From the Archives: Before Rosie the Riveter

Sometimes life makes it impossible to write blog posts on a dependable basis. This is one of the those times. For the next little while, I'm going to run pieces from years past. I hope you enjoy them, and I'll be back as soon as I can.

Next up, a post from October, 2018:


A generation before Rosie the Riveter, munitionettes "wo-manned" Britain's factories and mines, replacing the men who volunteered for General Kitchener's New Army in 1914 and 1915.

Women were initially greeted in the work force with hostility. Male trade unionists argued that the employment of women, who earned roughly half the salary of the men they replaced, would force down men's wages.** Some argued that women did not have the strength or the technical skills to do the work.

When universal male conscription was passed in 1916, need out-weighed social resistance. By the 1918, 950,00 women worked in Britain's munitions industry, outnumbering men by as much as three to one in some factories.
The hours were long and the work was dangerous. Munitionettes were popularly known as "canary girls" because prolonged exposure to toxic sulfuric acid tinged their skin yellow. Deadly explosions were common.

Munitionettes were not the only women to enter Britain's work force in World War I. Another 250,000 joined the work force in jobs that ranged from dockworkers and firefighters*** to government clerks, nurses, and ambulance drivers. The number of women in the transport industry alone increased 555% during the war.

At the end of the war, most of the munitionettes and their fellow war workers were replaced by returning soldiers. Many of them were probably glad to go. But the definition of "women's work" had been permanently changed. The thin edge of the wedge had been inserted.

* Evidently the simple solution of negotiating for women to be paid an equal wage for equal work did not occur to male-dominated unions. As a consequence, women's trade unions saw an enormous increase in membership during the war.
** Imagine fighting a fire in a long skirt and petticoats.

From the Archives: Daughters of Chivalry

Sometimes life makes it impossible to write blog posts on a dependable basis. This is one of the those times. For the next little while, I'm going to run pieces from years past. I hope you enjoy them, and I'll be back as soon as I can.

Next up, a post from October, 2019:

In Daughters of Chivalry: The Forgotten Princesses of King Edward Longshanks, historian Kelcey Wilson-Lee tells the stories of the five daughters of Edward I of England and his first wife, Eleanor of Castile, who survived into adulthood: Eleanora, Joanna, Margaret, Mary, and Elizabeth.

I've got to say the book has a shaky start. Wilson-Lee sets up a questionable and unnecessary straw woman in her introduction: a "popular" vision of medieval princesses as powerless and passive that she describes as built on "an empire of fairy stories, Hollywood films, theme parks and cheaply produced ball gowns." Personally, I'm not sure anyone believes in the powerless princesses she describes--not the little girls who wear those ball gowns with attitude* and certainly not anyone who would chose to read a book titled Daughters of Chivalry. Maybe that version of princesses existed once upon a time, but my own memory of fairy tales includes a fair number of princesses who used every ounce of power they held to control who they married--something only one of the real-life medieval princesses in Daughters of Chivalry managed to control.

That quibble aside, Daughters of Chivalry is an excellent book.

Like even the most elite medieval women, Wilson-Lee's princesses left a spotty trail in the historical record, most often appearing in official chronicles in the context of their relationship with one of the men in their lives. She fleshes out the picture of their lives using a variety of sources—most notably the account records for the various royal households**—plus a certain amount of informed speculation.

Wilson-Lee uses her sources to good effect. She creates portraits of five clearly defined individuals. Joanna, for instance, frequently defied her father and took full advantage of the opportunities accorded to a young, wealthy widow in medieval society. Mary, who entered the convent of Amesbury at the age of six, had a taste for luxury and a gambling habit at odds with her vow of poverty. She also places the sisters within the larger context of royal women in the late medieval period, exploring questions of education, marriages (political and otherwise), widowhood, property, travel, and the role of royal women as political intercessors. Like the women she describes, Wilson-Lee never loses sight of the fact that what power these women enjoyed was derived from their relationship to the king, but she fully explores the nature of that power and how they used it.


*A year or two ago, I saw a little girl stomping through the aisles of my local grocery store wearing hiking books with a princess gown and carrying a sword. I'm pretty sure she didn't share Wilson-Lee's "popular" vision of princesses.

**The nature of her sources means there is a lot of description of real-life princess dresses. This is not a complaint. Just an observation.

The guts of this review previously appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers.



For several years now in March I celebrate Women's History Month here in the Margins with a series of mini-interviews with people who are involved in creating and studying women's history. A lot of you seem to enjoy it. (I know I do.)  I plan on doing it again in 2022; in fact, two interviewees have already accepted. If there is someone you think would be a good fit, or if you think you would be a good fit, let me know.

From the Archives–Word with a Past: Gerrymander

Sometimes life makes it impossible to write blog posts on a dependable basis.  This is one of the those times.  For the next little while, I'm going to run pieces from years past.  I hope you enjoy them, and I'll be back as soon as I can.

Next up, a post from July 2018:



If Elbridge Gerry (1744-1814) had played his cards right, he could have been a minor but respected figure in American history. He signed the Declaration of Independence, helped draft the Bill of Rights, served two terms in Congress, and was the fifth Vice President of the United States. His contemporaries thought him intelligent, gentlemanly, quirky, and a bit of a hot-head.

Instead his name is permanently linked to the practice of re-drawing political districts for partisan advantage. In 1812, Gerry was a member of the Democratic-Republican party and the governor of Massachusetts. Although he had called for an end to partisan bickering in his inaugural address in 1810, he came to believe that the Federalist party was too close to the British and wanted to restore the monarchy. Gerry went on a partisan power binge. He removed Federalists from state government jobs and replaced them with Democratic-Republicans. He had his attorney-general prosecute Federalist newspapers editors for libel. He even seized control of the Federalist-dominated Harvard College board--presumably recognizing the college as the source of future American political leaders. (Though he may have just gotten carried away. Power is an addictive and intoxicating beverage.)

To put the cherry on the partisan sundae, his fellow Democratic-Republicans, who controlled the legislature, redrew the state's Senate districts in a way that would benefit their party. Previously, Massachusetts' senatorial districts followed country boundaries. The new senate map twisted and turned in irrational patterns to insure a Democratic-Republican victory. Gerry may not have been responsible for the map's design, but he signed it into law in February, 1812.

The Federalist controlled Boston Gazette ran an illustration of the district map in the form of a salamander-like monster and ran it with the title "The Gerry-Mander," claiming it had been born of "many fiery ebullitions of party spirit, many explosions of democratic wrath and fulminations of gubernatorial vengeance within the year past."

There are better ways to have your name live on in the language: public toilets for example.

Gerrymander: To manipulate the boundaries of an electoral constituency so as to favor one party or class.