(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘women

“For most of history, Anonymous was a woman”*…

Lady Godiva by John Collier, c. 1897, Herbert Art Gallery and Museum, Coventry 

… and in the relatively few instances in which they weren’t anonymous, they were often rarefied into the stuff of legend…

Many of us are familiar with the legend of Lady Godiva, who rode through the streets of Coventry naked, covered only by her long hair, so her husband would reduce taxes. This legendary story actually originates with a real early medieval English woman. Godgifu (who flourished from c.990-1067) was the wife of Earl Leofric of Mercia, and she was a major landholder in England before the Norman Conquest.

As powerful members of the nobility, Leofric and Godgifu were generous benefactors. As ‘the earl’s wife’, Godgifu is associated with her husband in the endowment and rebuilding of Stow St Mary, Lincolnshire in the 1050s, which was said to have been in ruins since it was burned down by Vikings. Leofric also endowed Coventry Abbey, an act with which Godgifu was associated in later accounts. Orderic Vitalis says that Godgifu gave ‘her whole store of gold and silver’, and this is said to include a necklace which was worth 100 silver marks. The Evesham Chronicle also names Leofric and Godgifu as founders both of Coventry, but also of the church of Holy Trinity, Evesham, to which they apparently gave a crucifix with figures of the Virgin Mary and St John the Evangelist.

In the centuries after her death tales of her beauty, piety and devotion to the Virgin Mary are known, though it is not until the early thirteenth century that we see the story of Godgifu’s naked horse ride through Coventry appear in sources. Roger of Wendover in his Flores Historiarum, writes that: 

The countess Godiva, who was a great lover of God’s mother, longing to free the town of Coventry from the oppression of a heavy toll, often with urgent prayers besought her husband, that from regard to Jesus Christ and his mother, he would free the town from that service, and from all other heavy burdens; when the earl sharply rebuked her for foolishly asking what was so much to his damage, and always forbade her ever more to speak to him on the subject; and while she on the other hand, with a woman’s pertinacity, never ceased to exasperate her husband on that matter, he at last made her this answer, ‘Mount your horse, and ride naked, before all the people, through the market of the town, from one end to the other, and on your return you shall have your request.’ On which Godiva replied, ‘But will you give me permission, if I am willing to do it?’ ‘I will,’ said he. Whereupon the countess, beloved of God, loosed her hair and let down her tresses, which covered the whole of her body like a veil, and then mounting her horse and attended by two knights, she rode through the market-place, without being seen, except her fair legs; and having completed the journey, she returned with gladness to her astonished husband, and obtained of him what she had asked; for earl Leofric freed the town of Coventry and its inhabitants from the aforesaid service, and confirmed what he had done by a charter.

Roger of Wendover is known for his exaggerations. This story is not corroborated by earlier sources and cannot be verified; thus historians must treat it simply as a colourful anecdote. Over the years, elements have been added to the legend, such as the fourteenth century miraculous version where Godiva is invisible, a sixteenth century modest version in ballad form, in which she requests that all the townsfolk stay indoors so as not to see her nakedness, or the late eighteenth century moralistic addition of Peeping Tom, who is struck blind after trying to glimpse her naked body. 

It might seem as if the later legend of Godiva has very little to do with the real evidence we have about the eleventh-century noblewoman and landowner Godgifu. However, some links can be made between the two figures. Godiva’s lack of adornment in her nudity would have seemed shocking to a medieval audience, not necessarily because nudity was an indication of sexual promiscuity, but because nobility was indicated by outer wear, like clothing and jewellery. By removing these, Godiva was not only removing her clothes, but also her status. Her nudity in this story does not function as a moral failure, but the converse, as an act of piety, in which she lowers herself in order to help those less fortunate, and her hair covers her ‘like a veil’ to protect her modesty. This piety is also present in the act of the real Godgifu giving away her precious necklace, an important symbol of status for elite women, to Coventry Abbey, as well as great quantities of gold and silver. Within the legend of Godiva and the real life of Godgifu there is a common thread of unadornment as a way of elite and wealthy women expressing religious piety.

Godgifu: The Bare Truth Behind the Lady Godiva Legend,” just one of the portraits of early medieval English women published every two weeks by Florence H R Scott.

* Virginia Woolf

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As we get to know the players, we might spare a thought for Æthelthryth (aka Etheldreda and Audrey); she died on this date in 679. An East Anglian princess, a Fenland and Northumbrian queen, and ultimately Abbess of Ely, she is an Anglo-Saxon saint. Indeed, according to Jocelyn Wogan-Browne, “more medieval vernacular lives [about Æthelthryth] were composed in England than any other native female saint”– including an account contained in the Venerable Bede‘s Ecclesiastical History of the English People

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

June 23, 2021 at 1:00 am

“As names have power, words have power”*…

 

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My book club was reading The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss. In the middle of an otherwise unremarkable plot, we found a 35-page interlude about a highly attractive fairy, describing her body in minute, eye-rolling detail.

After slogging through that book, I began paying attention to similarly stereotyped descriptions of bodies in other books. Women are all soft thighs and red lips. Men, strong muscles and rough hands.

I was frustrated by this lazy writing. I want to read books that explore the full humanity of their characters, not stories that reduce both men and women to weak stereotypes of their gender.

Before getting too upset, I wanted to see if this approach to writing was as widespread as it seemed, or if I was succumbing to selective reading. Do authors really mention particular body parts more for men than for women? Are women’s bodies described using different adjectives than those attributed to men?

To do this, I selected 2,000 books spanning Pulitzer-winning classics to pulpy best-sellers, and ran them through a parser that identified sentences mentioning body parts. I then extracted the owner of the body parts and any adjectives describing them…

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It’s easy to dismiss or overlook the differences in the way men’s and women’s bodies are depicted because they can be subtle and hard to discern in one particular book—one or two extra mentions of “his bushy hair” may not register over 300 pages.

But when you zoom out and look at thousands of books, the patterns are clear…

All the details from Erin Davis (@erindataviz) in The Pudding: “The physical traits that define men & women in literature.”

(Via Walt Hickey at Numlock, who observes, “honestly, now I just want to read a book about a women who’s all knuckles and a dude who’s got rockin’ hips.”)

* Patrick Rothfuss, author of the novel that occasioned the study cited above, in a different work, The Name of the Wind

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As we lose the lens, we might send fictional birthday greetings to award-winning journalist Lois Lane; she was “born” on this date (according to the 1976 DC Comics Calendar). She has been wildly differently depicted through the years, as one can see here (among other places).

Superman27

The Golden Age Lois Lane and Superman, from the cover of Superman #27 (March–April 1944), art by Wayne Boring.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

August 17, 2020 at 1:01 am

“Being a woman is a terribly difficult trade since it consists principally of dealings with men”*…

 

Woman Stands in Empty Classroom with Note

 

Alter the status of women and you have affected all the most intimate and significant nodes of life: the relation of wife to husband, mother to child, sister to sibling, daughter to parents, worker to coworkers, and employee to employer (or vice versa). This change in women’s standing that happened what seems like yesterday, and is still happening today at an accelerated rate, is the most profound revolution that can take place in a society. It takes and gives energy to all the other reforms of our time. After all, the civil rights movement involves black women, the LGBTQ movement concerns lesbians, the disability rights movement affects disabled women, health care reforms implicate women care-givers and the objects of their care. Raise any part of our society to a more just condition and justice for women is centrally at issue. It is the reform of all reforms and the basic measure of our progress…

The inestimable Gary Wills recounts “My Education in the Patriarchy.”

For a powerful way to address this opportunity globally, consider Landesa.

* Joseph Conrad, Chance

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As we think inclusively, we might recall that it was on this date in 1890 that journalist Nellie Bly began her 72-day trip around the world.

In 1888, Bly suggested to her editor at the New York World that she take a trip around the world, attempting to turn the fictional Around the World in Eighty Days into fact for the first time.  A year later, at 9:40 a.m. on November 14, 1889, with two days’ notice, she boarded the steamer Augusta Victoria, and began her 24,899-mile journey.

She brought with her the dress she was wearing, a sturdy overcoat, several changes of underwear, and a small travel bag carrying her toiletry essentials. She carried most of her money (£200 in English bank notes and gold in total as well as some American currency) in a bag tied around her neck.

Bly traveled through England, France (where she met Jules Verne in Amiens), Brindisi, the Suez Canal, Colombo (Ceylon), the Straits Settlements of Penang and Singapore, Hong Kong, and Japan.  Just over seventy-two days after her departure from Hoboken, having used steamships and existing railway lines, Bly was back in New York; she beat Phileas Fogg‘s time by almost 8 days.

Nellie Bly, in a publicity photo for her around-the-world voyage. Caption on the original photo reads: “Nellie Bly, The New York WORLD’S correspondent who placed a girdle round the earth in 72 days, 6 hours, and 11 minutes.”

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

November 14, 2019 at 1:01 am

“After all, Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did. She just did it backwards and in high heels.”*…

 

A Victorian-era mathematical genius, [Ada] Lovelace was the first to describe how computing machines could solve math problems, write new forms of music, and much more, if you gave them instructions in a language they could understand. Of course, over the ensuing 100-plus years, dudes have been lining up to push her out of the picture (more on that below).

Lovelace is hardly the only woman to be erased from the history of her own work…

From computer programming to nuclear fission to the paper bag machine, it’s time to stop erasing these women from their great works.  Mother Jones restores eight female creators from their undeserved obscurity: “Ladies Last: 8 Inventions by Women That Dudes Got Credit For.

* Ann Richards

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As we give credit where credit is due, we might recall that it was on this date in 1851, at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, that Sojourner Truth electrified the gathering with an extemporaneous talk that has come to known as the “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech.

Born (c. 1797) into slavery in New York, Belle Baumfree (as she was born) escaped with her daughter to freedom in 1826.  She went to court to recover her son in 1828, and became the first black woman to win such a case against a white man.  She gave herself the name Sojourner Truth in 1843 after she became convinced that God had called her to leave the city and go into the countryside “testifying the hope that was in her”– a hope that she expressed as a fervent abolitionist and champion of women’s rights.

In 2014, Truth was included in Smithsonian magazine’s list of the “100 Most Significant Americans of All Time.”

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

May 28, 2018 at 1:01 am

“I just saw some idiot at the gym put a water bottle in the Pringles holder on the treadmill”*…

 

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Like millions of other people, I put a fair amount of effort into “being healthy.”  I don’t smoke, try to eat a reasonable diet, and so forth.  I do all of this with the backing of a strong scientific consensus that such behaviors are likely to be very good for my health and longevity.  None of this makes me special in any way; I am trying to follow what one might call the medical truth of health.

What I want to suggest here is that there is a dark underside to all that healthy behavior. The underside is that the healthy behavior encourages the view that individuals are largely responsible for their own health outcomes, and that if people end up unhealthy or diseased, it’s their fault for not having engaged in sufficiently healthy behaviors.  Call this a “social truth” of health.  This social truth has real consequences. On the one hand, if individuals are to blame for their poor health, then they should bear a lot of the cost of their disease.  After all, there is a sense in which they “chose” to be sick because of their unhealthy lifestyle.  On the other hand, policies designed to create healthier environments or at reducing structural factors associated with poor health outcomes, like poverty, start to seem less important.

“Healthism,” as a prescient article from 1980 called it, has been a growing part of the American social landscape since the 1970’s, when jogging emerged as a fitness trend.  The rise of healthism coincides with the rise of neoliberalism, a loosely-grouped set of policies that aim at analyzing all parts of society in economic terms, expanding the reach of actual markets, encouraging competitive behavior between individuals, and encouraging people to view their lives in entrepreneurial terms (for example, treating education as an investment the value of which is measured in terms of its probable future returns in the form of higher income). Because of the focus on individuals and market behaviors, neoliberal governance tends not to see systemic or public problems except insofar as they can be reduced to the problems of individuals…

It is in this context that we need to see our healthy lifestyles and the dilemma they pose.  It is obvious that those who have the good fortune and the means can and should want to be healthy, for its own sake.  On the other hand, the effort to be healthy directly feeds a narrative that says that poor health is the product of poor management, in the way that poor returns on financial investments might be.  No one is ever simply “healthy;” even health today may hide illness to come, future illness that must be detected and prevented.

The problem is that the wellness narrative causes us to over-estimate the degree to which it is fair to blame individuals for their health outcomes…

The importance of separating what is an individually-healthy behavior from good health policy: “Is Your Healthy Lifestyle Bad For You?

* meme

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As we emphasize empathy, we might recall that it was on this date in 1850 that the first classes were held at The Female Medical College of Pennsylvania, the second medical school in the U.S. exclusively for women.  (The New England Female Medical College had been established two years earlier.)  It soon changed its name to The Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, then much later was renamed as The Medical College of Pennsylvania after opening its doors to men in 1970.

The school’s first building

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

October 12, 2017 at 1:01 am

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