Most people still have a somewhat – as we often say in academia – 19th century view on women’s roles in past societies.
No doubt these views are also more than a little influenced by what cinema’s and TV show us. From the tragic life of Georgiana Spencer in The Duchess to the unlikely love story between the lady Sybil and her chauffeur in Downton Abbey, we seem to be hovering between the idea of women being forced into doomed marriages or women constantly challenging accepted gender norms. Victims or heroines in other words.
Rarely are we presented with women who managed to work with these roles and who carved out a position in society without having to completely revolutionize the way people – mostly men – seemed to think about them.
When I first applied for a position at a university in the Netherlands, I had to defend my research proposal in front of a jury consisting mostly of men, mostly of non-historians, and who were mostly completely oblivious to the wondrous worlds of both gender and court history. When asked what the point was about researching noble women’s lives, I stated that women did more than needlework in castle tower chambers.