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History’s Forgotten Women: ‘You cannot be what you cannot see’

History’s Forgotten Women: ‘You cannot be what you cannot see’

Written by Nicole T., St Mary's School, Alumna.

Last month, St Mary’s School, Cambridge proudly sponsored Janina Ramirez’s talk ‘Women’s Forgotten History’ at the Cambridge Literary Festival, hosted by the Old Divinity School, St John’s College. Her talk followed the release of her book Femina: A New History of the Middle Ages, Through the Women Written Out of It.

Dr Janina Ramirez is an art and cultural historian, best-selling author and BBC presenter. Her work is dedicated to finding echoes of the people who have gone before us. She puts women in the foreground, taking female characters of the past and building their world around them. Her talk at the literary festival showed us that women’s emancipation and rights go back further than 100 years and are manifested across different times and places. She challenged the view that women have always been the ‘second sex’ and their world has always been a domestic one.

Janina began her talk with a quote that is close to our hearts at St Mary’s: ‘you cannot be what you cannot see.’ She aims to empower women to find themselves in the past and find examples to shape the future. Like Janina, St Mary’s recognises the importance of providing girls with female role models. Women’s history is an invaluable source of inspiration providing us with examples of women who had the same hopes, challenges, roles and responsibilities as we do today. However, their stories have been lost. St Mary’s School is proud to be a part of the mission to uncover these stories, restoring the bonds of sisterhood across the bounds of time and space.

You can read about how we incorporate ‘Her-Story’ into school life here.

Our Year 13 student Victoria G., who introduced Janina, told us how she finds inspiration in the ‘courage and resilience’ of the women who came before her and is reminded that their ‘struggle and triumphs’ paved the way for (her) own journey.’ Victoria beautifully articulated:

‘In supporting ‘Femina’ we are not just sponsoring a book; we are endorsing a movement that seeks to empower women, celebrate their achievements, and strengthen the bonds of support that connects us all. Let’s all together champion the voices of history’s forgotten women and strive for a future where every woman’s story is heard, valued, and remembered.’

Janina, with her contagious enthusiasm, told the audience about her experience at an archeological site where she held an artifact: a piece of shiny obsidian rock that had been filed into a mirror. As she looked at her own reflection, she felt connected to a woman who had looked into the same rock and seen her own reflection over thousands of years ago. Her special connection to women from the past is evident in the way she celebrates their stories.

Femina differs from other medieval books that categorise women by the daughter, the wife and the mother. Janina does not define women by their relation to men. She treats these historical figures as human, free from the sub-group of ‘women’. As the book reveals, medieval women represent a range of human experience from entrepreneurs to spies, to artists, to scientists, to diplomats.

Whilst writing Femina, Janina also wrote a children’s book called Goddess: 50 Goddesses, Spirits, Saints and Other Female Figures Who Have Shaped Belief. She reached into the past for examples of female strength to inspire the next generation. Expecting to find examples of goddesses of fertility, domesticity and beauty, Janina was pleasantly surprised to find they were also creators, leaders and warriors. Across time, countries, cultures and beliefs, femininity is a frame for seeing all aspects of humanity.

Femina opens with the story of Emily Wilding Davidson, the famous Suffragette who died after being hit by the King’s horse at the Epsom Derby in 1913. Emily was, like Janina, a medievalist. She did not see what the Suffragettes were doing as breaking new ground for women’s rights. She wanted to regain the rights that had been taken since the earliest civilizations.

Janina transported us from the Old Divinity School to Catal Huyuk, a 6000 BC civilization in modern day Turkey. Its excavation and analysis of skeletal remains revealed that men and women had the same social status; they ate the same food, worked the same jobs and travelled to the same places. They also worshipped a female deity, depicted on a throne flanked by two lionesses.

We then travelled to Minoan Crete where women were political and spiritual leaders. Friezes on the walls at the Palace of Knossos show processions where men were the attendants of women. The ancient sculptures of snake goddesses are tangible proof that women were perceived and presented as powerful. The Palace of Knossos, which has taken its place in history as the home of the mighty King Minos and the monstrous Minotaur, was in fact an administrative centre for trade, business and worship where women were equally involved.

Janina explored the medieval world with us, painting an image quite contrary to the ‘Dark Ages’ that we might imagine. It was a metropolitan, interconnected world which women were very much a part of, especially through religion. Janina demonstrated the power and liberation of women within the Catholic Church through the stories of Julian of Norwich and Margert Kempe and highlighted Saint Hildegard of Bingen as a prime example of female success and influence.

Hildegard was a writer, composer, poet, musician, philosopher, mystic, visionary, theologist, natural historian, medical writer and practitioner living in the 12th century. She famously said, ‘woman may be made from man, but no man can be made without a woman.’ She was known and respected by the Kings and Queens of Europe and the Holy Roman Emperor Barbarassoa wrote to her for advice and guidance. Hildegard chastised Pope Eugenius III for enabling misogyny and asked him to challenge his assumptions of female visionaries. She serves as an example of what a person can do when they are fully supported and endorsed by the society they live in.

This is an inspiration for school life at St Mary’s School. More than 400 years after Hildegard, our founder, Mary Ward, envisioned a world where girls were encouraged to thrive: ‘there is no such difference between men and women that women, may they not do great things?’ The achievements of St Mary’s students are a testament to a culture where they are supported and challenged by their teachers and peers.

The revelation of Janina’s talk was that the inferior position of women has only been dictated in the last 500 years, which she attributed to the Protestant Reformation. As the monasteries were dissolved, so did the options for women. Leaders of the Reformation defined women’s new place in society. John Calvin said ‘women, by nature, are formed to obey, for the government of women has always been regarded by all wise persons as a monstrous thing’ and Martin Luther declared ‘women should stay at home, keep house and bear children. If a woman dies from childbearing, let her die. That is all she is here for.’

This gender divide that suppressed women’s voices persisted throughout the following centuries, reaching its peak during the Victorian era. This was the era of historical discoveries and what was learnt and told of the past was heavily filtered by contemporary gender stereotypes.

This led us to our final destination with Janina: Sweden 1878. This was where the Birka Viking Warrior was discovered, buried in a grave chamber with a sword, an axe, a spear, arrows and a shield alongside a stallion and a mare. Due to contemporary ideas about gender, it was assumed that this warrior was male. However, in 2017 DNA analysis revealed that this person was in fact a woman. This was controversial only six years ago. It was inconceivable to many that a woman could have been a warrior, celebrated by her community. Women today are less valued because of misconceptions that women throughout history have been weak, submissive and domesticated.

This is why it is so important to challenge our ideas about the past. It is an exciting time for historians as new scientific and technological advancements enable us to uncover more about our past as our historical sources expand beyond written texts. This lends itself to the discovery of the female experience and can change the way women are seen and treated today.

Janina and St Mary’s school agree there is ‘a long way to go.’ As Janina pointed out, it will take over 100 years to close the gender pay gap and there are more CEOs called John than female CEOs all together. We believe that sharing women’s history is a tool to break down these barriers. We encourage the egalitarian ancient civilizations and the liberation of medieval women to serve as inspiration for the future we are creating.