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Day 7: Ban Zhao

History Meme: Day 1: a Movement, Day 2: a Leader, Day 3: a Dynasty, Day 4: a Religious Movement, Day 5: a Conflict, Day 6: a Civilization, Day 7: an Individual, Day 8: an Artistic Movement, Day 9: a Death, Day 10: an Innovation, Day 11: a Mystery or Story, Day 12: a Small Human Moment

For those of you who may be unfamiliar with Confucian thought, it, in its most simplistic form, holds that the balance of the universe rests upon the upholding of relationships—the relationship between the ruler and the ruled, parents and children, husbands and wives, fathers and daughters, mother and daughter in-laws, and reverence of elders and the deceased. Each relationship has a dominant and a subservient half, and if one half begins to act outside of their role, then the order of the universe is disrupted, plunging the world into chaos. Within these roles, wives, daughters, and daughters-in-law functioned as the subservient halves.

This said women, were able to achieve great status and power even within their assigned roles. Ban Zhao (45-116 CE) is one of these women. She is the first known female Chinese historian, and was an influential advocate for the education of women and girls.

Born to Ban Biao, a successful official and respected intellectual, she married Cao Shishu at the age of fourteen. Though her husband died when she was very young, she was known at court as Venerable Madame Cao. She never remarried, devoting herself instead to a life of scholarship.

Her father died in 54 CE, leaving his life’s work, a history of the Western Han dynasty, unfinished. Ban Zhao’s older brother Ban Gu took over the project, but he too left it unfinished when he died in prison in 92 CE. The emperor then called on Ban Zhao to complete the work.

She not only completed it with distinction, but began to teach the palace women—one of whom was Empress Deng Sui—subjects such as the classics, history, astronomy, and mathematics. When Deng Sui became the regent of the empire in 106 CE, she often turned to Ban Zhao for advice on government policy.

Her experiences teaching the court ladies inspired Ban Zhao to begin her advocacy for female education and to write arguably her most influential work: Admonitions for Women. In this work, she objects to the fact that families teach their sons to read while neglecting the education of their daughters, while urging women to be submissive to her husband and male relatives. She emphasizes what she perceives to be the inherent differences between the natures of men and women, and advises her readers that nothing is more worthy than obedience, humility, and self-sacrifice, especially in marriage.

Her advocacy for female education, then, came from the view that an educated woman could serve her husband—and thus the realm, if we keep her Confucian socialization in mind—more effectively than an educated woman would be able to. Admonitions became one of the most commonly used texts in the education of girls, and remained popular for centuries as a guide for women’s conduct.

In addition to teaching, history writing, and educational advocacy, Ban Zhao also worked as a librarian at court. As such she supervised a staff of assistants, and trained younger scholars; she rearranged and edited Liu Hsiang’s Biographies of Eminent Women in the course of her library work. She maintained a lifelong interest in math and astronomy, and was also known for her poetic, commemorative, commentarial, and argumentational writings.

Upon her death Empress Dowager Deng Sui dressed all in white to mourn her passing.

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Day 4: the Second Great Awakening

History Meme: Day 1: a Movement, Day 2: a Leader, Day 3: a Dynasty, Day 4: a Religious Movement, Day 5: a Conflict, Day 6: a Civilization, Day 7: an Individual, Day 8: an Artistic Movement, Day 9: a Death, Day 10: an Innovation, Day 11: a Mystery or Story, Day 12: a Small Human Moment

The Second Great Awakening was an American Protestant revival movement which began around the 1790s, reached its religious peak by the 1820s, and began to exert a great social influence beginning between the 1840s and the 1850s. Though some historians characterize the period between 1850 and 1900 as the Third Great Awakening—as many forms of non-denominational Christianity arose during that period—I perceive the religious revival and social action of the period as existing on a continuum. Thus I’m going to approach the religious and social movements of about 1790-1890 as the Second Great Awakening.

The analyses of scripture which gave rise to so many new denominations of American Protestantism during this reform period emphasized such themes as equality and liberation. These new (or perhaps renewed) emphases directly led to the growth of the abolition movement, and, out of that, the First Women’s Rights Movement. However, in the midst of these two behemoths came a flurry of other social movements geared towards bettering the lives of the poor; these included the temperance movement, the settlement movement, and the prison reform movement. From these social movements grew a new language of femininity and motherhood.

Middle and upper class women were expected to imbue in their children the traditional norms and behaviors befitting their class, and to keep their homes neat and tidy (whether themselves or with hired help). The social reforms of this era, geared as they were towards uplifting the poor and downtrod and cleaning up public spaces, allowed women to extend their home-based maternal activities into the public. Or in academic terms, the language of mid-nineteenth century social reform allowed women to transgress from the private sphere into the public.

This style of female social action, this transgression, is called “maternalism.” It is known as such because these middle and upper class women legitimized their action by arguing that they were simply doing their duty to society as wives and mothers by venturing into public to help lower class women.

While this maternalist action was empowering for middle and upper class women, it was far less so for the impoverished women they were trying to help; their forms of assistance were condescending, invasive, and infantilizing to the lower class women. In the maternalists’ attempts to lift these women out of circumstances offensive to the upper classes, they rigidly imposed upon them their own standards of morality, and did so without putting much effort into understanding the circumstances and day to day lives of the lower class women.

Thus, I chose the Second Great Awakening because its class and gender based ramifications are super-interesting.

Now some caveats. The Second Great Awakening was, most historians of the period argue, a response to industrial capitalism. Nineteenth century industrialization was very much a Northern creature. While the North embraced an economic system built on factories, wage labor, railroads, and canals, the Southern economy remained primarily agricultural in nature. Thus, while the Second Great Awakening did affect Southern religiosity (it began in Kentucky and Tennessee), the social reform movements addressed here were, generally, very much Northern creatures.

Further, when I discuss the “middle and upper middle class women” empowered by maternalism, I am primarily referring to white Christian women. However, maternalist action did occur where there were middle and upper class women with class consciousness and time and money to spare. Meaning that there were black maternalists and Jewish maternalists, all of whom enacted maternalism within the boundaries created for them by hegemonic Christianity, patriarchy, and white supremacy (this post was 25% about Jewish maternalism and Reform and 25% about the black Women’s Club Movement and racial uplift rhetoric before I remembered that this isn’t a historiography paper). In the interest of length and cohesiveness I chose not to delve into black and Jewish maternalism, but I can make separate posts if there’s any interest.

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Day 2: Beulah Sanders

History Meme: Day 1: a Movement, Day 2: a Leader, Day 3: a Dynasty, Day 4: a Religious Movement, Day 5: a Conflict, Day 6: a Civilization, Day 7: an Individual, Day 8: an Artistic Movement, Day 9: a Death, Day 10: an Innovation, Day 11: a Mystery or Story, Day 12: a Small Human Moment


"Everybody from President Nixon on down is talking about us. Everyone has their own plan on what to do with welfare recipients. Well the only thing you can really do is get up off your 17th century attitudes, give poor people enough money to live decently, and let us decide how to live our lives." (Image courtesy of the Washington Star photographic archives, copyright Washington Post, reprinted with permission of District of Columbia Public Library; image from The Battle for Welfare Rights: Politics and Poverty in Modern America (Politics and Culture in Modern America) by Felicia Kornbluh.)

Before I begin, I’d like to say that, though I strive to remain apolitical in my presentation of history on this blog, I cannot deny that my deep opposition to ideological capitalism has bled into a few parts of this post. However, if it comes through anywhere, it is in my interpretation of the facts, not in my presentation of them. I just wanted to make that clear at the outset.

Beulah Sanders, a working class black woman with strong ties to labor, tenants unions, and the anti-war movement, was an instrumental leader in the welfare rights movement of the middle 1960s to the early 1970s. Historian Felicia Kornbluh writes that, as white middle class women fought for the right to leave the home and enter the workforce, predominately black and Puerto Rican women “fought for a privilege that had traditionally been granted to respectable white women—to remove themselves from the workforce while raising children if they so chose.”

They loudly demanded that the predominately white male power brokers extend to them the form of citizenship to which white middle-class women were entitled. When, in 1970, Senator Abraham Ribicoff proposed that the mayor of New York City cut the welfare rolls by putting women to work cleaning the streets of New York, Sanders said “I would be the first welfare recipient to volunteer to clean up New York’s streets if your mother and your wife were beside me.”

Though Sanders (and the Welfare Rights Movement) accomplished much more than I discuss here, I focus on her fight against the imposition mandatory work programs—“workfare”—in the place of traditional welfare. Workfare programs funnel public assistance recipients into low-paid menial labor and work “training programs,” severely curtailing their abilities to arrange for the care of their children. Sanders and her associates viewed workfare as a punitive restriction on their right to self-determination.

Sanders began to organize welfare recipients in 1964. By 1966 she led the largest welfare coalition in the nation. In 1967 she was appointed as vice-chair of the National Welfare Rights Organization (the NWRO), a body formed by George Wiley two years earlier which focused on such daily concerns as, in Sander’s words, “How do you get the money to live next week? How do you get clothing to send your kids back to school? How do you get them into a school lunch program? How do you get back on welfare if your check is cut off?”

Sanders testified before Congress as a leader of the NWRO for the first time in 1967 as that body tried to push through a series of punitive amendments to the Social Security Act which would institute rapid workfare provisions. Sanders expressed to the committee (after forcing them to listen to her via an impromptu sit-in) that “one of the things we are concerned about is being forced into these non-existing positions which might be going out and cleaning Mrs. A’s kitchen. I am not going to do that because I feel I am more valuable and can do something else.” The amendments passed, but it wasn’t the last Congress would hear of Ms. Sanders.

In 1968, she was included in the US delegation to the Paris peace talks, she ran for the New York State senate in the Freedom and Peace Party, was a frequent speaker in the anti-war circuit, and was the only black speaker at the first national rally following the Kent State and Jackson State shootings. For Sanders, her anti-war action was directly tied to her welfare activism: how could a country spend so much money on—in her eyes—unjust wars overseas when American people were living in poverty?

Her real triumph came during the campaign against President Nixon’s Family Assistance Plan (FAP). This legislation continued the imposition of mandatory workfare—with few exemptions—onto poor women. It also set a national minimum income of $1600 for a four person family with children; a minimum which the NWRO worried would become the new maximum. Sanders, who viewed the FAP as the work of predatory capitalists, expressed that “This country is too rich for…saying rather than give [welfare recipients] more money they should be going and get a job when you know for a fact that this country has failed to provide the jobs that poor people need.” To build on this, she called out the Department of Agriculture for granting hundreds of thousands of dollars to the enhancement of Mississippi Senator James Eastland’s cotton crop, and the national government on the money it put towards its interventions in Cambodia and Vietnam while remaining unwilling to put significant amounts of money towards helping its poor.

FAP was approved in April, 1970, and two weeks later Sanders scolded the nation’s power brokers as she testified before the US House Ways and Means Committee. She warned that the poor would “disrupt this state, this country, this capital” if they were not given a share of the nation’s wealth, and a voice in the political process. “We are saying that we want to participate. Are you prepared to let us sit down and help make some laws? The last time we tried to present our views to Congress, some people told us that we were wasting our time, that we should go home and kill the rats and roaches we were complaining about or, instead of coming here, we should take jobs even if it was just picking up dead dogs off the streets.” As Democrats and Republicans rose to condemn Sanders for threatening the committee with violence, she cut them off. “The poor have brains,” she said, “they’re not all dumb like you think they are. This country has failed to provide the jobs. That’s the trouble.”

As the Senate Finance Committee remained in talks about proposed changes to the FAP, Sanders made good on her threat. On May 13, 1970, she and 150 women—nearly all black female welfare recipients—occupied the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (now the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Education).


NWRO women occupying the Federal Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. (Image courtesy of the Washington Star photographic archives, copyright Washington Post, reprinted with permission of District of Columbia Public Library; image from The Battle for Welfare Rights: Politics and Poverty in Modern America (Politics and Culture in Modern America) by Felicia Kornbluh.)

Sanders took her seat at the desk of the Department Secretary, Robert Finch. The women occupied the building for nine hours before being carried out by the police; Sanders described this as “two cops to every woman.”


Sanders and her colleague (and force to be reckoned with in her own right) Johnnie Tillmon during the takeover of the HEW. Secretary Finch may be seen in the background. (Image courtesy of the Washington Star photographic archives, copyright Washington Post, reprinted with permission of District of Columbia Public Library; image from The Battle for Welfare Rights: Politics and Poverty in Modern America (Politics and Culture in Modern America) by Felicia Kornbluh.)

Sanders was appointed to the position of vice-president of the NWRO after the sit-in, and was elected Chair at its 1971 convention. The organization continued to demonstrate and testify against FAP, until it was indeed defeated. Though their action helped to defeat FAP, they could not defeat the manner in which politicians insisted upon viewing impoverished women and children on public aid. By the early 70s, the organization could not ignore the anti-welfare mood of the nation as punitive workfare policies were passed in a majority of states. As the Civil Rights Movement fell into disarray, and as the US government lost the War on Poverty to Vietnam spending, the NWRO lost its foothold in the national conversation, and closed its headquarters in 1974 as it ran out of funding (though local affiliates carried on).

Ultimately, Sanders lost the battle against workfare. It became the de facto mode of public assistance in 1996 with the passing of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunities Act. However, at its peak the NWRO was the largest organization of poor people in the history of the United States, and Sanders was instrumental in bringing these people together. The NWRO attracted thousands of black women, along with Puerto Rican women, white women, Native American women, and low-income men. It dramatically unsettled the power relationships between gender, class, race, and citizenship, in the United States, and it and changed the national discourse forever. We are still experiencing the repercussions of the power relationships Sanders sought to disrupt as the US is once again embroiled in a national debate and divide over military and domestic spending.

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Day 1: The Oppian Law Protests

History Meme: Day 1: a Movement, Day 2: a Leader, Day 3: a Dynasty, Day 4: a Religious Movement, Day 5: a Conflict, Day 6: a Civilization, Day 7: an Individual, Day 8: an Artistic Movement, Day 9: a Death, Day 10: an Innovation, Day 11: a Mystery or Story, Day 12: a Small Human Moment

Under Ancient Roman law, the father, or patriarch, held control over the women in his household. Upon the marriage of a daughter, this control, or manus, transferred to her husband after one year of cohabitation, or after the conducting of two marriage ceremonies; women had the ability to gain some control over their persons after producing three children.

Girls could be married at the age of 14 and betrothed at birth, though some initiated their own marriages. Divorces were initiated by the men. If a divorce were to take place, the man had to return his ex-wife’s dowry to her father, except in the case of adultery. Fathers could have their daughters put to death for adultery if the daughter returned to her father’s control after divorce; adultery was only a crime for women.

Though laws changed over time, though laws only matter when and if they are enforced, and though a good deal of these laws only truly applied to elite women, I include them to form a general picture of how women were viewed by Ancient Roman elites, and within the Ancient Roman legal system.

In 215 BCE, as Roman men were fighting the Second Punic War, a series of rulings known as the Oppian Law were passed by the government at the request of Gaius Oppius to restrict the public behavior of elite women. The Law forbade women from presenting public displays of wealth, specifically limiting the amount of gold women could possess to half an ounce, forbidding them from wearing dresses with purple trim, and forbidding them from riding in carriages within one mile of Rome, or in Roman country towns except for on holidays.

Although the Second Punic War ended in 201 BCE, the Law remained in place. By 195 BCE there was talk of repealing the Law, but nothing was done. When it became clear to upper class Roman women that the Tribunal was close to vetoing the proposed repeal, they took to the streets in protest on a scale larger than anything Rome had ever seen (in terms of women, anyway).

The historian Livy wrote:

"The Capitol was filled with crowds who favored or opposed the law; nor could the matrons be kept at home either by advice or shame, nor even by the commands of their husbands; but they beset every street and pass in the city, beseeching the men as they went down to the forum, that, in the present flourishing state of the commonwealth, when the private fortune of all was daily increasing, they would suffer the women to have their former ornaments restored. This throng of women increased daily, for they arrived even from the country towns and villages, and they had at length the boldness to come up to the consuls, pretors, and magistrates, to urge their request…The women next day poured out into public in much greater numbers, and in a body beset the doors of the tribunes who had protested against the measure of their collages; nor did they return until their intervention was withdrawn."

While Livy supported their action, others, such as Cato, believed that women had no place in public, and were horrified by the fact that the protesting women were speaking to men who were not their husbands. In fact, Cato was downright pearl clutchy about it:

"Had I not been restrained by the respect for the modesty and dignity of some individuals among them, rather than of the whole number, and been unwilling that they should be seen rebuked by a consul, I should not have refrained from saying to them, ‘What sort of practice is this, of running out into public, besetting the streets, and addressing other women’s husbands? Could not each have made the same request to her husband at home? Are your blandishments more seducing in public than in private, and with other women’s husbands than with your own? Although if females would let their modesty confine them within the limits of their own rights, it did not become you, even at home, to concern yourselves about any laws that might be passed or repealed here.’"

Regardless of the views of politicians like Cato, the women’s protest was successful and the Oppian Law was repealed.

In Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity, Sarah Pomeroy wrote that “this demonstration may have been orchestrated by men…But we cannot discount the idea that women were demonstrating on their own behalf. The Second Punic War had given them an opportunity to develop independence.”

I typically speak of myself as a Jewish historian, but I’m also a gender historian. I am interested in gender history because I am fascinated by the constant fluidity of the roles assigned to women, and of conceptions of what it means to be a woman. I chose these protests because they convey that, despite the idea of femininity constructed by the legal philosophies presented in the first paragraph, Ancient Roman women still felt empowered to speak out against a set of laws which limited their behaviors.

I do not know nearly enough about the Roman Republic to make any definitive statements or arguments, but I’d be interested in looking further into the link between a democratic form of government (even one limited to a certain segment of the population) and the public behavior of women.

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If you read any book from my recommended reading page, it should be Common Sense and a Little Fire: Women and Working-Class Politics in the United States, 1900-1965 (Gender and American Culture) by Annelise Orleck. Don’t get me wrong, I heartily recommend everything on that page (and I’m really behind on updating it aah), but this book is just breathtaking.  Not only is it eminently readable, but it disrupts mainstream notions of the “feminist wave” construction, the suffrage movement, intersectional organizing, the Jewish Lower East Side, labor history, working class women’s activism, and female same sex relationships. Plus my girl Clara Lemlich is one of the four main women used in this analysis (and man I really want to re-write that post).

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Fierce Historical Ladies post: Malintzin

If you’re Mexican, of Mexican descent, or live in a culturally Mexican area, you may know the story of La Llorona.

La Llorana is the tale of a woman named Maria who drowned her children for a chance to be with the man she loved. However, he spurned her affections, and in her heartbreak, she drowned herself in a lake. Upon ascending to the gates of heaven, St. Peter asked her, “Where are your children?” and she had no response. He sentenced her to an eternity of wandering the mortal realm unless she could find her children. Even today, the story goes, she can be found weeping on stormy nights near lakes and rivers. She is said to kidnap wandering children, or children who disobey their parents, in the hope of being able to present them as her own at the gates of heaven.

In some retellings of this story of the mother who murdered her children, Maria has a different name: La Malinche. The name La Malinche is a pejorative name used for the Nahua woman, Malintzin. She later went by the name Doña Marina, which she chose for herself before her baptism.

Malintzin—as I will be referring to her in this post—was a noble of the Nahua people. Her actions take place in the very complex historical setting of the end of Aztec hegemony in what we now refer to as Mexico, and the beginning of the Spanish conquest of Mexico and South America. The relationship between the Aztec Empire and its subsidiary peoples and neighboring polities—which included Mayan groups—informed Malintzin’s contextualized actions, and the actions of other Mexican peoples.

The Nahua were the group from which the Aztec emerged, and were thus privileged within the Aztec sphere of influence. As a noble, Malintzin was afforded a phenomenal education, including an in-depth language instruction. Her father died when she was still quite young, and her mother remarried and soon bore a son to her new husband. For reasons which can never be determined, but which were probably to do with issues of wealth transference, Malintzin’s mother sold her to Mayan slave traders soon after the birth of her son.

Malintzin then disappears from the historical record until a group of Spaniards purchased her in 1519—most estimates put her in her mid to late teenage years at this point. Though Cortes gave her as a gift to one of his men, he decided to keep her at his side as a translator because of her fluency in Mayan and Nahuatl. Sources from this period also speak highly of her looks, which may have also influenced Cortes’ behavior towards her. According to similar sources, she mastered the Spanish language within two weeks of the purchase of her person.

With Cortes, she helped to inform him of revolts against Spanish rule, accompanied him as an interpreter as he put down a rebellion, and acted as a translator between him and Mexican peoples hoping that he would defend them against Aztec hegemonic oppression. Indeed, Adelaida R. Del Castillo argued that the Aztec Empire fell in part as a result of a coalition of their subsidiary peoples acting in concert with the Spanish conquerors.


Cortes and Malintzin meet with Aztec Emperor Moctezuma II in 1519, from the Historia de Tlaxcala. Image courtesy of the Bancroft Library.

In 1521, soon after the fall of the Aztec Empire to Spain, Malintzin gave birth to a son fathered by Cortes. As a mark of esteem for her within the Spanish hierarchical system, he married her to Spanish noble Juan Jaramillo before his first return to Spain. Some scholars argue that Malintzin died in 1529, however, others argue that she is alluded to as though she is alive in letters found in Spain dated 1550, and referred to as though she was deceased in letters dated 1551.

Her role as translator and helper to Hernan Cortes, the man who destroyed the Aztec Empire and began the Spanish Empire in the New World, has caused her to be remembered primarily as a traitor, a whore; the woman who handed her people over to the man who slaughtered them and destroyed their civilization. Others remember her as a woman who liberated the Mexican peoples from the oppressive rule of the Aztecs, some characterizing her as the founder the modern Mexican nation. Chicana Feminist literature beginning around the 1960’s sought to attempt to reconstruct her life separated from the actions assigned to her over the past four centuries, and the most recent attempt to reconstruct her life devoid of myth and in historical context was penned by Camilla Townsend.

A problem, however, in the reconstruction of her life and the analysis of her actions is that most of what we know of her comes from Spanish sources; sources penned by Malintzin’s buyers, sellers, owners, and conquerors. Therefore, even the very sources from which she can be reconstructed exist within a colonized context—the academic/theoretical term for the instance in which the only record of a person, or a people, was penned by their oppressor or conqueror is “subalternity,” with the study of these people, or groups, being “subaltern studies.” I use quotes not to imply that I am mocking this form of post-colonial criticism, but because I am introducing the term to those unfamiliar with it.

I chose to write about Malintzin not because I want to reconstruct her life or meditate upon her motivations, but because she is an indigenous American woman whose name has become synonymous with “whore” and “traitor.” Because the most famous indigenous women in North and South American white historical memory* are the ones who Westernized, the ones who aided Western men in their colonialist actions, the ones who were baptized, the ones who married European nobility, and the ones who spent time in Europe. They are the ones who were labeled as traitors to their people and are the ones who have layers of mythologized meanings attached to their names.

These women were acting within a context in which two or more highly complex civilizations encountered each other for the first time. Pocahontas never sat down and thought “Hmmm time to assimilate to European cultural norms and sing songs about the wind,” Sacagawea never thought “Whooo time to accelerate the process of American expansion and the destruction of the life my people have been living for hundreds of years,” and Malintzin never thought “I think I’ll destroy my civilization and betray my people today.”

Malintzin was interacting with the intricate historical circumstances in which she lived, and must be understood within that context. And within that context, I would argue that she was a highly educated, highly intelligent member of the nobility who was able to become a political actor for both Spaniards and Aztec subsidiary peoples by virtue of that intelligence.

And that is pretty fierce.

*I don’t want to drag this post across the threshold from history into post-colonial theory, however, “North and South American Europeanized historical memory” or “North and South American colonized historical memory” could work here as well. What all of these turns of phrase mean, or imply, is that these women are the ones remembered outside of American indigenous communities for a specific set of reasons, all to do with the nature of the European conquest of the Americas.

Previous Fierce Historical Ladies posts may be found on this page, alongside a few other posts about groups of historical women.

ETA: This post contains problematic elements, and for that I apologize to Latina readers. For more detail, please see this post.

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Why Gender History is Important (Asshole)

This weekend I was schmoozing at an event when some guy asked me what kind of history I study. I said “I’m currently researching the role of gender in Jewish emigration out of the Third Reich,” and he replied “oh you just threw gender in there for fun, huh?” and shot me what he clearly thought to be a charming smile.

The reality is that most of our understandings of history revolve around what men were doing. But by paying attention to the other half of humanity our understanding of history can be radically altered.

For example, with Jewish emigration out of the Third Reich it is just kind of assumed that it was a decision made by a man, and the rest of his family just followed him out of danger. But that is completely inaccurate. Women, constrained to the private social sphere to varying extents, were the first to notice the rise in social anti-Semitism in the beginning of Hitler’s rule. They were the ones to notice their friends pulling away and their social networks coming apart. They were the first to sense the danger.

German Jewish men tended to work in industries which were historically heavily Jewish, thus keeping them from directly experiencing this “social death.” These women would warn their husbands and urge them to begin the emigration process, and often their husbands would overlook or undervalue their concerns (“you’re just being hysterical” etc). After the Nuremberg Laws were passed, and after even more so after Kristallnacht, it fell to women to free their husbands from concentration camps, to run businesses, and to wade through the emigration process.

The fact that the Nazis initially focused their efforts on Jewish men meant that it fell to Jewish women to take charge of the family and plan their escape. In one case, a woman had her husband freed from a camp (to do so, she had to present emigration papers which were not easy to procure), and casually informed him that she had arranged their transport to Shanghai. Her husband—so traumatized from the camp—made no argument. Just by looking at what women were doing, our understanding of this era of Jewish history is changed.

I have read an article arguing that the Renaissance only existed for men, and that women did not undergo this cultural change. The writings of female loyalists in the American Revolutionary period add much needed nuance to our understanding of this period. The character of Jewish liberalism in the first half of the twentieth century is a direct result of the education and socialization of Jewish women. I can give you more examples, but I think you get the point.

So, you wanna understand history? Then you gotta remember the ladies (and not just the privileged ones).

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Fierce Historical Ladies post: Ngola Njinga of Ndongo and Matamba pt. 2

Part 1

Though she now knew the Portuguese to be her enemies, Njinga was shrewd enough to understand that Europeans and their perception of her were as important to her hold on the throne as Mbundu attitudes towards her person.

She was always aware of the fact—in the eyes of both the Europeans and the Mbundu—that her power was undermined by her gender. To offset these attitudes, Njinga refused to be address as queen, answering only to the title of king. She required her male consorts to present themselves as women, and she trained her ladies-in-waiting as warriors.

This subversion of gender norms did not extend to her wardrobe. Though she understood that some presentation of maleness would help to secure her rule, she also realized that she had to present herself to the Europeans in a manner with which they were comfortable in order to gain their respect. Thus, she often dressed in the high style of Baroque Europe, employing a team of seamstresses to keep her wardrobe in-line with European fashions. She was fluent in spoken and written Portuguese, and wore a crown similar to those worn by European monarchs.

As she constructed a self which would appear worthy of respect to both the Europeans and the Mbundu, she also constructed an army. This army was composed of fugitive slaves, marginalized members of court, and the Imbangala mercenary groups who had once spread terror throughout Ndongo. With her army, Njinga began her campaign against the Portuguese, making particular use of guerrilla tactics. Her training of her ladies-in-waiting was not simply for show: Njinga often personally led battles and raids against the Portuguese.

Statue of Njinga standing in Kinaxixi Square in Luanda, the Angolan capital; photo courtesy of Erik Cleves Kristensen on flickr

After claiming the city of Kavanga as her new capital, Njinga quickly established a base for slave trade in order to strengthen her economy and used the city as a center from which to conduct her operations against the Portuguese. In 1631, she integrated Matamba into her lands. There, she resettled thousands of people who had fled from the Portuguese. With the Matamba territory under her rule, and with thousands of subjects behind her, Njinga began to expand into Portuguese held Ndongo.

Her victories against the Portuguese continued as the years went on, and it seemed as though she had a permanent victory when the Dutch occupied the former Portuguese island of Luanda. The Dutch supported Njinga’s campaign because they needed access to the slave market in order to support their own colonies.

However, her luck ran out in 1648 when the Portuguese expelled the Dutch and re-asserted their authority over the land they now called “Angola.” Njinga returned to Christianity in an attempt to placate the Portuguese, and in 1656 she signed a treaty allowing Portuguese missionaries, traders, and government officials to reside in her capital; she had hoped that, with these people in her power, she would be able to control Portuguese military operations against her.

Njinga shielded the interior of Western Africa from the full brunt of the Portuguese for almost 40 years. She remained active and vigorous—even remarrying in 1658—until her death in 1663 at the age of 81. She single-handedly altered Mbundu attitudes towards female rulers, leading to the rule of several queens after her death, albeit queens who were the puppets of Portuguese governors and missionaries.

As the fabled soothsayer had predicted, Njinga grew into a proud, haughty woman. These characteristics created a brilliant ruler who defied and continues to defy the simplistic labels of “hero,” “liberator,” and “traitor.” We are left with the portrait of a fascinating, complex, and—yes—incredibly fierce woman.

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Fierce Historical Ladies post: Ngola Njinga of Ndongo and Matamba pt. 1

Some terminology before I begin: The Ngola ruled over Ndongo where the Mbundu people resided. Later, as a result of war with Portuguese invaders, the ruler of Ndongo came to rule over Matamba as well; however, the culture remained that of the Mbundu people. To the Portuguese, these lands were called Angola.

Queen Njinga (also known/spelled as: Nzinga, Dona Ana de Souza, Ana de Souza, Zhinga, N’Zhinga, Jinga, and Ngola Ana Nzinga Mbande) of Ndongo and Matamba was born in 1582 and died in 1663. In Portuguese historiography, she is alternatively remembered as a hero, a collaborator, a heretic, and an enemy; in West African historiography (particularly within the Angolan Liberation Movement), she is remembered as a hero and a liberator who shielded the interior of Western Africa from Portuguese penetration for decades. In reality, what emerges from the life and times of Njinga is a female ruler rivaling the likes of Dowager Empress Cixi in complexity (not to set up a false dichotomy of fierceness, of course).

Portrait of Queen Njinga (clearly side-eyeing the Portuguese); source unknown (let me know if you are familiar with the artist/owner of this portrait)

Njinga was born to the Ngola Kiluanji and his consort Kangela in 1583, 168 years after the Portuguese first arrived on the West Coast of Africa. The coast and interior of Western Africa would become the base from which Portugal would launch their overseas empire, to be supported by the labor of the human capital wrested from the interior of Western Africa.

By the late sixteenth century—around the time of Njinga’s birth—the Portuguese had occupied the island of Luanda, establishing it as a slave post and using it as staging grounds for their religious and political incursions into Ndongo land. This threatened Ndongo sovereignty, and disrupted the economy as their incursions threatened the Ndongo monopoly on trade and slave routes. In the course of these invasions, the Portuguese heard the word “Ngola” and mistook it as the name of the land, rather than the title of the ruler. They thus called the land by the name “Angola.”

Tradition holds that Njinga was born against this backdrop of Portuguese incursion with the umbilical cord still wrapped around her neck. This was taken as a sign that this daughter would grow into a proud and haughty woman. In deference to this omen, she was named Njinga after the Kimbundu verb “kujinga” meaning “to twist or turn.” These traits—though unfortunately viewed as negative ones in a woman—would serve Njinga well later in her life.

Though she recalls that she was her father’s favorite child, this favoritism altered neither the succession nor the cultural attitudes which kept women from the throne. In 1617, Njinga’s half-brother Mbande ascended the throne and immediately had all of his rivals (including Njinga’s son) assassinated. However, he had overlooked the most dangerous of these rivals: Njinga herself.

Njinga viewed herself as far more of a capable ruler than her brother, and as far more worthy of the throne. She recognized that she would need Portuguese support if she were to claim the throne for herself. Thus, she planned an ambassadorial visit to Luanda.

The official reason for this trip was to form a treaty with the Portuguese governor aimed at having a Portuguese fortress removed from Ndongo land, to have the Portuguese return certain individuals they had seized from Ndongo territory, and to force the Imbangala mercenary group to cease their constant raids into Ndongo land. She also showed the Portuguese goodwill by agreeing to allow Portuguese slavers and missionaries into Ndongo territory. Njinga’s efforts were successful, the only remaining point of disagreement being over whether or not Ndongo would accept the status of vassal.

However, her primary motivation for this meeting was to show the Portuguese governor, João Correia de Souza, that she would be a strong, dependable queen. To further push this agenda, she allowed herself to baptized. She took the Christian name Ana, and assumed the governor’s surname: de Souza. It was clear that at least, in the time of her meeting with de Souza, Njinga held the high ground.

Of this a famous story has emerged. According to this story, de Souza neglected to offer Njinga a chair when she arrived to their meeting. This deliberate action was intended to show Njinga that she was subordinate to the power represented by the governor. Understanding this and refusing to partake in de Souza’s charade, Njinga order one of her servants to get down on all fours. She conducted the meeting seated on the back of her servant, cementing her refusal to be anything but the governor’s equal.

"Queen Njinga of Ndongo Presented to the Portuguese Governor" engraving by Fortunato da Alemandini after a 1687 water color by Giovanni Cavazzi

However, once Njinga had returned to Ndongo it became clear that the Portuguese did not intend to honor the treaty. They did not remove the fortress, return the individuals, or restrain the Imbangala. In 1624, Njinga’s brother, the Ngola Mbande, was found dead under mysterious circumstances. Some believe that it was murder, and others that it was suicide caused by his continued loss of power to the Portuguese. Regardless of the truth of the matter, many believed that Njinga was responsible. 

After his death, Nijnga assumed power as regent to Mbande’s son. Though she was technically a regent, both the Portuguese and the Mbundu understood that she had declared herself queen in all but name.

As previously noted, the idea of a female ruler violated Mbundu cultural norms. But it went deeper than that. In Mbundu political theory, legitimate rulers could only be descended from the previous ruler. The claim of a ruler’s sibling—assuming that that sibling had been born to the same parent as the ruler—was shaky at best. Njinga, as Ngola Mbande’s half sister by a consort of his father, had a claim to the throne illegitimate in the minds of the Mbundu people. Her chief support was among those involved in matters of state—the general Mbundu people most likely did not accept her as queen.

And neither did Portugal. In fact, the Portuguese intentionally spread rumors claiming that Njinga had murdered her brother in order to further de-legitimize her rule. The Portuguese then went even further and selected a rival claimant to the throne as the recipient of their support. This person had lineage which met Portuguese approval, and had demonstrated that they would prove amenable to Portuguese colonial interests.

In response to this betrayal, Njinga renounced her Christianity, ceased to pretend that she was simply acting in the stead of her nephew, and formally asserted herself as queen.

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