Friday, 17 December 2010

Women Behaving Badly - A Point Of View BBC Radio Programme.


Presented by Lisa Jardine.

'A ship carrying humanitarian aid manned entirely by women is ready to leave Lebanon, on the first leg of its journey to Gaza, in an attempt to break the Israeli blockade.

Named 'The Mariam', the Arabic version of 'Mary', it has a multi-faith passenger list, including doctors, lawyers, and a group of american nuns.

History is full of unexpected precendence where human behaviour is concerned. Although the Mariam initiative has been dubbed a publicity stunt, the historian of 16th and 17th century europe, encounters groups of ordinary working women acting in a disorderly manner suprisingly often.

Women turn up telling off priests, berating the local fiscal authorities, leading grain and bread riots, and participating in tax revolts. Some particularly colourful instances have become legendary.

It was the distinguished social and cultural historian Natalie Zemon Davis, now in her 80's, who's ground breaking work on unruly women first brought them to general scholarly attention.

She argued, one of the reasons women regularly led manifestations of resistance against authority, was the license traditionally accorded to them as the weaker sex, to misbehave.

Given over to the sway of her lower passions, she was supposed not to be responsible for her actions, and could not held accountable for her disruption.

At the same time, it was socially acceptable for her (women) to speak 'out of turn', to rail and scold against anyone who threatend the safety or wellbeing of her family.

Her incapacity to control herself, or act rationally, once her protective passions were aroused, was embodied in varing degree's in the european legal system.

According to English law of the period, it was her husband who was responsible for her conduct. Even if indicted, she might be acquitted, or recieve a lesser sentence for the same crime (had it been a man).

Reading the colourful accounts in the archives, its often tempting to assume that all womens riots were admirable, and to convince ourselves we should give them our post-hoc support. But it is clear that some recorded incidents are unprovoked assaults on unfortunate office holders simply trying to do their job.

When in July 1649, Alice Harper, subjected her local tax inspector to voluble verbal abuse, the charge he layed against her in court was one of being 'cursed, and shrewd, and a common scold.' Charges which if substantiated, could lead to her being made to stand in the corner of the church during sunday service  wearing a white sheet.

'We who's names are underwritten', he testified, 'do certify that Alice Harper of Steeple-Ashton is a most troublesome and perverse woman. She being a common scold, having from time to time abused with her tongue the best men and women in Steeple-Ashton. And now upon our knowledge, she hath abused John Marks and his wife, he being a tithing man, of the the aforesaid town, for executing his office. Most viperous with her tongue, and giving them such bad and gross language as no tongue can well express.'

Whether for good or ill however, in the course of the 17th and 18th century's, the license accorded to rioting women had a curious consequence. Men began to dress as women, and call themselves by ficticious womens names when leading public disturbances.

In 1629, 'Alice Clarke' headed a crowd of mostly male weavers dressed as women, in a grain riot near Malden in Essex.

In 1641 in Wiltshire, bands of men rioted and levelled fences in protest against Charles the first's enclosure of their forests, led by men dressed as women calling themselves 'Lady Skimmington'.

In the early 18th century, labourers in Surrey rioted in womens clothes, and men disgused as women tore down the hated toll-booths and turnpike gates on the Gloucestershire border.

Most notoriously, the so-called 'Rebecca Riots' in Wales in the 1830's and 1840's against taxes and tolls, by farmers and agricultural workers were led by gangs of noisy men in womens clothes.

There is ofcourse some irony in the fact that the limited condoning by the authorities of all this disruptive behaviour by women, or men dressed as women, depended on an assumption of absolute inequality between men and women.

Female bad behaviour was occasionally tolerated on the grounds that women were less rational, less able to control their emotions, and hence, less responsible for their actions.

In our own era, this was probably among the assumptions that allowed the encampment of women anti-nuclear protesters at RAF Greenham Common, a British base near Newbury, where US Cruise missles were located during the cold war, to continue for more than a decade.

The women only peace camp was set up in the early 80's, and organised a series of peaceful demonstrations against which, the police felt largely powerless to act.

Today though, I have to concede that on the whole, they tell us more about the limitations on womens lives, than what they could actually achieve.

As for their contemporary counterpart, the women sailing on the Mariam, I have little doubt that their intention is to show the world that their attempt to help the beleaguered residents of Gaza is soley humanitarian.

They presumably anticipate a less hostile response from the crews of the Israeli ships sent to intercept them en-route, than that meated out to their male counterparts.

Perhaps we should consider, wether we might only have arrived at real equality, when women are no longer accorded their traditional license, occasionally, to misbehave with impunity.

No comments:

Post a Comment