Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Ain't That Just Like A Woman

One of the papers that is currently consuming my life is about rape in Renaissance Italy, a self chosen topic. It is extraordinary to me that the discourse surrounding rape has changed not at all in some 800 years. Victims are still blamed for what happens to them because of what they wear or what they say, certain groups and ethnicities are particularly vulnerable to attack, and ritual is a big part of the equation, both in the enacting of violence and in getting past it.

For victims, it is all about shame. The line that most sexual attacks, including violent ones, happen to women who know their attacker, is not a new one. Sexual violence doesn’t really have a beginning, I am finding – it has always been with us, and the way people seem to cope in the aftermath of such violence, especially if it is ongoing, is to chart it as part of their everyday existence. In my work, I characterise it as ‘the normalisation of violence’. It is desperately frightening to me how little has changed in such a long period. It is one of the times that my work seems especially relevant, even if it is about people long dead.

What is very interesting to me regarding historians of this period is that there is no one of note writing about rape specifically who is female. There are a few women who write about domestic violence and gender violence more broadly, but no one about rape and rape alone. (Admittedly it is difficult to write about rape alone, something I am finding out for myself right now.) This is not to say that the men who write about it in this period do a bad job – not at all. A friend of my mentor’s does a beautiful job of writing nuanced, empathetic history about this issue. But never have I been so conscious that I am writing as a woman, of owning the narrative I write in a very special way. What I am able to admit to my mentor (and to almost no one else) is that I am uniquely qualified to write this type of history. It is something I am planning to do long term, this is a one off, but I have a job to do here. I have a chance to write something that matters.

I haven’t talked much about my thesis in this space much. (I am likely to do much more of this once my seminar papers are in later this month.) But this is also a case of my being very conscious of being female while I write. My thesis is about a group of women in Renaissance Italy who define themselves and their communities through their writing. These women come from diverse backgrounds, but there are striking similarities in their work and how they go about it. I'm basically writing feminist history but doing everything I can to avoid the typical language that goes with it; not a mention of the word 'oppression'. It's a combination that seems to be working well and, again, I feel like there is something important to say. Almost everything you read about Christina Rossetti or Virginia Woolf is along these lines, the finding of one's worth through writing. This same line of enquiry is non existent in the time, and amongst the women, I am writing about. 

The irony, of course, is that this is exactly what I am finding out for myself. My work this year is giving me meaning, and I am discovering my vocation as a researcher, a writer and, ultimately, as a teacher.

How scary is that, friends?! I am finding out what I am good at, what I am meant to do. It won‘t be easy, but I know it is right.

It’s funny that I’ve ended up writing about women, given how deeply uncomfortable I feel as one most of the time. Or maybe that’s exactly as it should be.

One of the texts I am using as research for my rape paper is dedicated thus: ‘To women, that they may live lives of dignity, equality, respect, and safety’. It’s something I can’t get out of my head.  

I certainly hope that for all of you. 


  1. That's so fascinating that the basic story or rape hasn't changed in 800 years. Shocking and sad that we haven't managed to move past those same story lines.

    And I'm going to argue that your discomfort as a woman does make you especially qualified to write about the experience. Just like struggling a bit with math makes you especially qualified to teach it. I really believe that thoroughly picking something apart, examining assumptions and the things other people take for granted makes you especially able to discuss it clearly.

    1. A friend of mine from the same class (and the only other person writing about gender violence in a seminar about violence generally) tells me it's all there in medieval history too. One of the things I am finding with this stuff is that it just IS. In history we like beginnings and endings, but with gender violence and particularly rape it's all there, just waiting, continuing on.


  2. What an engulfing and worthy topic. I agree with grey&shiny, I think it's because you feel the...how do I explain it... the heaviness of being female? That sounds related to weight but I certainly don't mean it that way. Hmmm. Anyway. It's because of that that you are able to see this topic with clarity and passion. I'm really excited that you are thinking of writing more about it. It's certainly a book I'd be interested it.

  3. Nice to see another post from you, Moz!

  4. I liked this post. (I was going to write 'what an insightful post!', but I found out that this word, insightful, doesn't mean what I thought it did).
    I find really interesting that women don't write about rape, thinking about it, I find it, after all, not very surprising, I think it's painful to write about it, maybe because we are mainly the ones who suffer from it...

    It's a great job what you're doing. I'm happy to read that you have found what you're meant to do; that's a difficult thing to find out, I haven't found mine yet (apart from tavelling and paragliding ;).

    1. Just to clarify: I am sure there are women of note who write about rape in other time periods - I know there are women who write about it in 20th century US history, for certain. I am just talking about historians of Renaissance Italy.

      And I think you're right, I think it's too close for a lot of women.

  5. What a rough topic, but I feel incongruously lighter after having read this. I'm happy you're doing it and I'm happy it suits you. Moreover, I'm happy you're finding meaning in something so meaningful. You do such good work, Moz.

    1. Lyn, you say the nicest things, thank you so much. I am buoyed for my work these next few days!


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