Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Women and Political Power--Or, Some Things Never Change

Hillary Clinton, Matilda of England, and the Crap Women Have to Put Up With


When it comes to women seeking political power, things don't seem to change much.

Critics have pointed out the persistence of the sexist rhetoric swirling around Hillary Clinton and her campaign for the presidency--and of the media's complete disregard of their responsibility for it and their failure to address their complicity in this persistence. Check out ""The Media Have a Hillary Story and They're Sticking to It" (Neil Gabler, 8 April 2016, Moyers & Company) and "Morning Joe Panel Admits Discussing Clinton’s Tone is 'a Gender Thing'--Continues to Do It Anyway" (Scott Eric Kaufman, 12 April 2016, Salon).

In fact, reading stories like these and listening to "reasoned" political commentary on CNN and NPR for the last few weeks, I've been thinking more and more about the Empress Matilda--the twelfth-century woman who was determined to become queen of England. And if the men who had sworn solemn oaths to her father, Henry I, to support Matilda's succession had actually fulfilled those oaths, she would have been the first queen regnant of England. 

A fifteenth-century imagined portrait
of Matilda of England,
the woman who would be queen
I've written about Matilda of England before (to read that post, click here). Born in 1102, Matilda fought to become queen from the time of her father's death, in 1135, until 1154, when her cousin Stephen of Blois, who had seized the English throne in her stead, finally named Matilda's son, Henry, as his heir. Matilda never became queen, but her son became King Henry II of England. Matilda died in 1167.

But going over Matilda's struggle once again isn't my purpose here. Rather, it's the gendered rhetoric surrounding Matilda's pursuit of political power that's interesting to me today.

In the twelfth century, political power--and the pursuit of power--were of course viewed as male. There was no precedent for Matilda in England, but neither was there anything to prevent her from becoming a queen regnant. She was, after all, the only legal heir of her father, and Henry's men had sworn to support her. And her life, first as queen of the Germans and Holy Roman empress, then in a second diplomatic marriage to the count of Anjou, had provided her with ample training in and experience of power politics. So nothing stood in her way--no law, no lack of education and skill. Except, of course, pervasive views about women. 

For a time Matilda was victorious--and in 1141, when she defeated Stephen of Blois and his supporters at the battle of Lincoln, taking him captive, it looked like she might achieve her goal. But that's really when the trouble began. 

Immediately after her victory, the author of the Gesta Stephani (the Deeds of Stephen) said that Matilda refused the request of Stephen's wife (another Matilda, Matilda of Boulogne) to release Stephen by responding with "harsh and insulting language." Even worse, she had promised to reward her supporters with lands that had been Stephen's.

And she didn't always listen to her male advisers--she made up her own mind about what to do. So another charge against her was not "paying attention" to men and "failing" to keep their "good will." Instead, "she did not rise respectfully, as she should have, when [the chief men of the whole kingdom] bowed before her . . . or agree to what they asked, but repeatedly sent them away with contumely, rebuffing them by an arrogant answer and refusing to hearken to their words; and by this time she no longer relied on their advice, as she should have, and had promised them, but arranged everything as she herself thought fit and according to her own arbitrary will."

As the author of the Gesta Stephanie summarized her "failings," "She at once put on an extremely arrogant demeanour instead of the modest gait and bearing proper to the gentle sex." The chronicler Henry of Huntingdon agreed:  “she was lifted up into an insufferable arrogance . . . and alienated the hearts of almost everyone.”

When Londoners objected to paying taxes Matilda imposed on them (they had supported Stephen), "She, with a grim look, her forehead wrinkled into a frown, every trace of a woman's gentleness removed from her face, blazed into unbearable fury." They'd supported her enemies--she wasn't going to "spare them" from the money she thought they should pay. Those very Londoners drove her from Westminster before she could be crowned.

I wonder if Matilda of England's disdainful face
looked anything like this?
It's hard to imagine her formidable father, Henry I, or her first husband, the Holy Roman Emperor Henry V, or such English kings as Richard the Lionheart or Henry VIII, weren't equally arrogant and didn't "blaze" into "unbearable fury" once or twice.

But Matilda's behavior didn't conform to ideas about what a woman's behavior should be: she wasn't soft-spoken, gentle, self-effacing, humble, or deferential. 

Arrogant and insufferable or not, Matilda was pragmatic--she ultimately gave up her quest for the throne and passed her claim to her son.

Nearly eight centuries later, the rhetoric about women and political power doesn't seem to have changed all that much. 

AND . . . 


Just as I was finishing this post, health-care activist and Bernie Sanders supporter Paul Song let loose with his own misogynist rhetoric--an attack on Hillary Clinton (thinly veiled? Nah, I don't think so) by referring to "corporate Democratic whores." You might--or might not--enjoy the Twitter shitstorm.

Just a reminder here that queens regnant like Mary Tudor, Elizabeth Tudor, and Mary Stuart were also regularly insulted as whores. It was one of the most frequent attacks made on them. Sigh.

Of course, as I've also noted in this blog, politically powerful women were regularly accused of incest. Can that be far behind? (Here are links to just a few: Eleanor of Aquitaine, Isabeau of Bavaria, Margaret Beaufort, Louise of Savoy, Marguerite de Navarre. I won't even begin to note all the Borgias and Medici women similarly discredited.)


Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Once More on Pay Equity

Equal Pay Day (12 April 2016)


This is now the tenth year that the National Committee on Pay Equity has designated an "Equal Pay Day"--the day that vividly illustrates the gender  pay gap.

Put simply: the current pay gap is 21%--that is, women earn, on average, 79 cents for every $1.00 earned by men. Thus Equal Pay Day. The day "symbolizes how far into the year women must work to earn what men earned in the previous year." The National Committee on Pay Equity chooses a Tuesday because is is yet another way "to represent how far into the work week women must work to earn what men earned the previous week."

Today, more than fifty years after the Equal Pay Act was signed into law by President John F. Kennedy on 10 June 1963, the wage tap persists. 

I've written about pay equity issues several times since starting this blog, most recently in February, when the AAUW updated its analysis, The Simple Truth about the Gender Pay Gap. For my 20 February post, click here. You can access the full AAUW report here--the study looks at the pay gap not only by sex but by race, geographical locale, and level of education..

Several new reports on pay equity have also recently appeared, including one by Francine Blau and Lawrence Kahn, profesors at the Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations. Many critics dismiss the pay gap by citing a variety of issues--educational levels, for instance, or job experience--to explain the wage discrepancy between men and women. But Blau and Kahn report a persistent "gender wage gap that cannot be accounted for, even after controlling for observable variables that influence workers’ pay." To read about their work, The Gender Wage Gap: Extent, Trends, and Explanations," click here.

What I find even more disturbing is the pay gap as it manifests itself in jobs traditionally filled by women, so-called "caring work": childcare, eldercare, elementary-school teaching, and nursing to name the obvious. As the unpleasant economic and professional realities are phrased in one recent study, "Occupations with a greater share of females pay less than those with a lower share, controlling for education and skill." Women are paid less because the work they do is "devalued": in other words, "the proportion of females in an occupation affects pay, owing to devaluation of work done by women." To access the abstract of this this longitudinal study, Occupational Feminization and Pay: Assessing Causal Dynamics Using 1950–2000 U.S. Census Data, with links to all its sources, click here.

And then there is Paula England and Nancy Folbre's "The Cost of Caring," published in the March issue of The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. From the abstract: 
Caring work involves providing a face-to-face service to recipients in jobs such as child care, teaching, therapy, and nursing. Such jobs offer low pay relative to their requirements for education and skill. What explains the penalty for doing caring work? Because caring labor is associated with women, cultural sexism militates against recognizing the value of the work.
So it's not just the gender pay gap, though that is bad enough. It is also the devaluation of the "caring work" that women do.

We live in a particular political moment when many individuals, cities, and states want to grant full personhood to a human fertilized egg. When many insist that women must give birth, regardless of whether their pregnancy threatens their life or their livelihood, whether they are pregnant by choice or by force. When politicians proclaim their allegiance to life and to the family above all. 

But the reality is different than the rhetoric. What is the value of all that "caring work" for children and families that women do? 

When I was still teaching, I used to ask my students what it said about a country's values when those who take care of our children, who educate our children, and who take care of our elderly are compensated so poorly? 

Aside from being the majority of those who perform childcare, elementary education, and eldercare, women are the majority of those who care for the sick and provide therapy and counseling: 91 percent of nurses are women,  and 82% of social workers are women, among other "caring" professions. A "lack of prestige" is a large factor in most analyses of why so few men choose nursing, while Jack Fischl, writing for MIC suggests the "famously low pay in social work could explain" why so few men enter the field.

So I return to my question--what does it say about a country that pays men (and men only, not women in "professional" sports) tens of millions of dollars to throw, kick, or hit balls (in other words, it pays grown men unconscionable sums of money to play children's games), but pays grown women just a minimum wage--not even a living wage--to care for children and to care for our infirm and elderly? 

So pay equity day! It's important!

Politicians, business leaders, religious leaders, and all those who mouth platitudes about "life," motherhood, and "family values": put your damn money where your mouth is!!! 


Sunday, April 3, 2016

Sybilla Masters, American Inventor

Sybilla Righton Masters (d.  23 August 1720)


I just ran across a reference to the colonial woman Sybilla Righton Masters, an inventor who received two patents. Well, that's not entirely correct--although she did invent a corn mill and a new fabric, as a woman she could not patent her inventions in her own name. And so the patents were issued to her husband.

Patent drawings for
Masters's corn mill
Sybilla Righton was the daughter of William Righton and Sarah Murrell. Her place of birth is unclear--her Quaker father immigrated from Bermuda in 1687, and Sybilla, the second child born to the couple, may have been born there or on her father's new planation in Delaware Township, in the colony of West New Jersey. The first record of Sybilla dates to 1692, when she was a witness on behalf of her father. 

Sybilla Righton married Thomas Masters, a Quaker merchant, at some point between 1693 and 1696, moving with him to Philadelphia. There, in addition to raising her four children, she invented a corn processing mill that produced a corn meal she called Tuscarora Rice. Her mill pulverized corn rather than grinding it.

She also invented a new fabric worked out of straw and palmetto, ideal for making products like hats and bonnets.

In 1712, she traveled to England to obtain patents for her inventions. While waiting, and since she had been granted a monopoly for the importation of palmetto leaf, she opened a store in London selling hats, bonnets, and chair coverings made from her straw and palmetto fabric. 

On 25 November 1715, letters of patent for her corn mill were issued in her husband's name, Patent #401, a patent for "Cleaning and Curing the Indian Corn Growing in the several Colonies in America." While the patent was issued to Thomas Masters, the letters of patent did note it was for “a new invention found out by Sybilla, his wife.”

On 18 February 1716, letters of patent for her process of weaving straw and palmetto were issued, Patent #403, for "Working and Weaving in a New Method, Palmetto Chip and Straw for Hats and Bonnets and other improvements of that Ware." Again, the patent was issued to Thomas Masters, not Sybilla, the letter of patent noting it was for “a new way of working & staining in straw, & the plat & leaf of the palmetto tree, & covering & adorning hats & bonnets in such a manner as was never before done or practiced in England or any of our plantations.”

When she returned to Philadelphia, Thomas Masters petitioned for recognition of "her" British patents, which were then reissued, since the Pennsylvania colony was now approving its own patents. 

Sibylla Masters remained the only woman to have patented an invention until 1793, when Hannah Wilkinson Slater became the first woman in the United States to be issued a patent--for a cotton thread to be used in her husband's factories. 

Slater, too, seems little recognized. According to a comprehensive report issued by the Women's Bureau of the U.S. Department of Labor  in 1923, not a single patent was issued to a woman in the nineteen years following the 1790 enactment of the U.S. patent law (10,000 patents were issued to men during those years). The report claims that the first patent issued to a woman occurred in 1809--when a patent was issued to Mary Kries. Her patent was for weaving straw with silk. Most online sites still indicate that Mary Kries was the first U..S. woman to receive a patent.

Over the course of the next twenty-five years, fewer than a "score" of patents were issued to women. 

In 1921, the lastest figures in 1923 report, women in the U.S. were issued 566 of the 37,335 U.S. patents granted that year--1.5 percent.

For an extended entry on Sybilla Masters, see vol. 2 of Notable American Women