes, ARSE-KICKING, but SEXISM).

So this question annoys me. And yet I ate it up with a spoon as a student. I remember once going to Tutor Awesome and asking her for a Question About Women because I hadn’t done my biannual Essay About Women. Essays about women, I explained to her, were a nice sideline. A bit of a break from serious stuff. She sort of went cross-eyed, bit her tongue, and set me an essay on Ælfric’s construction of female  heroism re: Judith. And I ended up wining a prize for it. And I had to deal with scholars who understand Judith Butler and Lacan, and basically Tutor Awesome kicked my arse from here to feminism. A thing which she only got to do because I wanted to write miscellaneous essays on women.

Also, there’s the part where my current thesis is based on an essay I wrote in honours on the Role Of Women In the Chevalier au Lion. And the part where some of the best tutorial papers I had last semester were students presenting on The Role Of Women in [Text].

It still annoys me, though. As a question.

Proud to fight like a girlOne of the key problems with it is that, unless you happen upon a Tutor Awesome who wants to kick your arse, you don’t actually have to learn any new critical skills to answer The  Role Of Women In  The Middle Ages. You have to assimilate new information, yes, but you can usually answer that question with Sexism, But…

As a question, it doesn’t push you toward why answers. A clever student will find why answers themselves, but they actually have to move away from the ‘discuss the role of women’ purview a bit to do it.  Compare that to, say, Discuss the development of the character of  Guinevere across X-number of texts – that question is set up for comparisons, identification of key themes, and unless you’re very very silly, a why is this so conclusion.

The standard LadyQuestion also tends not to link in well with other key themes of the course. I’ve noticed this across history and literature units, and it’s ridiculous. If you’re talking about women in medieval literature, set genre questions about the Role of Women. Make people think about the difference between epic and romance!*

Monty Python's knights, singingThere’s also the habit of talking about chivalry and women and not masculinity and femininity, which leaves out the possibility of forcing students into comparing ideas of men’s and women’s honour, and various other fun things like that.

In Ur History - emhasizin ur wimmenzThere’s also the fact that there are lots of kinds of women in medieval literature (and life), and smart students with an interest in LadyHistory often get screwed over by the necessity of covering them all.  One could, horror of horrors, set several LadyQuestions each with narrower purviews!

And yet, students like the Standard LadyQuestion. And it does provide me with great opportunities to thwack them all over the head with Simon Gaunt and Katherine Gravdal and Joan M.  Ferrante. I am torn!


* Someone did set me that question once. I have an essay on women in the Song of Roland which talks about emerging romance tropes in the treatment of women… which is bizarre, since it wasn’t like I had  any earlier comparisons than Roland, but w/ever. I tried. Or the question-setter tried.


One Response to “Discuss the Role of Women in [Thing]”

  1. Annelise Says:

    The social construction of women’s roles is such a hot topic in modern conversations- rightly so. Topics are so interesting when their writers are highly passionate! Avidity means we’re are able to remember and think through the important issues to a higher and more accurate degree than if they were just a hobby, but I guess it also necessarily distracts and limits our focus. Unless you’re careful, modern applications can restrict conversation on all sorts of other things that survive in a text to be explored. You can easily ignore the themes that would have been important to its original culture and are unexpectedly also relevant to us. For example- when it comes to views on women, their experiences and even the problem of sexism, there’s so much to talk about besides just their ‘role’! Important as that is. Avoiding stereotypes and popular catch-cries must be one of the pivotal aims of quality history.

    You’ve read a lot more women-focused work than I have, both academic/popular and student-written. Do you find that this genre has the particular trap of saying not-much-new, with writers gaining points by appealing to readers’ ‘native opinions’ on hot topics? Even if it’s the scholarship/originality that’s a problem and not the theme itself, you find yourself having to agree… It wouldn’t be the first sphere of enthusiastic commitment for that to happen in.

    What makes an excellent composition stand out from that crowd, telling history from the perspective of its subjects while speaking to an audience that cares about certain issues much more than others?

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